Don’t wait for Christmas

We spend a lot of time and money getting ready for the holidays.  Some have started already planning and purchasing for next year’s Christmas.  Over the last month many of us have attended parties, dinners, and gift exchanges with family, friends, and coworkers.  We have cooked special foods, decorated our homes, and dressed in finery in order to celebrate.

We celebrate the love of family.  We celebrate that we get time off from work.  We celebrate our friendships. We celebrate the birth of a Savior.

We celebrate by eating, and drinking, and laughing, and sharing.  We celebrate by giving and receiving gifts, by sending Christmas cards, by calling those we love, and by worshipping with our church families.

But there are many among us who just can’t celebrate. And they probably aren’t telling you about it.  They may decline invitations, bow out early, or just refuse to answer your calls.  It’s not that they don’t want to be there.  They really do want to be there.  They just can’t. 

It would be easy if they had a contagious disease or were recovering from surgery or, they had a compromised immune system that prohibited them from joining in the festivities.  Then you would understand.  “Oh, too bad Bobby can’t be here, you know he just had that surgery, and he’s recovering in the hospital.”  Everybody gets that.  In fact, many of us will load up our gifts and drive over to the hospital to bring the celebration to Bobby because we love him and don’t want him to be left out.

But some people can’t celebrate and it’s because of something that you can’t see — something you may not understand.

Kay Warren, wife of well-known pastor, Rick Warren, who lost a son to suicide in 2013, recently posted on Facebook and then wrote in Christianity Today about the pain she has endured over the last two Christmases as well-meaning friends and acquaintances have sent Christmas cards filled with photos of smiling families and newsletters proclaiming all the good stuff that has happened for them over the year.  She received these celebratory cards and letters and got angry.  She couldn’t possibly celebrate.  How could she celebrate knowing that her son had taken his own life? Even if she believed that Jesus was born in a manger to save the world from their sins, even if she trusted Him and believed that He held her in the palm of His hand, she couldn’t possibly smile, or laugh, or rejoice.

She’s not alone, guys.  While we deck the halls and kiss under the mistletoe, many around us can’t fathom the “oh what fun it is”.  Not today.  Not yesterday.  Not Christmas Day.

They’ve lost a child.  They are in the middle of a divorce.  A loved one has cancer. They just lost their job and can’t pay the mortgage.  Their father is on life-support.  They have experienced pain that they can’t even talk about.  And the idea of joining you or me in our merriment, knowing the pain that they know, is unconscionable. It just can’t be. 

So they stay home, miserably, wishing they could be there, wishing they could celebrate, wishing they could be part of the joy.  Angry that you can be. 

I’m going to spend less time and money getting ready for the holidays.  I think my focus needs to shift to the here and now — to little moments that I can be with those I love —  in their tears,  in their laughter,  in their anger.  And when we get glimpses of celebration, we will seize them — we won’t wait for Christmas.

Matthew 5:4

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

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If I had sent a card…

I didn’t buy Christmas cards this year.  I didn’t write a Christmas letter.  I’m struggling with it a little bit.

Every day cards, letters, and photos arrive from people that we love, who cared enough to ask for our new address, who wrote personal notes — some of them quite long, who made sure to remember us this Christmas. As they arrive I have that internal battle — does my desire to simplify and not send cards send the message that I don’t care?  That I don’t miss our friends in St. Louis? That I don’t remember family that lives far away?

I hope not.

Because we are so blessed.  We do care about all the people we have known over the years — our friends who are missionaries in Tanzania who recently made the decision to adopt their first child there, our friend serving in Guatemala who is coming home for the holidays, our friends in Oregon, and Minnesota, Wisconsin, Florida, Texas, and Michigan.  We do miss our friends in St. Louis — the friends who labored so hard and for so long to build the congregation where my husband served, the colleagues at the high school where I taught, our neighbors, and all our dear friends. We do remember family in Texas, California, New Jersey, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Arizona.

We just didn’t do a card or a letter this year.

So let me say here, that if we would have sent a card or a letter it would have wished you peace.  Peace in whatever circumstances you are living, peace in the face of all the conflict in the world, peace within yourself.  We, too, are looking for the peace that passes all understanding.  We know that one day we will experience it fully.  We pray that we, and you, get a taste of it this week as we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace and that that taste lingers into the coming year.

John 14:27

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.

I do not give to you as the world gives.

Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

Late night prayers

I woke up more than sixteen hours ago.  I had a pretty full day — 50 minutes of walking, 45 minutes of Pilates, some housework, some cooking, some laundry, a chiropractor appointment, several cups of tea, work on a jigsaw puzzle, and guests for dinner and chatting.

A very full day, actually. So why, at 1:00AM, am I awake? Good question.

I can’t figure it out myself.  The rest of the house if bedded down, including the dog, and I am wide awake.  Is there something unsettling on my mind?  Not that I know of.  Did I drink too much caffeine?  Not really.

But regardless of the reason, I am up.  A pastor-friend once said that if you find yourself awake in the middle of the night, you might be prompted to pray.  Perhaps God has you awake for such a time as this — to intercede for someone in your life. To stand in the gap.

Do I know anyone in need of prayer?  Do I know anyone who is not in need of prayer?

So, here I am lifting you up — my friends who tonight supported my daughter, my friends who last night loved on my other daughter, my son who volunteered to work on Christmas Eve so other soldiers could attend worship services, my parents who instilled in me my faithfulness to God and worship, my siblings who kept me humble, my husband who is willing to go along with whatever crazy ideas I come up with, my daughters who are two of my closest friends, our son and his wife who are waiting on the the birth of their first child, …

And for you, too, those of you who are hurting because you have lost someone dear, those of you who are lonely this Christmas, those of you who are ill, or injured, or angry.

And for you, too, those of you who are celebrating, and excited, and scared, and confused.

I lift you up, because that’s the best thing I can do for you.  He’s holding you in the palm of His hand already, but if I nudge you up a little closer, you’ll be right inside His gaze.  He already knows you and sees you, but if you are that close, the light of His presence will touch you, and you will be changed.

That’s why I lift you up tonight.  And, having lifted you up, I will now try to sleep in peace, because God makes us all dwell in safety.

Psalm 4:8

I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.

A Lesson in Planning

When our children were little, three aged five and under, I built a pretty concrete schedule for how our days would go.  I literally wrote it down.  The teachers out there might understand this, or those who desperately crave control in their lives.  It literally looked something like this.

  • 6:30am Wake up and breakfast
  • 7:00  Clean up and get dressed
  • 7:30 Play time
  • 8:00 Morning Lesson — Letter of the day, songs, play-doh
  • 9:00 Outside play
  • 10:00 Quiet time

It really was that planned out.  My mother, who raised four children of her own without killing anyone, once came to stay with the kids while my husband and I went out of town for the weekend.  I actually typed up the daily schedule including menu recommendations and clothing options and printed it out for her.  I believe it was three pages long.

Yeah, you can judge me.

Looking back, I believe that I was utterly overwhelmed by the fact that I had three children so close together.  One way to not feel so overwhelmed was to order my day down to the minute.  We ate at the same time every day, slept at the same time every day, went to the library the same day every week, and never missed an activity at church.  In fact, even after the kids were all in school, I would create themes for the summer and plan activities to support the theme.  I really wanted order, control, and predictability.

I know what you are thinking.  All of my planning didn’t prevent the unpredictable.  You are right.  I couldn’t plan for illnesses, for accidents that took us to the emergency room, or for unexpected visitors at the front door.   In fact, I didn’t do well when these interruptions occurred.  I often got crabby and grumbled around the house because reality didn’t match my expectations.

But I learned my lesson, right?

I wish I could say that I had.  I am still learning how to be fluid, to roll with the punches.  This past week was a refresher course.  I would go to bed thinking I knew what the next day held, only to realize, upon waking, that something totally different was in store.  Probably the capstone of the week was yesterday — my husband and I had decided we would have a slow Saturday morning, followed by some errand running, a walk with the dog, and then a date night at home.  Doesn’t that sound lovely?  Here’s what really happened.  We woke to find that about a hundred ants had moved into our kitchen.  We handled that situation, one of us more graciously than the other.  Then, once I had a good snit worked up, I insisted on cleaning not just the floor where the ants had been, but the entire kitchen.  While I was at it, I might as well make a huge breakfast, which was delicious, but created more clean up.  We got through about half the errands then stopped off at home for a moment where we were greeted by out of town guests that we had forgotten “were passing through”.  After a lovely visit with them, we decided we could still fit in a short walk, scrounge some food together, and watch some NCAA basketball — our date night.

My Friday night planning didn’t circumvent the unexpected of Saturday.  I spent about an hour or two of my morning fussing and fuming, but thankfully, was able to start “rolling” with the alternate plan by around noon.  It turns out that sipping tea while reading children’s books in a local bookstore is pretty relaxing.  Chatting with family that we hadn’t seen in a while was a lovely break in our day.  Watching the Spartans lose (poor Izzo!) was not necessarily enjoyable, but it was time spent with the guy I would choose over everyone else.

So, I re-learned the lesson yesterday, right?

Nope.  I needed a refresher course today.  Almost all of the things we had planned for today have changed.  Almost every single one. Did I roll with it?  Not at first.  I fussed and fumed a bit.  Verbalized my frustration.  Then, settled in to what was going to be.  Turns out I got lots of quiet time, a nice little rest, a second cup of tea, and a delicious meal is roasting in the oven.  Not exactly what I had planned.  It’s actually an improvement.  Maybe this time the lesson will stick.

Psalm 33:11

But plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.

Ooops

You know how just yesterday I was talking about ‘reintroducing foods’ and doing it cautiously?  Well, yeah, that’s a good idea.  I wrote that blog yesterday morning, and by last night, my husband’s birthday, I had ordered three entrees, two appetizers, and two orders of naan from a local Indian restaurant and had purchased two bottles of red wine to go with it.  For the first time in over two weeks, I did not worry about what I was eating — I thoroughly enjoyed that food and let me just say, it was delicious!

However, when I woke at 3:30 feeling a little “rough around the edges”, I rethought my choices and decided to do be a bit more cautious today.

We had vegetable pakora, lamb saag, bhindi masala, yum, yum, yummy.  None of it is bad in itself, but after almost two weeks with little more than rice, vegetables, chicken, fish, broth, and more recently fruit, potatoes, and eggs, it was a bit of a leap. Combine that with maybe one too many glasses of cabernet and you’ve got a tired, dehydrated, stiff, achey girl who wishes she would’ve eaten more of the basmati rice and drank more ice water instead of that last glass of wine.

So, what do you do when you fall off the horse, you get right back on.

This morning I started with the juice of half a lemon in hot water with one teaspoon cinnamon and two tablespoons honey — a new addition that is purported to decrease inflammation.  Then I had my UltraInflam shake mixed with one banana and a handful of frozen berries before I met a friend to go walking for an hour.  After our walk, we each had a cup of green tea before I headed back home.

Lunch was two eggs over easy with a half cup of rice.  Right now I am on my second cup of black tea.  I’m still not feeling great, but hopefully a day or two of discipline will restore me back to the energetic self I wrote about yesterday.

All of life is like that, isn’t it.  We have good intentions, we walk down a straight path for a while, but then we slip off the path into the rough and it feels, well, … rough.

So, here’s to getting back on the horse, and back on the path.  Here’s to a fresh start, a new day, a clean slate.

Lamentations 3:22-23

Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed,

for his compassions never fail; they are new every morning.

Great is Your faithfulness.

Updates, anyone?

A couple of weeks ago, I spent seven days on the Ultra Simple Diet, ( http://drhyman.com/downloads/UltraSimpleCompanion.pdf).  Then last week I decided to embark on the Minimalist Challenge (http://www.theminimalists.com/game/).  After four months on a pretty predictable routine, these activities have been worthwhile digressions.

The Ultra Simple Diet was an experiment suggested by a new doctor I am seeing — she practices Integrative Medicine which means that she is open to traditional Western medicine, but also finds value in using supplements — vitamins, minerals, and herbs,  believes that nutrition can impact health, and generally just thinks that there are a variety of ways to approach physical issues. The first time I saw her, she listened to me talk for an hour and then suggested we start with the Ultra Simple Diet to eliminate all foods that have been known to cause inflammation. After two years of seeing doctors who believe that medication is the only route to deal with my symptoms of fatigue, pain, stiffness, etc., I was willing to give it a try.

Last week I reported that I had not been miraculously healed. After further evaluation, I believe that I am feeling better than I have in a while.  Specifically, I have more energy.  Yesterday I got up, did my devotion, wrote my blog, listed a dozen or more books for sale on Amazon, tidied the house, ran to Target, then to the library, and stopped to get a haircut.  After that I went to the Post Office, then the drug store, then to two thrift stores to donate items and look for a couple of things. I then came home, took the dog on a short walk, made dinner — baked fish, kale chips, fried potatoes, and fresh veggies — and took a break to eat dinner with my family.  Finally, I listed several items on eBay, did a little more tidying and then read for a while before I was ready to go to sleep.  Did you notice anything? No rest.  No nap.  No junk TV. Guys, I wasn’t tired. I was energized.

I have resumed some of my regular diet, but I am doing it cautiously.  For one thing, I am still drinking one cup of green tea every day.  It’s not horrible.  I have done a little bit of research on its benefits and I think they are enough to warrant drinking one cup a day. I have also more than quadrupled my intake of magnesium and added a pretty significant dose of Vitamin D.  Finally, I am still starting each morning with the UltraInflam shake — the doctor recommended that we keep some things the same while I experiment with adding foods back.  And, just for your information, I have NOT run right back to coffee.  So far, I have only had 1-2 cups of black tea each afternoon. And that’s all I want.

Interesting, isn’t it?

And guys, as far as the Minimalist Challenge goes,  it hasn’t been difficult to let go of one, or two, or three, or four, or five, or six things each day.  I haven’t even had to look outside my office yet.  (And, I still haven’t dusted!) It’s actually quite freeing to let things go.  I am actually looking forward to tomorrow and getting rid of seven things. As the clutter has cleared from my desk, I more clearly see what remains — pictures of my family, my Bible study materials, a candle, writing supplies.

Re-evaluating my diet and paring down my possessions–not typical December activities for me.  Historically, December has been about indulging and acquiring.  But, you know, neither has left me feeling content.  And, maybe, if I am being honest, it has typically made me feel a little overwhelmed.  And feeling overwhelmed, has typically just caused me to dig deeper into my soldiering.

This Next Chapter continues to be a journey of discovering what I’ve been missing, what I’ve been doing wrong, and what I could be doing to live a healthier life. I know I can’t live on rice and vegetables alone, and I will never give away both of my copies of Five Smooth Stones, but I can and will continue to make adjustments that take me further away from soldiering, and draw me closer to a life of being still.

Romans 12:2

Do not conform to the patterns of this world,

but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is —

His good, pleasing, and perfect will.

Take a deep breath

Yesterday I met a young man who needed some help on his Master’s thesis.  He’s studying minute differences in language structure between the group of languages that English falls into and the group of languages that Arabic and its various dialects fall into.  Before I could help him, he had to give me a tutorial on the linguistic principles that he has been studying. I will claim basic understanding — that is all.

We met at a Dunkin’ Donuts and sat side by side on stools with our laptops open discussing complementizers, noun phrases, and the grammaticality of each sentence.

We drew a couple of glances from other customers.  A middle aged white woman leaning in to look at the laptop of a young Saudi Arabian man, squinting and thinking, then typing and laughing, might not be the normal clientele for a Dunkin’ Donuts on the south side of Ypsilanti.

We were united in purpose for two and a half hours.  His adviser had made suggestions on his latest draft and he had to submit his changes by the end of last night.  He had done his work.  For each of the professor’s suggestions, he had already drafted his solution, but he wanted to check with a native speaker of English to be sure that what he meant was clearly conveyed through what he wrote.

The kid is brilliant.  He is employed by the Saudi Arabian government who, he said, gave him two choices, 1) go to the United States and get your master’s degree in linguistics and we will foot the bill, or 2) no longer be employed by us.

His choice was not as simple as it might seem.  His mother has diabetes and he is her only child.  He has been separated from her for three years. Each night we stays awake until 4:00am so that he can Skype with her.  He said it was a condition of his coming here.  He smiles and doesn’t seem to mind; he clearly loves his mother.

If he can just finish this thesis, get an acceptable score on the GRE, and get accepted into an American PhD program, he can go home next month to visit his mother. Wow.  That’s a lot to do in your native country, in your native language, in your native culture.

The stress he is under was palpable.  Several times during those two and half hours I said, “We’re fine, we’re fine.  We have plenty of time.  Take a deep breath.”  He follows directions well. We got through every last section, every last comment.  I left him at the Dunkin’ Donuts knowing that he would pour over that thesis from beginning to end for several more hours before he would be willing to submit it to his professor, before he would Skype with his mother and then take a much-needed rest.

He’ll rest for just a bit, though, because the GRE is on Thursday and he hasn’t really started to prepare.  And then there is the business of being accepted into a PhD program — no small task.

So much weight on him. So much weight on all of us — the graduate student, the young mother, the executive, the pastor, the teacher, the soldier. If we could just ___________________ then we would be able to ______________________.

“We’re fine, we’re fine.  We have plenty of time.  Take a deep breath.”  We’re not alone.  We have each other for encouragement, for coaching, for laughing.  And we are all sitting in the palm of His hand.

I Peter 5:7

Cast all your anxiety on him for he cares for you.

Love-child

Today is the day we celebrate the birth of our oldest son; he was born twenty-nine years ago. I don’t know anything about his birth, other than he was over nine pounds! I can’t tell his pregnancy or birth story, because I wasn’t there.

I call him “my love-child” because I got him when I fell in love.

I don’t know if it was bleached blonde hair or his raspy little voice, but this little man had me at ‘hello’.  He was full of energy when I met him; he was just two years old. He would bounce his whole torso against the seat of the car for an entire forty-five minute trip. He could run up and down a block repeatedly. Yet he was also such a tender little man. He liked to snuggle in close as I read him story after story.  And he tried to remain strong if I beat him in Memory or Candyland.

He stood at the front of the church when I walked down the aisle.  He winked at me as he held the satin pillow in his hands.  During the long, long service he counted all the candles on the altar.  That little four-year old stood patiently through an almost hour-long wedding.

Although he didn’t ever live with me, he visited often.  I treasured those visits — time for more stories, adventures at the park, and sitting together in church.  As he got older, he started beating me in Memory and Candyland and basketball and Battleship and everything else.  The little blond who had once sat on my lap and snuggled in close became an adolescent who towered over me, a gentle giant.

I walked him into his first day of kindergarten, then watched him graduate from fifth grade, from eighth grade, from high school, from college, and just this year, from his Master’s program. I got to watch his football games, band concerts, and basketball games.

My love-child became an excellent big brother to six younger siblings — three at our house, and three at his other parents’.  He read them stories and beat them in games and hugged them tight.  He shared his vacations crammed in the back of an eight-passenger van playing with children much younger than him. He drove miles and miles for them and for us. And they (and we) love him.

In less than a month, my love-child is going to be a daddy — an excellent daddy.  He’s going to love his little girl, bounce with her when she’s fussy, run with her when she has energy, read to her when she’s sleepy, and beat her (most of the time) in Memory and Candyland until she can legitimately beat him.  He’s going to walk her into her first day of kindergarten, go to all her events whether she dances or tumbles or dives or runs, and he’s going to love her like crazy.

I hope she’s a blond with a raspy voice, but she’s already got us, and she hasn’t even said ‘hello’.  My love-child’s love-child.

Psalm 127:3

Children are a heritage of the Lord, offspring a reward from him.

Why simplify?

So, I didn’t hear from 40, 30, or 20 of you who said you would join me on the “Minimalist Challenge”, but I am going for it anyway.   A few of you are joining me.  Some said they would start in January — not a bad idea.  I have looked ahead and faced the reality that I am going to have to give away 14 things and affirm 14 people on Christmas Day.  I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…

I was looking around the house yesterday thinking, oh, yeah, I’ve got plenty to get rid of!  But why?  Why don’t I want to hang on to stuff?  Why do I want less?

Is it a coincidence that I started ‘the purge’ on the last day of my ‘ultra simple diet’? Maybe, maybe not.  I was amazed, and a little irritated, by how little I could be satisfied on.  If everyone in my house followed the ‘ultra simple diet’ I would spend a lot of time cutting, sautéing, and steaming vegetables, but our grocery bill would be relatively low.  Rice, legumes, chicken, fish, vegetables. Period. Ok, I was allowed to use spices like sea salt, turmeric, garlic, and thyme.  But really, it was pretty simple.  I didn’t spend any time hunting for recipes or running out for that one specialty item.  I went shopping once and got everything I needed.  It was simple. I like simple.

When we moved to St. Louis is 2004, we got rid of more than half of our possessions.  We fit everything we owned and needed into one mid-sized U-Haul truck and our eight-passenger van (the kids and I were in there, too).  We lived on campus at the Seminary in an apartment that was less than 900 square feet.  We had a small storage space in the basement.  Our life was simplified by the lack of stuff, but also by the fact that we paid our rent every month and that was our only bill.  (We had paid off our vehicles before we went.) It was also simplified by the fact that a grounds crew took care of our lawn, maintenance workers did any repairs in our apartment, and coffee and groceries were within walking distance.  We had plenty of other things to worry about — new job, new church, new school, new life — having few possessions and an uncluttered life made way for some of that.  It was simple.

In 2008, after four years at the Seminary, we bought a large home and started acquiring stuff — two sofas, a bedroom suite, a few upholstered chairs,… For that season, while our kids were in middle and high school, it was nice to have the room to spread out.  It was nice to have three levels of house. But, with more house, and more stuff, came more responsibility — lawn care, utility bills, snow removal, house repairs, home maintenance.  It was satisfying to have a home to call our own, but it took a big chunk of our time every day to do the work of maintaining it.

So, when we moved back to Michigan this past summer, we did it again.  We got rid of more than half of our possessions in order to move into a home that is surely not much more than 900 square feet.  We have the luxury, again, of having very few bills.  We are spoiled by campus workers who mow our lawn, rake our leaves, empty our trash and recycling bins, and shovel our snow.  If something breaks in our home, I send an email to the director of properties and he sends a guy out to handle it.  In this simplicity, my husband and I are able to devote our time to the things we really care about, which sometimes includes a little home decorating or a little gardening.

So, if it’s so great, why get rid of more stuff? Why not? Why hang on to things that I don’t need, don’t use, don’t care about? They are sitting in piles on my desk, crammed into the drawers of my dresser, and crowding the rod in my closet.  These items aren’t providing me any security, utility, or value.  They are just cluttering my little house and my life.

Perhaps in letting some insignificant stuff go, I will be more aware of the things I truly value.  I’m up for that challenge.  Wonder what’s going today….

Matthew 12:34

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.