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I loved him through it. 

A friend was telling me about a difficult period in a close relationship, and her five words have been running around in my head and burning in my heart ever since.

I will look back on 2013 as yet another crazy full year with another funeral, a couple of weddings, a birth, an international move, and a two-year-old. One day when our lives slow down I’m sure I will think back to these years when everything seems to happen all at once and wish for the action. Right now I long for rest.

It is easy for me to remember my dreams for this year, to see what did not happen, the house that was never clean, the teeth that weren’t flossed, the unfolded laundry, the pilates I didn’t do, the harsh words spoken, but those five words, they tell a better story.

God loved me through it. 

When I was pregnant and barely able to get through my days, he loved me through it, and at the end of the day, I could celebrate that I was there. Standing. The day was done, and I had made it. He loved me through spare ribs from my favourite Chinese take away, through orchestra performances watched with Husband by my side and a kicking baby in my womb, through my favourite purple maternity pants and black t-shirt with pink flowers.

The days when I did not think I could handle one more tantrum, when I horrified myself with what I could do and say to a Little Boy who could barely put two words together, God was there, and he loved me through it. He taught me how to ask forgiveness of my son, how to receive grace from a still baby, and he gave me what I needed moment-by-moment to parent with strength, love and kindness.

Laboring through my second birth with a delivery that was going no where, pushed to my limit, but never without his presence, God loved me through it, there was grace holding me up, pushing me forward, a healthy, beautiful son. I slept so soundly in those following days in the hospital, the best chocolate tart I’ve ever had for dessert one lunch, friends who sat and listened to the birth story, all gifts of his love.

Transitioning to life as a family of four, leaving our lone family home in Geneva, saying goodbye to our beloved apartment, ending a chapter, and working with a little boy who was heartbroken and confused by it all. I don’t even know how we did it, why it was mostly so easy, how I was able to say goodbye to a place that held so much beauty, so much promise, so much pain. He was there. He loved me through it, and I know that the chapter is closed, the story is finished.

And Sweden, what can I say about this land filled with quiet, private, kind, helpful people? I’ve lived here for almost five months, but they have been full, beautiful ones. I think I’m in the kindest, most helpful part of Europe, and every time a shop attendant helps me in the store, smiles at me and says, Have a nice day, God is loving me through them. Every day I get out with two kids in the car, find parking, get them out, navigate a new culture, new roads, darkness, one snow day (so far), a new medical system, grocery store and language: God is loving me through it and in it all. Sweden has been good to me and good for me, the love of God in this short season of life.

I can hear the fireworks exploding even though it’s only 7:01pm, Baby is cooing beside me eager to get to sleep, Husband and Little Boy are on their way home. The toddler will go to sleep, and we’ll have a grown up dinner of fondue Chinoise, a family tradition of his. And I will sleep as much as I will be allowed by our smiley Baby.

I’m here. The year is done; I can say: I was loved through this year, in all of my mistakes and successes, in all of my good and bad, in all of my ups and downs, God loved me through it. 

And I am thankful.

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I had this dream of Christmas looking like sparkling white lights with the smell of cinnamon and taste of hot chocolate, warm meals appearing night after night on our candlelit (clean) table while Little Boy shoveled spoonfuls of food into his mouth, the flickering light reflected in his eyes. Our first Swedish Christmas held the promise of elegant perfection.

But oh I am so exhausted. 

Night after night, my chubby Baby pushed me to my physical limit, and day after day my Little Boy pushed me to my emotional limit. When the dinner hour rolls around, I have the energy to grab chicken nuggets out of the freezer, and thank God for the frozen section at Lidl (and the husband who bought it for me).

Yes, we’ve lit the candles. It is magical every night, but I mostly enjoy the way it hypnotises both boys completely into silence, and I eat up those minutes of quiet because the whining and crying and tantruming will be around the corner.

My desire for supernatural, sacred moments in this time of Advent have not come beautifully wrapped with the lesson letterpressed into the gift tag. Parenting desperation drives me to the stable this year.

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It snowed last weekend, and it held all the promise of Christmas magic. Little Boy’s first snow day in Sweden, we finally get to use our wind/water/snow/life-proof snow suits and boots. He opens his advent calendar envelope for the day – Snowman Day – we are all excited.

The snow stayed on the ground, and on Tuesday we went out to the water – at his request – with the sled. I knew it was a risk, it was too close to lunch and nap time, I knew we would have some problems walking there and back with me pushing the stroller and him pulling the (light and plastic) sled. But this is the moment when I tell myself, Come on Mom, it’s Christmas, it’s time to be spontaneous, there’s snow, he loves this, he wants to do this, he will surprise you with his resilience. 

So we get out there in our impenetrable gear, and half way down the street, I can feel the drizzle beginning, and it turns out I left the one other thing we would need: the stroller’s rain cover. So all of us are weather-proof except for Baby.

Two-year-olds don’t cope well with changes of plans, I’m discovering, especially when it means losing a trip to the water, one of his favourite activities. I try to pre-empt the disappointment as best I can.

Can you feel the water on your face? It’s raining, kiddo, Daniel will get wet. 

My sweetie, we aren’t going to be out as long as we thought. 

Let’s leave the sled here and walk to the water without it because we have to come back quickly. 

Okay, we’ll say ‘Hello ducks’ and ‘Hello water’ and then say bye bye. 

None of this is working, he can’t be prepared, he doesn’t want to leave. We only just arrived.

There are times when obedience is required and necessary, other times when I know I need to be gentle with his tender heart and the aching emotion of disappointment. I wish I could say that I choose these patient and quiet qualities in these moments, but I do not.

The tantrum begins, and I have to carry him and a sled and push a stroller, eventually he starts a bit of walking, only to cry again, and the truth is I am fast losing “it” – whatever ability I have to be compassionate. When we are finally almost at our house, standing on the pavement across the street and the raindrops are falling a bit faster, I give up. I can’t drag/carry/push them both anymore, and I don’t see a way home without leaving one momentarily on the sidewalk.

Little Boy sits on the ice-laden pavement crying, red-faced with tears dripping down, and I leave him there to push Baby into our yard. It’s less than a minute, and we can see each other the whole time, but his face is tragic. I turn around and run back to him, pick him up, and I try to fight my anger and frustration with him, with myself, with the situation.

No talk about obedience right now, please Mom, let gentleness reach out to him, allow kindness to meet his needs, and beat down on your need to lash out in a lecture. We enter the house, and I start to get lunch ready still battling my own emotions. Because what I really want to do is give him the silent treatment, to let my frustration speak in a turned back and ignoring form.

You deserve your unhappiness because you did not walk home and comply. 

Yes, I want him to suffer a little bit.

Maybe next time you’ll listen and do as I say. 

Because I’m suffering, too.

How could you leave your child on the sidewalk like that? He will have rejection issues for the rest of his life because of this moment. 

These are the worst moments, for me, when I feel like I’m fighting everything, but in a moment a wave of compassion breaks through, and I see him – a little human, frustrated by a change he didn’t see coming, being told he was going to have something and then that thing was taken away. I see myself, the strength it requires physically and emotionally to take care of kids I love, the disappointment of not being able to give him a normal, fun experience because of a forgotten rain cover, and the truth – everything will work out in the end.

I sit down on a kitchen stool, pull him into my arms, he is yearning to be held.

You wanted to go to the water. We had to change plans because of the rain. We can’t let Daniel get wet, kiddo. I’m sorry you were disappointed. You will not always get what you want. 

We hug and we hug and we hug, and the truth is washing over me. I have to overcome my petty emotions – I am the parent, he needs me to reach out to him.

This is what love is – it means being the first to move, it means making the effort when I don’t feel like it, it means embracing my son when I have walked away, it is offering myself when he has rejected my efforts. This is what has exhausted me all advent long because my children have needed my presence day after long day and night after long night, they have needed me and drained me, and I’ve given (and withheld), and oh I am so exhausted.

And it’s in this mess of hugging when I don’t feel like it, nursing when I want to sleep and reaching out when I want to be still that my advent miracle arrives.

Every moment I give the boys my presence in their daily lives, I do it in the shadow of the stable where God chose to lay aside his rights and his home to embrace our broken selves in all our tantrums, disobedience and sin.  Every moment I spend myself for my small ones, I do it in the shadow of the cross where God spent himself for me, for the world. 

Jesus chose a dirty stable, a humble carpenter’s life, the sting of the whip, the pain of the nail. He reached out to me, my name written forever on his hands, and he pulled me close.

This is my Advent story.

I’m linking up today with Jennifer Dukes Lee and the #TellHisStory community of writers.

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December is here with Advent, Christmas, markets and mania, and these are my vows for this month of mystery and magic. These are my prophecies, the words I speak over my life.

This December I am waiting for a miracle. 

I don’t know what it will be, how it will happen, if it is big or small or medium, but I am writing it down, willing faith to rise  up. There will be a miracle. There will be a miracle.

I want to spend this month seeing, watching, waiting, not wandering from checkout basket to checkout basket, not weaving through another sparkly store. I want the only glittering thing to be the shine in my eyes: gratitude, warmth, enough. I have enough. My home is enough. My family is enough. Jesus is enough. 

I want to savour this December, to laugh out loud, to anticipate with our son, to have fun parties. I want our home will smell of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and star anise. We will enjoy the simple things, we will bake cookies, go on night walks, and drink glögg all to the soundtrack of merriment and bells.

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I am going to choose my relationships in these days because my husband and my children want me more than a great experience, a fine meal and Christmas activities. I am letting go of the perfect Christmas moment with its lights, shine and the magical experience for presence – His presence with me, my presence with my family, our presence in our community. I will give the gift of presence this Christmas.

As darkness covers my corner of the world, I will light candles in our windows, on our mantle, on the table. I will remember the one who brought light out of darkness, and I will open myself for the Light of the world to pierce my soul again. To let His story move me, to allow Him to change me, to let the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us become flesh to me again, so that I might be strengthened to move, to take up the work He has for me to do now.

I will shut the voices of the world out in the next 29 days, silencing all except my communication with friends, outlets for writing and anything I need for the daily living in a foreign country. I will read books, and read words that only strengthen and edify. I will wait, and I will watch.

There will be oil in my lamp. There will be a flame in the candle by the door. I’m here. I am waiting for you to come.

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This December, he will lift my chin and say these words, Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her. 

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I wanted to be able to say I made it through November with a huge smile in my face and victory in my heart. We wrote our thank you lists, filled our thankfulness tree with leaves, drank apple “pider” and I even made my first fire. I should be feeling triumphant, but I feel like I crawled to a finish line and barely got my feet over the line before collapsing in a heap.

The cold is exhausting, apparently. Or maybe it was the baby who seemed to be awake all night? Perhaps the toddler whose will is strengthening at the same pace as his clever mind is developing creative ways to get around me? Or the 2:30pm twilight and the 3:30pm darkness? I’m taking my vitamins, and I thought it would be enough, but I have spent most days willing my way through while piles of to-be-folded laundry gathered on the floor and my hair that is falling out by the fistful pooled on each stair.

I wanted to think on deep things, write complex words, but all I could do was sit for hours on the couch with my feet up and a mug of tea in my hands. It was simple, quiet restoration. I needed to fall asleep with our baby in my arms at 1am only to wake up at 5am. Both of us slept. Not my idea of how either of us should be sleeping, but we were sleeping.

I thought I wanted to feast at a table of complex food, but the truth is I needed the basics. I made this soup last night, and it felt like I was really cooking for the first time in weeks, and this after cooking multiple meals almost daily for the past month.

Maybe it’s just better when life is simple? When you’re thankful to make it to the finish line even if you weren’t striding toward it with a winning time? Maybe you need some of this soup in your life instead of that fancy stuffed something you had in mind?

Tomato, Lentil and Kale Soup (adapted from The Muffin Myth)

I used The Muffin Myth’s recipe as a base, but I gave the soup an Asian flavour by adding ginger, cumin, coriander and cinnamon. It’s an excellent soup without the modifications, but Husband and I thoroughly enjoyed this “Indian” version of it. 

2 cups small green or beluga lentils
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
1  thumb-sized piece of ginger, minced
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 Tbsp cumin
1/2 tsp coriander powder
2 cartons (500g each) of diced tomatoes, including juices
4 cups vegetable broth
2 fistfuls of kale (or more, depending on your tastes)
salt and pepper

1. Cook the lentils in a small pot of water until just tender (I slightly undercooked mine at this stage because they will cook in the soup later). Drain and set aside.

2. In a larger pot, sautee your chopped onion in olive oil until the onions turn a lovely brown shade. Add the crushed garlic and sautee for 30 seconds or so, then add the crushed ginger. It’s good if you have all your spices ready so that the garlic and ginger don’t stick to the pan too much. Add in the cinnamon, cumin and coriander. (Note: we love cumin, but if you’re not sure, start with a smaller amount like 1 teaspoon and then keep adding to the soup once it’s all in the pot. Also, the original recipe adds the chili flakes here but I skipped that because I want the toddler to eat it as well.) Stir it all together.

3. Add the boxes of tomato, and stir well. We use boxes because I try to avoid canned tomotoes, but those would be fine as well. Add the vegetable stock, and continue stirring. Check if it needs salt (a very important part of the cooking process if you’re a salt-a-holic like me), and add some and add pepper as well. Bring the soup to a boil then turn it down to simmer.

4. Add the lentils to the soup, set a timer for 15 minutes and let it all come together. This is where I would check to see if you want to add more cumin or cinnamon or any spice you think would go with it.

5. After 15 minutes, add in the two fistfuls of kale and let it cook for five minutes or so. If the soup is too thick because of the lentils, add in some water or vegetable stock.

6. Enjoy in bowls on a cold evening.

We are preparing our home and our hearts for Advent this week, so I’ll be pulling out this Advent calendar I scrapped together last year out of old Pampers boxes and raffia. Last year as I read about the conflict in the DRC, I was overwhelmed by the pain traumatised children face in our world today, and this Advent Calendar was one simple response. I am still overwhelmed when I think about Syria and Tacloban, but this little step is a reminder to me that I can do something every day. Iwrote about how this came about last year, and I’m reposting it today. I’ve also added details about how we did it at the end.

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Before he told raging waters to be still, before he fed 5,000, before the blind saw and the lame walked, before there were prostitutes, tax collectors and fishermen, before the nails and the whips and the thorns, before all of this, he was a baby, he was a child.

What is he thinking about when he looks at the babies and children of the world today? Does he remember what it was like to be hungry, naked, tired, afraid?

Come to me, all of you, Jesus would say, just as he said 2,000 years ago, Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. 

When grenades fall in Damascus and little children fearfully huddle in apartment buildings,  Jesus remembers running with his parents to hide for his life.

When a little boy walks the streets of Tacloban because a typhoon obliterated his home, Jesus remembers that he was born in the mess of an animal stable with no home, no safety.

When there is no food to eat again and tiny tummies quake with hunger in Somalia, Jesus remembers 40 days without food and water.

When a child in Gaza prays in the night for peace, Jesus remembers being far from his true home, alone in a cold, hostile, violent world.

When little girls in Cambodia are beaten and exploited, Jesus remembers the sting of the lash and the nail driven through his wrist and the betrayal of his friends.

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He didn’t have evergreens, and there was no bunting of glass balls around the manger. Yes, he knew the safety and security of his mother’s embrace, but he didn’t know – or maybe he did, please no theological debates – that they were in a stable, stinky, dirty, dark and unhygienic in every way. He didn’t know that his parents had very little financial provision, he didn’t know that someone was going to try and end his life before it had barely even begun and that his first two years would be spent on the run.

He was a baby. He was a child. And he knows what it was like to have nothing and to be in danger, and when the chorus of cries from exploited, abused, neglected and unwanted children rise to heaven, he collects them all because he knows.

This Advent season, we are letting our cry from this corner of Sweden join with theirs. As a family for the next 24 days, we will have a different country to briefly look at daily and take a few minutes each day to pray for the needs of its children. Because he was a baby, too. He was once a child, and this year this is how we prepare our hearts for the coming of the perfect Messiah who remembers all of our weaknesses and knows all of our pain and came to bring life to everyone who would receive him.

Come thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free. From our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee. 

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The How

1. I went to Google Images and searched for photos of children from countries I wanted to pray for, and I also went to Compassion’s and World Vision’s child sponsorship pages and picked specific kids from places that are dear to us and also places that are facing particular challenges.

2. I printed out the photos, cut them out and stuck them on cardboard squares cut out of our old Pampers boxes.

3. I strung the squares out on raffia, and put a numbered clothespin on each one marking the day, then I hung it up in a place where we could easily see it.

4. There’s no need to get religious about this – prayers aren’t long or complicated.  At a certain time (rarely the same one), I would tell Josiah daily that it was time to pray for a “kiddo in another part of the world,” and we would walk over to the photo, pray for the child in it and pray for the land he or she lived in and the other children in it.