December 22, 2008

The Twelve Gifts of Christmas

As I’ve written, I’ve traveled a deliberate, and at times heavy-hearted, journey this past month. At the beginning of Advent, I introduced the Advent Conspiracy and how we, as a family, planned to concentrate less on presents and more on Presence. It’s a work in progress, but our first try at a less materialistic and more Jesus-centered Christmas season has been a success. Santa will still bring our kids plenty of presents, but we've enjoyed a special fullness this season.

God’s blessed our efforts and I feel a sense of peace and joy that’s been absent for some time. But, even when my spirits were weary I’ve seen the “gifts” God sent my way. So, in the spirit of giving, I thought I’d share them with you.

Here they are, my Twelve Gifts of Christmas:
(Can be sung, if you’re so inclined, to the tune of "The Twelve Days of Christmas.")

12 Girls a-Giggling…My daughter had a party with a dozen of her friends last Friday and the beautiful sound of teenage girls’ laughter, chatter and singing filled the house.

11 Snowflakes Falling…OK, there have been more than 11 flakes, but seeing snow gently covering the trees and grass on a few occasions fills me with joy.

10 Houses Twinkling…My grandmother gave us her Christmas village a few years ago and each year we’ve added a piece. Setting up the village under tree is now a treasured Christmas ritual.

9 Christmas CDs Playing…Come December 1 all our Christmas music comes out and it’s all Christmas all the time. What a great, and eclectic, collection we’ve accumulated over the years!

8 Friends a Visiting…In the midst of the Christmas crazies, I’ve enjoyed special visits with friends, old and new. God has blessed me richly, sending me friends who see the good in me, even when I have trouble seeing it myself…and accepting me regardless. Plus, the blessings continue with the friends I’ve made this year through writing and blogging. You have been an unexpected gift and a real treasure!

7 Rolls for Wrapping…Hallelujah! I’ve finished wrapping my Christmas presents. Usually this is a last minute panic that saps the joy right out of me—and now it’s done!

6 Playgoers Watching…This weekend Dan, the kids and I went with my parents to Lancaster to see The Miracle of Christmas at the Sight and Sound Theater. Wow! If this story doesn’t amaze you and REALLY bring to life the incredible message of Jesus’ birth, you better check your pulse. Definitely a two-hankie experience. Plus, spending time with my parents was a wonderful treat.

Fiiiiive Ad-vent Candles…As I wrote before, we created an Advent wreath. Spending a few minutes in mini-worship each Sunday has really helped us stay focused on Jesus. It’s become a time the kids really look forward to and they’re the ones to remind Dan and me about it each week.

4 Puzzlers Puzzling…Two weekends ago, right smack in the middle of the busiest prep time of the Christmas season my son pulled out a puzzle—a 550-piece puzzle—and asked, “Can we do this?” You know what? We did! Nothing on our Christmas to-do list got done that day, but we had a great time…and finally finished it three days later!

3 Batches of Cookies…OK, I’m not a baker, but having this many batches of cookies done, two of which were made by my daughter, is cause for celebration!

2 Kids a-Singing (and violin-ing…and drumming)…I have no idea where our children get their musical talent, but they both have it. Watching their chorus, orchestra and band holiday concerts brings tears to my eyes. And every year they just keep getting better and better.

And a Memory-Filled Christmas Tree…When Dan and I were engaged, we began collecting ornaments from everywhere we travel to. After 18+ years of marriage our tree brims with wonderful memories of the special places we’ve visited, first as a couple and now as a family.

I pray that as you “bring home” Christmas these next two days, you find the joy, peace, hope and love that Jesus brings...regardless of your circumstances. And in the midst of it all you see God’s gifts all around, especially His most precious gift of all—Emmanuel, God with us.

Merry Christmas and God bless you and your families!

“[The Shepherds and the Angels] 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 of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.'” (Luke 2:8-11)

December 18, 2008

A Clean Sweep

A few days ago my bloggy friend Elaine wrote eloquently about her family’s deeply-rooted Christian heritage. She shared, “We are a Jesus people, and the family bloodline runs deep.” I thought then as I do now, Wow! What an identity. What a legacy to be born into and be a part of carrying out. I admit I am a bit envious of her roots. Mine are so newly-formed.

These thoughts visited me in spin class today. Then, just as quickly, my wandering mind rested on my chores for the day. Topping the list was herding the mess in our house. Clutter and chaos abounds even though I just cleaned up the other day. I’m perplexed how this happens so quickly. Then it hit me, we are a messy people. (Although this family legacy pretty much begins and ends with me because my parents and sister are really quite tidy!)

In my house no sooner is a room put in neat order than it reverts back to its “preferred” state of disorder. An equilibrium of sorts. Coats get draped here. Backpacks there. Piles of mail magically multiply. Shoes…don’t get me started on the shoes! And towels. Can someone please tell me how many times a parent must say, “Please, pick up your towel and hang it up!” before the obvious no longer needs mentioning? The nonchalance of my brood only piques my agitation. But even left to my own devices, I wonder if the continual neatness I desire is an unreachable goal. I’m good at getting motivated for a big clean-up, but not so good at maintaining the results.

This reminds me of Jesus’ teaching about sweeping a house clean.

“When an evil spirit leaves a person, it goes into the desert, seeking rest but finding none. Then it says, ‘I will return to the person I came from.’ So it returns and finds its former home empty, swept, and in order. Then the spirit finds seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they all enter the person and live there. And so that person is worse off than before. That will be the experience of this evil generation.” (Matthew 12:43-45)

These verses sober…and scare…me. Jesus is saying when we undertake a spring cleaning of our souls, if we don’t fill our “houses” with the Him, Satan and his friends will come back to us stronger than ever. As a result, we’ll find ourselves worse off than before. Yikes!

If I knew physics, I’d offer a clever illustration about vacuums or matter or such. But, to my simpler mind it appears that the space in our souls cannot remain empty. It must be filled. Filled by God. Or filled by Satan. Take your pick.

I wonder if some of the darkness and unrest I’m feeling results from poor housekeeping. Yes, I’ve been moved at times for a big spiritual cleanup, but have I vigilantly maintained the tidiness? Or have I carelessly let some of my rooms revert back to their “preferred” state of chaos? Are unwanted visitors making themselves comfortable amid the clutter?

These are questions on which to ponder and pray. For now I will rest in the promise that the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard my heart and mind in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:7)

While I can’t change my family’s faith history, I take comfort in the fact that, as believers all of us are part of a heritage that extends way, way back to Bethlehem. And I, along with my husband, can be a part of creating a new faith legacy for our children…and their children.

I may always be a messy person in my house—but I want to be a Jesus person in my heart. Now if you’ll excuse me I have some straightening up to do.

December 16, 2008

“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!”

Songs and movies say it. Christmas cards say it. Commercials say it. EVERYONE says it.

So it must be true.

With nine days until Christmas one would expect us all to be knee deep in jingle belling, hearts all aglow, caroling in the snow, and an all-around feeling of Christmas cheer.

I’m not. Are you?

It seems Santa’s sack bulges with more than just presents. Dashing alongside our preparations are our expectations. We hope that some way, somehow our efforts will come out the other side magically transformed into dazzling wonders and treasured memories.

Unfortunately the switch to life’s troubles doesn’t get turned “off” come December. And for many, Christmas is bittersweet, if not downright disheartening. Against the backdrop of “required” glee burdens seem heavier. Losses greater. Sadness deeper. This Christmas, especially, I feel the pain of others as well as my own. I see lives profoundly marked by struggling marriages, ailing parents and lost children. I see the desperation of unemployment, depression and addiction. I see grief from death, cancer and poverty.

How do situations like these fit into the Norman Rockwell version of Christmas we have safely tucked away in our collective memories? Is Christmas still Christmas if it’s not marked with a sparkly tree? Or presents? Or parties? Or even peace?

Just look at Jesus’ birth. It wasn’t a prepared, produced, picture-perfect event. In fact, the first Christmas came with little fanfare, save a star in the sky. Think about it. We’re talking about God, the Creator of the universe. He could do anything. Anything. And He chose to enter the world helpless, tiny and weak. In the most humble of settings. Welcomed by smelly shepherds and smellier livestock. Emmanuel—God with us. Talk about magical transformation and dazzling wonder! Aren’t you blown away by this? I am.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
A new and glorious morn. How can we create a Christmas more amazing than the incarnation? Jesus didn’t come to heavy our load. He came to give rest to the weary. The brokenhearted. The downtrodden. For those in prison and those who mourn. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29)

This Christmas if you’re feeling a little (or a lot) less than, that’s OK. Christmas isn’t an event we pass or fail. It is a gift we behold and admire with awe. It’s one we receive, by choice. But to receive it, it’s not our houses, menus or Christmas cards we need to prepare—it’s our hearts.

Thankfully Jesus isn’t a seasonal item only available for a limited time, and He doesn’t get packed away with the rest of our Christmas things come January. No, the promise God sent to us in the manger lives as vibrantly on June 25 as December 25.

Emmanuel, God with us. What truly good news of great joy in this, and all, seasons.

December 10, 2008

It's a Boy

We’ve been expecting it for weeks and yesterday was the big day. After school my 13-year-old daughter brought home her 7 lb. 8oz. baby boy. She named him Emmitt. He’s a cute little guy and pretty good, too.

Now before you cluck “Tsk, tsk!” or question the loose morals in our house, understand Emmitt is a health class project. At my daughter’s school every eighth grader is assigned a “baby” to care for overnight.

Emmitt is a life size and weight baby, and eerily real-looking. Even his cry sounds real. He runs on a program that makes him cry at pre-set intervals and records how well he’s cared for. To stop him from crying, the student inserts a key into the baby’s back for anywhere from one to 30 minutes. (Oh, what fun the teacher can have setting the baby for disruptive students!)

My daughter’s choral concert was last night and she had to take Emmitt with her. Thankfully the baby “behaved” during the concert. I can only imagine what she would have done if he started to cry while she was on stage!

In the lobby afterward, more than a few concert-goers shot shocked and curious glances in her direction as she walked through the crowd with her violin case in one hand and a baby carrier in the other! I even received a few “congratulations” from moms who’d already had their turn playing the grandmother role.

Whatever fun Emmitt provided during the day, quickly wore off at night. As any parent knows that's when the real fun with a newborn comes. True to form, Emmitt woke four times during the night. This morning our bleary-eyed daughter dragged herself and her baby to school, only too happy to return it for the next victim…er “parent.” Even this scaled-down simulation showed how hard it is to care for a baby.

As funny as this experience was for our family, it was surreal. And it freaked all of us out a bit. Our dog was convinced the baby was real. She sniffed and fretted and followed it everywhere. My husband said seeing his little girl with her newborn made him feel physically ill. I vacillated between fast forwarding to the day I hope to share this beautiful experience with my daughter and picturing that experience coming at far too young an age.

Overall I have mixed feelings about the baby simulator assignment. Maybe I don’t want to admit my little girl is growing up. Really, how did my daugther travel from American Girl dolls to the possibility of real babies so quickly? Did I miss something along the way? Do we really need to get discuss pregnancy with eighth graders?

Apparently, yes we do. Each year about a million teenage girls get pregnant. And some of them are nice Christian girls from godly families, girls just like our own. As parents, we can teach purity, listen and guide but ultimately this isn’t a decision we can control. How I pray for my daughter, and for all teenage girls, as they navigate the difficult, confusing and not-always-well-marked road to adulthood.

December 8, 2008

Words Matter

Twenty six-letters. That’s it. That’s all the English alphabet offers. Yet, look at what’s possible. The combining, creating and reorganizing of words is a never-ending gift.

Obviously since I write, I love words. They offer sport and respite and exploration. I noodle over crossword puzzles. I read constantly—and dream of the perfect afternoon spent curled up by a fire with a good book. I edit and proofread others’ work to help their words sparkle. And I write—sometimes because I have to, but mostly because I simply must.

Even so, I have much to learn about writing.

Whether you view writing as a dreaded task or joyful jaunt, sooner or later we all have to write. And when we do, how we write says something about us. People notice our words—especially when they’re incorrect. Like it or not, typos, misspelling, and improper usage make us look dumb.

It’s one thing to mess up on a note to a friend—who knows how brilliant you really are. It’s another to botch a letter to a prospective employer, an email to your distribution list, a report to your boss or a post to the entire blogosphere.

The electronic age has us communicating faster and faster. We hit “send” without a moment’s pause to proofread. I shudder to think of the number of emails I’ve sent with glaring mistakes. Or blogs posted with accidental errors. Ugh!

Even if we choose immediacy over accuracy, or have forgotten—or perhaps never quite figured out—those wonderful rules of spelling, grammar and usage, contrary to popular opinion, correct writing has NOT gone the way of the typewriter or corded telephone. It’s as relevant and in-fashion as ever.

That’s why my heart did a happy dance when I happened upon this article: The Inigo Montoya Guide to 27 Commonly Misused Words. Even though the site is geared toward marketers, it provides even the most talented writer an “aha” moment or two. Plus, the author has a great sense of humor. See, learning grammar can be fun!

Do yourself (and your future readers) a favor and check out this website. It sure showed me how much further I have to go with my learning…or is it “farther?”

“Go now, write it on a tablet for them, inscribe it on a scroll, that for
the days to come it may be an everlasting witness.” (Isaiah 30:8)

December 6, 2008

Finding Hope in a Hopeless World

Find rest, O my soul, in God alone;
my hope comes from him. ~Psalm 62:5

Last Sunday was the first Sunday in Advent. Per my post on Advent Conspiracy, I’m trying to make this Christmas a little less crazy and a little more focused. To that end, we put together an Advent wreath so our family will pause each Sunday evening for a time of mini-worship. (Side note: Looking for something else, I happened upon a box of Advent candles at AC Moore. They even sell wreaths with the candle holders built right in. Who knew?! The whole thing cost less than seven dollars and took moments to put together.)

The first candle of Advent stands for hope.

Job and Psalms are some of the most anguish-filled books in the Bible. Even so, the word “hope” is mentioned more in them than the rest of the Old Testament. Obviously the writers of these books suffered greatly. They were oppressed physically and spiritually. They had experienced a stripping away that left them naked and broken. Yet, despite their sadness and circumstance, they knew in the deepest parts of their soul, their hope for the future was found in the Lord. We talk about the patience of Job; perhaps we should focus on the hope of Job.

To us today, the Old Testament can look like a dusty old book. It’s hard to relate to because life isn’t like that anymore. That was then, this is now.

I think times may change but the human experience doesn’t. Just look around.

We suffer greatly through abuse, addiction, a graceless society, war and terrorism. We’re oppressed physically and spiritually through cancer, loneliness, depression, materialism and sexual immorality. We’ve experienced stripping away through our prodigal children, evaporating finances, unemployment, fractured relationships, illness and death.

Each morning the paper tells of so much suffering and evil not only around the world, but close to home. At its best, this world doesn’t make sense. And at its worst, it can seem hopeless. It’s easy to wonder where God is. Does He see? Does He care?

God answered these age-old questions with one simple answer: Jesus. Jesus’ coming reveals the specific glory for which the ancient hoped for, but couldn’t name. He who was there at the beginning surrendered his infinite strength and power to become human “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corin. 5:21) The seemingly simple story of a baby in a manager changed all of human history.

Because of Jesus our hope is no longer vague or our future uncertain. Jesus bridged the chasm of sin that separated us from God. He gave us the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. And He gave us the promise of eternal life so that “what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later.” (Rom. 8:18)

So, when I look at this week’s Advent candle I truly see hope.

HOPE that “he who began a good work in [me] will carry it on to completion.” even when it’s hard to see the evidence. (Phil. 1:6a)

HOPE that His grace is sufficient for me, not in spite of, but because of my weakness. (2 Corin. 12:9)

HOPE that no matter how I will fail as a parent, God has plans for my children— "plans to prosper [them] and not to harm [them], plans to give [them] hope and a future. (Jer. 29:11)

HOPE that regardless of the leadership of our government and political happenings my future is secure because my citizenship isn't here, it is in heaven. (Eph 2:19)

HOPE that God will “richly provide us with everything for our enjoyment” despite the fledging stock market, crumbling financial institutions and increasing unemployment. (1 Tim. 6:17)

HOPE that the battle over evil was fought and won by Jesus on the cross and no amount evil doings in this world can change that. Satan has received his judgement. (1 Corin. 15:57, Rev. 20)

And HOPE that, “to live is Christ and to die is gain” for “the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Phil. 1:21; Rom. 6:23)

Lord, even though it can sometimes seem there’s no hope in this hopeless world, thank you for sending your Son. Through Him “we have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” (Heb. 6:19)

December 2, 2008

Book Review: "Billy, The Untold Story"

Many say Billy Graham is a modern day apostle. I'm too young to have experienced him in his prime, but he certainly seems like the real deal. However, my cynical side wonders if it’s just a matter of time before his past sins come to light and he’s undone by his own doings.

The latter is the launching point for the book Billy, The Untold Story of a Young Billy Graham and the Test of Faith that Almost Changed Everything by William Paul McKay and Ken Abraham. Set in 2001, an opportunistic reporter seeks to uncover the hidden “truth” about the 20th century’s most famous evangelist. She figures what better place to start than at the bedside of an aging Charles Templeton, Billy Graham’s once best friend and uber-evangelist-turned-atheist.

Told primarily through the eyes of Templeton, Billy is a look back on events that took place in the late 30’s to 1949. While the prose is more workmanlike than snappy, the story carries the reader enjoyably through an interesting behind-the-scenes look at Billy Graham’s early days, the business of evangelism in the 40s and eventually to a crisis of faith that nearly ended Graham’s career. Alongside that, Billy tells the tale of two friends, called by God. When they encounted a fork in the road, one chose one path and the other chose differently. Where the book lacked drama in the first 200 pages, it more than made up for it in the last 50.

Overall Billy provided an informative read. It whet my appetite to learn more about the characters involved. And it showed God working powerfully through the life of a young man who kept saying, "Yes."

This review was motivated by Thomas Nelson publishing’s offer for a free book. Free book? Yes! In exchange for posting a review on your blog or a consumer website (like, Thomas Nelson will send you a free book. Sign up (click here). Select a book. Read it. Write a review. Choose another book. Simple…and fun! Try it for yourself.