Why Christmas Lights Matter

She kept saying that she was making things beautiful. This is the first year she has actually been able to really help. Only one ornament broke. She was so excited to be a part of what we were doing.  So now, the tree is up. And lit. December is here.  And we forge ahead, into the end of the year, as new moments and memories, still unrealized, wait to join our rituals. DSC_0273

Lights, warmth, company, food, laughter, presents, memories, hope and good wishes. These are the images that march through our minds when we think about Christmas – in our non-cynical moments.  These are the feelings we crave and hope for each year. And these are also why holiday seasons are hard when our memories are not all happy, when health has broken down, when loss is a gaping hole in our hearts, when our expectations are violated, leaving us sad and empty.

It’s fairly easy to remember Christmastime as a pleasant part of childhood. But as we age and life breaks on us like waves on the sand, it can be harder to conjure the feelings of hope and joy that are scrawled across cards and commercials. Conflicted feelings of happiness and anxiety, hope and fear fight and battle for the seat of honor at our table.

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But why, despite loss, life, and harsh reality’s glaring presence, are we still drawn to the Christmas season?

Because in the darkest season on Earth, light came. Because in our sickness,  a physician who heals wholly, completely, came. Because on the coldest night, there is warmth for the heart. In the middle of isolation, there is acceptance. In our loneliness, we are made the friends of the eternal God.

Because in our losses, a Father suffers with us, because He too, once gave and lost  – so that we could be His children. Because with our isolation, Christ remembers that a baby born in a manger was left alone, to die under our sin, so that we would be free from the darkness, the cold, the emptiness, the violated expectations in our lives.

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The expectation of future joy and peace replace the holes left by the need of grace and redemption.  And, while some see the activity of the Christmas season as superfluous, we must see it as the mirror of a beautiful redemption.

We make beauty around us because our Creator is beauty and His creation cannot resist following His lead.  In our deepest, farthest, almost unknown places of our souls, we crave everything that Christmas brings. We crave purpose and meaning and belonging. Those are gifts found only through Christ.

We watch the brilliant Christmas lights as they shine into the dark wintery nights.  We crave light.  We crave beautiful light that will open our hearts and make us know what we want and who we are meant to be.  We long for our Creator and Father, our Redeemer.

DSC_0284As the trees go up and the decorations multiply and the music cheerfully lilts, find the beauty of Christ in the shimmering and the sparkling.  Watch the lights shine across miles of shops and homes and landscapes and take comfort that no matter what memories of Christmas surround you and no matter what dread encloses you, there is peace from the Prince, promised and complete, propelling us through the cold darkness, to a warm Spring, to resurrection power and glory.

 

 

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Uncharted Monotony

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Four years ago last week, we brought a little five pound, five week old baby home to live with us.  I remember being terrified the entire first 24 hours she was home. My husband and I took turns sitting up with her overnight that first night.  I think we stayed up partially because she was restless and fussy, but partially because we were afraid to fall asleep. It seems funny now, it wasn’t like she was going to raid the refrigerator or draw on the wall or use scissors unsupervised (all activities she has since indulged in).  But there was this incredibly fragile human in our house now and all the territory was uncharted and a bit scary.

Last week, I handed this same little girl a five dollar bill, a handwritten note requesting a loaf of bread, gave her instructions to wait in line and be polite, and sent her into a bakery by herself.  At first, she wondered out loud who would open the door for her.  I reminded her she usually opens the door for me.  Then, she placated herself with the idea that some Good Samaritan would smile upon her and kindly open the door.  And with that happy thought, off she ran.  She returned a few minutes later with a loaf of bread tucked under her arm, change in her pocket, and a humungous smile on her face. The note returned with her, carrying  a message back that she had been very polite.

Everyone tells me that time goes so fast. I don’t need their reminders, but I don’t mind them either.  Days and weeks and years repeat over and over. These are probably some of the happiest days of my life, I tell myself.  It is sad to me that these happy days are so short, but I am grateful for their presence at all.  Some days the overwhelming feeling that I carried that first night, an undercurrent of excitement and anxiety about the future, making me catch my breath, comes back.  I watch as the days back away off of the calendar. I watch as the children grow taller, older, and more independent. I wonder what they will be like when they are grown. But then I stop myself before that thought is fully formed.  I want each day to be here, now, not the future.  Never before have I wanted to future to stall more than now.  Nor do I wish to dream about the future I am not promised.  It is easy to dream as a child.  It is with greater caution that an adult dreams.

Each month and year repeats. Each one sends us deeper  into uncharted territory as parents, as our children grow, as children of God. We live the same months over and over again each year, marking off the same holidays, rituals, and every days.  But each day is unique and different. As a Creator and Father, God has made each story and path and day new.  We exist in His image, but individually created for unique purposes.  I love how Chesterton puts it in Orthodoxy. “But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. ”   Days repeat themselves. The Cross remains the same. The Heavenly Father never changes. But, His creativity and that of His world is boundless, His grace is unending, every day.

My children grow, as children have since time began.  It is how a life lives.  Each life is different.  Each stage is unknown.  Each path is uncertain.  But what is certain is the promise that God’s mercies are new each morning.  That He renews His mercies daily.  While our salvation is fixed and firm, it is worked out continually.  I love this tension that occurs, most visibly paralleled, when one loves a child.  They are born at a fixed point in time.  The love we have for them continues on and renews over and over.

Time goes fast and we “do it again” every day.  The uncharted roads and paths are the chances for God to prove His faithful care to us.  He gives us new stages that burrow into the repeated months.  And just like the days when we send our children into unfamiliar territory and watch over them carefully and with pride, so He does the same for us.

The days bring new challenges and twists.  But there is a constant Father who delights in watching His children grow and thrive, who sits up at night to make sure their needs are met.  That is a fixed joy that does not change. 

Good From Above

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Day light savings time, ensuing sleep deprivation, and the full fury of age four hit all at one time. There were lots of tears. There were multitudinous moments of whining, full blown freaking out, and complete and utter meltdowns from mother and child. These fun hours were embellished by a climbing, curious, and slightly mischievous, elfish toddler. Suddenly, the child who knew how to do everything for herself, by herself, an hour ago, had reverted into whole hearted helplessness and needed her mother to assist her with the very acts of inhalation and exhalation. The toddler, on the other hand, who last hour was a sweet cuddly baby, ready to be held and powdered and waited upon, was transformed into a thrashing and screaming monster of independence, full of insolent capabilities, who would turn and breath fire toward the hand that dared reach out with the slightest hint of helpfulness.

 

It was not a good week.

 

By the end of the week, I was convinced that my child would never learn to read, that she will never eat a vegetable, she may wear Depends to college (if by some miracle she learns her alphabet in order and manages to be accepted into an academic institution), and that my lack of patience was stacking up quite a large future therapy bill.

 

Then, thanks to the wonders of social media, news flashed across my phone screen that I really did not want to see. It did not affect me directly and there was no tragedy to my family. Social media undergoes much criticism, but regardless of our taste for it, we are immediately under the directives to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. So that day, I grieved for those who were grieving.

 

There are days when I think it is pure nonsense for me to prattle on about God being good as I watch my two beautiful children. It seems trite some days to write words about how He creates life and beauty in a perfect, ordained way, demonstrated by how He calls us to Himself, in His own family unit. Not because I doubt His goodness or because I am having a hard week, but exactly the opposite. Because my hard week paled in comparison to the anguish that some undergo. My children and I had a safe and reasonably happy day. My husband came home for dinner that night. We all spent an uneventful evening together. We kissed our babies good night and greeted them cheerily when they woke with the sunshine the next morning. Loss, and pain, and the unknown future live on far different floors from whining, and growing pains, and frantic motherhood. What do I know of suffering and hardship? (I know that I do not want to know more than I already do.)

 

When we hear bad news, our hearts break for those in pain. The oldest lie in history comes sauntering into the door. God doesn’t really want us to be happy, does He, or He wouldn’t allow bad things to happen to good people? Life shouldn’t be this hard. Circumstances should be much easier. What if suffering happens to you – what would you say about God then?  Of course these ideas are fanciful webs of torturous deceit entangling us in our own heads and impeding us from reciting the truth – that God is good – to ourselves.

 

There are times to rejoice. There are times to grieve. In the times of rejoicing, we store away the recognized blessings of God. In the times of grieving, we cling to the truth of our faith that God is good, because He has redeemed us, broken the curse of death, and given us life eternal. And in the times that are ordinary and uneventful, we rehearse to ourselves, and to those around us what we have learned in the days of clinging to the cross. We remember the works of God that are more than the sand in the sea – innumerable, unmeasureable.

 

On the days of plenty and the days of emptiness, God remains unchanged. On good days and bad, our desperate need remains, healed only by His forgiveness and adoption of us into His family.   Whether it is a time to rejoice or a time to grieve, every good and perfect gift is from our Father above. Every gift, and there are many, begins and ends with Jesus Christ. Because His work on the cross shadows over our every day, each gift has the outline of His perfection. While we struggle and ache now, the hope of realized redemption and future perfection through Christ is our hope. Because we are recipients of this promised grace, it can never be trite to say that God is good.

On the night you were born

 

 

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“Heaven blew every trumpet and played every horn, on the wonderful, marvelous, night you were born.” (Nancy Tillman, On the Night You Were Born)

 

I can still smell the soap scent. Medicinal, sharply clean, pleasant and unpleasant at the same time. This scent will never cease to connect between my olfactory system and my memories of churning nerves.  It is the scent that was on my hands when the doctor told me, ” Your body is rejecting pregnancy.”

 

There always seems to be a high level of emotion surrounding the birth of a child. Emotions vary widely. Whether there is sheer joy, nervous anticipation, or the blatant sorrow that Genesis 3 confers on humanity, the emotional states surrounding these tiny newcomers is tightly woven.

 

My doctor was right. My body was rejecting pregnancy and so my daughter was born, a tiny baby girl at 3 lbs, 6 oz, just about 8 weeks early. Becoming a parent has doled out measures of dramatics and normalcy. Her birth was one of the more dramatic moments of parenting, ironically at the beginning of the trek. Four years ago this weekend, Psalm 125 churned through my head over and over.

    1 Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever.

2 As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people, from this time forth and forevermore.

I found great comfort in the strong strains that these words declared. A mountain, solid, unmovable. Unshaken.  I had never known sickness like that weekend. My experience of becoming a parent was not a run of the mill, bundle of joy handed to me in a tightly wrapped blanket sort of experience. I held my baby for the first time when she was three days old. We waltzed with wires and adjusted tubes to hold her. But I held my baby. She and I were fine.

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Sometimes I say “God was good to me” and He was, more than words can tell. But is God good when the ending is not as happy? Yes, of course.

Looking back on those verses in Psalms 125, I remember thinking I could have faced death and yet those verses would have still been true. Because in those verses, I hear hints to a ripped veil in the New Testament, blood spread on a mercy seat, and all things working together for good for those called by God. I see a promise of secure hope as a reward for faith. Not my best life now. Not the resolution of discomfort into a pain free life. But the promise that being loved, called by, and cared for by a Heavenly Father leaves my future unshaken, by faith in the power of the resurrection of Christ.

For four short, flash-like years, I have been a parent. When I wash my hands somewhere and smell the medicinal soap scent again, my mind goes directly to the remembrance that my trust is in Christ, in God as a good Heavenly Father. I look back each year, not only in delighted celebration of my daughter’s life, but in the fact that God revealed incredible grace through this child, in merciful ways. In His kindness, He chose to reveal His nature to me by giving me undeserved blessings, now and forevermore.

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If four years of being a parent have taught me anything, it is that God, calling Himself my Father, loves me more than I can fathom. When I look at my child, I can see this love through a veiled layer of comprehension. When I think further that He gave up His own Son, in order to make me His child, the understanding becomes more than my mind can fathom. I really cannot imagine. I really don’t possess that kind of love in my natural state. But being the recipient of that sacrificial love, makes me a very grateful imaginer.

And so, each October, I will think back with profound emotions, deep gratefulness, and a fixed hope. I know that a Father loves and cares for us. I can breathe in the expectation that those who trust in the Lord cannot be shaken, from this time forth and forevermore.

Continuing

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Growing up, I had a pastor in the house (He was my dad). With a resident theologian nearby, I became familiar with an incredible amount of Biblical and historical material at a young age. There was a vast array of commentaries, Bible study tools and various books a few steps away from me at all times. I had Bible verses and characters and stories all memorized and categorized in my little brain. My worldview was established very early – through the lens of Biblical plots, terminology, and concepts.

My daughter is three years old, and suddenly we have been thrown into the “WHY” year. I stress at times, wondering how she will learn all the same information I had without a resident pastor in the house. But, if you tell your preschooler a few Bible stories, and mention a few connections between life and Godliness to them, you will launch yourself into a barrage of questions –  seemingly out of nowhere that send you scrambling for just the right answers – for the preschooler and for yourself perhaps. As in any field of study or skill, teaching the concepts are sometimes the best way to fully grasp the answers.

Throughout life, I’ve questioned enough to solidify my own personal beliefs and worldview, but I never questioned the reality of God. I have trampled through a few figurative minefields, confirming my belief in the goodness and love of God. I am determined to teach my children about God in a way that reflects His grace and goodness and without tripping into clichéd language and un-intentional theological pitfalls.

So, we have started on the quest to read Bible stories regularly, to teach her about sin, about our neediness, about Christ’s sacrifice, about redemption and about how each of these things affects every day life. We pray, we talk about Bible verses, and we try to help her understand that by Him all things consist – along with all the implications of that concept. Recently, some of the questions that have come out of her mouth are:

 

  • Will God be mad if we do X?
  • What does Amen mean?
  • Why do we pray at bedtime?
  • God will heal my boo-boos, right?
  • Are Jesus and God the same?
  • Will God be happy with us if X happens?
  • God will not love us anymore if we do X, right?

I have been extremely careful to explain to her that God loves His children no matter what. I was floored the day she mentioned some action and proposed to me that God would not love us anymore if something specific happened. Here in a little three-year-old brain was a question with which adults grapple often. I realized, sitting there in a mall parking lot, that the oldest human struggle between good and evil was taking place. In the parking lot, on a rather boring day, I was talking about God’s grace to future generations,  denying imaginative views of a fair weather God.

Once again, I saw God at work in His ordaining of parenthood. Parenting is not an egotistical boost where we see beautiful little creatures, looking just like us, carrying on our best character traits while prancing around in adorable Ralph Lauren clothing. Parenting is a reflection into the window of God’s nature.  Parenting forces God’s nature to glint and bounce like sunbeams into the glass, piercing our sight. These questions from little mouths, learning about and processing thoughts on faith, drawing connections between Heaven and Earth, make parents constantly indulge in thoughts about our beliefs. While we may not doubt God, the re-telling of our beliefs reinforces our own faith. We look at the whys of our convictions from new angles, with new perspectives. These little people who drop crumbs on our floors and climb in our beds at unearthly hours of the morning are a means God uses to make us continue in the things WE have learned and been assured of, to strengthen our resolve as we continue trusting in Christ. God, as a loving Father, is revealed to us more clearly as we watch and hear these small creations learn, think, connect, and question.

There is a distinct reason that the Bible uses the analogies of parent and child and the language of generational continuance in faith over and over. Throughout history, stories of Scripture are given from one generation to another. Tell a few Bible stories that you learned as a child, share a few connections, and suddenly the faith of past generations meets the rising faith of future generations. Be strong in the Lord and the power of His might. Continue in the things that you have learned. Over and over, the plea is given from one generation of Christians to another – learn, believe, share, teach, remain steadfast.

This generational connection occurs between biological parents and children. It also occurs between spiritual parents and children. Paul refers to Timothy as his son in the faith. The analogy of parenting, of teaching and nurturing, while simultaneously growing and modeling, holds firm even beyond biological confines. This is discipleship in its most organic form. But, the incredible reality is this – we tend to think of parenting and discipleship as one sided and nothing could be further from the truth. I may not learn from my daughter in the sense that she is not teaching me Greek translations of the Bible. I may not learn new Biblical facts or figures from her. But God is using her existence and her questions to teach me more about His nature, His sovereignty, about His ordination, about His calling of sons and daughters to Himself. He is teaching me that His power to draw future generations goes beyond the stacks of commentaries, beyond the seminary degrees. Those things are needful, but He  transcends their presence and absence.

The concept of continuing in beliefs goes far beyond feeling empowered and inspired during a week of camp, a semester of Bible college, or a weekend conference. Rather, it is a way of life on the dripping rainy days, and in the routines of brilliant sunshine. Continuing means knowing or finding the answers to questions; it is the belief that finding unknown answers is a worthwhile endeavor. It is the understanding that questioning is normal and right and that God’s sovereignty is stronger than any doubt. Find one of your kids or a friend’s kid, or a kid who no one will hang out with. Let them ask you a few questions and you will suddenly view a broad canvas with God’s loving care surrounding you, stretching far away beyond yourself, arching over you, from one generation to another.

 

A Terrible, Horrible, No Good, and Wonderful Day

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I woke startled, realizing I had slept later than planned. I stumbled into the hallway and noticed the Swiffer mop propped outside of the bathroom, left there by my husband, after an attempt at “post-sickness” bathroom cleaning. At 6:45am, my day commenced as I re-cleaned vomit from corners of the bathroom that I didn’t know existed– a bathroom that had JUST been scoured the previous day.

By 10:00am that morning I had re-scoured the bathroom, been spit up on multiple times, and changed my children’s clothing twice each, thanks to typical small child issues. I was annoyed, aggravated that some days make life seem like a sadistic wheel of repeated tasks, trapping me, messing with my mind. As one task finished, another mess sat laughing at me from the corner. On top of my aggravation, I expressed my frustration in a way that made my little girl cover her face with her hands, in tears. I hate seeing her suffer at the expense of my own shortcomings.  It was, an epic failure of a day, as a parent, as a human.

As I considered how the day had gone, and how it should have gone, I tried to tell myself that everyone has “those days.” I tried to think of ways I could be a better parent and wife. I tried to remember that some days I am a great parent, who is patient and fun.   Surely those good parenting days outweigh the bad parenting days.

Reality often crumbles the pedestals we camp out on. The reality is that every day we live is an epic failure – without Christ’s redeeming power. We have no goodness of our own, no strength within ourselves to be patient, kind, loving, and wise. No matter how hard we try. Our hope can only be in Christ and His gospel that transforms us. (2 Corinthians 3:18)

What does this truth of failure and transformation mean for us? Christ, as our Savior, is sitting at God’s right hand, interceding for us, saving us, keeping us, even as we show our sinful natures to our children. And, He is also able to help us live well with our family and others. (Romans 8:34) Through the power of Christ’s work on the cross for us, He has taken our self proclaimed good days, which are like polluted garments, (Isaiah 64:6) and our bad days that are equally trashy and scoured them clean Himself. He removes the need for our pitiful human efforts and makes us instead, into treasures redeemed for His glory.

The words from the hymn, Arise My Soul, Arise, came to my mind.

He ever lives above, for me to intercede;
 His all redeeming love, His precious blood, to plead:
His blood atoned for all our race,
 His blood atoned for all our race,
 And sprinkles now the throne of grace.”  

 When I wrench life away from my children by wounding their spirit, Christ’s blood remains poured out. It atones for my horrific, life quenching sins. That blood covers our acknowledged “bad” days, and our piously “good” days. His blood is sufficient to draw out children to redemption despite our best and worst efforts.  The implication for us is that, as His children, Christ is interceding for us. His blood, poured out once, has paid for our sin – not just one time, but through every single moment of each day.

Our days on Earth are only of value to our families, to our churches, or to our workplaces as Christ’s redemption is realized in our lives. While our children should not suffer at their parents’ expense, it is important to remember that God is a powerful Father, working in their hearts to teach them the neediness of humanity and the beauty of redemptive transformation. Despite our best efforts, He is the one who captures and keeps their souls. We are to be responsible stewards, but even our stewardship is empowered by the cross.

The truth is that without those terrible, horrible, no good days, we would fail to see and want the wonderful reality of His grace. On the days when frustration builds and threatens to trample us, we see our need for the cross. Without these days we would sail through our lives, proud of our abilities and righteousness. The next time that epic day of failure comes to visit we can give thanks for our scars, confident that Christ has battled sin and won for us. We embrace His strength, knowing that in this strength, we are not captive to scars, wounds, and failures, but freed and living by His mercy.

Reciting When the Winds Shift

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When the year shifts and the breezes come in from a different direction, the air swoops in from an unknown place. With new air comes restlessness, bringing with it questions about life and mulling about identity and wondering what the present tense will look like in the future. When questions and mulling come, doubt and demons sneak through the cracks in armor, riding on the breeze in through the chinks. Suddenly people seem judgmental. Life seems threatening. Retreat seems the most inviting option. Hiding looks like a palpable answer. But instead one breath at a time keeps life moving forward.

This is the point in time that professionals tell their clients to think positively, to rehearse their dreams, to visualize their goals.

It is at this intersection of life that rehearsing the goodness of God drives a person farther to real success than any visualization of dreams ever could.

It’s June. Exactly a year ago, I had a brand new baby and a few brand new ideas. I was emotionally and mentally finished with working in an office doing mindless work all day. But I had no idea where to turn. I had a small bit of teaching experience, a masters in Teaching, a blog, too many years of administrative work on my resume, a toddler, and a new born.

It’s been a year. The prayer I prayed for months leading up to last June was for employment where I could spend more time with my children, forge into a more fulfilling career,  and for provision of our tangible needs. Terrified, I made choices where no clear path was cut in the jungle.

Running through the warm summery, morning air, I thought about the choices I made. No matter what we do, dragons and demons blow fire across our paths and serpents try to convince us, as they swirl around overhanging tree branches, that our failures equal God’s failure to us. That our doubts exist because God is not good and does not really want our happiness.

But just as the nation of Israel shouted with a loud noise, crashing down the walls of Jericho, so the noise of our voices, both aloud and silently, speaking the goodness and care of God annihilates the vassals of the Destroyer.

I spoke to myself and to God, remembering my prayer. More time with my children, in order to be their mother. A more fulfilling career path. Provision of tangible needs. And as I spoke, I recognized that all of these items were specifically answered in the past 12 months, in ways I would never have planned or initiated without God’s loving care and brilliant sovereignty.  Obviously, I would like to kick back and rest, knowing my career is set, my parenting skills are perfected, my financial investments well managed.  I would like to think that every choice I make will have fabulous consequences that will play out for the rest my life and my children’s lives. But God gives manna, not lottery winnings. The “happily ever after” is reserved for Heaven, not Earth.

And so we rehearse prayers answered, promises found, and goodness felt, over and over, telling ourselves, telling our children, that all things work together for good for those who are called of God, whether it’s sunshine for our picnics or rain on our parades.

The words from Be Still My Soul wander through the breezy air.  “Leave to thy God to order and provide; In every change He faithful will remain.” And as I leave the ordering and providing, I keep reminding myself of His faithful remaining.

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