the Christmas of unexpected Joy

For a long time, 2015 will be remembered as the Christmas when we were barely hanging on, and the Advent of finding joy in unexpected places. I told my physician-brother a few months ago that if there were a clinical diagnosis for “too busy,” Seth and I would have met the criteria for it several months ago. It is just too easy for two over-achievers to keep doing and forget to rest, relax, and take a break. To focus on who really matters: God, each other, our daughters, and the family and friends we love dearly. And I guess I should speak for myself – Seth does a way better job of this taking a break than I do. My counseling heart and artistic impulse are gifts … but they have the dark side of my tendency to say “yes” to more people and projects than I can adequately follow through.

This fall has been the process of me taking a giant step back – a step out of leading our small group, teaching women’s Bible study, over-scheduling with extra-familial commitments and appointments, and a step back that culminated in a decision to take a sabbatical from my counseling practice starting January 1, 2016. There are many reasons for this particular timing – two of them being:

(1) My pastor-husband will be graciously receiving the gift of a sabbatical from our church from February through April (an every 7-years-rhythm they’ve established for the pastors) – and I want to join him for that.

(2) My first book is being released in June, and I needed/wanted space to devote to this venture.

In the stepping back, there is much that I already miss – chiefly among them, the courageous women and men I’ve had the privilege of sitting with and walking together through stories of love, loss, and hope despite the darkest of backgrounds. (I do find myself already counting down the months until I will reengage with this calling again!)

Yet this is the beauty of God’s gifts of realizing our limitations: the limitations form the boundaries of our truest calling.

Until I said no to over-scheduling, I couldn’t have known the joy of just being … of writing … of enjoying the gift of a quiet home the mornings our daughters are at preschool … of being present for their many unscheduled moments (highs & lows) that happen when I’m here to notice them. I couldn’t have known the frustrations that push me deeper into faith in a God who sees – the frustrations that come when I see how poorly I love my family for whom I profess undying love (and when I experience their imperfect love towards me, too).

And herein lies the beauty of this Christmas-Advent season: in slowing down (being forced to, might I add, due to a litany of never-ending illnesses), Joy still came. Despite what felt like barely hanging on in terms of health and the fullness of our days and the way we typically celebrate Christmas (lots of parties both hosted and attended, etc.) – Joy came in being still and quiet enough to notice The Greatest Gift, Jesus. Jesus ushered in the best gifts of this season:

  • grace given and received in the midst of fraying emotions and harried tasks
  • a beautiful painting by a dear friend
  • a necklace for this season, reminding me to “be still and know”
  • a bracelet from my beloved, and all the love that is patient that it represents
  • words to speak to you and to God – expressing my heart and inviting us deeper still into the mystery that is Jesus
  • many hot cups of tea sipped while editing the manuscript of a book I need more than anyone else possibly could
  • gifts from neighbors for us and our girls – and the gift of having great neighbors!
  • family and friends who continue to love us through our imperfect moments and to lavish us with their time, attention, and generosity

For all of these gifts … for the Greatest Gift to match my deepest need … all I can say is what’s been sung for generations (reminding you and me that “faithful” is not what we are in our own efforts, but what Jesus calls us who cling to him by faith):

o come all ye faithful

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the glittering mess of Advent

Every December, it surprises me. Meaning, the juxtaposition of “the most wonderful time of the year” with the reality of how far I am from being able to fully embrace the joy proclaimed to me in every Christmas song and story and glittering decoration. I know I’m not alone in this. For I  hear your stories – maybe not yours specifically, but in sitting with multiple stories of suffering and disappointment and hope deferred throughout almost a decade of counseling and a few decades more of friendship and family relationships, I have a fairly good sense of the ways life breaks us.

And for some reason, I find myself each Advent/Christmas season battling to find the hope that surrounds me like no other time of year. I struggle because at the deepest part of who I am, I know that Jesus’ coming as a baby changed everything for the better (while I also see so much that doesn’t fit with a redeemed world). I find deep comfort that his incarnation – God with us – was a literal game-changer for the human race. That Jesus was “born to set Thy people free/from our sins and fears release us/let us find our rest in Thee.” That I am to “fall on [my] knees/O hear, the angels voices/O night divine/O night when Christ was born.” And I crumble inside with the best of you at the emotion of it all – of God being made like us, like a tiny baby, utterly vulnerable to the ones he created.

But then I begin to get angry and sad. For if Jesus was born to set His people free, why on earth are we so chained up to others’ expectations and our own inward voices of shame? And why do we Christians hurt  each other in the church when we are all simply trying to love one another the best we know how? Why do “Christian” politicians infuriate the culture-at-large with offers to pray in the wake of tragedy and apparently no (or minimal) actions behind these prayers?  Why do news headlines daily proclaim a new form of terror?

And to bring it home and make it more personal: why do I have friends still struggling with infertility?

Friends grieving parents taken too soon?

Friends who have suffered unspeakable tragedies of abuse when they were children who could not protect themselves?

Why are friends stuck in marriages that feel lifeless? (Or why are there friends who are newly divorced despite months/years of trying to reconcile?)

Why does cancer still strike in the most unexpected of ways and times to friends in the prime of their life/ministry?

And if I dare to be courageously honest, I have a few questions of my own. Like how did I get to be so battle-weary and exhausted when I thought I was fighting for the gospel of justice, truth, beauty, and light in the name of Jesus, in the strength of his grace, and for the sake of his glory?

Why does every recent December feel depressing, as a time when I am more likely to feel the weight of the world’s sorrows instead of the hope of the Savior’s joy?

Why does Christmas seem to come up short from how I remember it as a child?

I am beginning to realize anew that the only answer to these weighty, angst-filled questions is in trying to hold in my feeble hands the glittering mess of Advent.

It’s not unlike the abundant blue glitter that one of my 5-year-old daughters sprinkled with abandon around her room earlier this week. There was literally a path of blue sparkle that looked like a rug placed on our white (!) carpet. A glittering path that led to their mini-Christmas tree. As I vacuumed it up, I surprised myself by beginning to laugh instead of growing more angry and frustrated. I laughed because it was beautiful. Any of you who have ever had the *privilege* of vacuuming up large quantities of glitter know exactly what I’m talking about. It glitters and sparkles and changes in the light, and as I vacuumed clean white paths through the blue, the vacuum cleaner began to sparkle, too. (Because it has a see-through compartment.)

And that’s when it came to me.

This is a metaphor for Advent’s tension between the beauty that will be (which began to break through in the incarnational mystery of Jesus) and the mess that we continue to make with this beauty.

These broken places of grief, betrayal, loss, and deferred hope – they are real and they are tragic in an exponentially greater way than a 5-year-old glitter tantrum (oh – did I leave that part out? The reason that she created such a display was out of anger that she was in time out – it was a mess intended to annoy me.).

But this I cling to – in hope against hope – that the mess twinkles, sparkles, glitters in the light of the Christmas tree. The Christmas tree that became our salvation as it became a cross. This tragedy of the tiny babe grown up and offered up willingly as the most tragic of sacrifices for the most unworthy of offenders. You and me.

Ann Voskamp says it well in her Advent devotional:

The Cross stands as the epitome of evil. And God takes the greatest evil ever known to humanity and turns it into the greatest Gift you have ever known. … If God can transfigure the greatest evil into the greatest Gift, then He intends to turn whatever you’re experiencing now into a gift. You cannot be undone. Somewhere, Advent can storm and howl. And the world robed for Christmas can spin on. You, there on the edge, whispering it, defiant through the torn places: “All is grace.”

 

 

a guest writer and favorite Christmas posts

merry christmasDespite the sorrow and grief you’re carrying, there is reason for hope and even joy this Christmas.  Joy not as the happy-paste-on-a-smile type, but joy as what anchors your soul amidst the storms of life. Joy that tells you it will not always be so hard, and that there is a shore to which we are sailing. Sometimes it’s discovered in the small grace-glimpses. Like a retelling of the Christmas story by my 4-year-old daughter, Lucia. And so this becomes her first featured post – and a gift to each of you, that you may pause for a moment and savor the Savior whose birth is making all things new. (And oh, how we need that in a broken world of grief-weary hearts!)

Mary and Joseph walked to Bethlehem ‘cuz there were no cars or busses in their time.  They were tired!  They wanted a bed to sleep in. They went to the inn.  “We want to have a bed”.  The innkeeper said there was no room.  He said they could sleep in the barn. That night Baby Jesus was born. The shepherds got scared ‘cuz the angels came. “Don’t be afraid ‘cuz Baby Jesus is born in Bethlehem!  Go to the stable to find him”. They ran to the stable.  They went in quietly, ‘cuz Jesus was sleeping in Bethlehem.

Other Christmas posts worth perusing:

So I’ll end by saying – Merry Christmas, y’all! And to all a good night …

five minute “Friday”: adore

photo from shutterstock.com

photo from shutterstock.com

“O come let us adore Him …” rings the Christmas carol from the most unlikely places. Radio, department stores, Target. Everywhere I go, there are invitations to adore the newborn King.

But how do you adore when your heart is broken in two by grief? When you’ve lost your mom from a heart attack, when your missing friend still hasn’t been discovered, when you worry about an upcoming biopsy? How do you adore in the middle of heart-rending grief? When this is the first Christmas without your mom and your sister? Or your son or your brother or your father?

How can I adore when I’m caught up in all the tasks of the season? The parties, and the gift-buying, and the Christmas-cookie-making, and the making-sure-no-one-is-left-off-the-list?

Jesus. He invites me to adore him, and then he does the miraculous. He comes near so that I can. He interrupts my over-scheduled insanity with a bout of illness, and I’m forced to practice the white space I’ve been proclaiming. He comforts my friends in the middle of their deep grief. He leaves perfection to come to a quiet, dark, hay-filled manger – born amidst poverty. Our newborn King. He brings Christmas in a way none of us would ever have planned. And to think of this? There is no option but to adore him.

***

Writing for five minutes on a given prompt, unedited. A favorite link-up with a fabulous community of writers, hosted by Kate Motaung here.

white space

She lost her mom last night after an unexpected heart attack two days ago. You are never ready to say the most permanent of earthly farewells to such a beloved parent, but particularly not when it’s so sudden. I remember this close friend’s mom as being gracious, caring, kind, compassionate. And now she is Home with the Savior she loved and worshiped, seeing face-to-face what we know by faith. We who are left behind grieve her physical presence with us.

Another friend is waiting along with the rest of Philadelphia and now the nation on any sign of Shane Montgomery who went missing in the early hours of Thanksgiving morning. Vanished without a trace. She grew up with him and their family ties go back three generations. She has participated in search and rescue efforts; she sat with Shane’s mom for a few hours the day after he disappeared. There are no words.

A friend from my community group at church asked simply for “good days” for her dad who is dying of cancer. And that he would make it to February 5th, when he and his beloved wife will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. She is glad for the good moments they share, and she prays that they will continue to savor the present.

White space. How we need it in our lives! Tragedy’s disruption will always force us to make room for it. It is in the white space that we can grieve, and pray, and be present. The white space is needed because the dark spaces will come.

In visiting Anne Smith’s opening of “Corner Gallery” last weekend, it was the backdrop of the white space that gave the paintings their full effect.

Image from Anne Smith's Corner Gallery [December hours Wed - Sat 10am-2pm]

Image from Anne Smith’s Corner Gallery [December hours Wed – Sat 10am-2pm]

In the white space of our lives, we cease from rushing around helter-skelter. I take time to sit and watch my daughters’ impromptu ballet show in our living room. (I may even join in, only if the blinds are closed.) I look the cashier in the eye instead of ruffling through coupons or checking text messages. I purposely leave margin in my life, under-planning instead of over-planning.

In this “the most wonderful time of the year,” how can you and I make white space for the beauty of the Advent to dawn anew in our hearts? For us to rejoice that our King came to us, and for us to long for His next coming when He will heal our broken world forever? No more death, no more cancer, no more missing persons vanishing without a trace. Until then, I cry with the words of this hymn –

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirit by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
*Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.*

the gaps of Christmas

What a beautiful Christmas we are enjoying today! In addition to all of the generous gifts lavished upon us by family, there is the gift of these moments of quiet reflection (thanks to one napping girl and the other out on a Christmas walk with Daddy). And if you’re like me, despite how perfect any Christmas is from year to year, there are always reminders of the “gaps.” You know, the ways that Christmas never quite meets up to our expectations of it. The way my sentimental definition of “Christmas” misses the mark of “real” Christmas. The way I myself get off track from what IS the heart of Christmas, or rather WHO is the heart of Christmas: God as a baby in a humble manger. 

Praise be to God that he always takes the initiative to bridge these gaps. That Christmas itself is the most brilliant, bold reminder of this. We have a God who bridged the gap that I caused – that I was blind to – that I made no efforts to resolve. Out of love, he came. Knowing the rejection awaiting, the vulnerability that he (God!) would be clothed in – the humble circumstances and the eventual surrender of the best connection he’d ever had: to God his Father. He gave that up willingly for me. For Love.

To bridge the gaps in my heart that so many feel this Christmas. Like parents or siblings or children who have died, of spouses deployed, of wounds reignited by holiday gatherings, by the gap between expectations and the reality in which we live. Christmas on this earth, no matter how postcard (or Instagram, or Facebook) perfect, will always leave us longing. Longing to be with the one who came for us. Longing to follow the Christ-child into places of deeper humility and service in his name. Longing to see redemption in the gaps of our broken world caused by sin – which are even now being healed but will be so completely one day.

Redemption came in the Sunrise from on high, the one whose Elijah prepared the way by causing “those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly” (Luke 1:17). And I am the rebel who doesn’t want wisdom. Christ gently and boldly leads me to it again and again. It starts in a manger, culminates in the cross, is proved victorious and supreme by the resurrection. Let me accept true Christmas/gospel wisdom today. To lift my eyes above the gaps I see to the One who came for me. Whose love never stops. Who even now is showering me with grace more abundant than the gifts beneath our tree. And in beholding this Love, let me love.

A quote from my favorite Advent devotional this year by Ann Voskamp:

In the thin air of Advent, you may not even know how to say it out loud: “I thought it would be easier.” And your God comes near: “I will provide the way.” You may not even know who to tell: “I thought it would be different.” And your God draws closer: “I will provide grace for the gaps.” You may not even know how to find words for it: “I thought it would be … more.” And your God reaches out: “I will provide Me.”

God gives God. That is the gift God always ultimately gives. Because nothing is greater and we have no greater need, God gives God.

when Advent arrives (the end of the waiting)

When I wrote last week’s post on the waiting of Advent, my brothers and I were all waiting. Scattered up and down the East coast, from Maine to South Carolina, we all were awaiting quite poignant gifts. Both sisters-in-law were pregnant, due within a week of each other!, and we were eagerly waiting for the gifts of these babies.

And within a week, both gifts were delivered. Jonathan and Nicole welcomed their first daughter (third child), Abigail Katherine, on Thursday morning, December 6 (on her due date). And I gained my first niece! Six days later, on her due date of December 12, Bryan and Megan welcomed their first baby, Isaac Lee. My “baby” brother having his first baby … I can hardly believe it!

I am reminded that the end of the waiting is a gift. It is a gift immeasurable to see these babies cradled in the arms of their parents, babies which even just two short weeks ago were still nurtured in their mother’s wombs. To see these gifts delivered! The gift of a first daughter; the gift of a first baby … And there is a taste of Advent here. The “already” part of Advent – that there is a baby who has been delivered. Isaiah echoes this promise –

For unto US a child is born, unto US a son is given …

And yet I am still waiting to meet these sweet gifts. I rejoice with their arrival, and I ache with longing to hold them and kiss their sweet faces and welcome them to the world and actually see/witness/experience the joy of their proud parents. And isn’t this like Advent? We rejoice that our King has come, humbly born and laid in a manger. That He began the redemption revolution and its end is guaranteed. But yet we await the full experience of it, don’t we? There is still suffering, tears, infertility, death, grief, abuse – that remind us that we still await the FULL Advent, of our King will will “make all the sad things come untrue.” (Tolkien)

I am sharing a poem I wrote with the birth of my first nephew over four years ago. And it is now in honor of these two sweet babies, barely and not quite a week old now. There can’t be a better way of celebrating AND awaiting Advent then for these parents as they cradle their newborns.

Who will this little one be?
So much potential!
Tiny toes, hands, feet …
what miles will you walk?
What work will you do?
Who will you become?
Your world is a blank canvas.
Yet planned by a Creator who has been forming you from the beginning of time. He knew your face before any of us glimpsed it.
He knows what will make you laugh and cry.
He sees your end from the beginning.
And he loves you more than any of us can.
(hard to believe – I haven’t even seen you yet
but I love you already because you belong to us)

A late night prayer is that you will come to know
the One who knows you early in your life.
You have a better chance than many because
you will see Him in the lives of your parents.
They will show His love to you in 1000 ways, reflecting it to you like a prism’s rainbow of light.
May you receive it,
drinking it in like water in a desert’s oasis.
This world is difficult.
You will find that out too soon – it is a desert
and it often feels like wandering wilderness,
but there is refreshment to carry you through.
It’s the beauty of Christ … the way He is making all things new.As he has made you new tonight.

So this evening,
your first evening in this world,
rest well.
Sleep well, little one.
You will awaken soon enough.
The journey is long and sweet and beautiful. Welcome to the family.

the waiting of Advent

A season of longing, of waiting, and it begs the question – what are you waiting for? For we are all waiting for something, someone, some change of circumstances or some relief or joy or hope or life to pass.

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There are those waiting for test results, like we waited ten years ago as a family, and then heard not only once but twice the dreaded diagnosis of “cancer” for each of my parents (within two weeks).

I think of many friends who are waiting for a baby. Either by adoption or conception. And the waiting is agonizing, month after month of month of hope and disappointment – cycling through the heart till it feels it cannot bear it any longer. Hearing false words of comfort, meant to cheer but which feel empty and despairing. “Try this – there’s always next month! – children are so hard anyway …”

Women and men who are waiting for healing, for redemption, for forgiveness of ones who have wounded them, abused them, degraded them. Will it ever come this side of heaven? How long, O Lord?

There are Christians persecuted around the world, awaiting an end to the faith-induced suffering (while some “Christians” in America claim Jesus as the way to a suffering-free life).

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Maybe you are waiting the interminable wait of grief, of longing, of mourning for loved ones who have passed away – a parent, a child, a best friend, a sibling, an aunt, uncle, cousin … and you, too, cry with the psalmist, “How long, O Lord?”

Some of you, like me, feel like you’re waiting for an impossible stage of parenting to be done. Waiting for tantrums to decrease, for kids to grow up (?), for this stage to pass like all those veteran parents promise it will, and too soon.

Some are waiting for a new job, for a move, for what’s next, for a house to sell, for a baby on the way, for school to finish. And there is joy mixed in some of this waiting.

Yet in all of it, we feel a longing. A yearning that this Advent season, a season of intense waiting and longing for … the One. The One who redeems the broken places we dare not speak of aloud, the sorrowful places we cannot bear to revisit, the weary-worn-out-hopeless places we fear may take us under, the suffering that feels too much or too mundane or too constant or just simply too long. He comes.

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The wait is over when we wait on the Lord. For his coming is as sure as daylight after the longest night. The heart that waits on him is never disappointed. For seasons will pass, healing is slow yet sure, comfort is there for every grief, grace is there for each trial, and in all of the waiting there is the presence of Love with us. God with us. Emmanuel. With each Christmas carol, we too can rejoice (even in our waiting) with Zechariah in Luke 1:68, 78-79 –

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people … because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.