Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Day after Christmas

The house is quiet. The girls have all gone out—a result of cabin fever.

Earlier today the house was alive. All my girls were here; this event alone is a blessing to me. Packages were opened and exchanged. Surprises were attempted and executed. We had some of our old traditions and initiated some new. Food was made and consumed (too much). A bag of torn and discarded wrapping paper sits by the door. The tree will come down tomorrow because we are going away for a few days, and I want the house in order when we return. All the decorations will be wrapped and put back in their totes and boxes.

And just like that Christmas is over.

This has been a very different Christmas. Why? I am not sure. There isn’t one single reason to which I can point.

Don’t misunderstand. This wasn’t a bad Christmas. It wasn’t a Christmas Vacation scenario. You understand: when odd-duck family members show up or a Christmas bonus doesn’t come or a squirrel gets in the Christmas tree. There weren’t any odd demands or expectations. There weren’t any mishaps or great disappointments.

A different Christmas.

What was the day after Jesus’ birth like?

Did Joseph and Mary and the new baby remain in the stable? What happened the day after the shepherds appeared unannounced declaring they had been instructed by angels to find the couple? Did Mary and Joseph experience the anti-climatic depression that often follows a huge event? Did the quietness of the stable close in on them? Or did they welcome it as they mulled the meaning of their unexpected visitors?

Did Joseph go out into the Bethlehem to locate a more suitable shelter for his wife and her baby? Was the census really over that quickly? Did hundreds and hundreds of people suddenly leave the small town of Bethlehem and go to the larger metropolis of Jerusalem? Did this, perhaps, open up a room in an inn?

As Joseph scoured the small village of his ancestor, David, did he question his sanity? The birth had been normal. And Jesus looked like a normal baby. Had he imagined the angel’s message in his dreams? As Joseph walked through the labyrinth streets looking for a real bed, sandless food and a cold drink what fears did he confront? And what thoughts and plans and doubts did he entertain?

And what did Mary ponder as she tidied up the stall and replenished the straw in the makeshift cradle? As she changed the swaddling clothes on her little boy what was she thinking? As she rubbed his little limbs and body with oil did she ask herself if she had simply dreamed or imagined the day before? As she called back to mind each shepherd’s face and words what exactly did she ponder in her heart? As she held the tiny bundle what stirred in her breast?

It is the day after Christmas.

The din and the excitement have simmered low.

My house is quiet.

My spirit is not.

What are you saying to me, Father?

What lessons have you tucked into this holiday to reveal yourself to me?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Inn or Stable?

Here we are. The day before Christmas Eve.

Many people have asked, Are you ready for Christmas? More people than I can count. What does that question mean? In the middle of writing this post someone just asked, “Are you ready for Christmas?”

How does that question translate?

Is your house clean and in order? (Are you kidding me?)

Is your tree up and decorated? (Yes. Crazy lights and red ornaments and all.)

Are all your presents bought and wrapped? (Bought? Yes. Wrapped? Not yet.)

Have your packages been boxed and mailed? (Nope, I fail with that one every year.)

Is your baking done? (No, that grand event begins tomorrow.)

Are you ready for Christmas?

Am I ready for Christmas, Father?

On this Christmas Eve Eve what preparations do I need to make? What do I need to do for this Baby to be birthed in my heart anew?

Will I be the inn or the stable?

Will I send you away—not recognizing you in the trappings of humanity? Will I tell you there’s no room because I have filled this heart of mine with so many other things? Will I dismiss the niggling feeling I have beneath my skin as just the jittery adrenaline of the season? Will I be able to discern your voice in the cacophony of the crowded streets around me?

Will I invite you in and recognize you for who you really are? Will I throw open the door of my heart regardless of the cobwebs and dustiness? Will I make a place for you in my warm and pungent scented stalls? Will I be able to set aside my embarrassment and just simply tell you to come on in? Will I welcome you despite the fact that I am a stable and inevitably filthy?

Am I ready for Christmas, Father?

Someone just asked me that question again.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Christmas Feeling

One week until Christmas Day.

I thought I was moving into the season. Catching the spirit. Snow came—unexpectedly. The Christmas program at church was incredible. The last day of school came, and there was a latent sense of excitement. Students passed out packages to the teachers, said Merry Christmas and have a good break. Snow came—again. And ice.

And still many around me are saying this doesn’t feel like Christmas. What does Christmas feel like? When you wrap your arms around this holiday what weight does it have in your embrace? Or do you even embrace it?

A co-worker of mine played the annual Santa Claus not long ago. Obviously he enjoyed himself very much; you could see the enthusiasm as he donned his red velvet coat and knee-high boots. His bells jingled merrily as he walked to his place and greeted a whole lot of children who came just to see him. Later, I asked him what he enjoyed the most about this role. He explained, “I love seeing the wonder in the children’s eyes. Knowing I helped that happen is just great. Absolutely great!”

Seeing the wonder. Perhaps that is what is missing this Christmas. This year I find myself far more cynical than in previous ones. I avoid the retail marketplace—going only when I must. It’s more than that though…

I have lost my wonder. I seemed to have misplaced my awe. Perhaps this is because my children are grown now. No Christmas lists. No Christmas wishes (other than ones I can’t provide). Gone is the starry-eyed gaze when the Christmas tree is turned on and the lights dimmed. Gone is the barely-contained excitement of hiding gifts and trying not to peek. Gone are the whispers and the anticipation of Christmas morning. Next Christmas morning we will wake up in different places and have different agendas.

So, what does Christmas feel like?

Another one of the best Christmas memories I have happened when I was about seventeen. Christmas was very close and my step-father had not shopped yet. He and I talked about what he wanted to get his children for Christmas. They were all older than me. I offered to shop for him. I remember the amount of money he gave me, and I also remember the fun I had shopping. Honestly, I can’t remember everything I found for them that year, except for my oldest step-brother. He loved to camp, so I spent a great deal of time looking at portable stoves, sleeping bags, lanterns and cooking gear. I was elated.

I brought all these gifts (plus the ones for my step-sisters) and showed them to my step-father. He seemed so pleased. I handed him an envelope with the remainder of the money he had given me to purchase these gifts.

He opened the envelope and then looked at me quite puzzled. “What’s this?”

“Your change and your receipts.”

He started to chuckle. I love to see my step-father smile and laugh. His whole face lights and his blue eyes sparkle.

“Honey, that money was for you for Christmas. That was your Christmas money.”

I stood looking at him, not quite comprehending what he was telling me. He handed the envelope back to me.

He hadn’t known what to get me, so he had given me money so I could get what I wanted. I hadn’t understood. I know I must have looked just ridiculous to him—standing there with my mouth agape.

I remember trying to think about where I had misunderstood my step-father? What phrase or set of instructions had I not heard? What course of conversation had led me to believe he was sending me out as his Christmas elf?

I still don’t know.

I do know the feeling I had in that moment standing in the back room of the family restaurant is what I want Christmas to feel like.

That was probably one of the best Christmas presents I ever received. No, not the envelope. I don’t remember what I bought myself with that left-over money. Don’t remember at all. I do know that years later my step-brother was still using the camping stove.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Investments

Recently someone asked the question what is your favorite Christmas memory? I couldn’t answer immediately. Can I answer according to genres of memories? Of course I have favorites from my daughters’ childhoods, and I have favorites that are connected with my dearest friends. One memory, however, is highlighted for me, and I think it is time to share.

When I was sixteen years old I started writing freelance for our county newspaper. No illusions of grandeur involved. It was just a small town, weekly paper. I wrote feature articles and occasionally did my own photography for my articles. I can’t express how much fun this little job was for me. To be able to interview and have conversations with interesting people, write their stories and record their expressions through film incorporated so many things I enjoyed.

I was an only child until I was almost eighteen. The Christmas I am recounting was before I had a baby brother. When I look back now, I realize how young my mother actually was. Young, pretty, charming and only thirty-four years old. Today I am ten years older than she was that Christmas—this detail fascinates me.

Christmas was always a strange event at our house. I do not say this to be critical, but just simply because I didn’t grow up with set traditions. One year Christmas was one way and the next it would be completely different. For some reason that year Christmas was at my grandmother’s house.

We ate dinner; honestly, I don’t even remember what was on the menu. I was preoccupied. After dinner was over my mother gathered everyone and pushed a huge box toward me. Huge. Beautifully wrapped and hard to move. No one else had a gift to open and I felt quite awkward. Everyone was watching me. I unwrapped the box; the brown exterior gave me no clue as to its contents. Eagerly I opened the box. Certainly what was inside was not what I expected. Inside were shredded newspaper and other packages. I am not sure how many, but I pulled out the first one and opened it.

I am sure I looked at my mother as if she had grown three heads. The first inside package was filled with potatoes. Yes, you read that correctly. Potatoes. No explanations. Everyone started to smile. I pulled out the next box. I opened it with much less enthusiasm. Inside this box was a five pound bag of flour. No explanations. Everyone chuckled. I did not. Quickly I decided everyone in the room had been clued in on this Christmas prank.

I pulled out a third box. When I got the paper off I was surprised. Surely not, I dared not to hope considering that so far I had potatoes and flour. I opened the box. Startled I reached in and pulled out exactly what was pictured on the box. I was stunned speechless. I was holding a 35 mm camera. Oh, it was a beautifully professional black monstrosity of a thing. I remember my hands shaking as I removed the lens cap. I lifted the camera to my eye and peered through the viewfinder. I felt the magic; I tingled.

Before I could fully absorb this magic my mother spoke, “There’s more. You’re not finished yet.”

I looked around and everyone nodded. I put my camera down and reached into the box again. This time I unwrapped canned goods. Green beans, I think. Maybe corn. By now, I had caught onto the game. I can’t remember what was in the next box. I reached for the last one. I am not sure, but I think I held my breath. What could top a 35 mm camera? Again, the box caused me to pause. Surely not. Surely this was not what was inside!

I tore the flaps back and pulled out…a typewriter.

Not just any typewriter, but one with an LCD screen that enabled me to correct my text before it ever touched the page. Flabbergasted might be a good word to describe my feeling.

A camera and a typewriter.

Almost thirty years have passed since that Christmas. Thirty years. I am sure my memory is colored and muted in some ways. Very much like when we were young and visited our grandparents’ house and it seemed enormous, then years later we returned and suddenly the same house seemed very small. I am sure I have some of the details out of place or perhaps even incorrect.

I don’t, however, have the impact these gifts made on me incorrect.

My mother invested in my future. She recognized my promise and gave me something to empower that potential.

She invested in my love of beauty. Over the yeas I used that camera to take many photographs. This developed my eye to see the unfamiliar. I learned to see something incredible in both the ugly and the lovely.

She invested in my love of words. I still have poetry and short stories printed from that early word processor. It went to college with me and helped me produce quite a few research papers.

She invested in my imagination. There was incredible magic for me in those captured images and descriptive words created with that camera and typewriter.

That Christmas my mother invested in me. With those gifts she acknowledged my giftings and encouraged them.

Many elements from that Christmas are gone. Sadly even the camera and the typewriter have been retired.

But the magic they held remains.

Thank you, Mom. Thank you so much.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Reason for the Season

There’s a billboard war going on in New Jersey. I was checking CNN news this past week and caught the blurb.

In New Jersey there are certain groups purchasing billboard space to advertise the Reason for Christmas. One declares Christmas is a myth and to please USE reason this season and one declares Christmas is not a myth and remember the reason for the season. I had to read the article twice to make sure I understood what was happening.

What a sad, sad commentary on both sides of the issue. Not only do we have to go into retail stores and be bombarded with the mentality that purchases make us superheroes at Christmas, but now we have to watch a petty tit-for-tat squabble played out on the edges of the highways.

Yes, I did say I was sad. I don’t like politics at all, and this whole scenario smacks of political bantering and bickering on both sides.

Both groups would have made better use of their funds by investing in their communities—feeding the hungry, clothing the ragged, giving shelter to the homeless, providing medicine for the sick and caring for the lonely.

Love should manifest in action. There should be feet and hands to accompany the declarations. We are exhorted to not only love in word, but in action and in truth.

We, the Christian Body, constantly make reference to the fact that Christmas is the time when our Deity became flesh. He entered our world and put skin on to become one of us in order to save us. And as cliché as it may sound we are now extensions of his flesh. We are his hands and feet.

Often we are too busy arguing religion or theology. We are too preoccupied with the abstracts of the faith instead of becoming the tangible manifestations of His flesh. We are told to know in whom we believe, to be grounded in sound doctrine, but not at the expense of neglecting those who Jesus is so tender towards: the hungry, the poor, the destitute, the weary, the helpless, the weak and the oppressed.

Please, let’s not spend this holy season arguing about the reason for the season. Let’s not spend our time in an endless debate, but instead let our love be manifested in taking care of each other.

Yes, let us celebrate reason. Our God says, “Come, let us reason together.” (Isaiah 1:18).

What I Want for Christmas, Part II

I can’t write this one.

I tired to finish it right after the last one; even then I had to set it aside. As I sat here this morning and tried to articulate the other requests I have on my heart, I realized they are far too personal -- not just for me but for the ones I long to bless.

Happy December 4th!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

What I Want for Christmas--Part 1

Earlier this week I was talking to one of my daughters on Facebook. We discussed the Christmas holidays—with our family, and all the webs and networks it contains—and how complicated they could be. She has to work on Christmas Day, and we were trying to plan Christmas at my house. Then I asked her what she wanted for Christmas.

Her answer surprised me. She explained that what she wanted this year couldn’t be bought or put under the tree. She elaborated and I realized I cannot obtain what she longs for and my mother’s heart aches.

Only the Father can fill this list.

Pondering our conversation led me to consider my own What I Want for Christmas List.

Part 1

Retreat. I would enjoy three days of retreat.

One day of retreat I would drive to Gethsemane , Kentucky and spend the day. I would take only my bible, journal, pen and a sketch pad. Simply a day designed and made for reflection—looking back, seeing now and peering forward. Just me.

Another day of retreat I want to spend with my four daughters. I want to sit around a table and have lunch and tease each other. I want to stand in line and get coffee and hot cider and linger. I want to sit in the middle of the four of them at the theater and see a movie and laugh or cry. And I want to take photos and then go and print the ones we love just so we can remember the day. Just the five of us.

And another day of retreat I want to spend with my husband. I want to visit all our favorite haunts, and then to dinner where we sit on the same side of the booth and share a plate and talk and discuss the ideas we write down on our napkins. I want to share a piece of cheesecake at a tiny table at a bookstore and laugh about two year old memories that seem like a lifetime long already. And at the end of the day I want us to read a book out loud to each other. Just us.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Remember

Usually Christmas is the highlight of my year—the culmination of a whole year of days strung together. Christmas is like putting the cherry on the top of the sundae or the curly-que on top of the ice cream cone. Christmas is the finishing touch on the year.

But I haven’t been in the mood for Christmas. I winced as I typed that sentence. It seems so disloyal and Scrooge-like. I have avoided even thinking of Christmas this year. I am not sure why; I haven’t been able to put my finger on the reason.

Procrastination? Lack of funds and time, perhaps? Fear of being unable to meet expectations and demands? Maybe even a tad of rebellion because I don’t want the retail moguls influencing me. Actually let’s get to the root of the problem—for me Christmas is only Christmas if my heart and gaze is fixed on Jesus.

And it takes time to fix your heart and gaze. You can turn in that direction, but that doesn’t mean you are fixed. To turn in that direction there has to be a moment of stillness—an immeasurable stretch of time when you are held in suspension. A holding of your breath. A remembering.

Remember sitting in the dark with a cup of coffee or hot chocolate and only the lights of the Christmas tree illuminated the room?

Remember the wonder you used to feel at the tiniest, simplest of things like the play of the light on an ornament suspended from a branch?

Remember waiting for the bell to ring in It’s a Wonderful Life?

Remember when the first strains of O Holy Night wafted through the air and you paid attention—you actually heard the words?

Remember when your children came down the stairs on Christmas morning—pell-mell, tumble-bumble* and their eyes grew wide?

Remember the poignancy of The Little Drummer Boy’s melody?

Remember when during a Christmas Eve service someone reached across the aisle and lit your tilted candle?

Remember when the angels broke the stillness of the dark night to announce a baby’s birth?

Remember when Mary gave birth to her child and there was a silence before he cried?
Today I remembered.

Today I held my breath. Just for a moment.

Large, airy flakes fell today—the first day of December.

Snow.

Beautiful.

White.

Silent.

For an immeasurable moment I felt wonder and awe.

In this stillness my heart started turning and stirring.

Come, Christmas! Come.

My heart is now being prepared.

I am ready for you now.


*from The Pokey Little Puppy