Wednesday, December 28, 2016

christmas 2016

Once again, the pre-service stress is due to a child’s missing shoe.  We give up, and he wears a grubby old pair. Bu this year, the wonky youngest child sings through the service (last year he slept!)  And this year, each boy has a suit coat to wear. They give me crap, but they look so handsome I have to insist.  Seth allows one picture, at home; when I try again later at the service, he blocks his face with his trombone.  

Marcus did not forget his part, like he was sure he would. He sounds great, looks handsome with his new haircut.  He’s the only one who got a candle that didn’t work for Quempas Corners.  (hangs head). Aggie’s voice is heard over all the others, with the exception of Jacob.  Aggie narrates for Mary, and she speaks with such confidence I asked her later if she was even nervous at all.  Eldon and Peter sing a cute song, “Just like me,” and did great.  One kid in Eldon’s class has a cold so his froggy voice through the whole song makes us laugh!  I hold newborn baby Flannery during the beginning of the service and ponder the quick passing of time. She gets fussy and Quinn takes her to dance in the back of the church.  And my first baby,  Lorraine, wears her gold dress and looks like such a young woman that I can see clearly she’s outgrowing elementary school, as much as I hate to admit it.

The older four planned to stay up and go with me to the 11pm service. Eldon and Marcus drive me crazy “reading” by the fire (wrestling.) I send them to bed. Peter snuggles with me and we read an entire Magic Treehouse book. I said, “Do you want me to take you up to bed now?” He said, “No, first I want to fall asleep on your lap.”  So I set an alarm and fell asleep with him. Josh brought me some coffee. It sat next to me on the table while we slept!  

When the alarm goes off at 10:40, only Aggie is awake already.  She woke Lorraine. Seth got up too, all dressed up in his nice suit and blue shirt and tie. But then he came up to me and says, “Mom do I have to go? My stomach hurts and I’m so tired and I’ll go if you want me to but..” I gently sent him to bed. So, just the girls and me, so sleepy. It was a long service, but so snuggly and wonderful, magical with the quempas corners that daddy sang in too, and the candles and the packed pews and the gospel shining brightly for all to see, brighter even than the giant Christmas tree.

And both girls put their heads on my shoulders, and our eyes close both to pray and to rest. It is good, Oh Lord, to be here. My voice is to froggy to sing, but that means I can listen better to the girls.  They add their extra fancy wonky version to O Come All Ye Faithful and I think my heart will burst.  On the way home, Aggie gets slap-happy and tells goofy jokes while Lorraine and I stagger off to bed.

In the pew on Christmas sunday morning, Peter sleeps soundly. The girls get volun-told to acolyte. Marcus embellishes the stick-figure nativity scene on his bulletin. He gives Jesus a baseball cap, there in the manger, and a mobile with stars and moon to look at.  And Joseph needs a beard, of course, and sunglasses.  He adds a sheep with sunglasses, too, and angels and shepherds and wise men, and in the background, three crosses, and a crack in the earth under Jesus’ cross: His whole life in a picture, when He entered in and broke death.

And Daddy preaches.  And the Word of God which started as a whispered promise the day the word was broken gets louder as daddy speaks- and the kids like when he gets loud.  Just as the promise of God itself got louder through Abraham, louder again through David, hollered by John the Baptist, and then shouted from Son of God on the cross saying “It is finished.” “Father forgive them.” And death is destroyed, and He is making all things new.  His light shines in the darkness, and we see the break of dawn and the sky changes color and even the shadows are getting smaller.

Come, Lord Jesus.
Merry Christmas.

Where shepherds lately knelt
and kept the angel's word,
I come in half belief,
a pilgrim strangely stirred,
but there is room and welcome there for me,
but there is room and welcome there for me.

In that unlikely place
I find him as they said:
sweet newborn babe, how frail!
and in a manger bed,
a still, small voice to cry one day for me,
a still, small voice to cry one day for me.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Dear children, in december

To my kids, in December-
Greetings from the December version of your mom. First, thanks for putting up with her. She's a weird version of me, I'll admit.  She's cheerfully making cookies one minute, then you ask her what's for dinner and suddenly she's yelling everybody out of the kitchen! Here's a secret: it's because she forgot that dinner was even a thing, that you people need to eat three meals a day EVEN during the holiday season!  All she thought of was those cookies with the kisses in them but she forgot to buy the kisses at the store where she waited in line for 30 minutes to get the flour and someone's baby was screaming and the cashier was slow so now she's just making peanut butter cookies and they'd better be good because they're probably what's for dinner anyway and how dare you even ask when your homework isn't done yet!

Let me try to help you understand her.

You see, kids, December is this magical time of year, or at least it was once, maybe, in your mom's memory.  Vague feelings and memories float around like snow flurries, and they were so sweet and wonderful, I'd like to pass them on to you if only I can capture them.

It seems like I remember hot chocolate, cookies, reading books by the Christmas tree, watching the snow fall from inside, playing for hours outside, lights strung everywhere, carols and family and peace and harmony and hundreds of presents. And in the background, there was that weird little Rudolph Christmas special with the fake-looking abominable snowman that you can't even believe I used to think was scary but I did.

Back then, I was a child, and I took the Christmas moments handed to me like cookies on a Santa plate, eating them up as they came. Now, I am the one who has to create those moments, or at least I think I do. "What are some holiday treats that you guys like?" I ask, and you guys list twenty different things.  You already have SO many wonderful food-related memories of Christmas time that I must be doing something right, or something dreadfully wrong... but food is pretty great, so whatever, let's eat.

And almost every day there is an event that requires us wearing something other than Pjs in the evening and finding a shoe for every single foot and leaving the house all so that we can hear or sing or do something that's supposed to feed that Christmas spirit, or at least listen to carols while we go to the next basketball game.

Lots of work goes into all this magic, kiddos.  And this sugared up body of mine is fighting a cold, too.  But Pinterest and Facebook and my own happy memories set the bar so high for this time of year.  It's tough to balance this pressure to create Christmas magic with my own two hands with the desire to be "in the moment" or to "seize the day," while of course I'm ALSO focused completely in my heart on the baby Jesus- the real reason for the season, that sweet baby in the manger who keeps getting buried underneath the snow that somebody should probably go shovel!

 It's this kind of crazy scattered "focus" in my mind that makes me feel like I'm doing some complicated yoga pose, trying to hold it all together just right to things go smoothly... and then you come in and fight over the last bit of hot cocoa and marshmallows go flying!  Why is it so impossible to keep things smooth and under control in this house!?  Everybody go take naps!

And yet, Christmas moments come despite my inner battles.  The snow came down heavy, and you all got a day off.  The Christmas tree is up next to the fireplace, and our living room feels magical. We read books and entertain and reminisce and take naps here.  You practice your piano pieces here.  Even while I clean my kitchen, from little lips pour rhyming words of truth as you prepare for your Christmas program.

It's not all magic, but some of it is. And most of it, I don't create at all. Like you, I receive.

Like the spontaneous trip to the movies on Saturday morning, even though the house was a disaster. "I'm not caring about you!" I said loudly to the after-party mess in the dining room. "This is me, children, NOT caring about those dishes and walking out of the house to go have fun instead of cleaning." I said it loud because I know you kids will help me not care about the mess. "Oh, I got this," said my daughter, and she echoed me, "We do NOT care about you! Ha! And we're leaving now!"  Yeah, you kids are pretty good at that.

The December version of you all is something to see, too. One gets sentimental and wants to look at scrapbooks and write letters to old friends. Another isn't happy unless he's shooting something (that's true all year long) or throwing snowballs at brothers or cars (not ok!) One hates the cold so much he acts like his legs won't support him every time we leave. Some of you want to go to every party possible, while others want to be quiet at home.  Some of you fight the sideways pressure you feel to buy gifts for people, while others want to hand-make complicated projects for EVERY SINGLE PERSON THEY KNOW.  Music performances loom large, and I don't even know if you all have dress shoes that fit. And between all of you, there are 12 boots to keep track of; and we own at least 60 gloves but few of them match, just like our socks. Sugar is coursing through everyone's veins, so there's wrestling and teasing and crying and noise! Oh the noise, noise, noise noise!

In and with all of this, Christmas is coming. Into this very chaos, our Jesus comes to us again.  By this grace, we

will keep on putting up with each other, even in December. I love you guys. Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 12, 2016

singing in expectation

I bribe them to go caroling with our church group. If they behave and sing, we will get Slurpees when we are done.  Slurpees in the winter- weird to some, but not to us.  It is enough to make them attempt to keep their hands to themselves.  Just please don't knock down any old people.  And try to smile. 

A group of elderly people have been coaxed into the living room, and they await our performance. One is asleep.  Another is definitely not impressed with any of this tomfoolery, but we smile at her anyway.  We gather in front of these dear people, full of years, and they wait.

Waiting, the theme of their lives in this season- they sit in quiet expectation.

The night will soon be ending, the dawn cannot be far
Let songs of praise ascending now greet the morning star

"Would you like a song book?" I said, and she reached out hear hand and said in a broken voice, "Oh, please help me." I took her hand, "I'll help you, sure. What do you need?" She held my hand tight for a moment, and then looked off to her left, to a distant place of memory or suffering or fear that I couldn't see.  She seemed to have forgotten I was there, her hand in mine. I do not have the help she needs.

Angels we have heard ...

Singing is not my gift.  I sing quietly, sliding behind the stronger singers around me.  On this day, it is my daughter Aggie.  Her song is confident, joy-filled, and even after all the time, she is a miracle to me.  I can't help but smile at the way she is just so loudly, confidently herself, and as I smile I meet the eyes of an elderly woman who seems to know exactly what I am thinking- she winks at me.

My daughter held out her hand to a skeletal woman who did not respond.  As she stood their awkwardly, I reached down to the woman's hands folded on her lap and gave a gentle squeeze. I felt the feeblest squeeze back, and it seemed to me to be a grateful one.  She simply hadn't had the strength to reach out for my daughter's handshake.  Her body was bones with the thinnest layer of skin on top.  She must be close, even at the very door.

All you whom darkness frightens with guilt or grief or pain
God's radiant star now brightens and bids you sing again

After we sing, I encourage the kids to shake hands with each and every person in that waiting room. Some make eye contact, smile and thank them.  A man says he wants to "eat up" my littlest one, ruffles his hair.  The little one puts his hand out for another man, and his little "Merry Christmas" is met with strange noises, intended to be words.  But the smile that came after was something he understood, and the little boy smiled back.  Then he grabbed my hand.

Be near me Lord Jesus I ask The to stay close by me forever and love me I pray
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care and take us to heaven to live with Thee there

After shaking hands with everyone, my sassy son shakes my hand too and says, "You're an old lady too, so, Merry Christmas, HA!" And the other brother says "Old lady! haha!" and they seem so horribly loud I tell them to stop using the word OLD.  Yes, old is everywhere in this place, but it will not always be this way.  Our God is making all things new.

Light and life to all He brings
Risen with healing in His wings

"Merry Christmas!" I say again, and from her wheelchair she smiles a broken smile and says "b- b- beautiful. You all are ... beautiful."  I look in her eyes and say "You are beautiful, too. God bless you." Her tears come and I wish had time to tell her what I meant by that, but the line keeps moving and the moment has passed.

And we leave these dear saints in their hard season of waiting.  We leave their struggles and their beautiful expectation behind us, for a time, until we join them someday, when it is our turn to sit at the edge of eternity. May we, too, be filled with the hope that God gives in His Son Jesus.

They shall see the glory of the Lord
the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who have an anxious heart,
“Be strong; fear not!

He will come and save you.
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain gladness and joy,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away

(from Isaiah 35)

Thursday, December 8, 2016


Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord! Psalm 27:14

I like the word “expectant” more than I like the word “pregnant.”  I remember when I was eight months along with somebody and my dad saw me get out of the car he exclaimed, “DANG! You look PREGNANT!” I didn’t really take it as a compliment. It’s how I felt, of course: heavy, awkward, weighed down, pregnant.

“Expectant” is a happier word. It includes a sense of being filled up, but filled with hope, awaiting a future gift. Full of life, expectant.  Weighed down, perhaps, but only temporarily, and for a beautiful purpose.

Because God came down, Mary was expectant.
The angel announced God’s miracle to Mary and with his words completely rearranged her plans for her future.  “Be not afraid,” he said, and courage like the gift of a baby also came down.  “Let it be done to me according to Your word,” she said, receiving the unexpected gift.

What did Mary ponder when she was expecting?
As her belly grew and her life was turned completely upside down, what did she think about? Did she take the angel’s words to heart, about her son, the savior? Did she imagine, perhaps, scenes from Isaiah 55, when God’s children would “go out in joy and be led forth in peace, and the trees of the hills shall clap their hands?”  Did she also consider the words “like a sheep led to the slaughter,” and “he was pierced for our iniquities?”  Did she worry for his health, his safety as she rode on the back of a donkey? Did she caress her growing belly, feel his kicks, and wonder if he would look like her at all? Would he look different, somehow, like the Savior of the world?  What did she expect when she was expecting?

When I found out I was pregnant the first time, I ran to the library and checked out three books about pregnancy and childbirth. I read all three on the first day. I wanted to know what to expect! I wanted to be prepared, to be ready!  Six kids later, and now I know: there is no being prepared, not really.

You can’t really be prepared for the way it feels to see your child’s face for the first time. Nothing could have prepared me for how it felt to see my husband hold our daughter, gently supporting her head as if she would break, unsure how to wear this new title called “Daddy.”

Nothing could have prepared me for the way it felt to see a heartbeat dip down low on the ultrasound monitor, to realize that the life I carried was delicate, fragile, mortal.  Nothing could have prepared me for the first trip to the emergency room after my toddler son chewed and swallowed four christmas light bulbs!  I could have read all the parenting books in the world, but i never would have felt “ready” or able to “handle it” when they wheeled my daughter away from me to do surgery on her brain.

What did Mary ponder when she was expecting?

Because God came down, this young Mary suddenly  had the shocking responsibility of housing and protecting the Son of God in the flesh.  Everything she ate nourished the baby Jesus.  Whether she got enough rest, drank too much wine, or fell off a donkey; these things all mattered so much more for her as a mother, as the mother of Jesus who would take away the sins of the world.

Have you ever thought about that time in her life, after the angel’s words, “You shall bear a son and he shall be called Jesus, for he will save people from their sins,” after her words of trust back, “let it be done to me according to your word.”  What happened after that?  As her belly grew, as the problems of being an unwed mother loomed large.  Joseph could have legally divorced her, even had her stoned, but God sent an angel to tell him the situation, and he chose to stay by her side. But what of her parents? Her best girlfriend? Her mentors that had taught her in the faith? Did they all think she had failed them and shamed them? Did they think she was crazy? Did they avoid her because they couldn’t decide what they thought, what they should say?  

Did Mary know there would be so much suffering mixed in with her gift?

They say motherhood is like “taking your heart out of your chest and watching it walk around.” What a great analogy- not just for motherhood, but for all of us who love another human being. We pour our love into others- they carry our hearts with them, walking around outside of us, outside our control.  And it’s not safe out there!  Have you seen this place lately?   It’s terrifying! There are choking hazards, and people who drive drunk! There are broken relationships and children with cancer and all kinds of things that just seem WRONG!

I see my daughters growing into lovely young ladies, and I rejoice in the work God is doing. And yet, I fear for them as they wear their beauty, because I know what this ugly world can do to those who shine so brightly.  And I enroll them in self-defense classes, but I wish I didn’t have to. It just seems wrong.

Love in this broken world is risky. We are tempted to hold back our hearts because they really may get crushed.  But God came down, and He did not hold back his heart from us, or His body, or even His blood.  Mary delivered Jesus into this world of brokenness, and even now He does not stand far off but comes inside, under it, with us.

Sometimes, the glitter of Christmas has a way of highlighting the brokenness of our lives. Perhaps we remember the holidays of childhood, when grandma was still here, and we didn’t have to do the shopping.  The empty chairs seem wrong. Things just aren’t how they used to be.  And it feels wrong to have to visit the hospital during Christmas this year.  And it doesn’t seem right to have to buy a pie from the store, or to lay a grave blanket down in the snow.

The brokenness of this world can weigh us down heavily, sometimes even more so when the world is trying hard to be cheery and bright.  As children of God, we can acknowledge the brokenness we feel, the brokenness we live every day.  We don’t have to cover it up with tinsel and pretend it isn’t there. Rather, for us, the lights of Christmas shine out in the darkness, pointing beyond it, to the dawn that God has promised. Because God came down, we, too, are expectant.  Because Jesus is our God-with-us, we expect good things from His hand.

The shadow of the cross falls upon even our brightest December days.  Like expectant Mary, we each have sufferings to go through yet, and we shall walk through the valley of the shadow of death.  But from just beyond the valley, we hear the Easter songs of victory.  We take our Lord’s hand, and we tune our ears to hear His.  We step forward with confidence, filled with hope, because our God has come down.

God, You have given us, Your people a future and a hope —hope fixed and grounded in the resurrection of Your Son, who lives and reigns, who by His Spirit has given us a vision that can look beyond the gray breakers of our successive days and through the mists that obscure Your sun, out to the quiet shore of our unending home with You. Oh, keep us in that hope, that vision. Let us not lose it amid the clutter of this life, but help us to hold fast to you as we await the fulfillment of your will for us, great and abundant mercy from your hand. Give us strength and courage in this season of waiting and service, and may it be done to us according to your good and gracious word.  Amen.

**This post is a rough version of the talk I gave at St. Peter’s Advent by Candlelight dinner on 12/2/16
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