Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Do You Hear What I Hear?

I've been contemplating how to capture our recent Christmas trip in words. It's difficult, because some of the words I might choose (including exhausting and stressful) might indicate a lack of gratitude on my part, and I really do feel grateful in so many ways for the gifts of this past year, and even of this somewhat odd holiday season.

Christmas is a very important day for my husband's family. Unless dire circumstances prevent it, they always celebrate it together, though in recent years they've floundered a bit to find new ways to ground their celebration and new traditions to replace old and beloved ones in the wake of my husband's grandparents' death six years ago. Grandma and Granddad were the literal glue that held their family celebrations, especially Christmas, together. Everything spun round in their orbit and took place in their home. I sometimes feel as though we're attempting to embroider around a very large hole on Christmas day. There's still a level of grief there that I, as an in-law (who nevertheless loved those two people dearly) can only fathom in part. And of course every family deals with such things differently. I know how my family of origin would likely work through that kind of grief, but every family has its own way, its own dance.

So I confess I always feel a little bit of displacement on at least a couple of levels on Christmas day. We live through the advent season as prayerfully and well as we can here, but right at the end of it, there's a flurry of activity (ministry, school and work related) and then we pack in what feels like a frenzy and head out for several days on the road. When we lived further east, we were a close enough drive to extended family that we could still do our small family celebration at home in the morning, then head to Maryland or Northern Virginia for a late lunch and a couple days' visit with family. That's not possible now: we have to leave at least a couple of days before Christmas to make the trip work, which means we often don't do our family present opening here until somewhere well into the 12 days of Christmas (often around new year's). We take a few small gifts for the sweet girl to open and spend most of the actual day traveling to and from D's mother's house and his sister's house, with lots of time spent with nine of the sweet girl's cousins and other relatives.

So there's always a bit of stress involved (even in the midst of the fun parts) and this year there was a good bit more stress than usual. I don't feel free to write about much of it here, since those stories aren't mine to share, but various members of D's family are going through a very hard time right now. The "holes in the fabric" felt a lot more ragged than usual in the family celebration this year. More than ever I felt mindful of how very much we all need Jesus, and how deeply grateful that he came to us as one of us to share our burdens and our sorrows!

I got sick when we traveled, which didn't help matters a lot from my perspective. Congestion, cough and fever (which began to hit in earnest on Christmas Adam as we headed down, then got a lot worse on Christmas Eve and the Day itself) kept me at a lower ebb of energy than usual. Still there were blessings: candlelight and tree-light in the sanctuary of D's mom's church on Christmas Eve and many beautiful Christmas carols; the sweet girl waking up Christmas morning and wanting to hear the Christmas story from Luke as soon as we'd finished breakfast; watching the sweet girl's face light up when she received the gift of a baby doll (what she most wanted) from her daddy and me (she named her Noelle). We traveled onto my parents' home the day after Christmas. It was wonderful to see them and there was a remarkable feeling of relief in my tired, middle-aged, displaced self to see some of the familiar sights and sounds of Christmases from my own childhood, especially the wooden barrel where we always kept the tree ornaments (and Mom and Dad still do).

I think the moment most tinged with grace, however, was one I could never have planned nor even imagined. It happened on Sunday as we were leaving. We'd gotten up early and met D's aunt for breakfast at a local IHOP. As we pulled out of the parking area, after saying our good-byes, I slid a quieting CD into the player (David Klinkenberg's "The Carol of Emmanuel," a recording my sister gave me last year) hoping we could settle into a peaceful beginning of the long 5 plus hour journey back home. We found ourselves at a very long red light at a busy intersection on an overcast morning. A group of dark birds was flying nearby in a "V" formation. While we watched, they swooped past and then settled onto some telephone wires. But not for long -- they suddenly all dived again together, in perfect formation. They continued to swoop and swirl in perfect loops and dives, fluttering from place to place as though in a choreographed ballet. D. and I both had that same thought in an instant: "choreographed." He said the word out loud, laughing, but then we just sat there in awe watching them continue their amazing dance. They seemed to flutter and swoop in time to a perfect music. Of course, they couldn't hear the music we were listening to...a gentle, rolling, piano/violin version of "Do You Hear What I Hear?" but they clearly could hear something. Their flight was as beautiful and easy as though they'd practiced it hundreds of times before, just casual loops and rolls and dives, sometimes landing on the wires, but often swooping in an unseen shape as though riding the waves of air current to some planned but hidden-to-our-eyes destination before they paused, turned with stunning precision, and flew to the next place.

Sheer beauty. Sheer grace. I watched them as long as I could, until they became tiny dots in the small patch of sky reflected in my rear-view mirror. Despite the aches in my body and heart, I felt calmed, like a child at rest. I think it was one of the best Christmas gifts a loving Abba could have sent this particular daughter.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Favorite Christmas Pageant Rehearsal Moments

We rehearsed this morning for tomorrow's Christmas pageant. The older children (fourth grade and up) have all the speaking parts this year. One of our high schoolers has ambitiously adapted a play based on a short story by Tolstoy. In the middle of that story, there's an opportunity for a telling of the nativity, and the younger kids, pre-k through third, have non-speaking roles in that.

The sweet girl is a shepherd this year, and looks precious (like a miniature monk) in her grayish-brown shepherding outfit. She is, of course, carrying her woolly stuffed sheep!

The five year old daughter of dear friends is at last getting to play Mary after longing for the part last year (when a much older girl played the role). We were so delighted that she's getting to do it, as this will be the family's last pageant at our church (they're going on the mission field next year). When we first offered her the role, earlier this week, she got nervous and said no; she thought she'd rather be a sheep after all and stick with her big brother, who's playing a shepherd. I suspect the real Mary might have had moments when she wouldn't have minded being an ordinary sheep either! But today, like the other Mary, this tiny girl said yes. She looked luminous in her little blue veil, and smiled with true delight when my dear husband (who's directing the pageant) asked her if she could hide the baby Jesus doll in the folds of her robe when she first came out, then bring the doll out and place him in the manger at the appropriate time. Her mom had a baby recently, so I suspect this all feels very close to home!

Other favorite moments: when I asked the oldest girl playing an angel if she would mind taking on the role of Gabriel. Hesitation. "Will I still get to be a girl?" Clearly important to her! I hesitated only a fraction (and decided in that instant that this was not the time to discuss angel gender or lack thereof) and then just said "of course!" "Okay then," she said.

Our Joseph got a little bossy. He kept asking "who's playing Mary? which one is playing Mary?" and then when we told him, he marched up to her and took her hand. "Come on!"

And after the rehearsal, that tiny little Mary, whose dad will be teaching theology next year, showed she has perhaps been reading comic books, while also perhaps giving some thought to the idea of kenosis (Jesus emptying himself when he took on flesh) when she commented on Jesus waking up in the manager. "He must've said 'hey, look! What happened to my powers?!'"

Even as I laugh, I think how strange and mysterious it must have seemed to all the heavenly host to proclaim the God of heaven and earth was lying swaddled in a feed box! "One born in a manger commands the beauteous files..." as Henry Vaughn reminds us.

Sometimes we just have to sit at Jesus' feet in gratitude and awe because there's no other appropriate response.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Still Time To Give Thanks

We've had what has felt like a busier and more stressed advent season this year for a number of reasons. We've also been blessed with many moments of grace and joy, but for some reason I have (in particular) been feeling overwhelmed with too much "to do" and too much "to think about" and having a harder time than usual letting go and finding places to sink deep down into stillness and expectancy.

For the past couple of years I've posted a list of what we're thankful for, usually right around thanksgiving. This year I didn't, and despite the fact that thanksgiving is far behind us and Christmas is now literally just around the corner, I keep feeling a nagging need to come here and count my blessings anyway. Any time of year can be a time to give thanks, and I seem to be in more need than usual of taking a deep breath and doing just that!

I missed our annual tradition of writing blessings/what we're grateful for on leaves for the thanksgiving tree. We didn't do it at home, and despite the fact that it was just the three of us and my parents in Virginia on thanksgiving day, we just forgot to do it there. I definitely want to reinstate this tradition next year, wherever we find ourselves.

While walking earlier today to run some errands, I asked the sweet girl to think of three blessings she was thankful for. She decided on these three: "that we have a Christmas tree; that I have crayons I can color with; and you, Mommy." I liked the simplicity of that list, and of course was rather partial to that last one!

My own "list" today included how well S. is doing in school and how much she enjoys learning; the kindness and sweetness of her daddy; and all the blessings of the autumn season this year. That included yet another trip to Virginia to spend time with my parents and D's aunt, mom and mom's husband. I'm especially grateful for my parents' continued good health (they're both 76 now) and for the wonderful afternoon we got to spend with them at Maymont Park, a beautiful park we used to go to when I was a child. I hadn't been there in years and loved how much it hadn't changed: the barn with animals for petting, the long trail through ivy-covered tree-lined paths filled with stops to ooh and ahh over various North American animals like gray foxes, black bears, and even hawks and eagles in the aviary.

Better perhaps even that our time at the park was the precious time spent by the sweet girl in the back yard with my Dad, feeding the birds and squirrels.
For a city-dwelling child who loves trees and animals, this was sheerly heaven. I watched her dancing around sprinkling corn on the ground and putting seeds in the feeders and realized how dearly she would enjoy doing this every day. I've had to work since then on my contentment levels and not feeling a renewed sense of resignation that we're called to where we're called. There are blessings here too. May I do a better job of remembering that and "counting them" each day!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Of Jesse's Lineage

After a couple of weeks of playing "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" during our Advent devotional time, the sweet girl asked if we could do another Advent song as we began our third week. I chose "Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming." I love this beautiful hymn, and it seemed especially appropriate today as we lit the rose colored candle for the third Sunday.

Everything seemed to dovetail beautifully (and unexpectedly, totally unplanned by us!) for our evening devotions tonight. First we had an unexpected hour together beforehand as a family, just the three of us, and spent it watching some old home videos of Christmases past, including the sweet girl's very first Christmas. That video includes some footage that's very special to us, of what turned out to be our last visit with both of my husband's grandparents. They were nearing 90 that Christmas and both of them passed away the following spring, within a few months of each other. It's so lovely to have this recording of them opening their Christmas gifts in their living room, with Great-Grandma Lucille smiling and talking with our dear baby girl. And wonderful now for S. to be able to see that she really did meet her great-grandparents.

Then the little Advent paper chain we've been putting together, which has a different name or title for Jesus each evening, had the title "Son of David." We talked about what it means for Jesus to be called the Son of David. The sweet girl and I have been studying ancient Israel in school this autumn, so we've gone over David's line a few times, especially when we were reading the book of Ruth. She knows that David was the son of Jesse who was the son of Obed who was the son of Boaz who was the husband of Ruth. Talking about our own family trees as well as David's fit in beautifully with the line in "Lo How a Rose" which reminds us that the promised one was "Of Jesse's lineage coming..." We discussed what the word lineage meant and tied it back into our talking/celebrating/remembering of our own family as well.

I love such fruitful heart-shaping moments, especially the ones that feel like sheer gift. You couldn't plan them this well if you tried!

And as usual, I found myself soaking all of this up in my own heart. It dawned on me as we listened to the song and reflected together on Jesus' lineage that I often focus on the amazing blessing of Jesus' royal heritage and the joy and beauty of God's fulfilled promise...but how seldom do I just ponder the power of the simple fact that Jesus had a lineage. Like you and like me, he had a family tree. The one who made real trees! The one who made people and all the families of the earth! The eternal Word who has always existed, who has always been with God and is God, who made everything in heaven and on earth! He had no beginning (there was never a time when he was not) and yet he chose to be born of a woman, to place himself within a human family, to carve his name in a line of human beings. The root of everything, the blossom that grows from a stump, chose to humble himself and be born here on earth, to place himself within the confines of a particular family tree. It's breathtaking. He had a lineage. It makes me want to go back to all those "begats" I usually skim over in Matthew and Luke and read them with a newly thankful heart. In fact, I think I will do just that this week.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

B is for Bethlehem

We've started pulling our favorite Christmas books off the shelves for family reading. Tonight at bedtime we read B is for Bethlehem, a book we first found when the sweet girl was just an infant.

I loved this book from the first time I laid eyes on it. The beautiful, vibrant colors of the illustrations, reminiscent somehow of folk art or patchwork quilts, work in lovely tandem with the rhyming couplets that take you through the alphabet and through the nativity story.

And I love the book for the memories I have of reading it over and over to S. when she was a baby and a toddler. Several of the pages glisten with tape because we couldn't bear to take it away from her determined baby grip and some of the pages ripped. She loved looking at it, long before she could have been fully conscious of what it was about. And we loved that her little eyes (and heart, we hoped!) were already drinking in the glorious news of Jesus' birth.

It was fun tonight to read through it together and hear her new observations. She realized that, even though it was an alphabet book, giving you words that represented each letter, it was also going through the story. She loved how it talked about light (it mentions that "R" is for radiance): "that's neat," she said, "because God is Light, and Jesus is God's Son."

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


I've hardly caught my breath from thanksgiving travels (and I've not yet caught up with all the posts I wanted to do here, especially my annual "giving thanks" list) but we've already plunged into Advent and Christmas festivities. It seems like most of the things we traditionally do as a family, in terms of local celebrations, all got scheduled this past weekend! That meant our county's festival of the trees, where I captured this lovely photo, as well as the Christmas events at Old Economy (our nearby historic site) and the live nativity at the church down the street.

After all that, we went ahead and put up our Christmas tree and lights too. As much as I enjoyed it all, I'm hoping this coming weekend will feel much more relaxed! Before you know it, it will time to light the rose candle on our advent wreath...

I hope you're all finding time to rest, to breathe, to pray, to contemplate, in this busy season (yes, I've got papers to grade...)

We hear the Christmas angels, their great, glad tidings tell...Oh come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Just Because I Don't Want to Forget This

The sweet girl was sound asleep when I went in to get her up this morning. I gently woke her and then, after giving a few stretches and yawns, she crawled sleepily onto my lap. We don't seem to have quite as many of these cuddly moments (now that she's a big girl of almost six and a half) as we used to, so I treasure every second of warm little girl in white kitty-cat pajamas scrunched up under fleece blankets and resting on my lap that I can get.

I asked her if she slept well and she said yes. Then, still bleary-eyed, but clearly beginning to wake up, she announced the following tale. I'll write it as clearly as I can remember it...there were a few pauses where I prompted her with general "and then what" kinds of questions. But here it is, complete and unabridged.

"Last night before I fell asleep, I made up a story about a family named the Thursdays. They have three children, twin girls and a baby boy. And they went to the park and the store and ran some errands. They had a picnic at the park. There were two slides there, and they were the same length. The twin girls slid down the slides and the one that got to the bottom of her slide first won. And then they bought a watermelon at the store. The post office and the store just took a few minutes, so after that they went to a restaurant to eat some dinner and then they came home."

Wow. So I'm not the only one in this household who makes up stories before I fall asleep! Kind of nice to know.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

"Is Aslan Going To Be In This Story?"

We were traveling on November 29, so I missed my opportunity to post what's becoming my annual tribute to three writers who have been very important in my life's journey. November 29 marks the birthdays of C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L'Engle, and Louisa May Alcott.

Madeleine would have turned 90 this year, and her daughter and granddaughter created a blog to post some special memories in her honor. They are beautiful and bring grateful tears to my eyes.

This Lewis-ian birthday happened to find us reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to our six year old while we traveled. On Sunday we were so thankful to find ourselves at a particularly riveting place in the story (Eustace's transformation from boy to dragon and back to boy) right as we got stuck in the worst of traffic near the entrance to the Pennsylvania turnpike on a cold, dark and rainy late afternoon.

It's been a few months since we read Prince Caspian, so I was wondering how well the sweet girl would remember Narnia. I should have known better. These stories have always captured her imagination, and she was eager to step back through the doors (okay, through a framed painting this time out) into Lewis' magical world again. And her sense of the story is so sound...right as we got to the part where Eustace turned into a dragon, she suddenly piped up from the back seat: "Is Aslan going to be in this story?" I almost laughed for joy, both at her ability to recognize that if there was ever a time for him to show up, it was now! and for the fact that he was indeed just about to arrive and provide the needful transformation that Eustace simply could not provide for himself.

Oh yes, sweetie, Aslan is going to be in this story. In fact, he's been here all along, quiet, beautiful, incognito, just waiting to be recognized as always.

Lord, give us eyes to see.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Harry Potter & Imagination

A quick shout-out this afternoon (we just got in late last night from our thanksgiving travels and I'm still unpacking, getting back into routine and trying to sort/shape my busy upcoming week!). But I wanted to post the news that Travis Prinzi's book Harry Potter & Imagination is now available for pre-order from Zossima.com. You can go here to check out Travis' posting at the Hogshead about his marvelous sounding book and find the click through to actually place an order.

The promotional blurb reads, in part, "Prinzi explores how fairy stories in general, and Harry Potter in specific, are not merely tales that are read to 'escape from the real world,' but stories with the power to transform by teaching us to imagine better." Sounds terrific, yes?

I first came across Travis' blog via John Granger. And John, astute and creative engager of all things HP, calls Travis' book a "trail-blazing guide into the world of Harry Potter." That recommendation alone will probably make you want to read it, but I suspect that the intriguing peek Travis gives into the table of contents will make most Christians who love to think about literature and imagination sit up and take notice too.

And I confess I have a slightly selfish motive in posting this recommendation today. Travis is giving all those who help publicize his book an opportunity to win a free copy. Since I'd love to curl up with this book during Christmastime, I thought I'd give it a try. And now you know about it too. As my six year old would probably say: "that's cool!"