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.
Long blogging breaks are never planned. I stop writing one week, and the days start blurring, time gets away from me and before I realize it’s been two months since I last wrote anything. Yes, there are some lines in a journal, but mostly I’ve been writing grocery lists, Facebook messages and emails.
When I went away for three days in July to write, to pray and to think (and to sleep), I was ready to give up writing on a blog or writing for public consumption. Too little time. Too much work. And I could not see or understand the why. There are so many blogs out there – outstanding ones, I should say – why another one? The world is noisy enough, full of opinions about how we live or how to live, and I shudder at the thought of contributing more to the noise in your head and mine. I haven’t doubted that I write or want to write, only doubted the means through which I do that. But I’m still here, there is the seed of writing in this space, I have a home here, one that calls me back time and time again.
So this post is a bit of a free-for-all update, just stopping in to say hello, I am here and missing this space.
I tend to go quiet in November. Two out of the last four years it’s because I was in the first trimester of a pregnancy, and the other two years were for sleep deprivation from a not-sleeping-five-month-old. I am happy to report that this November involved neither of those two things. I played with the boys, I cooked good food and put frozen pizzas in the oven on other days, I worked up a sweat on an elliptical machine, I woke up early and sometimes woke up late.
For the first time in a long time, I can say these few words: I am starting to feel like myself again.
Marriage and motherhood changes us, and when it happens so quickly, the changes swirl around, there is no time to take it in, and for a reflector like me, no time to process and understand. But I know that I didn’t laugh the same way. The spark of life and passion that had always burned somewhere inside, it was gone.
We head toward the darkest days of the year now. Light breaks between 8 and 8:30am, and it is dark like the night around 3:30pm with the sun setting (if it is there) around 2:30pm. Trees shed their leaves, the ground begins to freeze, there is death, death and more death. My soul flows with these seasons, last year when November and December rolled around, I wanted to hide somewhere and sleep.
But not this winter. I wish I could tell of some miracle transformation, but in reality it has been slow, steady, hard work. Counseling appointments, going to a small group to discuss and deal with habits, hurts and hangups, steady time alone, sharing my life with a few trusted people, and going to the gym.
I am now a gym person, by the way. I would say I have no idea how that happened except I do. It has free childcare. Every time I walk into this place, I want to cry and thank them because I have energy again, I haven’t noticed the weather, I am enjoying my life in Sweden. The other day a woman at the gym asked me what I thought about Swedish weather, and I said, Oh it’s been such a beautiful autumn. I think this November was so much better than last years, the way the light shined and the way the trees looked, everything has just been so beautiful and gentle.
She looked at me like I had absolutely lost my mind. Later I found out that we’ve had our darkest November in over a 100 years here in Sweden. I haven’t noticed.
My body was longing to work hard at something again, so much energy stored up inside, it needed release, and my spirit follows suit, working hard on some new projects, creating when I can, fighting to enjoy my children, fighting to choose kindness instead of anger. I can feel myself releasing as I put my hand to these things.
So Christmas is here again. We’ve put up the lights, candles flicker in our windows, we are on day 12, and so far still not losing our minds (and tempers) over Advent activities. Last week a dear friend came over with her two kids. They watched a movie twice and ate popcorn and chocolate for dinner while she and I caught up. She hung a tree branch up in our living room. I think it took her less than 20 minutes. It’s even better than I ever thought it could look.
We had a branch over a couch in our apartment in Geneva. It was one of my most favourite things, and it’s taken a long time to do it here, but there it hangs, more beautiful, rugged and raw than the last one. Rigged from the ceiling by a friend who knew what she was doing, while our four children danced around the room singing Jingle Bells and Angels We Have Heard on High. It was basically a perfect evening. The relationships I longed for are here.
It’s been four years of conception and birth, fruitfulness that seemed effortless to my body, yet the same body held a barren soul, a space that increasingly became a wasteland of ideas and longing. But the season changes. I suppose it always does. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, on those living in a land of deep darkness, a light has shined. In Jesus was life, and that life was the light of all men.
Merry Christmas, my friends. I so appreciate those of you who have read this blog over the years. This will be my last post for 2014. I’m going to be doing some thinking and hopefully writing between now and the new year, there will be a bit of travel, too. You can follow along on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. I’ll be back in 2015 but until then, I hope your Christmas season is full of the light of Jesus – may he hold all of your things and all of your life together in his tender hands.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.