Sunday, November 27, 2011

how christmas sometimes begins

the first week of december comes quick.  hardly a moment's pause from the table of thanks to the rush of twelfth month.  and few are immune.  everyone seems in motion, stepping swiftly into a season, busy and bright.   i tell myself to run fast now so that i might sit still soon,  so that later, i might linger a little.   i am right there with the masses, the throngs, the hordes pressing forward.  i am right there with the early december scurriers.

this past weekend, when the turkey was gobbled gone and our extended family drove away, we worked like a people possessed.  all of  us, decorating trees, checking lights, unwinding ribbon.  from one end of the house to the other we traveled, leaving a trail of christmas behind.  it was complete chaos--inside and out.  garland and greenery flying. music loud, children louder.  at one point, saturday night, i stopped for a minute in the midst of it.  pausing with ornament in hand, i watched my raucous family at work.  it is only on occasion that we work this well-oiled, this smoothly.  and i am certain it is important to notice the finely tuned moments of living--mentally record them. store them up for the rainy, bickering, biting kind of days which come.   i sat for a few minutes and let the family-ness of the evening wash over me.  the mother in me drinking up the noise and flurry of everyone together, the cacophony of us.  even this, yes, even this wildness, was beautiful.  though i longed for the finished product, it wasn't necessary to see the beauty of what we were creating.  memories.  boxes and crates crashing, opening and spilling all around.  children running off with holiday things -- foregoing all instruction. ignoring all words of caution. of course there was some bickering--how could there not be?  but still, oldest son outside stringing lights in the winter dark, oldest girl placing candles in windows, the middle ones wrapping themselves in strands of lights and laughter.  and baby girl just dancing wildly, an ornament in each hand, happy in the midst of merry.  joy in the middle of love.

somehow we finished.  not completely, but we had made good progress and 815 buttercup trace was beginning to look a little like christmas.   it was late when we closed the last box and i shooed them all up the stairs to their beds. with the family finally tucked in, i did what i do every december evening when the tree comes in and the quiet comes close.  i sat in the stillness and marveled at the beginnings of beauty. the tree and me in a silent room on a, finally, silent night.  all the evening's roof-raising gone.  the twirling, laughing, merry-making children now with heads on pillows and dreams close behind.  it is a soft place to be.  a grace-filled place to live. i burrow into my quiet knowing full well the treasure comes tender only because of the rowdy dance of our day.  i savor the pause, for tomorrow we wake and the loud living continues.  as it should.  and with full heart and tired eyes,  i switch off lights.  reluctant.

not long after sleep has come,  i hear my son's voice whispering in my ear,  "mom, wake up.  the tree fell over."  he shakes me serious.  it takes me a minute, "tree?" i ask.  "why?"  brilliant question.  and it finally sinks in, our christmas tree has fallen over, and i am into my slippers and down the stairs with my son on my heels.  sure enough, all 11 feet of it, now sprawling across the family room floor. ornaments and glass and water everywhere.  we both just sort of stand and stare for a minute--i am not thinking all that clearly, but i am sure this is not the same serene place i left just an hour or so earlier.  the beauty and the quiet and the calm have fled.  and for some reason my first thought is,  will the twinkling white lights still work.  

after assessing damage and mopping up water, i go to wake my husband.  he, too, stares in disbelief.  this was not at all how christmas was supposed to begin.  between the three of us, the tree is returned to its intended state. upright and tall, albeit, slightly disheveled.  a hammer, fishing line and nails are brought from the garage.  plan b.  husband and son are all business.  we clean up the shattered pieces and rehang wayward ornaments.  it is different this time though.   1:30 am and there isn't any wild merry-making to be found,  only tired parents and a tired teen doing their best to restore order. sometimes it is like this though, isn't it?  sometimes our most glorious moments come crashing down around us.  our beauty shatters and we are left with a mess.  we are left with sharp pieces and an untimely, unwanted clean up.  sometimes our quiet is stolen with a boom and some brokenness.  we are frustrated by the things which go awry, by the plans which change course on us unannounced. i'll be honest, i don't like anyone messing with my picture perfect.  not anyone, especially not a tree.

the next morning we share our story with the rest of the family.  everyone is kind of dumbfounded.  really?  our tree?  this tree was flat on its face last night?  the children look a bit disappointed to have missed all the action.  this is something to tell.  this will be a story come monday morning.  we've never lost a christmas tree before.  and throughout the day we continue to straighten and tinker with the massive evergreen.  i fiddle with ornaments and ribbon-- [the white lights DO still work].  rick checks on his fishing line and hook contraption.  he talks to the tree, making sure it knows he's not messing around this time.  we are all a little wary of the whole thing. we step around it carefully, and quietly hope all, finally, is well.  we are waiting for it all to feel, once again, secure and serene.   there is a lot of hope around this christmas tree today.  probably some prayers whispered. we look and we watch and we wait.

with dinner dishes washed and bedtime approaching, the family gathers again to sit beside this beast of a tree.  and despite the escapades of our rebellious spruce,  the decorating is done, and tonight begins the real waiting.  tonight begins the season of hope and expectation.  i know children, and even some adults, all over america, (and in my own home) are eagerly waiting and hoping for december 25th. children count the days until christmas...adults count the hours left to accomplish long lists.  but tonight is the first sunday of advent and there is the first candle on our wreath to light and there is talk of another kind of waiting.  the violet candle of promise and hope burns bright, reminding us of a Savior who is coming--who has come and who will come again.  the tree is upright and still.  the room washed in the glow of white lights and violet candle.  boisterous family as calm as can be.  and we pray, "Lord,  let us soak in this season.  let us look past the tree and its presents and the busy-ness of this month.  Lord, help us to look for you -- the long awaited Jesus."

the tree.  the gifts.  the merry and bright.  all of it wonderful. all of it to be enjoyed.  but all of it, sure to disappoint.  all of it, sure to come crashing down or caving in at some point.  the purple-violet candle burns and the waiting for Jesus begins.  and in His coming alone, perfect order,  perfect grace. perfect.  beautiful and serene and truly restored. 

"O God, by whose word all things are sanctified, pour forth Thy blessing 
upon this wreath, and grant that we who use it may prepare our hearts
 for the coming of Christ and may receive from
 Thee abundant graces. Who livest and reignest forever. Amen.”
~ traditional prayer for 1st sunday of advent

Saturday, November 26, 2011

simply preparing

i began a new thanksgiving tradition this year.  i realize some of you might think that at age 43, i am not allowed to do this.  that i can't do this.  but i can.  and i did.  it is true my children are no longer babies.  in fact, one of them will be out of the house in just a matter of years.  all of them growing up fast and furious.  they already have memories of past holidays imprinted in their minds and etched across their hearts. we already have our traditions set. formed. but it is never too late to begin something new.  it is never too late to create a tradition.  i used to think that might be the case.  i used to think if i didn't start something when the children were still small and toddling, then it wouldn't count -- like i had missed the boat or ignored the opportunity. i used to believe that if i didn't start something at the very, very beginning then it would just be one of those last ditch efforts of desperate parents --- a final attempt to pour deeply into children who are halfway out the door.   

but this is wrong thinking -- it is never too late.  the time to begin a tradition is now.   perhaps the fact that i faced cancer this year has something to do with my shift in perspective.  when stopped in your tracks, you tend to look hard at life and the living and the loving.  and it is just natural that a new appreciation for ticking time will follow.  it is only natural to consider what else can i do...what else can we add...what else can be done.  life is short.  we get one chance.  one pass.  we aren't walking this same road again.  not ever.  i think when we are healthy and comfortable and everything is normal we forget.  we just do.

so this year, i did something i've always wanted to do.  something simple and small, but something i plan to make a part of our thanksgivings from here on out.   i gave everyone at my dinner table a christmas ornament.  i wrote in my last post that thanksgiving is the perfect precursor to christmas.  i've always felt it to be kind of a wonderful kickoff to this most beautiful season.  some people look at the month from thanksgiving to christmas as a time to gain weight.  i believe it is a time gain joy.  a time to fill up on beauty.  a time to drink in God's grace.  the ornament was nothing special -- brown. round. a run of the mill ball.  i attached (modge-podged, to be exact) the verse that has been rumbling around in my thoughts this past week.  i mentioned it in another november post.  "if you prepare your heart, you will stretch out your hands toward Him."  ~  job 11:13.  prepare.  have i overwritten this topic?  perhaps.  but just in case you missed it in the other november posts: are you prepared?  i don't mean do you have enough strands of lights or sufficient ribbon and scotch tape.  i'm not asking if you have hung your evergreen wreath or ordered your christmas cards.  i am not worried about which day in december you choose to trim your tree or hang your stockings with care...but, is your heart prepared?  what are you doing to ready your heart for the birth of a king?  the birth of The King?  i'm just asking.

i'm asking because i have spent plenty of christmas seasons wrapped up in the tinsel and trimmings of december.  i have wasted an incredible amount of time worrying about the shopping and the sprucing and the swagging and the cooking and the mailing and the hanging and the arranging and the lighting. i am not a woman who drags home a tree and calls it christmas.  i adore detail. that won't surprise most of you.  and there is nothing wrong with this...absolutely nothing wrong with making our homes special for the holidays.  BUT. BUT. BUT.  i have no doubt, it is wrong if we lose sight of what really matters...of what we are truly celebrating.

a few years back, i had an especially unprepared season.  we had just bought this house and i was swimming -- no, honestly, i was drowning -- in getting everything pulled together.  we had moved in at the end of october and we were up to our eyebrows in house projects.  and then came christmas.  it was a new house.  a bigger house.  and of course for me this translated into more to do.  more to decorate.  it also turned me into a nut --  and a not an especially fun nut at that.  i was wild.  crazy with the need to make it all happen.  to make it all magical.  we had also decided to host a big christmas gathering in our home that year (please don't ask what was wrong with us...we just did).  so you can imagine.  i made a million lists and spent too much money and was completely missing the true meaning.  i mean i kind of pretended i was doing the right things...thinking the right thoughts...but i wasn't.  i know i wasn't.  i was a hustling, bustling holiday disaster... a big old christmas time mess.  

after about four weeks of arduous labor, christmas eve arrived and off we went to our church for the traditional candlelight service.  the finish line was in sight and i was exhausted.  i sat there kind of glazed over as our pastor spoke, but nothing penetrated.  had i closed my eyes i am sure i would have started to snore.  the message ended and the the lights dimmed.  one by one,  over a thousand candles were lit.   and in this beautiful glow we began to sing silent night. 
silent night, holy night. all is calm, all is bright.  
and it was like someone had pulled the plug of my emotion.  the tears began to trickle down my cheeks.  i was so overwhelmed in the true beauty of it all for a minute, i was worried i might start sobbing and hiccuping and doing what i call my "ugly cry."  i did finally pull myself together, but not before i felt the wave -- tidal wave -- of shame slam over me.  i thought about all the hurrying and the hustling and the snapping and the fretting i had been doing for the past month or so.  i was ashamed.  but as the song continued, i was reminded of God's grace.  if nothing else, the birth of Christ reminds us of God's incredible, incredible grace.  and i knew it was not too late.  i had messed up the past month, but it was christmas eve and we were singing silent night and it seemed for those few minutes almost holy.   

i learned my lesson that year.  and in the years since, i've been much better behaved. but i still need to be reminded come that first week of christmas. these brown ornaments at the place settings of my family aren't the answer.  but maybe they will serve as another reminder.  just a simple reminder to remember we are celebrating the birth of our king. it won't be perfect. but i want to be prepared.  i want to be seeking not hustle and hurry, but holy.  to desire not a perfect home, but a prepared heart. 

this morning, in church, our pastor quoted the following: 

"the act of offering thank offerings to God ---even for the bread 
and cup of cost, for cancer and crucifixion--this prepares the 
way for God to show us His fullest salvation from bitter, angry, 
resentful lives and from all sin that estranges us from Him.
        .... thanksgiving--giving thanks in everything--is what prepares 
the way for salvation's whole restoration."  ~ ann voskamp  one thousand gifts

thanksgiving has come and gone, but as we move into the christmas season, i hope you hold it tight in your heart. it is no accident we give thanks before we are given gifts.  fill up on joy.  celebrate gratitude.  give thanks.  gain joy. and as you prepare your home, my prayer is,  you'll prepare your heart for the birth of a king. The King.  and see all that is holy.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

seeds of blessing in broken soil

thanksgiving comes at us hard sometimes.  most of us have lived lives from january to november with some kind of trial, some kind of pain, some kind of something other than sweet and easy. and we arrive in this 11th month knowing it is time to pull out our cornucopias of praise and gratitude, but it is possible, some years, our hearts just might feel more thank-empty, than thank-full.  of course there is blessing and bounty all around -- we know this.  and yet, undoubtedly, we have walked in recent sharp places. perhaps some of us this year have wrapped our arms around disappointment or disease or maybe even disaster. 
we can count the blessings of goodness:  the crunch of green apples.  the smell of spring rain. the feel of sand in our toes. the sound of laughter in our kitchens. an unexpected hug from our teen.  the clean of a bath.  the touch of a child.  the love of our spouse.  a soft hand on our shoulder.  a fire in the hearth. the snuggle of family.  fat pumpkins and golden trees and blue skies and sweet words... all beauty.  all goodness.

but can we count the blessings of hard?  the stack of dishes in sink. the whine of small toddler.  the flood at our feet.  the wayward walk of a brother.  the rejection of spouse. the dwindling bank account.  the pain of depression.  the loss of a job. the cancer. the failure. the disappointment. the struggle. the tears. the incredible crush of life... is it really all goodness? 
how might job have handled thanksgiving?  his table empty, his skin scarred, his life spinning out of control.  would he be able to speak the blessings of november after the months of mayhem and the days of pain?  even job’s oh-so encouraging wife tells him to “curse God and die!”  his friends and neighbors would surely have understood, but instead job responds, “shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (job 2:10).   really? i read this, and honestly,  i am baffled. how does he even find the breath to give shape to these words?  i know the wallowing pit i would have crawled into, had i been job.  but job holds true to the thanksgiving in his heart, despite the disaster in his house.  he knows God’s goodness. “i will come forth as gold” he declares. (job 23:10). how did this man who had lost everything...this man weeping and wailing...this man sitting alone and bereft in sack cloth and ashes... declare gold? 

in the past year, we have walked a bit on this kind of road. i am not sure i could even imagine a year with such high highs and such low lows.  a year ago last summer, we brought our bella home.  we were completely expecting a challenging transition and immediate medical care.  we knew her heart condition was complicated and we fully anticipated additional surgery.  but instead, 16 months ago,  we met a healthy and incredibly joyful little girl in guangzhou city china.  this little girl who had been abandoned as a baby because of her heart defects and who had been left to live 2 years in an orphanage of 3000 children...this little girl who at 18 months of age spent 4 weeks alone in a hospital recovering from life saving surgery....this little girl melted right into the hearts of our family.    we celebrated wildly in the beauty and blessing of it all.  it seemed too good to be true.  a fairytale blessing hand delivered from our gracious God.  and from our mountaintop, oh how we praised Him for His goodness.

but nine months later i was diagnosed with breast cancer.   it almost seemed too big a swing. how could this be?  within one year we experienced the breath-taking joy of adoption and the breath-stealing blaze of cancer. great good and great grief all tumbled together in a mere year.  we accepted the blessing, could we accept the hard?  that was the question which rolled around inside my head in the days of dealing with my diagnosis. 

but in this place of wondering-wandering, God began to show me how closely trouble and blessing are linked.  He used this time in my life, in my family, in our fear, to lead me to the understanding of how they go hand in hand.  for a while we felt everything in our world was turning upside down.  we felt the sharp dig of blade as He began to break up the hard ground of our comfort--and we didn’t like it. not one bit.  the crumbling hurt.  but, little by little, we began to see, though God was digging deeply into each of us, He was all the while planting seeds of beauty in the turned soil of our pain.  

many came around us.  many brought meals and encouragement and prayers.  some came to cry with us or to just be quiet with us. to love us.  blessing was growing right before our eyes.   tender.  fragile.  but clearly taking root.  life certainly isn't always gentle, but we know with certainty, God is always good and His gifts are good.  this november my family has much for which to be thankful.  it has only been a few months since that april day when we were given the earth-breaking words of breast cancer, but already there is abundant blessing and great harvest in our lives.  the true beauty of thanksgiving is in seeing both.  when we are able to acknowledge the hard stuff and yet watch God working and wonderful through it all.   He brings both for His glory.  good and hard mixing together.  and how much more rich the bounty when first our dirty hands are full of broken ground.  seeds of beauty planted in the broken soil of our lives -- evidence of God digging deep, assurance of God loving us deeply.  thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

poinsettias and pumpkins ~ preparing our hearts

i think i spotted the first christmas ornament in august.  i'm sure it was at least pretty close to labor day when i walked into the craft store for some ribbon and came face to face with garland and miniature trees.  nose to nose with candy cane ornaments and a reindeer display.  it wasn't a particularly hot day, but i began to sweat. profusely.  oh, here we go, i thought to myself.  we weren't hardly out of summer's heat... nowhere near halloween or thanksgiving and yet the shelves were piled high with christmas supplies.  every crafty item imaginable was at my sweaty fingertips.  if i started immediately and worked around the clock, i could have a bona fide, 100% homemade, old fashioned christmas by december 25th.  even fake snow was available.

i couldn't believe all the people pushing carts already loaded with things red and green.  women stood, carefully scrutinizing every sparkly bauble.  they had that glint in their eye.  i could see the wheels turning as they mentally decorated their homes and created christmas crafts in their heads.  i have to tell you, i turned on my heel and ran.  away.  in the opposite direction.  far to the other side of the store i ran looking for my brown - yes, brown - ribbon.  i was not going one step closer to that premature christmas commercialism.  they could be giving the stuff away  - i assure you, they weren't - and i wouldn't have touched it.  i was a woman still waiting to put on her first cool weather cardigan.  a woman still longing for the leaves to turn gold and red and orange.  i wanted pumpkins and gourds and hot apple cider.  for heaven's sake, it was 85 degrees outside,  how could there be fake snow on the shelves?  i'll be honest, it seemed silly.

for weeks after, i would enter this store and purposefully not look, deliberately averting my eyes. (that sounds so dramatic, doesn't it?)  i was in rebellion, refusing to entertain christmas thoughts so soon.  i don't even like to shop ahead.  i know i should.  i know it would be so much more economical of me to budget our christmas gift gathering throughout the year, especially for a family our size.  but something in me says, no!  maybe that is just my cop out for not being organized enough to do so.  probably.

we are well into november now -- this week thanksgiving.  in my neighborhood, i have watched evergreen wreaths hit front doors and strands of lights wrap around bushes.  i am still in rebellion.  my pumpkins and cornstalks and fall colored wreath will adorn my front door until the thanksgiving turkey has been carved, consumed and properly digested.  i have to tell you though, even my seasonally rebellious self has been a little bit distracted in these past few days.  i am doing everything i can to focus on thursday--on giving thanks--but my mind is doing its best to wander ahead into december.   on december 1st we are hosting a christmas dinner.  this means all the christmas cheer needs to be lined up and in place by day one.  i suppose it truly doesn't have to be all ready and all done.  but seriously, would you throw a christmas party and then decorate afterwards?  no, of course not.  so you know i will be in a decorating frenzy the very moment the turkey platter returns to its shelf.

i woke the other night with christmas preparations and plans running through my head.  3 am and i was wrapped up in how to arrange 25 people for a sit down dinner in my home.  i was thinking centerpieces and place settings.  i was thinking garland and greenery.  3 am and, succumbing to the creative turbulence within,  i finally got of bed and went in search of paper and pen.  i hoped perhaps i'd feel better if i could just write down my thoughts - my anxious, irritating, middle of the night thoughts.  well, the truth is, i didn't feel better. in fact, i got myself more and more worked up with every word i wrote.

the next morning, i came across a verse in job.  "if you prepare your heart, you will stretch out your hands toward him."  job 11:13.  even with my lack of sleep, i felt the message was clear:  prepare my heart. stop worrying about all my lists. stop fretting over the fluff.  this upcoming season isn't about preparing my home, it is about preparing my heart.  and i was more certain than ever, thanksgiving was an important part of that preparation.  

now, i won't for one minute deny that i love decorating.  and i especially love decorating for christmas.  each year, the weekend after thanksgiving comes, and all seven of us are chomping at the bit to go hunt down a tree and begin decking the halls.   i pretend mightily to let the kids do everything -- and then i go back and fiddle and fix.  i won't deny it, i am one of those.  i mean i really do treasure every christmas craft and hand painted ornament the children have brought home over the years...but with five kids and all these years, i cannot possibly display every last one of them. our house would look like some kind of santa's workshop or holiday garage sale if i faithfully brought out each pipe cleaner candy cane and every popsicle stick star.  so we are selective. discerning.

but i am getting too far ahead.  we aren't yet to thursday.  the turkey is still thawing in the fridge and yet i sit here tonight writing about christmas.  geesh!  i feel it strong this year. i don't know if it is because of that december 1st christmas gathering or if it is because every year the rush toward the season seems more intense.  i ran into the grocery store today for a few last minute items and i was struck with the poinsettias and mums...side by side.  it was all too confusing for me.  pretty soon, someone will think of orange colored poinsettias or pumpkin scented christmas trees. the two holidays just seem to be blending.  i think if you asked my kids they would almost skip right over turkey day and begin stringing lights. but not me. i want to savor this week.  i want to bask in these next few days.  i want to linger a little in the grateful places.  i want to hold the hands of my children at the table and speak words of gratitude.  i want to give thanks.

if you ask me, (i'll just go ahead and pretend you did), it is no accident that thanksgiving comes as the precursor to christmas.  i think it is absolutely perfect that we sit down at a full table with family and friends and take note of all we have prior to making our lists of all we want.  in our thanks giving, we begin to prepare our hearts.  our homes...well, those will come too...but first comes the heart. give thanks and prepare.
christmas is coming. 
thanksgiving is here.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

forgotten chicken and found thankfulness

it was sunday afternoon and my list was long.  it always is when i head to the grocery store, but today was exceptional.  i would be cooking thanksgiving dinner this year -- i do most every year.  i like it.  years ago,  i decided to confront my fear of The Turkey and face it head on.  bird and broad going head to head.  well...umm...head to, head,  i guess. i was determined to cook and to conquer.  my parents came down from ohio and my dad's cousin and uncle came for dinner.  my kids were little. my expectations were high.  i made scrupulous notes. i was as organized as i had ever been.  it was a big deal.  it felt huge. i had just turned 30 and i wasn't sure i was ready.  but long story short, the meal turned out well.  the potatoes were sweet, the turkey had cooked and the rolls didn't burn.  my children didn't eat the stuffing or the sweet potato casserole, but i cooked them both.  in fact, i used my grandmother's herb stuffing recipe.  it felt like the right thing to do.  i still use it--every year.  my grandmother's stuffing and rick's family's strawberry-pretzel jello salad, these would become our thanksgiving meal traditions.

my little ones weren't one bit aware of all the fuss 13 years ago, but today they sure are.  making my list this afternoon, the older kids passed through the kitchen where i sat writing down items.  "oh mom, are you going to make those mashed potatoes?  are we going to have corn?  i can't wait to eat the turkey.  i love thanksgiving food!"  my oldest son even went, unprompted, to the thankful tree and wrote out, "thanksgiving food" as his blessing of the day.  as i sat scratching  down ingredients and items, celery and onion and chicken broth, the children's comments flew excitedly around me.   i didn't look up.  i wrote and i smiled.  cranberries, bread crumbs, marshmallows and olives.  and the kids continued naming the good things they remembered from meals in the past.  the middle girl asked if we could begin cooking today.  sunday.  "well...not quite yet," i said, but i reminded her the turkey was already thawing in the outside refrigerator. "that's sort of like cooking.  at least it is preparing," i said.  no, there were other things to be done first.  there is a certain order of events when planning for a holiday and its grand meal.

so off to the store i went,  long, long list in hand and a little joy in heart.  once in the market though, it didn't take very long for the joy to begin its quick crumble.  the aisles were crowded and the lines long.  i came across a few grouchy people. one woman even barked at me to move.  i was, apparently, blocking the potatoes.  i wanted to tell her to lighten up.  i wanted to tell her to be thankful.  i wanted to tell her i was making my grandmother's stuffing recipe for dinner in a few days.  i don't make it but once a year and i had to think about what i needed.  it was special.  i wanted to ask her if she'd ever had a grandmother with special recipes.  i am pretty sure i would have ended up as mashed potatoes myself had i failed to control my tongue.

i (silently) grabbed my bag of potatoes and moved my cart.  but inside i kind of seethed.  what's wrong with people?  everyone was hustling and bustling about like they would just die if the last can of cranberry sauce was gone.  i began to feel slightly anxious myself.  was there enough time this week to get everything done?  i had rick's family coming.  they are easy, but i wanted everything to be nice. though i held the grocery list in my hand, i began to form another mental list of things needing to be done back at home:  change sheets, clean bathrooms, bake pies (scratch pies)... it is so easy to get caught up in the preparations and miss the point.  so easy to look at the lists and forget the living.  in the back of my mind i was  adding to the equation the fact that my kids would be home this week.   i love them, but five kids in the kitchen make preparing for anything a little on the crazy side.

i headed to the check out, eager to finally leave this grocery-circus.  the man cheerfully bagging my groceries started to talk with me as he carefully placed every item into my bags. item by item by item.  it seemed he was taking forever.  he would ask me a question and pause, soup can in hand.  i had signed my credit card and was ready to leave, but he continued to bag, all the while talking to me.  it took everything in me to keep my eager foot from impatiently tapping.  finally he finished.  the last vegetable was bagged. the man kindly asked if he could help me out to my car.  i quickly told him, i was fine and not to worry.  i didn't mind loading them myself. "i'm good," i said, as i took the receipt and turned toward the doors.  i was thinking of time.  i was thinking of speed.  all of a sudden i felt like the clock had begun ticking and i had things to get home to.  i wanted no small talk with this nice man.  no chit chat.  no leisurely stroll to my  yukon.  i wanted expedience.  i grabbed my cart and barreled out the door, my sunday heels clicking,  well prepared to run over small children and elderly men with my enormous cart.  i had things to do.  suddenly, i felt just like that mean barking woman on the potato aisle.

but of course you know this isn't the end of my story.   just as i was backing out of my parking space, i could see the man who had been bagging my groceries come running out of the store with a bag in his hand. he was looking everywhere--left and right his head turned,  like he was searching.  immediately, i knew it was me he was looking for.  i rolled down my window and he came running to my car. not quite running though, for he hobbled.  he was older and he came with a limp.  
"miss, (i love that he called me miss and not mam) you forgot your chicken.  i was so worried you had left." he said in his thick accent. 
"oh, yes, thank you," i replied.  "that is mine."   
"i thought it might be for your dinner tonight, so i wanted to make sure i found you."  he was so genuinely concerned, it caught me off guard. 
"yes, it is for tonight.  thank you so much."  and he handed me the package, starting to walk away.  
but just as i was ready to drive off, he turned back.  "miss, i also want to wish you a happy, happy thanksgiving." 
he patted my door and i drove off.
i wasn't to the end of the parking lot before i burst into tears.  i mean, i just lost it.  all the hurry and hustle i felt inside that store, just fell away from my hunched up shoulders.  what was i thinking?  this week...this holiday has nothing to do with meal preparation. it has nothing to do with the turkey thawing or the potatoes to be peeled or the pumpkin pie to be baked.  and yet, i had managed to allow myself to get caught up in it all --all the plans and preparations. caught up in the frenzied feelings of my list making and grocery shopping holiday hurry.

i considered parking my suv and walking back into that chaotic store.  i considered finding that old man with the limp and the accent and all the time in the world and giving him a hug-- inviting him to dinner.  i almost did.  i still might.  i am home now.  the groceries put away.  the chicken cooking on the stovetop and i am so glad i met the mean lady near the potatoes...and i am so glad i forgot my chicken at the checkout.  i am so thankful this sweet man hunted me down in the parking lot and wished me a happy thanksgiving.  of course i want everything nice for this week.  of course i want everything wonderful...i want grandmother's stuffing recipe made to perfection...the turkey golden...the mashed potatoes creamy.  i want my children smiling and clean and cordial.  i want the house tidy and the desserts delicious.  but mostly...mostly...mostly...i want to take the time to be thankful.  

"a grateful heart is not acquired in a moment, but rather the fruit of a thousand choices." ~ joni earekson tada

Monday, November 14, 2011

the thankful tree

it began at first light.  

creeping in with the dawn and rising fast with the sun.

surely it wasn't there the night before. not at bedtime prayers or goodnight kisses.  it wasn't around in the tucking in of tired children and the whispered i love you's of my exit. i didn't see even a trace ...

but when morning arrived, the grumbling came with it.  

full force. all engines firing.  complaint after complaint, coming from child after child. it was that kind of morning... you know the kind where you can't get your kids out of the car fast enough.  where the school bell can't ring soon enough. a morning where the milk tastes odd and the shower runs cold and the shoes feel tight. every one of them had something not right. something go wrong.  something to complain about, argue over, pout upon. and, for some crazy reason, they all felt i was the perfect person with which they might share their morning misery.  

i was the woman just waiting to hear their sad wednesday saga --  or so they thought. by the time they were all buckled into my backseat, i was over it.  i mean it -- D O N E.  and at 8:00 am, i was already lacking the energy to muster one more lousy lecture about gratitude. i just wanted to stop the car roadside and let them out the doors. shoo them forward into their day. fake smile,  weak wave, and mutter under my breath, sayonara kiddos!

driving back home, i felt tired in the air of their lingering words. children had exited, but their gripes still hung close. i just knew the evil one was feeling pretty triumphant about this morning's mayhem on buttercup trace. score one for the dark side. he had managed to stir us all into a spirit of complaint.  ingratitude.  thanklessness.  here we were just days into november -- the very month of thankFULLness -- and we were officially, thank-empty.  it was only november 2nd and it was only 8:30 am and i was feeling only exhausted by it all.

the morning outside my car window was looking to be perfectly beautiful. a blue and gold fall day, crisp and cool, except the ugliness  of our ingratitude had my heart in the grip of gray. and as i continued to drive home toward my morning dishes and our morning mess, my thoughts began to stir. what could i do? what could one woman, one mother, possibly do to fix her kids' grumbling?  to grab their attention ... to capture their hearts? what could i possibly do to shift us from thankless to thankful?  i was thinking immediate intervention. boot camp. shock therapy. something drastic.

but as i drove through the morning's crisp beauty, the answer became clear:  we had to start naming again. begin counting again. pick up the pen and write down the blessings. it was simple. it is simple. and yet, we forget. at least in my house, we forget. i have continued with my blue journal,  still filling it with blessings. gifts. gratitude. but oh, i am anything but faithful to it.  some days it goes neglected in the bottom of my bag or wedged between the seats in my car. some days it gets buried under school papers or pushed to the far edges of my desk -- to the far corners of my mind.  and in my carelessness and forgetfulness, i neglect the necessity of naming the grace gifts. i forget to name what's been given.

by the time i parked in our driveway, a plan was already taking shape.  it wasn't anything elaborate.  there would be no need to shop or plan for it.  no hours spent in creation.  without entering the house, bella and i headed for the backyard.  we grabbed branches from the ground.   she cheerfully tagged along. happy to be with mama and happy to pick up branches.  with arms full and toddler in tow, i entered the kitchen.  branches, vase, burlap, jute and paper collected.  now, i didn't for one minute, believe that these craft items were going to solve our issues or save our family.  they weren't the answer.  there was going to be no quick fix for us all.  but something had to be done.  even something small.  and so our thankful tree was formed.  you can see from the picture, it is a project as simple as they come.  but simple was what we needed.  just a simple reminder:  be thankful.  be grateful.  look.  list.  scratch the words on paper and scratch the gratitude in our hearts.

the afternoon arrived, bringing kids home from school and wary looks at the tree.   when i explained how we were going to spend the remainder of november hanging cards of thanksgiving on these branches, i was pleased to see their response - even the teenagers. i mean, there were a couple of sideways looks...some raised eyebrows...maybe an eye roll or two, but absolutely no argument.  no awkwardness.  i guess they know their mother well enough.  i guess the grumbling gremlins of this morning had (thankfully) departed.  

so now, each day, we (try to) take time and write down something -- just one thing -- for which we are grateful. one item. one gift.  one grace.  sometimes they write silly things -- including the husband -- and get reprimanded. "this is not a joke," i say, remembering all too well that november 2nd morning. sometimes friends come over and they write things down too.  the kids know by now, anyone crossing our thresh hold is fair game for their mother.   while the trees outside our window are quickly disrobing themselves of color, our thankful tree is adding foliage each day.  it looks different then the other trees.  and it should.

isn't this how we as christians should look -- different.  in a world that demands its fair a culture that says, me a time which tells us, we deserve more!...we should look different.  when the world is grey and bare and bleak in its spirit of thanklessness and discontent ... i would like to strive for the color of thanksgiving. i'd like us to be rich in our praise, aware of our gifts and lavish in our gratitude. is it possible? i am not asking if it is easy, but is it possible? my silly tree isn't going to grow grateful children, but it is a reminder to all of us... we must be deliberate. intentional.  mindful.  it is not going to just happen.  we aren't exactly bent to be thankful. we don't inherit the gene. we don't come by it naturally.  we must work at it.  we must speak it.  write it.  breathe it.  and then...maybe then...just maybe then...we can live it.

i would maintain that thanks is the greatest form of thought 
and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.
gk chesterton

"be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you."
  ~ 1 thessalonians 5:18

Thursday, November 10, 2011

they come

they come.  some dressed in full regalia. brass buttons and pressed pants. shoes shining and medals hanging. heads high and smiles wide. 
they come.  some dressed in army fatigues.  heavy boots and serious faces. stripes on sleeves. scars on bodies. caps pulled low and shoulders back.
they come.  some dressed in plaid shirts and cardigan sweaters and comfortable shoes. coffee cups in wrinkled hands.  white haired ladies at their sides.

they come on strong legs and they come pushed in wheel chairs.  they come with hats in hands and stories in mind.  they come with blurry eyes and clear memories. they come sharply, they come slowly.  they come eagerly, and some come curiously.  they come as women and they come as men. they come young and they come quite old.  hundreds of veterans pour into the doors of our school auditorium on this special november day.  the small children greet them with flags waving and songs singing.  students line the entrance ways, ushering in these real life heroes. we are so glad they have come.

the bugle blows to the colors and flags enter.  it feels as if the final guests have arrived.  all eyes on them.  all hearts fluttering.  these are our colors.  this is our country.  and we all swell in the moment. i can see it.  the physical shift of young and old.  whatever the petty business of that morning was, is gone.  we are paying honor to something bigger than our own small selves.  we are in the presence of real heroes.  true bravery.  absolute sacrifice. we are hushed without prompting. we are awed without explanation.

from my perch, i watch school children sing their hearts out, i hear students read their essays and i see grown men cry. we listen to words about service and sacrifice, about honor and gratitude, about freedom and the fight. for less than two hours we pay special tribute. we are reminded to say thanks.  the young color guard retires the flags and taps is played and everyone, even the smallest child is quiet. still. serious.  this is not an everyday event.  rarely is a room this large, this silent. and all i can think is, aren't we the lucky ones?  lucky to attend a program such as this.  lucky to partner with a school such as this.  lucky to be surrounded by men and women such as these.  lucky to live in a country such as this.  but i know all the while, it has absolutely nothing to do with luck.  our country wasn't founded on luck, but on God.  our freedom isn't possible because of luck, but because of men and women willing to protect it.

our school has been hosting a veterans day program and celebration for the past 17 years. there is nothing like it.  come and see next year for yourself.  i grew up not really sure what this veterans day was all about. all i knew is, it had something to do with voting and was always trying to steal the thunder of my birthday.  when you are a kid, things which occur in your birthday week stick.  i remember being young and somewhat disgruntled i was required to share my special week with the voters and the veterans.  that is funny for me to think back on, but also kind of sad that i didn't get it like these kids do today.  

i wasn't so happy to share the attention back then, but today, i couldn't be more honored to share my week.  i couldn't be more thankful to have my kids wrapped up each year in something like this. i couldn't be more thankful for even the weekends spent decorating posters or writing essays in between busy life.  my third grader wrote an essay this year and began it with one of the stories from last year's keynote speaker.  he had remembered.  yes, the story had something to do with ships sinking and sharks circling, but my 8 year old boy had remembered.  this boy who cannot remember to make his bed or change his socks remembered the story of a hero. i was thrilled.  i've had the privilege of directing this program for the past several years or so, and i can't think of something i'd rather be doing come the second week of november.   i am humbled and honored to be even a small part of it.

there's this one group that comes every year.  the sons of the revolution.  i know it because they draw attention in their old fashioned dress. i know it because they sit right behind me each year.  they are always early.  they are always sharp. they are handsome.  they are proud.   a few years ago, when the program ended and the auditorium cleared, one of these men dressed in blue and tan coat and ruffled shirt stayed.  i was closing my notes and tidying up the tech area when i noticed him standing and waiting for me.  he told me his name was bob and that he had never felt more honored than today.  he had tears in his eyes. i talked with bob a few minutes more and as i turned to leave, he hesitantly said, "can i ask you a favor?"  "of course," i replied.  "would you take a picture of me with that winning poster? it has touched my heart and i'd like a picture of it to take home."   this 80-something-year-old man was asking to be photographed with a 4th grader's poster.  my heart was touched.  i grabbed the camera quickly and found the poster still backstage.  we lined up bob and the poster and the camera clicked.  it captured an old man with a big smile.  it captured a young poster with a clear message.  it captured pride.  bob and i hugged and he thanked me for the picture.   before leaving, he wrote down his email address and i told him  i would send it.  and i did.  i also copied that picture for myself.  it is tucked into my director's notebook, paper clipped to the programs from each year.  bob has no idea, but those tears in his eyes, his love of that poster and that request for a picture inspired me.  i was so glad he came.

last year's veterans day... another blessing of our freedom.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

every birthday grace

another birthday has come and gone.  it was not  supposed to be a momentous one, nor a milestone.  i imagine anything past 40 is, at best, only tolerable.  i certainly wasn't giddy like when turning 13 or 16 or 21.  i don't feel like i did at 30.  not even like i did at 40.  i'm not sure exactly what 43 is supposed to feel like.  43 just seems to be 43.  not much to talk about,  except that i think this year it is different. i think, from this year forward,  any and every birthday must count more.   i am just not sure i can ever again take one for granted.  i am not sure i can only tolerate the coming and going of this day.  not after my past year.  this year, i have to believe, has taught me to treasure things.  to treasure each birthday -- to treasure each day.  i'll be honest,  that doesn't always happen -- not even with cancer under my belt.  i still live life some days forgetting it is a gift.  forgetting to give thanks.  forgetting to marvel at the miracle of mere breathing.  like an old testament israelite, i am.  always forgetting. always forgetful. too often flippant and frivolous and foolish.

a year ago i turned 42, and i'm fairly certain at some point on that november day in 2010 i did a little wondering.  i wondered what the year ahead might bring.  i am kind of like that.  i don't mean i had deep, deep dramatic contemplation --  just simple, casual considering - wondering.  i can tell you this, i would never have guessed cancer.  there wasn't any room for it in our home, no room for it on the calendar.  but in my 42nd year, it arrived just the same.  ready or not here i come, it cackled in my ear.  i found out immediately that 42 was pretty young in the cancer arena.  my age wasn't a plus factor. it wasn't something to brag about.  the younger a person is when getting this ugly awfulness, the more agressive it tends to be -- the more serious the situation.  not that we are any more prepared for cancer after our 65th birthday, but it seems at least a little more in line with the body's natural decline.  but at 42 there is a whole lot of life ahead..a few extra decades of good health needed.  at 42 it seemed appalling.  at 42 i still had a bunch of kids at my breakfast table every morning.  not one of them ready to head out on their own.  not one of them close to independence.  i mean, sure most of them are able to handle their own homework assignments and lunch box packing and bed making.  they can find their own shoes and socks and toothbrushes -- even bella!  i've always kind of prided myself on raising capable kids.  even though i am a stay-at-home mom, i am careful not to cater.  but the bottom line was~is, they needed me.  they need me.  they need me to keep having birthdays.

i sit in the oncologist office every few months now, and notice how young i am.  i guess i should probably try to turn that into something good -- glory in it a bit. let my ego be fed by being the most spry...wearing the cutest shoes...having the longest hair...dialing the coolest phone.  but so far that hasn't exactly worked.  when i walk through the cancer building and into the oncologist office it feels like a place of the old, the sick, the disappearing.  it is contemporary in design: lots of glass and chrome and great lighting.  big windows.  everything clean and pleasing and sharp.  but i haven't walked through its great lobby without sensing decay.  there is a certain hush to its hallways. is this too morbid to write?  perhaps. but it's true.

in those first weeks of my diagnosis, i had some pretty fearful thoughts about my future...about the birthdays i'd see...or miss.  initially, i didn't know much about my prognosis.  all i knew is i was seriously scared.  i'd wake in the middle of the night begging God to make my body healthy again.  begging Him to allow me to continue as wife and mother and me. healthy and whole.  i promised all kinds of things --even crazy things-- if He'd guarantee that i'd someday see my children graduate from college and get married and have babies and be happy.

one afternoon early in the diagnosis, a few friends gathered together to pray.  one of those friends was beverly.  beverly was diagnosed with breast cancer the month before me.  here we were two women, both with breast cancer, surrounded by a group of friends in the family room of bev's home..all of us on our knees before our God. praying. pleading. petitioning.  when it came beverly's time to pray, she literally choked out her words.  "Lord, let jody and i be around to see and know our hold them."  i hadn't ever thought much about my grandchildren before this.  (let's be clear, i am in absolutely no rush).  but the words of her prayer seared themselves into the tender places of my heart.  yes, that is exactly what i wanted.  to grow old. to grow grey.  to hold the children of my children.  the blessing of it all seemed suddenly so enormous and wonderful and precious. incredibly precious.   i didn't want to be thinner or faster or richer...i just wanted to be around to (someday) hold my grand babies.    there was no guarantee.  there never is.  cancer or no cancer,  not one of us knows what the future holds.  not one of us truly knows if we'll be around for the party or pain or plans of the future.   "we are all terminal, just some of us happen to know it."  i don't know who actually said that, but a friend shared it with me not too long ago.  i had to laugh.  it is true.  like it or not, it is truth.

"show me, o Lord, my life's end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life.  You have made my days a mere handbreath; the span of my years is nothing before you. each man's life is but a breath."   (psalm 39:4-5).  

really?  do we truly want to know "how fleeting is my life?"  i have always wondered about that verse.  i would have told you, "no!"  no, i don't want to know how fleeting.  i kind of liked my numb, busy, hustle and bustle.  i was really comfortable in my kind bubble of happily ever after.  i didn't think much about it -- that is before cancer.   but in this psalm, david doesn't just stumble across the information, he asks God for it.  he asks God to tell him how fleeting is his life.  is it possible david knows if he got it...if we get might actually mean something.  if we truly, truly know our days are a mere handbreath  might we make something of them.  make them count.  now.  today.  would we live this day different if we knew tomorrow might not be ours?  would we be kinder, slower, softer?  would we hold more and harp less.  would we give more and grumble less?  might we sit longer, sing louder, love harder? might we?

a few weeks ago my friend, kelly, asked if she could plan a birthday luncheon for me.  her words were, "we have so much to celebrate this year."  she sent an invitation and gathered some girlfriends together and we met today at a place called grace.  my favorite place.  and we celebrated another year.  some might look at my last six months and ask how i could possibly celebrate all of that awfulness.  i would tell them,  i have more to celebrate today, more than ever before.  walking through these past painful months has shown me, in abundance, how much there is to celebrate.  so many of these women sitting around the table today have had their own challenges this year.  a couple of us have battled cancer, some of us have battled kids, anxiety, depression, fear, finances, failures...that is only the short list. but at the end of it all is grace.  grace to face another day.  grace to get another birthday. grace.   there's this old hymn which i sang as a young girl and still sing as an aging woman.  it means so much more now.

grace, grace, God’s grace,
                                       grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
grace, grace, God’s grace
 grace that is greater than all our sin.
                      ~ grace that is greater than sin

pictures from our lunch today.  do you see the window behind the table?  
where true grace is truly found...for all of us.