gift giving Christmas thinking about others

My calendar tells me Christmas is a few weeks away, and it still surprises me even though I’ve known all year that it is coming. I had to go to our local shopping centre last weekend to buy (another) bag of cranberries, and I noticed how full it was at 11am. Throngs of people were out shopping the sales, wandering in and out of cheery stores, and posters were screaming at me: Buy this! Buy this!

I have only one philosophy for Christmas shopping. Get it done fast. Get it done early. Nothing can turn me into a grinch faster than navigating a parking lot on December 22. And it is so not the point. There is nothing about the western trappings of the Christmas holiday that can nurture the spirit of what Christmas is about.

Here’s how I see it. God becomes a baby to be with us. He is born to an impoverished, unwed teenage couple in a stable with animals. I’ve had two babies in a Swiss teaching hospital, complete with three course meals (best chocolate tarte I’ve had in my life) and nurses on call 24-hours a day. The thought of having a baby – God or my own – in a filthy shed with animals is unthinkable to me. But this is Christmas. It is the brightness of the star in the sky, it is the softness of swaddling clothes. It is the cries of a new born baby.

This is why we give gifts. This is the only thing that can get me excited about giving anyone a present, and here is a practical way that we apply it: A Gift Weekend.

Pick a weekend 

Set this weekend aside for gift giving. If you’re single, get friends together and do this with them. If you’re married, make it a fun thing you do with your spouse (and friends if you want). If you’ve got kids, involve them in this. There are no rules – do this in a way that suits your personality and your community. A Christmas PJ and cookie online shopping party? I would go. A tour of your local Christmas market with a view to getting all presents there? As long as there’s mulled wine, I would be there. Or the easiest option for us right now – an early (in the day because parking lots) trip to the local mall.

Set an amount 

Decide whom you’re buying for and how much you’re going to spend. When I have less money, my ideas are better and more creative. We give our kids $5-10 each to spend on each member of their family.

Give to others

Find something that you and your community can get behind and throw the weight of your love, energy and resources into it.

You can do it locally – find a soup kitchen where you can volunteer, find people who work in a local prison and give gifts to prisoners or their kids, partner with people in your community who are providing Christmas meals for people who cannot afford it. Or use your money to fund businesses or organizations that have gift catalogues and fundraising drives.

If you live in Australia, TEAR has the best gift catalogue – Useful Gifts. My kids will pore over it and seriously think about what they would love to get someone else in a different country. The physical catalogue is easy to read and understand – I highly, highly recommend it. We find it one of the most meaningful ways of nurturing an attitude of giving in our own hearts and in our kids’ hearts. (This is not sponsored, just our own experience.)

Wherever you live, there will be people who are reaching out to others at Christmas. Find them and partner with them.

Now it’s your turn: What do you love to do at Christmas to keep your mind focussed on what matters? Do you have any tips on how to get involved in the needs of your community? Please share them for all of us. 

I was chopping vegetables with my five-year-old a while ago when he told me a story. He began by referencing something we both heard that morning, but it was his interpretation of what he heard that caught my attention. It caught my attention so much that I could feel my physical anger reaction almost immediately.

My heart beat faster. My breaths shortened. My hands started to shake. I was angry. Within seconds I was forming a response. I wrote down what he said, I formulated the story for my husband, and I started composing a mental email.

I expect my child to be exposed to misogynistic thinking in advertising and television, I don’t expect him to face it here, I wrote in my head to people involved.

I listened to my son, and I let myself get angrier and angrier thinking about it. I was so angry that at some point I realized I was enjoying being angry and enjoying having a reason to be angry about a specific group of people. The evening went on, and when we had some privacy, I told my husband about the conversation. He suggested that perhaps I didn’t understand the context. He told me the story because he and my son had been there for the whole thing. He expanded out the boundaries I put around it.

I didn’t write any protest emails. I didn’t talk to anyone. I misunderstood the context my son was talking about because I wasn’t there for all of it.

The situation with my son didn’t need an angry email from me, but after my emotions settled, I could see something else.

My anger was pointing at something.

It was like an arrow directing my attention toward a situation, a bigger situation,  that needed to be addressed. The specifics here are not important, but I needed to be able to separate what I was getting angry about in the moment from what I actually needed to pay attention to. Because what it pointed at is something that required action.

The bigger picture involved an important decision we have to make. We needed to reflect on our reasons. This would mean many complex, sometimes difficult, discussions between us as a couple. It meant we needed to communicate that decision with others, people who may not understand or may be hurt by our actions. And there were many, many things in there that I needed to let go.

You don’t have to do much to find anger. Just turn on the news. Spin the dial on your radio. Listen closely to your friends. Pay attention to your emotions. We are an angry people. We know more, we feel more and that can keep us from seeing what we need to do. I wonder about your life and its specifics. What events or people push your buttons easily? What else could it be pointing to? Perhaps there is more action for you to take.

Being angry is easy, looking at what our anger is trying to get us to see can be so much harder, taking action can be harder still.

It requires our courage, vision and action. It means we need to slow down, let our emotions diffuse, let the anger go, but let the arrow remain. However difficult it may be for you to look at the thing anger wants you to see, dealing with it is what will bring freedom and peace.

Now it’s your turn: What is anger pointing at in your life? What steps do you need to take to deal with it? Is there someone with whom you could share this who could help you discern what to do next? 

Coming back to this blog after a long absence always feels awkward, and for those of you who have read it for a while, you know there have been many long absences. But here I am again, trying to put words together. I’m not sure what brought you here in the past or why you’re here now, but I am grateful for your presence. I built this space over time on stories of my life with the kids, stories about food, family and faith at the table, devotional thoughts that were supposedly “authentic.” I’m not against that kind of writing, but I have to wonder how much all of us need more encouragement. Are we so over-encouraged that our own freedoms and comforts are the most important things to us now? I guess this is my way of telling you that this is not like most of the posts you will find in this blog.

I wondered whether or not I should write about children forcibly separated from their parents in the United States, I wondered if I should write about Australia’s policies about asylum seekers. I wondered if you care about these topics, I wondered if this would have any impact in your life.

It is only privilege that allows us to think about the suffering of others without doing anything.

This is not about you. It’s not about me.

But I don’t think any of us want yet another political opinion as we swim in a sea of outrage. How do we become more concerned about the interests of others?

How do we become people of action in an era of outrage?

I’m writing for those of us who live in suburbia, drive in rush hour, drink lattes, endure difficult bosses, go to soccer practice, mop floors, and fold laundry. What does the suffering of some at the hands of immoral legislation have to do with us?

I hope these words are not another bucket of outrage water thrown into the sea. I hope we can see the land, swim toward it and find a way out.  Here’s why this matters to me.

Thirty-five years ago in July, mobs of Sinhalese people wandered around the streets of Colombo, Sri Lanka burning Tamil homes, killing Tamil people, raping Tamil women, looting Tamil goods. They burned my grandparents’ home to the ground, the second time this happened in seven years. They stole my grandmother’s jewelry. They came down the street where my parents and I lived, and we jumped over our wall and hid in our Sinhalese neighbor’s house for three days.

I was under two and have no active memories of these events, but however hard I try, I cannot undo these threads out of the fabric of my life. I think it is why I write anything at all. So when I come here and try to write a devotional thought about how the falling leaves reflect the changing seasons in the world and in our lives or how patience is a good thing and we need more of it, well, I just can’t do it anymore.

Every corner of our world holds lives torn apart by violence – every corner of your community holds it as well. If you don’t see it, you’re not looking.

I need you to believe that the safe, beautiful life you construct for yourself and for your family, it is not shared by other members of your community.

Is this going to matter to you?

Will it matter to us that other kids struggle in under-funded schools while our kids thrive in a private school? Are we going to be bothered by a tax system that privileges some at the expense of others? Is it sufficient to be content with our children’s physical safety while kids on our street return to all manner of abuse daily? Is it enough to vote abortion out of our countries while ignoring the needs of young women and men in our schools? Are we going to be a people who stick to our three issues without looking to the myriad of other problems in our community?

Will it be enough for us to build a safe life for ourselves and the people we love?

For me 2018 has been the year when I knew that my answer to this question was a solid no. If your answer is no, please keep reading. These are the small ways that I’ve been moving toward becoming a person of action in an era of outrage.

Reject your privilege

What’s the easiest way to find our privilege? Whenever I think or feel, “I deserve this,” I know I’m looking at my privilege.

“My child deserves the best teacher.” “I deserve that parking spot.” “I deserve a break at the end of this hard day.” “Our community deserves a better playground.” “I deserve ___ because I pay my taxes.” “My church deserves protection from the legal system.“ “I deserve to receive my food when I want it.”

Deserve is the language of privilege. Checking where I believe I deserve something is becoming a source of freedom for me – freedom from my privileges, freedom to see what other people need, freedom to see what I need to do.

You could look at it another way. I’ve chosen to believe that I have everything I need. Everything I need. There is no lack in my life, so why would I spend my time, energy and money giving myself more? Voting so that I am safer and happier? Enabling organizations and politicians who want to work for me? I have everything I need. This means I look to the interest of others. It means I vote for what is best for others. It means I am looking for the protection of people in my community who do not have the security I do.

Meet different people, ask better questions

Many people who read this blog are from a Christian background, and it can be easy for us to be so planted in a faith community that we have no idea of what else is happening around us. It’s been crucial for me to engage with people who are doing different things – people in local business, council members, and program co-ordinators at a community house. When you meet people who are involved in a different part of community life from you, ask them questions. Ask them what they notice about your city, ask them where there are the most needs, ask them who does good work.

I found out that our city has the highest rate of domestic violence and suicide in our region of Melbourne. I found out that there are many organizations already doing great things here. (Do not be so foolish to think you are the only person who can come up with good ideas. I’ve been amazed at the wonderful things already going on where I live, and the many heroes who have tirelessly served behind the scenes.) I am beginning to find places where I can take my skills and hopefully put them to use for the welfare of our city.

Make the big issue a local issue

We’ve all seen those Facebook posts asking us to sign a petition or giving an opinion about the latest even in the news today. The big issues can get us angry, but does it make us active? For me the answer is no. Yes, I’ve called my local and national politicians and given my opinion (we all should), but turning my eyes to our community has given me things I can do. Are you disgusted by your government’s policies on refugees and asylum seekers? After you call your representatives, find out who works with migrants in your community. Involve yourself there.

The key here is who do you know? Maybe you need some new people in your life – people who can draw you out and into different corners of your community.

Take small steps toward involvement 

Every movement I’ve taken in 2018 toward my community has been small. It’s been a conversation with a woman about her indigenous heritage at an event at our local kinder. It was a meeting with a project officer at a community house. It was asking a local council member a question about what most surprised her in our community. Small conversations, small steps. I still don’t feel like I have “done” much, but I’m moving toward something. I’m choosing to believe that these small steps will lead to finding my place in our community. But most importantly it has given me a bigger, deeper vision and love for where I live and what is going on around me.

Whatever the rest of 2018 holds for you, I hope that somehow you can take one step toward someone else in your community. Believe that you have nothing to lose and nothing to fear. Believe that there is a better life than simply being angry and outraged. Believe that there is a life for you outside of your privileges. Believe that you have something to give. Let’s do this together.

Now it’s your turn: I would love to hear your thoughts about community engagement – do you consider yourself involved in your places? What have been effective tools in getting involved? What keeps you from being as local as you can be? What is a corner of your community where you could be involved? 

sunrise melbourne australia setting goals

February is almost finished, and I’m still thinking about goals.  Here are a few things I’ve learned after eight weeks of 2018.

The domino effect: intentionality in one area leads to change in other areas.

Some of the small steps I take in other goals have led to other changes in my life, changes I wasn’t even thinking about. Here was my one, real parenting goal for the year: Smile at my kids. It’s simple and actionable, and only I am responsible for it. But making myself smile more at my kids helped me spend more real, playing time with them. It meant we got outside more. I felt more naturally inclined toward encouraging them. I helped my attitude. I think I feel happier and more content. One tiny goal is doing so much more in my life and relationships than I could have imagined.

The easiest goals to accomplish are the ones most clearly broken down.

My big project in January was finishing the kids’ playroom. I wrote down a detailed task list, and systematically assigned those tasks to weeks and days and powered through them. It was concrete. It was clear. It was relatively easy to accomplish. Some goals (see the next point) are less concrete, which makes it harder to work through in the same way. I still think the key is turning those bigger goals into tiny, bite-sized pieces, actionable in a day.

Resistance is real.

It’s what comes after you’ve chipped away at parts of your goal, but you still aren’t “there” yet. I’ve felt resistance most acutely with some of the bigger picture goals for 2018. I broke them down into smaller chunks, I attacked the chunks, and then I heard the questions. Who do you think you are? Why do you think this is going to work? Why should anyone listen to you about this? Dealing with these resistance voices has been the hardest part of working toward my goals this year. For any of your goals that require months or years of work, learn to expect resistance. And develop your plan for how to deal with it. I’m still struggling with this one, but my simplest plan is this: Keep doing the work.

The 80-20 principle.

I’m not trying to “not do this” or “do this” every day, for the whole year. I’m aiming for 80% of the time, and the grace to not do anything all the time has made it easier for me to push for the things I want.

I can only do one thing at a time.

January was my playroom month. As much as I tried to work toward writing goals, most of my capacity went to the playroom. I still did a few writing things on the side, but I can see now that I am just a one-thing person. Not everyone is like this, but for me to get through my days in a good way, I need to remember this and not make myself focus on more than one thing. You get to decide what works for you in what way it works for you.

Now it’s your turn: How are your goals working in 2018? Are you finding it easy to follow through? What’s working for you? 

Last year I misplaced a book in our house, at least that’s what I hoped. It is a copy of Thumbprint in the Clay by Luci Shaw, one that she signed and gave to me when I was at a writing retreat in 2016. It was my companion during Lent last year. I read through it slowly, savouring the words and ideas. I read it at home, I kept it in my bag, I read it in the car at school, and somewhere between getting in and out of cars and bags and bookshelves, I lost it.

This was June last year. I searched. I looked on our bookshelf, in drawers, in our bedroom and in the car. I couldn’t find it. I started praying about it and told God repeatedly how much this book meant to me, how devastating it was to not find it. I asked God to lead me to the book. Please, I begged.

Six months went by, and nothing happened. Every time I thought about it, I could feel a swell of anxiety and sadness welling up inside of me. I felt so silly for not taking better care of it. During one of the last few evenings of 2017, I went to bed with the book on my mind, asking God again for a miracle. Please, help me find this book.

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I woke up on January 1 with a long list of things to do because for the first time in years I made many, clear goals for 2018. The list is a combination of matters I want to work toward, habits I want to change, writing goals and home developments. But I will tell you that there is a fear in me when I look at this beautiful spread of plans. Dreaming is not difficult for me, but almost every year in the past few years, we had something big come along toward the beginning of the year that hijacked my intentions. Some years it was the fragility of my own mind, other years it had to do with our source of income, sometimes it was particularly difficult seasons of parenting. In March 2017, we dealt with the possibility of a family health issue that jeopardized my husband’s Australian visa application.

I had to look at the possibility of moving back to Europe, and it terrified me. When I think about 2017, my memories are lost to fear. It undid, upended, shook. Yes, there was a recovery, a solid, strong recovery, but a wound that doesn’t bleed still needs time to heal.

When I started dreaming about 2018 a few weeks ago, I will tell you that for every delicious endorphin the dreams elicited, there was another question: But what horrible thing is going to happen?

Will it be a car accident? Maybe it will be an illness for the kids? What if school is a disaster for my oldest? Is it going to be the house?

One of the gifts of these trying seasons is the way they make you stronger. One of its curses is the way it keeps you walking, furtively glancing behind.

But I made my plans, and they are that. Human plans. I made them in big picture and small with tiny pieces listed for January. Last Monday was the beginning. I was itching to start, and it felt good. I pulled Christmas chaos off our surfaces and into boxes, picked up the floors in our living room and moved things back into order.

Our bookshelves are too full, there are rows behind rows, books stacked on top of books and in front of books, but several stray books needed a spot on the shelves. When I straightened some spines that fell over to make room for a giant volume of Tolstoy, I noticed a few books tucked behind the row.

I moved the others aside, and there was my copy of Thumbprint in the Clay, its green cover catching light; God, winking at me. It was January 1, 2018.

I pulled it out, held it to my chest and cried. I couldn’t have asked for a better blessing for the start of a new year. It doesn’t take the fear away, but it anchors me in something bigger. God listens. He answers.

Ask for more.

There is no thing too small. There is no fear too trivial. There is no want too great. There is no miracle too big.

Before everything else in 2018, in all things that will come at us in 2018, when we face the world and all its pain, when we face our lives and the things we fear, in all these things, at all times: Ask for more. Ask Him for more.