Missing the Magical, Longing for the Actual

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When I was a very little girl, Christmas was full and magical. It began with learning our parts for the Christmas Eve program at church. For weeks we would rehearse our lines, “and there were shepherds in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night,” and our songs, “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.”

Mrs. Hollenbeck would herd us into the sanctuary, organize us on the steps of the chancel, and direct us to speak more loudly, “so they could hear us in the back.”

Then, on Christmas Eve, donned in our Christmas best, hair combed and inspected by our mother, my brothers, sister, and I would pile into the car and head to the church.

The place would be crawling with people decked out in their finest — all the men in suits, the ladies with lipstick and stockings and heels. We children would be corralled in the basement, lined up, and given last minute instructions before processing up the stairs, into the sanctuary, and down the aisle to the front of the church. Our families beamed at us as we sang and told the Christmas story of stars and shepherds and sheep and a swaddled baby.

After every line had been said and “Silent Night” had been sung (with the last verse a cappella, of course) we would recess down the aisle to the back of the church where the ushers waited with brown lunch bags filled with roasted peanuts, a fresh Florida orange, and several pieces of candy.

Bundled up in our coats and hats and hugging our precious loot, we were transported home, where we were snuggled into our beds, said our prayers. and went to sleep in anticipation of more magic on Christmas morning.

When we woke, we would rush to the tree to find piles of presents, then before we knew it, we were dressed and loaded back into the car for the drive to my grandparents.

After an hour of watching the familiar landscape and ticking off all the familiar milestones, I would bolt from the back seat and run to the door where my grandpa was waiting with a huge smile and open arms. Right past him, in the kitchen, was my grandmother in a dress and heels, a Christmas apron tied around her waist. She was smiling, too, and ready for her hug, even if she had been up since before dawn making a Christmas feast and setting tables with linen, candles, china, and silver.

The food was the stuff of legends — roasted lamb, beef, ham, and/or turkey, homemade rolls, mashed potatoes with gravy, dressing, salads, and sides, all served family style and passed round the table from person to person. Just when you thought you couldn’t eat one more bite, grandma brought out pie and coffee, even though we’d been nibbling all day on sumptuous Christmas cookies that had been placed among the decorations throughout the house.

Full beyond full, we would roll into the living room and gather around the rotating tree that sat in a musical tree stand brought from Germany who knows when. More than 20 of us — the extended family and any additional guests that Grandpa had invited to join us for the day — received gifts selected individually and with care.

After all the packages were opened and all the paper tossed away, we children ran off to play in the basement, the men moved to the den to watch the football game, and the women assembled in the kitchen to pack up leftovers and tend to a mountain of dishes. Grandma would stand at the sink and wash, the rest stood close by, towels in hand, chatting as they wiped and carefully stacked each dish.

Then magically, just as the sun was starting to set and the kids were starting to bicker, the food would reappear again. Leftover potatoes were transformed into potato pancakes and drizzled with gravy. Meats would be warmed and salads set out, and we would eat — impossibly — again.

Then, full of food and joy and love, we would stand in line to each receive a signature grandpa handshake and loads and loads of hugs before we were piled once again into the car for the ride home. I remember pressing my cheek against the car window, gazing out at the stars, and feeling my dad reach his hand around the seat to pat me on the leg.

Of course, that was a million years ago, and certainly, not all of my Christmases since then have been so magical. Some have been disappointing like the time we excitedly drove from Missouri to Michigan for three family Christmases and then drove back, all five of us sick with the stomach flu. Others have been thick with the heartache of family brokenness — loved ones sitting in the same room unable or unwilling to speak to each other, leaving early or angry or both. In fact, even the Christmases at my grandparents’ house that I remember so fondly often ended with my dad carrying me to the car as I cried tears of fatigue and frustration.

This year, as our grown children are far-flung across the country and our parents are close enough to drive to but too dear to risk the chance of a Covid infection, we have made the choice to follow the CDC’s recommendation to not travel, to not visit, to stay at home, and stay safe.

We won’t have a Christmas Eve program at the church. We’ll stream a pre-recorded worship service on our television as we sit together on our couch. Sure, we might sing “Joy to the World,” but we won’t hear the voices of the family sitting behind us or stand in the sanctuary chatting and laughing afterward with our friends and their children who’ve all gathered for the annual celebration.

Our people will open the presents that have been delivered by the United States Postal Service in the safety of their own homes, not sitting near our tree. We’ll likely Zoom and chat for a while, but we won’t have hugs or secret handshakes or extra cups of coffee and pieces of pie. We won’t pile into the living room together to watch a movie, or hockey, or football. We won’t sit around a puzzle or pour over old pictures or play Scrabble or banana-grams or Uno.

Our little house by the river won’t be crowded by people piled on top of each other and taking turns with one little bathroom. We won’t share homemade cinnamon rolls or a roasted turkey (although you know I’m going to make one), and we won’t hear the laughter as our granddaughters run through our house in their flouncy nightgowns.

We won’t see our parents or our siblings or our nieces and nephews — we won’t get a classic photo on my mom’s couch or gather with my in-laws at a Bob Evans. I won’t hug my godmother and godfather; in fact, now that they are living in separate nursing homes, they won’t be able to hug one other either.

I know we’ve made the right choice, but as December 25th gets closer, I am feeling nostalgic and fighting melancholy. I so long to be with the people we love — to hear familiar voices, smell familiar smells — to share space and time with those we love the most, even if it’s not magical, or memorable, or perfect, or impressive.

But we can’t. Not this year.

So, I’m going to schedule some Zoom meetings, put a turkey in the oven, turn on some Christmas music, and start a new puzzle. It won’t be what I’m longing for, but it’ll have to do until it’s safe to travel the miles, to meet fact to face, to embrace one another, to share the couch and a meal and some laughs.

And once we do get to share physical space again, I think I am going to view it differently. I don’t think I’ll care if it’s magical; I think I’ll simply be grateful — so, so grateful — for our gathering to be actual.

May the Lord watch between us while we are apart from one another.

Genesis 31:49

Sumballo, a Re-visit

This post, written right after Christmas 2015, seems relevant today. As you gather all the pieces of your holiday celebration and ponder them in your heart, may God grant you the wisdom to see the big picture.

This morning, I opened my morning devotion from Beth Moore’s Whispers of Hope: 10 Weeks of Devotional Prayer and found this verse from Luke 2 — the Christmas story:

But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

Luke 2:19

When I’ve read this verse in the past, I’ve pictured Mary holding baby Jesus in her arms kind of shaking her head in disbelief; I’ve imagined her saying, “Well, you weren’t kidding, were you? You said I would conceive and bear and son, and here he is!” I’ve imagined pondered to mean “wondered in astonishment.” However, Beth Moore, a biblical scholar, corrects my image a bit; she says pondered is translated from the Greek word sumballo which means “taking many things, casting them together, and considering them as one”. These words make me picture tossing many snapshots onto a table, discovering connections between them, and finding the theme of the collection.

Among Mary’s photos I see — her pregnant body on a donkey on that long journey to Bethlehem, her downcast eyes in the moment when her parents discovered her ‘situation’, her peaceful resolve during tense conversations with Joseph, and her brow beaded with sweat during the labor and delivery amid the straw and dung. I see images of the first glance at her child, I hear the knock on the wall of the stable when the shepherds arrived, I smell the frankincense when she opens the gifts from foreign dignitaries.

When she pondered those moments “as one” what did they add up to for her?

I’m sitting here three days after Christmas in my little house by the river, and I, too, am taking a moment to ‘sumballo’. I’m looking back at the events of the last few weeks — the parties, the visits with family, the gift buying and giving, the hopes, the disappointments, the laughter, and the tears — and I’m casting them together as one.

In fact, this whole blog — every post on every day –has been an attempt to ‘sumballo’. Since I started writing in the summer of 2014, I have been looking back over sections of my life: I’ve been ‘casting them together’ and ‘considering them as one’.

Sometimes we are  tempted to look at isolated moments as defining moments — that time that you lied to a trusted a friend, the year that your parents were divorced, the semester that you failed a class, that car accident that nearly claimed your life, the winning football championship, the Homecoming coronation, the birth of a child. Certainly these moments shape us, but they do not define us — not in isolation. They only offer hints until we sumballo  — until we put these moments into perspective as parts of a whole.

If I am going to look at the fact that for the ten soldiering years of my life I was way too busy, and I often overlooked the emotional needs of my family, if I am going to acknowledge that this behavior was costly to my physical, spiritual, and emotional health and to the physical, spiritual, and emotional health of my family, I can’t view that time in isolation. If I am going to truly sumballo, I need to look at other seasons as well. I need to remember that I also stayed at home with my children for almost ten years — nurturing, hugging, reading, teaching, correcting, and guiding. I need to acknowledge that for the past five years I have been recovering from soldiering and learning a new way. Within each of these periods have been awesome moments  — young children singing happily in the car on a road trip, teenagers rolling on the floor with laughter, and young adults gathering for the holidays. However, each period has also had moments of devastation — betrayal, trauma, and disappointment. If we grasp onto any one moment and let it define us, we get a a distorted view. In order to see the clearest picture, we have to cast all of the moments together. We must consider them as one. Only then, can we discover a theme.

And what is that theme? Way back in my twenties when someone challenged me to write my testimony, I wrote that the theme of my life was “rescued by grace”. Even in those early years, I knew that God had been protecting me, walking with me, holding his cupped hands beneath me to carry me through. He was overlooking mistakes, forgiving wrongs, and allowing me second and third and fourth chances. When I was careless, he protected me. When I was selfish, He was benevolent. When I was hateful toward others, He poured love on me.

He rescued me with grace.

As I am approaching fifty, I look back at all the events of my life, and I ponder them all in my heart. Time and again I see my  failed attempts to do things on my own followed by God’s miraculous provision. I see God transforming my pain into compassion for others. I see my pride falling into humility. I see the love of God.

I wonder what Mary thought as she pondered ‘all these things’ in her heart.  She had to see God’s miraculous provision in a faithful husband, a place of shelter, and safety from Herod. She had to see God transforming her pain and embarrassment into compassion for others. She had to feel humbled in the presence of the Christ child. She had to see the love of God for herself and for all of humanity.

Despite our weaknesses, our poor choices, our sin — He loves us. He has seen every moment — every victory, every failure, every injury and every recovery. None of it has been a surprise to Him. He has gone before us, and He has held us in the palm of His hand. He has cast all the events of our lives together and saturated them with grace.

That is the message that I find when I sumballo.

Seeing The Gift

My Bible reading this morning was about Abraham and Isaac.  You know the one, they are walking together — father and son — with sticks and flame and knife toward Mount Moriah to make a sacrifice.  Isaac, though young, is pretty sharp.  “Hey, Dad, I noticed we don’t have an animal with us for the sacrifice.”  Abraham assures him that God will provide what is needed, knowing full-well that God has told him to sacrifice Isaac.

Can you imagine?  I don’t think we can.  Here we sit in the United States of America — the land of the free, the home of the brave, the place where parents give their children everything. Everything. I am not exempt from this.  I remember my mother telling me when I was younger, “If I had the money, I would buy you everything.”  And I knew she would.  Still one of her greatest joys is giving to her children and her grandchildren. Like mother, like daughter.  I love to give my children what they need and what they want.  I sometimes go overboard.  I sometimes lose track of what they need and what they want, and buy them things that I think they need or want, and even things that no one needs or wants.

So, can I imagine depriving them of something? Or, gasp, agreeing to sacrifice them? No.  Not at all.

But Abraham had heard from God, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and…offer him there as a burnt offering…”

Abraham “rose up early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac.”

Say what? 

Abraham had waited for this kid.  He and Sarah had Isaac in their old age.  They had longed for him.  Prayed for him.  And, finally, they had welcomed him.  And now Abraham was supposed to lay him on an altar, put a knife into him, and then burn him? 

Hebrews 11 says ” By faith, Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he … was in the act of offering up his only son…” when God said “Do not lay your hand on the boy…now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Genesis 22).

He didn’t make him go through with it! He Himself provided a ram for Abraham,… and a Lamb for us.

If we picture ourselves placing our own children on an altar and raising the knife, we can see our eyes squeezed shut, the sweat beads forming on our brow, the sheer anguish, praying that God will provide.  What relief Abraham must have felt!  God had provided.  His only son didn’t have to become a sacrifice.

But His Only Son did.

And how do we celebrate this?  How do we mark the relief, the thankfulness that we feel when we realize that we have been rescued?

It’s hard to do this with integrity in a culture that hauls out Santa in October, pipes holiday muzak from every speaker, and pressures us to have the perfect gift for everyone on our list.  We are so bombarded by a consumer culture that we can’t even fathom giving up having a Christmas tree, let alone giving up a child.

That is, after all,  what Christmas celebrates.  The Child.  The Sacrifice.  The Gift.

I forget about that.  I am so consumed with finding the perfect gift for my kids, my spouse, my parents, that I forget about The Perfect Gift.  I online shop and run from store to store in order to find that special item, and I overlook The Special Item. Sure, I squeeze in Advent worship and Christmas Eve worship.  I sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “Joy to the World” but if I am going to be honest (and you know I am) I put my focus on the gifts instead of The Gift. 

But things are shifting over here in the little house by the river.  As I continue on the Minimalist Challenge, and trim out the unnecessary, I am finding it easier to see the things that really matter.  I am unwilling to forfeit my Bible, my journals, my laptop, or my family photos.  I am willing instead to get rid of old puzzles, dusty books, unworn clothing, an extra crockpot, an electric roaster, and a yoga mat that I never use anyway.  I am hoping that as I send more clutter out the door, I will be less distracted and more able to see all the blessings that The Gift has provided for me — not the things that I can pick up on clearance at Target, but the priceless gifts of family, health, love, faith, friendship…

I am learning a lot in this next chapter, guys.  I’ll add learning to my list of priceless gifts.

Titus 2:11-12

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.

 It teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions,

and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age.

Don’t wait for Christmas, a Revisit

Back in December 2014 when I first wrote this post, I was just starting to recognize how hard the holidays can be — how isolating, how anxiety-producing, how uncomfortable. I’ve always loved Christmas, but I’ve had a taste of how celebration can feel during a season of grief. I’ve begun to understand how difficult it can be to be with family and friends — even when you love them. And I’ve been learning a new way.

We spend a lot of time and money getting ready for the holidays. 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, drinking, 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, were recovering from surgery, or 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 would 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, 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. 

Moving forward, I’m going to spend less time and money getting ready for the holidays. I’m going to try to shift my focus 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 if we get glimpses of celebration, we will seize them — we won’t wait for Christmas.

And, if they happen to come at Christmas, well then, we’ll be all the merrier.

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

Matthew 5:4

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.

God loves me dearly, a re-visit

I’m re-visiting this post from November 2015 because ’tis the season of nostalgia. I have such fond memories of my childhood Christmases and many of the center around music. This Christmas hymn sank deep into my fibers way, way back, and its truth is an anchor for me today.

I can still hear us sing-shouting the words:

God loves me dearly, grants me salvation

God loves me dearly, loves even me…

I was standing in the front of the church dressed in my Christmas finest — floor-length dress with plaid skirt and white ‘blouse’ top, black patent-leather shoes, white tights, and a bow in my hair. The place was packed. We had practiced and memorized each word to each song and all the words of the Christmas story…”And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field…” Our grandparents had driven an hour to see the event.  

This. Night. Was. Special.  The most important night of the year.

He sent forth Jesus, my dear Redeemer

He sent forth Jesus, and set me free…

Mrs. Hollenbeck had stood in front of us week after week making sure that we knew each word, enunciated clearly, and sang as loudly as we could. She smiled when we sang and always said, “Good job!” One by one we stood in front of the microphone and shared our lines as loudly and clearly as we could…

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David…” The most important night ever.

Now I will praise you, O love Eternal

Now I will praise you, all my life long…

When every song had been sung and every line had been said, we processed down the middle aisle to the back of the church where the elders stood smiling at us, holding brown paper lunch bags that were filled with peanuts in the shell, one big orange, one beautiful apple, a candy cane, and a few other Christmas candies. This bag was pure gold. The narthex (usually called a fellowship hall now) was crammed with families and coats and hugs and smiles. We bundled up and were transported from bliss to bliss…from church to Christmas Eve merriment at home.

The best night of the year.

Therefore I’ll say again, God loves me dearly,

God loves me dearly, loves even me.

Yesterday we were visiting my in-laws and worshipping with them at their little country church in the middle of Michigan’s Thumb. We sang this song, even though it’s not Christmas Eve, and as we sang it, I was transported back in time to the front of Zion Lutheran Church in the early 1970s. I was standing with all my siblings and all the other children of the church, saying lines and singing songs that would sink down into the fabric of my soul and would begin to define who I am.

I was reminded yesterday of that — of who I am. I am more than wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, writer, teacher…I am a child of God.

And God loves me dearly, loves even me.

For God so loved the world [and me and you], that He gave His only Son…”

John 3:16