sled

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.

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.

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Wow, you are really fertile, that’s what my neighbor said to me when I told her the story of our now two pregnancies. The creation of life is a complex and impossible combination of timing, hormones and other things I do not understand, and for whatever reason Husband and I don’t have to do much for these things to click.

And it is Advent, and I am thinking because I do not understand why some people conceive children and others cannot, why some people divorce and others stay together, why some are lonely, depressed and anxious while others are not, why some people have abusive childhoods and others loving parents, why some people have illness and others are well, why some people live in war-torn areas and others live in prosperity and ease, so many reasons to ask why, so little understanding.

But I know that pain is life’s great equalizer. We all have it. No one can escape it. 

The causes for pain in each of our lives are different, but pain doesn’t sit on a spectrum. Maybe mental health specialists could give us a hierarchy of pain, stresses and grief, but we know that none of us can plot our sorrow on a graph because our sadness is ours, we live with its ravages and we know that it cannot be compared to another person or situation. 

Yes, fertility is not our issue, but we have others, the things I don’t write about on this blog and share with only a few close friends, and the deepest issues that only pass between Husband and I as we hold each other’s hearts, fears and secrets, and others still that pass from my heart to God’s heart, where he embraces the deepest griefs, and the pain that has no words or even understanding.

And this is what I have found every time I as pour my heart out to him – He is my consolation, his presence is my peace, and the ears of his heart are always listening to my cries. Not one is rejected, not one is ignored. You have kept count of my tossings, David says, put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book? 

God respects our pain, he doesn’t put some tears in a bottle while deeming others “unworthy,” he puts your tears in his bottle. All of them. He doesn’t remember some of our griefs and not others because he thinks we should be stronger and deal with it. He counts each one of your tossings. Your pain is written down. 

What do you see in the middle of your deepest difficulties? Is it the image of a heartbroken Father running toward you to grab you, embrace you and draw you into himself? Because he is running toward you with arms open, not always with answers, but always with his presence. 

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I draw near to this truth as life stretches inside of me, as I stretch toward Him and as heaven bends down toward us once again. He drew near to us then, a tiny baby held in the arms of earthly parents but really he is holding all things in his hands, and he is holding me in his hands, he is holding you in his hands. He holds all things in his hands. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 

This Advent, let us allow him to be before all things in our lives, let us let him hold all things together in our lives, let us receive his peace again as we are reconciled once more by the blood that flowed when he was born in a stable, lying in the shadow of a bloodied, pain-ridden cross.