Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Advent Day 24: Empty Tree Syndrome

I fought the impulse to keep buying things for our kids this year. They have so many toys and so many family members who love them and want to buy them gifts, too, but at the same time, we don't want to seem like the Grinchiest parents on the block.

Last night as I wrapped the last of the gifts and filled the stockings, sliding what we bought intentionally, with each child and each tradition we've established in mind (Christmas PJs, books, and ornaments), I panicked and experienced the phenomenon we might call ETS or "Empty Tree Syndrome."

My mom is afflicted with this disease. It is a common condition often contracted this time of year, and unfortunately there doesn't appear to be a cure.  It is unclear whether the disease is bacterial or viral, but I suspect with more research it will be determined to be genetic.  I've conducted a brief case study (with two generations of women), and the results seem conclusive: genetically transmitted.

There is one primary symptom that manifests itself prior to Christmas day.  If you hear this sentence, "But it looks so empty!" an intervention must take place immediately or the patient will be out the door, purse in hand, to find more things for under the tree. Any things.

One of my goals to battle against ETS, which stayed in remission until last year when we had a little extra cash and a lot of Christmas spirit, was to pick out one large package for each of my children that would take up extra square footage under the tree.  Another strategy I employed in 2013 was to jam the tree into the corner next to a large chair, thus reducing the floor space available for presents, creating the illusion of a much larger pile of gifts.

In these things I was successful, until about 10 p.m. last night.  All of the gifts were wrapped.  I slid them one by one underneath the tree, stacking the tall things on their tall ends to give height and breadth to the pile.  I stood back and thought to myself, "But it looks so empty!"

Knowing the early signs of an ETS outbreak, I quickly returned to the sofa and drank some wine, keeping the pile of presents out of my peripheral vision.  It was too late to get out and buy more presents.  I began to regret the decision not to buy a few more things, just a few more things.  Brandon has been ill and, if not for that would have bought a few more things, which would have filled out the tree and made the pile even bigger, even better!  As we climbed the stairs, I worried a little that our children would be disappointed this morning.  I reminded myself that we made reservations at one of Disney's resorts for next summer, and that this gift presented this morning would be something to look forward to for the next six months.  This helped to curb the symptoms of ETS, and I slipped into sleep.

This morning, we came downstairs and Lydia began to survey the presents and the stockings, eyeing tags and feeling the foot of her red stocking.  She grinned, "Mom!  There are so many presents!  I thought you guys were going to get us just one!"

ETS might be genetic, but apparently it can be resisted and overcome, with time and effort, and a little lower expectations instilled in the next generation.  Besides, we will be going to three more Christmas parties in the next week, where the symptoms of ETS have manifested themselves in many, many brightly colored packages that are certain to bring glee to my three sweet children.

Merry Christmas, all!

"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." - John 1:14

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Advent Day 22 and 23: Seasonal Weed and Feed

Even though there are plenty of ways we abuse the Christmas holiday with Black Friday and doorbuster sales and buy one get one and layaway and credit card debt, I can't imagine ever abandoning the tradition of giving gifts at Christmas.

Last Christmas, I had something akin to superhuman energy and assembled a dozen or so homemade Christmas gifts, and as I finished and wrapped each one, I got more and more excited for Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, when the gifts would finally be opened.  There were also a bunch of presents bought that I knew would be a surprise and a delight.  Maybe my grin and giddy sofa-dance of anticipation even topped the recipient's joy.

This year, however, I had zero thoughts of making Christmas presents, zero ambitions to top or meet last year's measure of creativity. Instead, constant on my mind this season was a longing to damper any motivations to buy gifts out of a place of obligation: This is just what you have to do at Christmas. Buy other people things.  Meh.

If you've been reading along, my Christmas spirit meter has been somewhere between "Bah, humbug," and "HO. HO. HO." most of the month.  It doesn't take long for whatever melancholy, darkness, or gloom that has seeped in to spread its tentacles into the whole of the holiday, strangling joy and sinking its bitter root deep into the season.

But the desire to find the perfect gift for someone else is like Weed and Feed - it kills the bitter root and plants joy in its place.  Gift giving is an expression of love and friendship, an opportunity to plant in someone's hand tangible evidence of affection.  Sometimes the gift is much needed.  Sometimes the gift is extravagant. Sometimes it is clear that the giver thought long and hard about the gift, regardless of expense.

But the difference between an obligatory gift and a meaningful gift is significant to both the giver and the receiver.

The magi traveled long and far to deliver their gifts of deep meaning to Jesus. Theirs was a sacrifice of time, talent, and treasure. Embracing the challenge to try to find meaningful gifts this season broadened my vision beyond the Scrooge-iness and lapse into blind consumerism. That more specific focus on others allowed some of those seeds of joy to take root, so that now, I am ready and eagerly waiting that magical time Christmas morning.

"Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, 'Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.' After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route." - Matthew 2:7-12

Saturday, December 21, 2013

After the Storm: A Better Love Story

Tonight as I wrapped Christmas presents for our family, I watched Serendipity, a movie in which two characters, John and Sarah, meet one Christmas, separate and then spend the majority of the movie looking for each other whilst being engaged to be married to other people.  They chase fate and destiny in order to overcome their circumstances and find their reputed "one true love."

I love this movie, especially its soundtrack, and I found myself a little weepy eyed here and there.  It's a lovely, romantic story, one that makes a case for Providence working everything out just so. Love in the Time of Cholera with her number in it is wrapped in gold foil and given as a groom's gift, the $5 bill with his phone number on it is exchanged for change on a bill at the very same restaurant they dined in, engagements are ended, weddings are called off, and then, the glove floats through the wintry air and lands. Happily ever after.

But I know a better story.

It is about love chosen, over and over, in spite of temptations, in spite of moments of selfishness and pride, in spite of career changes and lifestyle shifts and dreams put on hold.  It is mercy given when judgment might have been due.  It is understanding and forgiveness and grace in the face of remorse and mistake.

Brandon and I are only a decade into this love story, and yet we have weathered several storms, some stronger than others, some that shook us down to our very foundation, some that left us helpless in each other's arms and others that caused us to ask each other, "Do you want me to leave?"  Incredible highs.  Nearly disastrous lows.

And yet.  Tonight, I wrap Christmas presents to Lydia, Elvis, and Henry from "Dad and Mom," not because some magical force swept us together over a decade ago and has held us there since.  Not because we are surviving each other for our children's sake, holding on and playing the part of husband and wife until some age in the distant future when maybe they'd understand.  Tonight, I wrap these gifts and inscribe them with "From Mom and Dad" because somewhere inside us we choose to love instead of judge.  We choose honesty and vulnerability instead of pride and secrecy.  We choose to lay down ourselves and look to each other's needs and interests.  We choose to support each other in our weaknesses and encourage each other in our strengths.

This Christmas, I am humbled to be the recipient of such love.  It is the kind of gift that survives against all odds, rare and true and pure and beautiful.

I don't mean to brag about this at all in a "we made it and you might not have" sort of way. But grant me this moment to celebrate: we've made it so far!  So far, we've made it.

Marriage is not easy, and there are plenty that fail, some because they should have never happened in the first place and others because it's just plain hard.  There's no doubt that forces within and removed from us will continue to rain down their threats in the years to come, and I pray to God that when they do, we are each able to conjure up enough faith and grace to forgive and continue to love each other with a "one another" kind of love.

It's in the power of that kind of love that all things can be redeemed and renewed and thus shine with a glorious light unlike any we might produce through our own impulses and pursuits.  With each storm, the places where breaks have formed are welded with the heat of a refiner's fire, and that bond is stronger than the base metal itself, forever changed, stronger and tougher than ever before.

Advent Day 21: We Are Outraged!

It is the darkest day of the year.  Folks in the northern hemisphere will see just nine hours and thirty-two minutes of daylight today, and if you are here in Ohio, that light is blocked by a thick layer of clouds and rain.  

Time is short to spread the light, to let the light shine in your windows and on your Christmas trees, to let the light leak out from underneath your front doors and into the world.  The light shines in the darkness. The darkness has not overcome it.  

It has tried to overcome it plenty of times.  Daily we have evidence of the darkness trying to quell the light, and yet the light prevails.  How does the light prevail?  By practicing the virtues and characteristics that have overcome darkness for millennia, acts borne from love that grow into the fruits of joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.

Instead, our fruit looks like self-righteousness.  Judgment.  Materialism.  Indignation.  Christians protest all kinds of things lately. We are outraged, just outraged.  These criticisms and statements are not light.  They are the shadows we make when we try to stand in the place of the light.  Where there ought to be a window to let the light shine through, we erect a wall.

Weigh our outrage against the fruits of the Spirit, the Sermon on the Mount, the definition of love, and the many other passages of Scripture we seek to defend the preaching of in order to determine if our outrage is justifiable.  Is it?  

Because that is the kind of light that is revolutionary.  Love for the weak and the persecuted.  Help for the hungry and poor.  Mercy for the criminal and prostitute.  Grace to the undeserving.  

These are the threats to society that make the darkness tremble. 

"When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 'In Bethlehem in Judea,' they replied, 'for this is what the prophet has written:

'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.'" - Matthew 2:3-6

Friday, December 20, 2013

Advent Day 20

Elvis and Lydia's last day of school for 2013 is today.  My plan this morning was to get the Christmas shopping done with Henry in tow.  It did not go so well, unless you define success by leaving Target with a screaming and flailing child begging for a Matchbox car.  Then, yes, successful.

I did not get the Christmas shopping done. Perhaps the only good thing that came out of the morning's drive to and from Target was that I thought of all of the things I would buy if I dared take Henry into another store. In that way I am fully prepared to venture out again, hopefully childless next time.

I've quickly switched gears into consumer Christmas spirit instead of searching for the promised King the Magi are looking for in today's verses.  We're getting down to the wire. This morning I found myself rearranging my shopping list in the order of top priority: which Christmas parties and events are happening first, and which ones can wait until another day?  This would have helped had I thought of it before I went to Target instead of as I was driving away, defeated.

Defeated is a good word for the week, actually.  I have triumphed over small things - Christmas ornament exchanges and fighting back a cold with the full gamut of home remedies - but my patience thinned out yesterday as the kids took turns yelling at each other.  Oh, the noise, the noise, noise, noise, noise!  It turns me straight into the grinch.

The rest of the afternoon I am going to spend searching for silence, at least until the kids get home, and then we'll search for Christmas lights and a little good cheer to end the night.

"After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, 'Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.'" - Matthew 2:1-2

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Advent Day 19: How Long, O Lord of the Universe?

Written some 700 years before the birth of Jesus, the Book of Micah records this prophetic statement for today's advent verses:

"But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.

Therefore Israel will be abandoned
until the time when she who is in labor bears a son,
and the rest of his brothers return
to join the Israelites.

He will stand and shepherd his flock
in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
will reach to the ends of the earth.

And he will be our peace
when the Assyrians invade our land
and march through our fortresses.
We will raise against them seven shepherds,
even eight commanders..."
- Micah 5:2-5

Seven hundred years. Entire continents were unknown to western civilization 700 years ago.  It is incredible to consider the length of time between this prophecy of a coming Messiah and the actual arrival of Jesus, scrolls carried from priest to priest throughout the centuries, each generation anticipating a Savior.

Such a long time to wait. At least it feels that way when viewed through the lens of our lifespans. My children can't wait for Christmas. They want a toy at the store now.  But to wait a year, or two, or a decade, or a century for a promise that might not be delivered within our own lifetimes... how can anyone bear it?

In the grander scheme of things, 700 years is nothing.  Using the most recent scientific measurements, astronomers figure the universe in all its enormity is about 13.77 billion years old.  That's 13,770,000,000 years.  The gradual unfolding of creation to this point in time is impossible to fathom and makes 700 years pass in the blink of an eye.

That makes waiting six more days for Christmas quite a bit easier to bear, don't you think, my children?

:)

If you've felt overcome by the rush of the season, take a minute to watch this video.



Widening the lens from the immediate rush and demand on our time and resources beyond our own small sphere, beyond Earth, our solar system, our galaxy, beyond beyond beyond delivers a moment of speechlessness, awe, wonder, and mystery that sometimes feels missing in a season of debate over the ethnicity and existence of Santa, the "War on Christmas," the ongoing and ever-present threat of darkness and evil appearing in the news.  If our hearts ache and yearn for peace, beg, "How long, O Lord, how long?" how incredible is it that the God of this Universe in all of its sprawl and eternity delivers his peace and love on such an individual level as well?

To bring us back around to Micah's prophecy, give a final listen to this old hymn, and consider these verses:

"O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight."



To witness a few more images that help reposition where we sit in the grand scheme of things, check out the 2013 Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Advent Day 18: Treasure These Things

Building off of yesterday's post on sharing the good news, today's verses are encouraging to me because of the "but" that begins the passage:
"But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told." - Luke 2:19-20
Imagine being so young, delivering this child that is supposed to be the Son of God, judgment and assumptions made by your community of friends and family who probably suspect your story is a lie and your husband is a joke for keeping you. A barrage of emotions has been rolling through your life ever since that pesky Gabriel arrived with his message of hope: fear, faith, confidence, doubt, frustration, insecurity, reassurance, and now all of these things: the shepherds, Joseph staying with her, the heavenly host of angels singing, "glory to God in the highest!"

Sometimes, it is enough to "treasure up all these things" and "ponder them."  Some of us are shepherds, reporting to the broader world the miraculous and mysterious things we've seen, and some of us are like Mary, experiencing the miraculous and the mysterious in such an intimate way that the only audience we can entertain for the time being is our own hearts.

Last year, I wrote a poem for the third Sunday of Advent, the candle of joy, called "First (Mary's Poem)."  Those moments before and immediately following the birth of a child are distinct, vivid memories permanently imprinted.  We are the first to know this new life, this new person, the first to nurture, the first to hold.  It is too much to speak into words at first.

Advent Activity: Sigh
I give up. We made it a good two weeks with our advent activities until all efforts came crashing in, physically falling off of the wall.  The cork board advent calendar was a good idea, but the air must be too dry for the double-sided foam tape in our house.  So much for that.  Today's activity is a manageable one, though - eat Christmas cookies! No problem.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Advent Day 17: Sharing the 'Good News'

If you've been alive for at least 18 years, it's likely that you've heard once or twice or more the Good News of the Gospel about Jesus, Son of God, come to take away your sins.  You've probably heard or been led through or been offered the sinner's prayer to ask Jesus into your heart so that you are saved from eternal damnation.  

I have been on both ends of this scenario, walking down the steps of Cleveland Stadium to pray with one of Billy Graham's disciples and accept Jesus into my heart, receiving a Psalty Bible and a cassette tape of praise songs.  I've handed out tracts (with candy) at Halloween... yeah, I was that person in your neighborhood, Akronites.  They were really big candy bars, at least.  

I don't think I've ever actually tried to lead someone through the traditional sinner's prayer, but I have felt that edge of adrenaline rush when someone came to me seeking solace or direction, and I could offer them some direction, out of my own experience.  I don't think I've ever told someone, "Jesus is the answer."

I've never been a pat answer kind of person.  

Nothing in life has ever seemed that simple.  Scratch the surface a little and the perfect layer of soil reveals all kinds of pebbles, clay, grubs, and broken glass buried that needs to be tended to, needs to be addressed.  I can go around all day shouting, "Jesus is the answer!" and I am pretty sure that no one would ask me what's the question.

Even if Jesus is the answer (and I like to think that Jesus answers quite a few of our questions about life, suffering, pain, love, and peace), memorizing some simple formula for praying a person into the Kingdom or being prepared to hand a stranger a sheet of paper with the path to Hell mapped out intercepted by the bridge to Heaven, well, I'm just not convinced that is the most effective way to share good news.

If you are going to be an evangelist, for Jesus or whatever your cause is (Confession: lately, we've been more evangelical about diet and nutrition than Jesus), I think perhaps the best model for evangelizing comes in today's advent passage.  The shepherds have just witnessed a miraculous event: angels came down and shared an amazing message with them.  The shepherds investigate - is it true what has been said? - and only after investigating for themselves do they venture out to share with others what had happened to them.

It's my belief that the general hurting population doesn't want to hear, "Jesus is the answer!" The most powerful messages delivered to me came from other hurting people who opened up and shared a piece of their vulnerable stories to show how God had entered into their lives in some way.  These were often not "I was sick and now I'm well" stories; more often than not, they were "I was very broken, and now I am in the process of mending" stories.  Somewhere along their journey, probably when they were near their lowest, God intersected their paths and even in the darkness, hope began to spring forth, the hurt began to heal, peace brought a calm to the storm, and grace washed away pain.  

It's from that place the real journey begins - and that journey, if it's honest, will be riddled with investigative questioning of God. All emotional responses are on the table.  Share that exchange with God, some real, authentic experience you've had that took your relationship with God and your own spirit and soul to a new place, and then, well, people might hear you.

It makes me think of this little excerpt from the Johnny Cash movie, Walk the Line:



Sam Phillips: You know exactly what I'm telling you. We've already heard that song a hundred times. Just like that. Just... like... how... you... sing it. 
Johnny Cash: Well you didn't let us bring it home. 
Sam Phillips: Bring... bring it home? All right, let's bring it home. If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing *one* song. Huh? One song that people would remember before you're dirt. One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up. You tellin' me that's the song you'd sing? That same Jimmy Davis tune we hear on the radio all day, about your peace within, and how it's real, and how you're gonna shout it? Or... would you sing somethin' different. Somethin' real. Somethin' *you* felt. Cause I'm telling you right now, that's the kind of song people want to hear. That's the kind of song that truly saves people. It ain't got nothin' to do with believin' in God, Mr. Cash. It has to do with believin' in yourself. 
Johnny Cash: [after a pause] I got a couple of songs I wrote in the Air Force. You got anything against the Air Force? 
Sam Phillips: No. 
Johnny Cash: I do.
"When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, 'Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.' So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them." - Luke 2:15-18

Advent Activity: Catch Up on Something
So... I think tonight we're supposed to wrap Christmas presents, but since we haven't actually bought Christmas presents yet, that might be a bit of a challenge.  If I'm feeling well enough, I might take the children to the store to shop, but this cold/flu thing has me running on nearly empty and I don't want to overdue it.  We're also supposed to deliver Christmas cookies... ha ha ha.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Advent Day 16: From Above and Below

One night this summer while Brandon and I were at the beach with his side of the family, we sneaked out the patio doors of our bedroom and sat in the tall wooden beach chairs to watch the ocean and the sky as yet another meteor shower began.  The ocean pushed rhythmically against the shoreline, looming mysterious below. From where we sat and with the limited amount of light, we couldn't see the beach clearly, but we could hear it, a constant swelling and crashing reminder of its presence.

This body of water that already seems endless and huge in daylight only grows in its enormity, mystery, and danger after the sun has set.  In the darkness of night, what rages on the shore is unknown. The waves could be monstrous or simply lapping the sand, it's hard to tell. The sand itself seems to move and sink and rise overnight as the ocean works its shifting.  In the morning, we would walk along the shoreline and find the castles and moats that were created yesterday swept away, no evidence left except maybe a small whirlpool, some discarded shells.  The ocean daily restores the beach, undoing what has been done.

I didn't care to walk along the shoreline in the night; I wanted to sit near the roar of the ocean, the warm salt breeze gusting, and revel in this power and this glory, both above us and below, to hear the work of redemption on the shore.

I sat with Brandon on the beach chairs high above all of those unknowns holding his hand, staring out over the dunes and up into the night sky, grateful for the roaring gift of mercy, peace alighting like the sea salt breeze on our skin.

"Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.'" - Luke 2:13-14

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Advent Day 15: And There Were Shepherds

Dad and I sat on the tailgate of his truck and waited.  The night air was warm enough to be out without a coat.  The old maple on the hill cast a dim shadow from the light of the moon.

"Oh! There's one! Did you see it?" I asked, pointing to the sky. The meteor shower was supposed to be clearest in the darkest of night.  It was still early, by that standard, but already the falling stars had begun to dash across the sky.  Each one sent a jolt to my heart.  "Wow," I said.  "So beautiful."

The tip of Dad's cigarette glowed orange in the night.  He took a draw and then exhaled the smoke off to the side away from me.  Summer's night sounds surrounded us, a silence that was everything but silent, a silence whirring with the hum of insects, the rustle of summer leaves, our breathing in and out.

In the middle of the silence, we watched the sky and waited for more flickering, fleeting glimpses of a space beyond our world.

"And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.'" - Luke 2:8-12

Advent Activity: Lingro Family Christmas
We are heading up north to celebrate Christmas with my mom's side of the family, and I am roasting my first turkey.  Yee!  Wish me luck; it's a 20 pounder.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Advent Day Fourteen: Birth Stories

Get any group of mothers together with a pregnant woman around, and it will only take a short while before the birth stories begin.  I never tire of hearing the tales.  Hours spent in labor.  Induction.  Ice chips.  Husband nearly fainting when he saw the epidural needle.  We laugh, we cry, we each take our turns with our anecdotes and experiences, each of us wise in our own ways.

Mary's birth story might be the most famous and celebrated birth story.  Mary gives birth to her firstborn son and places him in a manger.  But let's just pause a moment inside this phrase, "Mary gives birth."

I could tell you about how long I labored with Lydia and how my body apparently didn't want to ever deliver a child, and how we had an emergency c-section because she was under stress, or I could tell you how we planned our next c-section and Elvis nearly died with respiratory distress syndrome, or I could share with you my final cesarean birth with Henry, gratefully complication-free, except for that whole, slice-open-the-abdomen-to-pull-out-your-baby part.

But I won't go into any more detail, except for this quote: "At the beginning of the 20th century, for every 1000 live births, six to nine women in the United States died of pregnancy-related complications, and approximately 100 infants died before age 1 year."  For those of you who are math-challenged, that's 10% of infants born and almost 1% of women.  Just one hundred years ago, one in ten infants died before the age of one.  In biblical times, it is estimated that infant mortality rate was around 30%.  

Can you feel the weight of that, women?  

In the last 100 years, advancements in medicine have reduced the rate of infant mortality and pregnancy-related complications.  By 1997, the infant mortality rate declined to 7.2 per 1000 live births, and the maternal mortality rate dropped to less than 0.1 reported deaths per 1000 live births (from "Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999: Healthier Mothers and Babies").

We talk about our birth stories when we get together.  They are sometimes dramatic, sometimes easy, sometimes all-natural, sometimes assisted, sometimes life threatening, sometimes water-births, sometimes surgical, sometimes frightening.  We survived to talk about our birth stories.  

What a miracle.

"While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them." - Luke 2:6-7

Friday, December 13, 2013

Advent Day Thirteen: Traveling Pregnant

When I was five months pregnant with Elvis, I thought it would be a really fun idea to travel by plane with Lydia, who was ten months old, by myself, to meet Brandon and his baseball team in Florida over spring break.  As I maneuvered down the center aisle of the jet with Lydia on one hip and her car seat on the other, a diaper bag slung around my shoulder, and my significantly larger belly than my first pregnancy leading the way... this idea, maybe it was not so good, I thought.

A few years later, Elvis, Lydia, Brandon's grandma Garnet, and I traveled by Grand Marquis ("the Mercury," as they called it) from Ohio to Florida to meet Brandon after Christmas.  Brandon was working a bowl game in Florida, and we concocted a plan to get Grandma south for the winter, visit Brandon's brother and sister-in-law, and also only drive one vehicle, buying one-way tickets home. I carried in all five of Grandma's suitcases and our travel bags into the hotel room, and while Grandma did her geriatric exercises ("This is just what I have to do, Bran!") and worried about where her eye drops were, the kids begged to go to the pool (closed for cleaning) and chased each other around the queen beds.  Meanwhile, Henry squirmed in my womb.

Life does not stop for pregnancies.

I love challenges like these: You don't think I can handle this?  Watch me.  Watch me load my car with three of the loudest children ever birthed by a woman and drive to... anywhere!  The grocery store, the department store, a restaurant, the zoo, the movies, you name the challenge, I will jump on board.  At the end of the day, I will sink into the couch cushions, satisfyingly exhausted, and celebrate my triumph over a typical day of motherhood with a glass of merlot. Or Maker's Mark, if I'm feeling especially accomplished.

The reasons people have to stretch themselves this way aren't always rewarded by a personal geriatrics demonstration or the full-on open-faced snoring grandmother in the passenger seat. They don't always result in meeting up with loved ones and settling into a week of relaxing in the sunshine, laughing about makeup cases and eye drops.

Joseph and Mary find themselves near the end of Mary's pregnancy, summoned to return to Bethlehem for a census.  I'm sure that they didn't want to go.  It becomes evident in the next few passages that they didn't have family to stay with in town.  Echoing Jesus' call to "render unto Caesar's what is Caesar's and to God what is God's," Joseph and Mary heed the edict to return to Bethlehem, obeying the government even though it is complicating their lives (there's also the fun tidbit about fulfilling prophecies regarding the location of the Messiah's birth, but that's another day).

Life does not stop for pregnancies.

"In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child." - Luke 2:1-5

Advent Activity: Popcorn and pajama movie night
It's Friday, again, which means it's movie night, again!  We recorded Home Alone, and I think that's on the schedule for tonight.  Given their reaction to any kind of bloopers and Looney Tunes, I think they'll love Home Alone.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Advent Day Twelve: Mary's Song and My Song

I learned something new today, thanks to Wikipedia: Mary's song in the book of Luke makes strong allusions to Hannah's song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, and if you have some time, go back to the first book of Sam and give it a read, then follow along with Mary in Luke 1:46-56.  The parallels are fascinating as these two women - one who is unexpectedly pregnant at a very young age, and the other who has prayed to God for years to be blessed with a child - yet both songs praise God for the blessing of a child.  Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the pregnancy, both women rejoice.

Here's a little pregnancy poem, from my book Pruning Burning Bushes, that takes some of the language of Scripture and incorporates it into my own song, certainly no Magnificat, but a celebration and recognition of this mysterious and miraculous season.

"Last Born"

My final incarnation,
word of hope made flesh
in me—the hour draws
nearer. Right now, you nudge
my ribcage with your hand,
or elbow, or knee. Season
of mystery, I drink
a glass of sweet tea
to feel you move in me…
If only joy always came
as easily. For now I am
indwelt, possessed
by holiness, but soon
I will be an open wound,
abandoned, singular but
whole. Every living thing
must grieve as its last seeds
leave, like me, aware
that any blessings after this
will just be birthed on earth,
miracles delivered everywhere,
every ordinary day. No more
my pulse so close to yours.
No more will come
from this womb—it is time
to rejoice, time to mourn.
You are my last born.


"And Mary said:

'My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.'

Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home." - Luke 1:46-56

Advent Activity: Package Christmas Cookies
Tonight, we are supposed to wrap up the cookies we made and prepare them for delivery!  This is one of the less exciting advent activities, and I have a strong feeling it will be me, in the kitchen, listening to Christmas music, with my Ziplocs, getting the cookies ready, while the kids play in the basement.  Wee!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Advent Day Eleven: Wait, what?

There's a moment after you say, "Yes, Lord, let it be as you have promised," when doubt floods in.  Maybe this wasn't such a great idea.  Maybe this path that looked so blessed while Gabriel was hanging out looks dark and lonely now that the bright winged angel isn't nearby.  You are small.  You are young.  You are human.  You are alone.

Doubt, that slimy, second-guessing lizard, slithers up near your ear and hisses are you sure?  Are you sure that's what he said?  Are you sure this is what you should be doing?  Are you sure this is the most secure way?  Are you sure you are content?  Are you sure?  Are you sure?

Shake him off.  Remember what was promised to you.  If you are troubled, if you are doubting, if you are second-guessing this decision or this path or this career or this marriage or this relationship or this calling, pause.  Reflect.  What brought you to this moment?  What has changed that permitted this lizard on your shoulder?

When this happens to me (and it does, often), I have to ask myself a few questions:

  • What is causing this uncertainty?
  • Am I worried over what-if's? 
  • Is there a present danger to my contentment?
  • What are the temptations to change course, and what lies underneath those temptations?
And if I am still uncertain, if the road still looks rocky and dark and lonely, if there are now two or more ways I could go and I don't know whether to turn to the left or the right, then I run to a friend or mentor whose shoulder isn't occupied by the second-guessing lizard, who can remind me, through the fog of uncertainty, what has been promised, what is the way of truth, so that I can walk in it again.

I feel like that is what is happening in today's verses about Mary and Elizabeth.  Mary is a first-time mom, a virgin mother of the Son of the Most High.  Do you think she faced her changing body with peace and calm at every turn?  No!  Of course she's terrified!  Of course she needs encouragement!  In the days and weeks and months before I first felt that flicker of movement inside my womb, I worried daily I would miscarry, worried constantly something would happen.  I think Mary goes to her relative seeking comfort and encouragement from another woman who would understand, extend mercy and compassion, and embrace her - blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her.


"At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!'" - Luke 1:39-45

Advent Activity: Buckeye Express Diner Night
Last year, we took the kids to this place and they loved it.  We haven't been back since, so I think they'll be pretty excited to go and dine again in the railroad car.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Advent Day Ten: God With Us

It's true, I tell you, it's true.  Grant me this moment of ecstasy, this moment removed from the grief and the pain and the loss that seems to overshadow this season of hope.  God is with us; I've witnessed it sprawled on the floor after our multiple miscarriages, in the NICU after Elvis was born, by the bedside of my dying grandfather, the peace that passes all understanding, the quiet that descends on the spirit in crisis that assures us it will be okay, yes, one way or the other, even if it is not okay right now, unfair, unjust, tragic, terrible: one day, it will be okay.  

Immanuel: God with us.  Is there any better preposition than "with," any better promise than when God says, "I will be with you?"

Can we celebrate today that Immanuel, God with us, is with us, within us, and around us, in the body of believers, in the great cloud of witnesses, always, until the very end of the age?  Can I get an amen to that?  "Come, O Come, Immanuel," we sing.  Although we wait with anticipation for Christmas morning to resurrect that celebratory spirit, believers, he is already here!  What are you waiting for?

Maybe we should sing, Come, O Come, bride of Christ, his walking and breathing and rejoicing disciples, come bearing his peace and his hope, come shining with the spirit of goodness and joy and righteousness and mercy and grace.  God is with us, listen to the whispering voice of truth, inquire of the spirit of God that resides in your being, lean in when a friend speaks comfort and love.  He will do as promised.  He will guide you, lead you, quiet your spirit, carry you in his peace, restore your soul, heal your heart.

Come thou fount of many blessings, come, O come, Immanuel, Christ in us, church rise up and shout the hallelujah, glory to God, shine, light of the world, shine, and deliver the message of hope, not just this month in the form of trees and shoeboxes and canned goods but always, in all seasons, in every thing and in every manner and in every moment, deliver grace and mercy and love in the form of your time and your presence and your awareness, and Christ in you will be clear, obvious, a gleaming glittering dancing spectacle of lights on your front lawn all year round.

"All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 'The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel' (which means 'God with us'). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus." - Matthew 1:22-25

Advent Activity: Take a Winter Walk
This event might have to be delayed.  Today's forecast is a frigid 23 degrees and I just don't think we're going to be able to bundle up enough to stay warm in that kind of cold.  I'll probably swap this with Thursday's "package Christmas cookies."  That way, we can stop eating the Christmas cookies.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Advent Day Nine: Divorce Her Quietly

"This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.'" - Matthew 1:18-21

Even though our culture's marital practices have evolved since the days of Christ, listen to any radio station and within a song or two, you'll hear someone sing about having been cheated on or betrayed by a loved one.  As a society, it seems to be built into our moral code that mutually committed, monogamous relationships are important, and betraying that trust and commitment is grounds for separation or divorce.

Joseph had every right to "divorce her quietly."  He could have divorced her loudly.  What greater evidence could he have that his soon-to-be wife has been unfaithful?

And yet, here comes another angel to help show the people that our ways are not God's ways.

So far, nothing about the way Jesus is coming into this world is conventional.  This is a God of against-all-odds.  This is a God of surprise and mercy, faith and redemption.  He chose for his son to be raised by Mary and Joseph; he must have known that Joseph was capable of a measure of faith and mercy uncommon among men and women alike.  

We all can use a little nudge in the right direction from time to time, especially when the right direction is surprising and much more challenging: "Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife."

Advent Activity: Read the Nutcracker (And Open a Special Gift)
Can I just say a quick, "OH NO."  I forgot this was supposed to happen tonight.  I haven't wrapped the nutcrackers yet.  Guess what I'll be doing on my lunch break!  

It's also Lydia's basketball practice night.  Lord, help me.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Advent Day Eight: Mary Hears from Gabriel

"In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, 'Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.' Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.'

"'How will this be,' Mary asked the angel, 'since I am a virgin?'

"The angel answered, 'The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.'

"'I am the Lord’s servant,' Mary answered. 'May your word to me be fulfilled.' Then the angel left her." - Luke 1:26-38

There is the way you think your life ought to go, and then there is the way it actually goes.  Mary didn't plan to have a baby before being married to Joseph, let alone the mother of the Son of the Most High.

Mary seems like the type of young woman who heard the voice of the prophet Isaiah, saying, "Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, 'This is the way; walk in it,'" even when that way might seem riddled with unknowns, even when that way likely will be shadowed by condemnation and rumors.  Mary took a deep breath and answered, "I am the Lord's servant."

Advent Activity: Bake Christmas Cookies
You have Henry to thank for the fact that this is a short meditation today.  He is clinging to my pant leg waiting ever so impatiently for me to finish so we can begin mixing dough for cookies.  So, off I go!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Advent Day Seven: Questioning Angels

"Zechariah asked the angel, 'How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.'

"The angel said to him, 'I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.'

"Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.

"When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 'The Lord has done this for me,' she said. 'In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.'" - Luke 1:18-25

Here's an instance where I just don't understand what's happened.  Why is Zechariah's question a problem?  Why is it so offensive to the angel that he makes Zechariah mute until Elizabeth's baby is born?

As my husband said, if an angel appeared to me and told me something was going to happen, something miraculous, I'm pretty sure I'd take him seriously.  It is an angel, after all.  But characters in the Bible have been asking questions of God and his angels forever to the point of disputing the point (Moses) and outright disobedience (Jonah).

Maybe it isn't that Zechariah questioned the angel; maybe it is the nature of the question.  Zechariah asks, "How can I be sure of this" given the circumstances of my life? Another person will question the angel Gabriel in a few verses.  She will ask, "How will this be, since I am a virgin?"  Zechariah's question is one of certainty.  Mary's question is one of possibility.

An angel of the LORD appeared to Zechariah.  An ANGEL of the LORD appeared to Zechariah.  

"How can I be sure of this?"

It is a question of faith and the reliability of God when he makes promises.  Like it or not, faith is not a business of verifiable facts and tangible evidence.  God's business is mysterious, miraculous, strange, counter-intuitive, the unlikeliest of outcomes from which springs forth joy, love, peace, mercy, and redemption.  

Given the fact that Zechariah was a man and Elizabeth a woman and married, their background in Jewish history probably should have been a clue that God is capable of miraculously moving a woman's womb back to childbearing years - there's Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rachel (and Leah), Hannah, to name a few - women and men who begged God for children, couples who went barren for decades before new life blossomed inside.  Zechariah would have known these stories - he was a faithful and committed descendant of the priestly order (in today's terminology: he was a pastor's kid).  Despite what Zechariah knew about God's history of making the less likely to conceive give birth to nations, he still asks, "How can I be sure of this?" Don't give me hope.  I want certainty.

Given the choice between hope for things unseen and certainty, I think most of us would ask, "How can I be sure of this?" But every unknown I've ever stepped into with faith and hope has unfolded in beautiful and surprising ways.  I didn't know how it would work out.  I didn't even know if it would work out.  That's part of the adventure and the delight: stretching out a hand to reach for that which has promised to lead you through.

Advent Activity: Tuba Christmas
Today is Ashland's Tuba Christmas concert at noon. It should be an adventure in sitting still and listening. :)

Friday, December 6, 2013

Advent Day Six: Delivering a Message of Hope

"Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: 'Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.'" - Luke 1:11-17

This isn't your average, every day pregnancy test.

In between miscarriages early in our marriage, I had to have a procedure done that caused me to wonder whether we would ever be able to conceive.  I was filled with anxiety beforehand.  Our pastor, Joe Coffey, came to the hospital to pray with us and to read us a passage of Scripture that helped to quiet our spirits.  Yes, God had called us by name.  God had promised to be with us.

When I was a student for a time in a master's program in Christian ministry, there was a dispute among students about the authorship of the New Testament letters.  If we do not know for sure who wrote them, if someone wrote them in the name of another, what are we to do with the Word of God?  After the discussion came to a heated standstill, the professor said, "A good ruler for determining whether a Word is from God (extrabiblical or biblical) is this: Does the Holy Spirit speak to someone each time the passage is read?  Maybe not for you specifically but to someone?"

There is a strange and mysterious power in words.  Words can speak life or condemnation, root into your heart and grow.  There have been times when I have felt compelled to call someone I haven't seen in a while or to write a note on Facebook or email, and in that moment I feel kind of silly, kind of embarrassed, kind of hesitant to speak.  I have learned, though, that you do not ignore those compulsions to share a word of encouragement, that inevitably, the recipient needed that word at that precise moment, to carry with her like I've carried those verses Joe gave us in our moment of need.

Our presence may not be as startling as Zechariah's angel, but we have the same power to speak hope and light into the lives that surround us, from our children to our spouses to our co-workers to our friends and even to strangers.

Advent Activity: Polar Express Movie Night

It's Friday!  Movie night in the Wells' house, and my husband is actually home this weekend, so it's an extra special movie night with all five of us here.  You can bet there will be hot chocolate tonight.  Maybe we will bring blankets out to camp on the living room floor, but even if that doesn't happen, there will certainly be snuggling.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Advent Day Five: But They Were Childless

"In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old. Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside." - Luke 1:5-10

You might know what comes next, but it might not hurt to pause here and remember that Zechariah and Elizabeth didn't know what would come next.  

After our second miscarriage, I remember my disdain for God.  I burned with anger at him.  To hearken back to yesterday's post, I stomped my feet and yelled to my father in heaven, It's not fair!  Even while I threw myself into work and professed to be "okay," I found myself retreating inward, into the chasm of grief and doubt where I spent most of my thought life asking, Why? Why? Why? Who are you anyway?!

That seemed like a long season.  I didn't know whether we'd ever conceive and carry a child to term.  What I thought I knew to be true about God was shaken.  I don't think most of our family members and friends knew the burden I carried (well, that's probably not true: I'm not exactly a private person).  We don't all go around broadcasting our fears and our doubts, our inner struggles and wrestling with God.  But that doesn't mean the wrestling match isn't taking place.  

Underneath the exterior, underneath their obedience and their righteousness, Zechariah and Elizabeth struggled with infertility.  They passed their childbearing years childless.  Maybe it had been decades.  

Do you think Zechariah ever raised his fists to the heavens?  Do you think Elizabeth ever collapsed in a heap of shuddering flesh and bones on the floor of her home, grief a puddle of tears?  I bet they did.

Maybe Zechariah and Elizabeth had long since abandoned hope of ever conceiving.  Maybe the hurt of that burden had yet to wear off.  Maybe they had settled into their lives as husband and wife, joyfully serving, the pang of childlessness dull-- maybe so far muted they hardly noticed the absence anymore.  

How silent, how unresponsive did God seem during those years?

And yet, in the mercy of stillness, in the grace of silence, Zechariah entered the temple of the Lord.

Sometimes, all we can do is enter the temple of the Lord.  And be still.  And wait.  Wait for glory to fall.  Wait for the Light.  Wait for the peace that passes understanding.  

Advent Activity: Look through Family Photo Albums
This might be one of my favorite activities during the advent season.  Each year since we moved to Ashland, I've put together an annual family photo album using Shutterfly, so now we have something like six photo albums cataloging all that we've done together the last six years.  It is heartwarming to reminisce together with our children, especially as they recall memories they've made and invent memories they couldn't possibly have acquired on their own.  Flipping through these photo albums reminds us of our family's story.  They map out our family's adventures through all of the valleys and mountains to where we have arrived today.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Advent Day Four: It's Not Fair!

"'The days are coming,' declares the Lord, 'when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah. In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land. In those days Judah will be saved
and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteous Savior.'" - Jeremiah 33:14-16

My children's favorite phrase lately is "It's not fair!"  Even our two-year-old, Henry, if denied a snack ten minutes before we are supposed to eat dinner, will look up into our faces and yell, "It's not fair!"  From who gets to go first to who gets to pick out the movie, arguments abound in our house about fairness.

Something innate within us longs for justice and righteousness.  We each seem to carry a measuring rod that surveys the level of injustice and wrong in the world, most often the level of injustice that is being inflicted upon us.  How have I been wronged lately?  What pay raise has passed me by, who has cut me off in traffic?  Minor injustices, really.  And yet our bones seem to scream, It's not fair!

Never mind the long list of injustices and wrongs that are committed daily, covered in the news and inflicted in secret, in the shadows of homes, in dark alleys, injustices that leave us paralyzed by helplessness.

These are the injustices we face that make the promises of the prophets, especially this one in Jeremiah, poignant.  This righteous sprout will do what is right and just in the land.  He will rescue us from the kingdom of injustice and deliver us into the kingdom of God.  He will be called The Lord Our Righteous Savior, and the kingdom of God will descend to Earth.

Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

Advent Activity: Read a Christmas Book
Underneath our tree are about a dozen or so Christmas stories, ranging from The Night Before Christmas to A Tow Mater Christmas and everything in between. Tonight, we will take time to read a few Christmas books together near the tree, and if I am feeling extra ambitious and generous, maybe there will even be hot cocoa again.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Advent Day Three: His Resting Place

"A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

"He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.  He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

"The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

"In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious." - Isaiah 11:1-10

Know what my favorite part of these passages is?  The absence of danger.  The absence of fear.  The absence of destruction.  Just last night, after I had a minor parenting breakdown at Lydia's basketball practice with Henry in tow (oh, Lord, basketball season...), I put the kids to bed and returned a phone call from a neighbor who warned me to lock the doors because there was someone driving through our field who was suicidal, and I felt the muscles in my chest tighten even more than they had earlier.  A minor threat, really, but one nonetheless.  I locked my doors.

What did every heavenly body come saying?  "Do not be afraid."  What did Christ come saying?  "Do not be afraid."  The wolf will live with the lamb.  The infant will play near the cobra's den.

Oh, to know that kind of peace, to rally around the Lamb and rest in that place always!  Come, O come, Emmanuel.

Advent Activity: Play Christmas Music
I need to stay late at work tonight, so the advent activity had to be non-labor intensive.  We will play some Christmas music while we cook, and after dinner is over, my plan is to have ourselves a merry little Christmas dance party.

I was thinking about the measure of sobriety and the contrasting portion of merriment in these posts and feeling a little false with both sentiments at once.  But isn't that the way of the world?  How can we survive under the weight of reality without a little gaiety, a little joy and conviviality?  And isn't the season of advent not just about the waiting and longing for a Savior but also the rejoicing and celebration of freedom and grace that we already know because of Christ?  The troubles might seem heavier some days and some seasons than others, but these frivolous moments might be just enough to lift the burden for a bit and let the light shine in, to give us a glimpse of the kingdom where infants play near the cobra's den.

So dance to Jingle Bell Rock we will.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Advent Day Two: Isaiah 9:2-7

"The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder. For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire. 

"For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this." - Isaiah 9:2-7

The prophet Isaiah speaks to a nation whose people were oppressed.  Here in 2013, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, we know very little about national oppression - we vote our leaders into office, for better or for worse, we are free to voice our beliefs, worship our gods, publish our words, work for a living, etc. etc. etc. You know the list of our freedoms.

For most of us, oppression manifests itself in quieter, darker, more internal ways.  There are a myriad ways our hearts may be heavy, the burden across our shoulders pressing our gazes to the ground so that we can't see the great light.  It could be the burden of debt, the burden of illness, the burden of disease, the burden of addiction, the burden of want, the burden of hunger, the burden of discontentment, the burden of depression, the burden of helplessness in the face of so many other griefs and injustices.  It is all so heavy.

What do we yearn for in times of trouble?  Maybe a wise counselor who could give guidance and encouragement.  Maybe a mighty God who can defeat the oppressors.  Maybe an everlasting father whose love and embrace can lift us up out of the darkness.  Maybe a prince of peace, who can deliver a calm that passes understanding in the middle of the storm.  We yearn for justice.  We yearn for righteousness.

God is eager to deliver these things - that's what zeal is - an eagerness, a fervor, a passion, a desire, and it is this zeal that promised to shatter the yoke that burdens us and destroy the rod of the oppressor. 

Who is this Deliverer? He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. "...In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." - John 1:4-5

Advent Activity: Make Cinnamon Ornaments
The kids and I are off today for the last day of Thanksgiving break, so I thought we'd make a few cinnamon ornaments for homemade Christmas gifts.  These were great when we made them a few years back, and maybe our friends and family are ready for them again.  Here's an easy cinnamon ornament recipe.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Advent Day One: John 1:1-5

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." - John 1:1-5

It is both the first day of December and the first Sunday of advent.  For the first Sunday of advent last year, I wrote a poem called, "Advent: The First Candle."  The first candle of advent symbolizes hope and represents the prophecies made about the coming Messiah.  

I'm increasingly affected by the darkness around me: death, loss, tragedy, accidents, disease, war, hunger, greed, and selfishness seem to press in around me more than they have in the past.  Life is unfair! I yell.

And yet.  The prophets spoke about a day when the darkness would pass away.  "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."  The darkness isn't gone yet.  There are days when it seems like the only force, and then a flicker of hope, a flicker of light.  The darkness has not overcome the light.  "In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind."

On this first Sunday of advent, remember the presence of the Light, store it away inside, let it warm you, and then embrace another so they might feel that light, that hope hot enough to kill the darkness.

Advent Activity: Make Hot Cocoa
For an extra special and easy homemade hot cocoa to warm your spirit, try two cups of almond milk heated to boiling on the stove, one tablespoon or so of honey, and two sizable chunks of real good dark chocolate melted in.  Serve to the eager little snowpeople in your world, or enjoy all by yourself next to a glowing fireplace (with a little bit of Bailey's, maybe?).

Saturday, November 30, 2013

December Is for Crafting

Warning: I'm going to get all Pinterest-y up in here, so beware, this place just turned into Hobby Lobby.

Which happens to be where I bought all of my fun supplies.

A little known side effect to consuming turkey is that it triggers the release of craft-y-mone (a recently discovered hormone), which is why Hobby Lobby can afford to list all of their Christmas products at 50% off the day after Thanksgiving... they know we'll be out looking for scrapbook paper and glitter glue.

After the success of last year's magical advent season, I decided, in spite of the holiday doldrums, to continue the advent activities tradition this year.

Here's what I did (and here comes the Pinterest-ready photos... har har har):

Corkboard
After I managed to pry my fingerprints off with the double-sided foam tape that came with the 12x12 corkboard squares, I stuck 'em up on the wall in a mostly square square.  For the more anal retentive among us, I suggest a thingy with the bubble in it that makes sure things are level -- oh! there it is, the device we professionals call a "level."

Pretty Paper
There once was a time when I used scrapbook paper to scrapbook, but those days are gone like a freight train, gone like yesterday.  Now, I will be purchasing seasonal squares of scrapbook paper as background material for my boards o' cork and using them for kids' pictures and other super-fun Mommy kind of things.  If I didn't have this turkey triggered craft-y-mone, I might have just stopped here because I think this is just about the cleverest little display I've ever conjured.  But wait, there's more!

Advent Activity Tags
Using some multi-brown colored cardstock to match the kitchen decor, I cut out some Christmas-y shapes, like stars, bells, trees, bulb ornaments, and a boot that looks more like a train engine if I turn it sideways.  After I got the cutting done, I laid them out on the table to make sure I didn't put all of the poop brown ones in one corner.  This seemed important.  Then, I labeled 'em in order from 1 to 24 and wrote down someone else's really handy Pinterest idea, which is to read a passage from the nativity story in Scripture each evening.  The verses for that are here.

Once all of that was done, I handed the tags over to my kiddos, equipped with stickers, glitter glue, and little sticky gemstones.  I did my best to resist rearranging stickers in order to make each ornament either symmetrical or balanced and avoided a lecture on proper glitter glue technique ("Don't squeeze so hard! Squeeze from the top! Egads, don't smear it like that!"), but I did supervise a few strategic sticker placement attempts, thus averting the very serious top-heavy sticker crisis of 2013.

The Most Important Part
After feeding the children and watching 2/3 of Elf because the children are losing interest and ricocheting off furniture with their Star Wars Lego battleships and gymnast maneuvers cleverly propelled from the seat cushion of the couch to the ottoman, escort them off to their rooms where they will whisper, "Good night, Mom.  I love you, Mom," after you've sung "Take you for a ride on my big green tractor" to them even though it's about taking a girl out for a ride on a tractor and you've modified it for your starry-eyed farmer sons, then sit down with the advent cards and start plotting out the possibilities for December leading up to Christmas.

Here's what we're doing (don't tell the kids!):

December 1 - Make hot cocoa
December 2 - Make cinnamon ornaments
December 3 - Play Christmas music
December 4 - Read a Christmas book
December 5 - Look at family photo albums
December 6 - Polar Express movie night
December 7 - Tuba Christmas @ Ashland
December 8 - Make Christmas cookies
December 9 - Read the story of the Nutcracker and open "special gift" (nutcrackers)
December 10 - Take a winter walk
December 11 - Buckeye Express Diner night
December 12 - Package Christmas cookies
December 13 - Popcorn and pajamas movie night
December 14 - Christmas shopping
December 15 - Lingro Family Christmas
December 16 - Deliver Christmas cookies
December 17 - Wrap Christmas gifts
December 18 - Eat Christmas cookies
December 19 - Fancy dress-up dinner night
December 20 - Look at Christmas lights
December 21 - Go ice skating
December 22 - Mystery event
December 23 - Color Christmas pictures and cards
December 24 - Davis Family Christmas
December 25 - Christmas Day

I feel a little less panicky and depressed about the holidays than my last post, partly because this project is done and I've outlined the holiday season, but also because I really do love the holidays-- the whirlwind of family gathering and laughing, the late night car rides looking for early Christmas lights on the way home from Thanksgiving dinner, the ever-available Christmas cookies, the quiet glow of the Christmas tree... ah.  There it is.  My Christmas spirit.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Cloak of Obligation

It's nearly December, and in spite of putting up my Christmas tree two weeks ago, hanging stockings, listening to Christmas Jazz on Pandora Radio at work all day, and ordering a few Christmas presents online, I'm just not feeling it yet.  Four days from now, I'm supposed to begin our countdown to Christmas and I haven't even made the advent calendar yet, and reading how excited I was for the holiday season last year only increases the dread.  I can't risk recycling last year's because I don't really want to go Christmas shopping with the kids on a random Thursday or have to bake cookies on a night when I don't get out of work until 5:30.

Where is my holiday spirit? 

I think it is wedged underneath this feeling of obligation to make December magical in the face of all of the other obligations I've set up for myself as the year comes to a close.  Traditions like I always create our family photo album on Shutterfly at this time of the year along with a photocard if I'm feeling like mailing cards to people.  And I always write in a "Christmas book" to report on what has happened in the Wells home this past year.  And decorating outside; the kids want to put up lights.  And baking Christmas cookies.  And shopping and wrapping.  And making homemade Christmas gifts - probably revisiting the cinnamon ornament of Christmases past.  And this Advent project I did last year, which was so much fun, and the kids are asking about it, looking forward to it, but I just feel tired.

These should be fun things, but because we also have to continue washing clothes and making meals and doing homework and paying bills, I feel Christmas tradition pressing down on me like a heavy cloak.  I have to do them.  I have to also keep reading and keep writing and I want to learn how to play the bass clef on the piano and I want to read with Lydia from Harry Potter each night and I need to also listen to Elvis read and encourage that fragile spirit of his towards confidence and I need to nurse Henry back to health from his bout of pneumonia last weekend and I need to someday speak to my husband as my husband instead of co-parent.

No.

I say, no.  If the holiday season becomes a burden of "have to's" and "musts" and loses its spontaniety, its mystery, its silent nights, our spirits will become enslaved, and the very freedom of grace and love and peace that is promised by the coming of Christ we celebrate December 25 will lose its power as we dissolve into the madness of Target at 3 a.m. on Black Friday (or 9 p.m. Thanksgiving Day), the daily weight of activity jammed into each minute leading up to a supposed day of rest and gratitude.

Here on Thanksgiving Eve, I think I will do what I find myself needing every day to do lately, open my clenched fist and let go.  I will let go of the cloak of obligation and necessity that is choking my delight, and let it fall to the floor, let it get buried by the falling snow, and watch from my back window with a steaming cup of hot tea, Nat King Cole crooning, "Although it's been said, many times, many ways, Merry Christmas to you."  I will hold in my hand warmth and peace, give thanks for all there is to be thankful for, and ready myself for rest.  I do not have to do anything that will drive me out into the cold to fetch that cloak of obligation. 

I will stop on my way into the house and feel the flakes of winter fall on my face, listen to the muted world, and try to find a silent night.