When All Is Not Calm or Bright

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I love Christmas, but unfortunately this Christmas is not starting out all that well. I started back to work part time so I’m spending most of my free time (free= time awake, with a brain worth working with that doesn’t involve my children) getting back in the grove of working from home and scrambling to find babysitting so I can get into the office sometimes too. There are all of the usual Christmas activities. Cutting down the tree, decorating the house, purchasing gifts, designing photo books for long distance family members, baking cookies. But this year there is a certain lack of joy in the festivities, and I don’t like it.

Every year I promise myself that I won’t let the busyness suck me dry of joy and usually fail at least a little bit. The peaceful, laid back, but beautiful Christmas I had planned in my head is fast fading before my eyes. My son and daughter can barely make it through a Sunday morning church service, why do I think they will magically behave angelically on Christmas Eve amid flickering flames, delayed bedtimes and holiday excitement?

ry=400My son doesn’t say many words and spends most of his days screaming at me in syllables I can’t comprehend. I try to speak calmly and use the signs we’ve practiced, hoping he will respond in kind. It rarely works.

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My daughter, percocious as she is, is making lists of Christmas wants along side her usual daily demands. I know there is a sweet little girl in there somewhere (or so her Sunday school teachers tell me) but I don’t know if she’ll materialize on Christmas day or if the greedy Xmas brat will emerge.

My grandmother is continually unwell, and the undecided fate of her soul weighs heavily on me. If I sound dramatic it’s because right now it feels that dire. She barely believes in God and as she slips through her twilight years, losing more and more of her independence I find it hard to hope that anything will change. But if I had a deepest Christmas wish it would be that she finds the love of Christ and her hope is restored.

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This was supposed to be a time of peace and joy. But if I look at the Christmas story, it certainly wasn’t an idyllic scene. An unwed mother, and her fiancé return to his hometown to be counted in a census. The travel and lodging was at their own expense even as their oppressive government counted them so they could be taxed. But when they arrived, there was no lodging to be had.

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A baby whose birth and background would be suspected by many, was delivered in a animal shelter and placed in a feed trough. He was nobody. While I love Christmas carols, I don’t think we can take the lines about calm and peace literally. What was peaceful about this? An occupied nation.  An oppressed people. A potentially illegitimate child. But even as he lay among the animals, he was recognized. A prince among the poor. A God placed into the mortal. A comforter in the chaos.

He brought hope to shepherds, astrologers, old men and young zealots. That hope is available still. Even as my little crazy ones sleep (oh, thank God it’s finally nap time), and I write these words, I can feel the calm begin the warm my insides. I pause and breath it in. It doesn’t have to be calm and bright on the outside for me to feel it on the inside.

I know I’m not the only one who is struggling this holiday season. There are many others who have worse problems than I. But as we move through these stressed filled days, I hope you can hold onto that peace. The knowledge that the blessed child in the manger is there no more, but sits in heaven interceding for us.

I pray that wherever this Christmas season may find you, that His hope finds you as well.

Listen, Pray, Sing: Christmas Carols

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I love Christmas carols. I mean real Christmas carols, not those annoying holiday songs about mother’s having affairs with Santa and rockin around the Christmas tree. I’m talking about the Christmas hymns. The centuries old words that mean as much today as they did when they were written, if we would only take the time to stop and really listen.

I get this from my mother. She has always loved Christmas carols but I remember her saying that after she became a Christian they started to mean more to her than they did before. She saw the deep truth in the words.

Our church doesn’t sing a lot of Christmas carols. As far as I’m concerned we could pretty much sing only Christmas carols they entire month of December. But apparently some people don’t like them. They find they boring, cliche, too hard to worship with, etc. I wonder if they’ve ever actually read the words.

Hark the herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!

Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled”

Joyful, all ye nations rise

Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim:

“Christ is born in Bethlehem”

Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

That’s the gospel and the Christmas story all rolled into one.

There is something magical about Christmas. Like the deeper magic that C.S. Lewis talks about in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. A God, born in a manger, appearing as a child. A child who came to save us all. It’s a beautiful mystery that is answered by the crucifixion and resurrection, and yet not quite explained. A father who gave up his only son to save a universe. This is what Christmas is about. The old Christmas carols embody this. They tell the story in the style of an epic tale using words that are both difficult to understand and yet too familiar, which is why some have trouble connecting with them.

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel

That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

 The prisoners have been bought back the debt has been paid, the promised one has arrived. How can we not celebrate? How can we not worship? If you don’t already, I invite you to really listen to the Christmas carols this year. Pick one or two and actually look up the words to all the verses. Read them through a few times and ask yourself what they are really saying. Make it your devotion. Make it your prayer. Worship at the edge of the manger as you do the empty tomb. Love has come to save us.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

Celebrate Advent: Incorporating Service, Generosity and Gratitude

We’ve been talking for the last few days about ways to celebrate Advent with your family and I’d like to add one more suggestion, employing acts of service. In the devotional that my family used for most of my childhood, during the last week of Advent we each randomly picked a name of another family member from a hat and then did secret acts of service for that person until Christmas Eve when we each revealed whose name we had drawn. This was a very simple way to encourage acts of service and it worked well, even as children. I think it is a great place to start. I think that so much about Advent and overall Christmas can be about us. First we have the materialism of our culture that is focused on eating and buying and acquiring rather than gratitude, generosity and service. Even within Christian celebrations it can still be very personal. Jesus came for me, because God loves me. That is a good thing to remember. But what is even more important is that we are to extend the gift. Jesus is God’s gift to us and we are called to share his love and the gift of salvation with others.

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I suggest an outward in approach to the process. Begin Advent by focusing on others, perhaps in another area of the world. This year my family and I are considering a donation to Gospel for Asia’s Christmas Critter Project or Heifer International. My daughter is excited about providing a family (maybe one with a little girl like her) with access to food and education via a goat or sheep.  My daughter’s Awana’s group participates in  Operation Christmas Child. I think it’s great to start Advent by focusing on others who have less than we do.

Then maybe on the second week of advent find someone to help in your community. Maybe a local soup kitchen or food bank needs help or donations. Or look for someone in your neighborhood who needs help raking leaves or shoveling snow. This can be as simple or as complicated as you decide to make it. Help you children purchase gifts for the Angel Tree Project. Donate your time and money to local causes you support.  My husband and I decided to donate a percentage of the proceeds from the sales from my Advent devotional to a local pro-life charity we love, CareNet of the Lehigh Valley. In our area we purchase gift cards for the clients local organization that supports the mentally disabled. During the school year our church fills backpacks with food each week for low income kids at a nearby elementary school and we host a cold weather homeless shelter one night a week during the winter months. Get your family involved with similar projects in your own community, as appropriate depending on the ages of your children.

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The third week of Advent you can bring it in further and look for people to bless in your church and extended family. Ask your elders or deacons if there is a family in the church who has needs during the holiday season, whether they be financial or practical. Provide childcare for a low income mom so she can get to a doctor’s appointment or do her grocery shopping. Make a meal for a family in crisis. Have your children make a gift, write a simple card or bake something for an elderly relative that you don’t often see. Just to let that person know that you are thinking about them.

Finally in the last week before Christmas, encourage your children to serve each other and the family. Do each other’s chores, take turns cooking meals, being especially kind and accommodating. This may all feel strange in the beginning but the point is to cultivate attitudes of service in our children as we approach Christmas, a time of celebration for God’s ultimate gift to us, his son.

I know that sometimes acts of service can see like just one more thing on the seemingly never ending Christmas to-do list, but it’s a crucial opportunity to show our children that it isn’t just all about them this year.

Have you ever incorporated service into your family Christmas celebrations? What kinds of things did you do?

When They Look Like Me: Five Minute Friday

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Lately my children have been driving me crazy. Even as we write this my daughter is in her room being punished for shoving her little brother and my son is demanding admittance to my lap at very high volumes. They frustrate me so much. Yet, I see so much of myself in them. I guess that is the upsetting part. I can relate, to the anger and frustration when I won’t let them watch Thomas the Tank Engine first thing in the morning. There are days when I would rather lay on the couch watching DVD’s of old TV shows and drinking hot chocolate with homemade cookies. But I don’t have that option, in part because of my children.

The need to set a good example is exhausting. They scream at me, especially my 19 month old with the low verbal skills. I want to scream back. I see in their eyes the same anger and frustration that I feel. “Why doesn’t anyone listen to me? Why don’t I ever just do what I want?”

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Then there are the good moments. When my daughter wants to come with me to the doctor to hold my hand while I get shots and is actually a trooper and incredibly empathetic. She didn’t develop that empathy in a vacuum, it is a reflection of the comfort she receives from her parents and other loved ones.

Is it possible that they have actually gotten some of my good qualities as well as the bad? She is bossy but empathetic. He is loud but seems to have a sense of humor. (Who knew a kid who barely talks good make jokes?) They are a reflection of me, both in my strengths and weaknesses. But it can be so easy to only focus on the weaknesses I see reflected back at me.

I am the child of a perfect Father but my reflection is flawed. So as we head into a time of year that is both wonderful and maddening I want to look for those wonderful moments where my children become more like me as I become more like Him.

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All the photos in this post are taken by my amazing photographer friend, Laura Mounts.

Celebrate Advent – Using an Advent Calendar

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Most Advent calendars traditionally begin on December 1 and run through December 24 or 25. There are various styles ranging from a daily scripture to a daily piece of chocolate. The version I used growing up was a cardboard box with 24 little doors on it. Inside each little compartment was a small Christmas ornament. We would put them on a miniature Christmas tree each day. My sister and I would take turns opening the little doors before we left on the school bus in the morning and before church on Sundays. (After we grew up the cardboard box started to fall apart so my mother replaced it with a wooden box with 24 doors designed for an Advent calendar).

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My sister has a simpler version of an advent calender. Each day you get a little magnet which attaches to the front of the advent calender. By the Christmas Eve all the magnets together form a Nativity scene.

As I’ve said before, this is really more about process rather than product. The point is to take the time to acknowledge the day, rather than how exactly you go about it. Some families have little slips of paper in 24 envelopes, each with an Advent scripture to be read aloud. It can be that simple.

Advent’s calendars can also be non-religious in nature. My mom purchases a fun online advent calendar from Jacquie Lawson each year. Each day there is a little Christmas themed animations that my kids and I click on to watch. It’s all about presents, decorating and snow, usually with some gingerbread people, teddy bears, cats and dogs thrown in. It’s a fun little tradition that my children enjoy. Usually the day after Christmas they sit down at the computer with my husband and watch all 25 over again.

Have you used an Advent calendar before? What was you favorite?

Celebrating Advent: Sharing a Family Devotional

Sharing a family Advent devotional together can be a wonderful experience. In the Christmas rush, just taking the time to refocus your family on what we are really supposed to be celebrating. There are a number of Advent devotionals on the market, each with its own style, many more than I could cover here. But I wanted to highlight a few different kinds.

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As We Wait

At the risk of self-promotion, I’d like to begin with my own devotional, As We Wait. This book is designed with the busy family schedule in mind. Devotions are short but have meaningful content. Each day includes a personal application and a family prayer. It is appropriate for a family with middle school age kids or older, perhaps younger if the children are very mature or have especially high vocabulary for their ages. Each day also includes a scripture reference. I don’t write the scriptures out for you because I want you to be able to choose the translation that you prefer, and also because I think it is important to actually open and read from the Bible as a family. The devotional can be done with or without an Advent wreath. The scriptures include those typically read during Advent, but also others from throughout the old and New Testament. I wanted to give a broader picture of how the birth of Christ fit into the narrative of history.

For parents of small children I have two suggestions.

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We Light the Candles

This is the devotional that I grew up using, though it has since been revised somewhat. Each day includes, scripture reading, a short devotional and the singing of a Christmas carol. It is meant to be used with an Advent wreath, which is somewhat indicated by the title. This is a nice, basic, simple devotional if you have young children, especially if you have never celebrated Advent before.

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The Truth in the Tinsel

I am using this devotional for the first time this year, though I have seen it recommended by many bloggers I respect. It isn’t really just a devotional. It has suggested crafts and activities to do with the devotionals for every day of Advent. The best advice I’ve seen is not to try and do everything it suggests the first year you use it (or even any year really). Pick the things you like most or that are the most practical for you. So far my daughter loves did. (Though she thought the printable templates were coloring pages, but at least she was engaged).

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Watch for the Light

This is a more in depth devotional for adults or couples celebrating Advent together. The readings are much longer and the content very deep. This is probably not your best bet for your first attempt at celebrating Advent, but might be a good choice if you are looking for a new challenge to make celebrating Advent different this year. The entries are excerpts from authors like C.S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, so be prepared for some profound insights and personal reflection.

 

I know that there are hundreds of other devotionals so please, share your favorite. If you want to send me a more in depth review I’ll even try to include it in a later post. I hope you will enjoy celebrating Advent with your family this year.

Celebrating Advent: The Advent Wreath

Celebrating with an Advent wreath is a treasured memory of my childhood. Each night, we lit the candles and shared a short devotional, a carol and a prayer. Sometimes we were busy and missed a night, or more. But we tried to make it a priority whenever possible. For our family, this was an activity to do be done after dinner but before bedtime. Homework was put to the side, house projects and cleanup put on hold. Phone calls could wait. My sister and I argued over whose turn it was to light the candles and whose to snuff them out. Sometimes my dad was there, other times he was held up at work or at church. But whenever possible, we all tried to be there together.

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Our Advent wreath was simple, a metal wreath with positions for 5 candles. 3 purple, 1 pink and 1 white in the center. Feel free to make yours as simple of ornate as you would like. I bought a green metal wreath at our local A.C. Moore and decorated it with fresh greenery. A few years ago I decorated a simple brass wreath and artificial flowers and greenery for my sister as a birthday gift. (Her birthday is at the end of November so it was a timely gift). A few years ago, my mother purchased a more ornate Celtic Advent wreath.

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We used to light the candles in the following way: Starting on the first Sunday of Advent we lit the first purple candle, the candle of promise. The devotional reader we used coordinated the weekly devotions on this theme. Then each night for the first week we lit that one candle and read devotions about promise. On the second Sunday of Advent we lit the candle of promise and a second purple candle, the candle of light, continuing in kind of the rest of the week. On the third Sunday we lit the first two purple candles and then the pink candle, the candle of love. On the final week we added the last purple candle, the candle of hope. Christmas Eve the white candle was also illuminated, making it five candles total and we would read the Christmas story and sing Silent Night.

This may sound like a lot to do. Remember, if you’ve never celebrated Advent before, this is not the only way to do it. In various traditions the candle colors and themes are different. What matters most about all of this is that you are taking the time as a family to slow down and focus together on the coming of Christ rather than being consumed by the busyness of the holiday season.

I’ll be talking further tomorrow about selecting an Advent devotional, which can be done with or without the advent wreath.

If you like the idea of the wreath, you don’t have to use a devotional at all. You could read some of the various scriptures about the Christmas story, share poems or sing Christmas carols. It could even just be a time to focus on dialogue as a family about what you like about the Christmas season and how you want to better use that time as a family.