Friday, December 18, 2015

A Very Messy Christmas

Dear Everyone: 

I feel you. Through the screen, I feel your stress. I see the strained smiles in your Christmas pictures. I hear the sound of hands tangled in tape, wrestling that cursed foil wrap and crying angry tears. 

'Tis the season. 

And I've been anxious about Christmas, too. It's a warm winter in the Bluegrass, and I'm sweating under my scarf and humming Christmas music like a prayer for snow, always wondering if it's enough.

Then I turn on the TV and see the perfect Christmas for for sale. My rational mind knows it's lie wrapped in a shiny bow. But then something tells me Christmas shouldn't feel like this, like pressure and comparison and never, ever having enough. 

Like never, ever being enough. 

And isn't that the point of every perfect Christmas on TV? We wonder if maybe we can buy the dream, finance it if we have to - if that's what it takes to finally be enough. 

But then. . . maybe not.

Maybe shopping and diamonds and dollars were never part of the perfect Christmas - that one perfect Christmas:

the pregnant virgin and her betrothed, 
their long walk to a common town, 
her unplanned delivery in a drafty stable,
the angels singing birth announcements to, 
of all people, 
a crowd of third-shift shepherds.

You know how the Son of God made His entrance, 
wrapped only in plain cloth, surrounded entirely by plain people - in utter, complete perfection on that first Christmas night.

This is the story, and all its parts read like an accident. It's dirty and noisy and smelly and, to be honest, a little scary because this was the plan all along. This night that looks like oops and smells like a barn, this Christmas that would literally be the worst commercial ever and would sell no toys and would inspire no spending - this is the perfect Christmas. It was no one else's plan - not Mary's or Joseph's. Not yours.

But it was this:
Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven

And if the perfect Christmas should come to our home this year, I'm sure it'll come that very same way: unexpected, messy, and absolutely enough. 
God with us.

Have a Merry Christmas, 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The End of the Story

So this is the end.

Palm Sunday is here, with Good Friday on the way and Easter on its heels. My 40 days are finished today. 
Good Friday. I was going to say I used to get it confused with Black Friday, way back when I was a kid. But the truth is I got them confused a couple weeks ago.

It's not that I think Good Friday's the ultimate shopping day. It's just that crucifixion doesn't seem like a good day. 

Of course it was good, but it was also a seriously hard day: the night before, sweating blood and the kiss of death. Abandonment, jeering, and beating. Brutality, vinegar, and finally - finally - the release of death.

All of that, for all of us.

And as Lent is coming to a close, and so is our fast. I'll write when I have something to say, and you'll drink a cup of coffee or log onto Facebook or eat a king-size chocolate bar. And we'll smile because we did it.
Some of you did Lent perfectly, and I'm giving you a digital high five for it. Me, I did it imperfectly - 40 days give or take, minus Sundays and a Friday here and there. And that's enough.

It's enough because my kids have seen me writing, and they're writing, too. Princess scrawls notes in her kindergarten script, and Little Man keeps a journal. It says, "Private! Stay out!" on the cover. But he reads it to me and wonders if it's too harsh or if it sounds ok.

I tell him it's great.

I love that they're writing, and I don't care about the spelling, and they picked it up without being told. They picked it up because they saw it. They saw me typing, and they decided to write.
Full disclosure: This is an old picture.
Part of me thinks it's terrifying to raise writers. (How do you know which stories they'll tell?)

But then most of me knows it's a miracle to raise writers. Stories only survive if they inspire a storyteller.

For me, Lent has been stories. The good, the bad, and the ugly - they all live because they've been told. This is a small space, and these are small stories, but they're told, and this is the thing:

They matter because Easter is the season for stories - yours and mine and Christ's together. It's a story of sin and sacrifice, of grief and resurrection. 

And that story doesn't end with death, but with life -
the life we live to tell it again and again.

Ready for Easter,

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Living Tradition

Yesterday the kids and I did some of our Easter traditions, maybe a little early. We dyed hard-boiled eggs, and I hid plastic eggs in the house since it was so cold it snowed. 

A dozen plastic eggs held symbols of the resurrection.
As we opened our story eggs, we read about the crucifixion. The kids were horrified, of course. They're children, and stories open their emotions. 

But adults are different. I told the story routinely, numb to the shock of what Christ did - until I saw it in their faces. 
Each Sunday, we take Communion. We confess our sins and humble ourselves, and we accept the huge grace that comes with it.

But if we're not careful, we still forget. 
Some people say tradition is the problem, and repetition just makes us numb. And maybe it can. 

But then God seems to have a thing for memorials. In Communion, we revisit Christ's table, and our senses encounter the reality of what He did. We remember as we experience, and tradition isn't the problem.

The problem is us. Whether a routine is dead or alive depends entirely on us.

As we tuck our kids into bed, do we consider the precious gift they are? When we take a deep breath, are we glad for healthy lungs? As we stand at the stove cooking dinner again, are we amazed at the bounty of our homes? Not usually, right?

Routines can make us numb. But then routines can also wake us up. 

In the routine of Communion, Christ asks us to recall the price He paid, to remember the life He gave -  and to see with confidence the new life we already have. 
As Lent draws to a close, Easter beckons us to new life. And we're given a choice:

Dead tradition or childlike wonder   

Resurrecting the awe, 

Friday, March 27, 2015

Considering the Lilies

Not long ago, I repotted the hardiest plant in the world. I know it's the hardiest because I've owned it eight years, and it's still (mostly) green.
See it there, happy in the book corner? It loves books.
My grandma gave it to me when I taught in a classroom with tiny windows. I set it on the bookshelf, and it grew long and lush like it lived in the rainforest. When I moved to a classroom with no windows at all, its vines stretched even longer.

It was thick and heavy, and it rode in our U-Haul truck three different times. In each home, in every lighting, when it was forgotten and when it was remembered, it grew. No matter what, it thrived. 

After its third ride in the moving truck, I set the plant on a wicker bookshelf.
Happy, even with the brown spot from its night spent outside.
A few months later, I was vacuuming our little apartment when I bumped into that wicker bookshelf. The plant fell in a hailstorm of soil and roots. 

I cried while I cleaned up the mess. I thought it was hopeless.

But I remembered something my mom had said about this plant - that it could grow roots from nothing. So I put one of the leaves into a glass of water and waited.

And of course, Mom was right.

When the root was puny but the leaf was still green, I planted it. And now it has seven leaves.

Or make that eight.
See the sprout? That's a new leaf.
I'm amazed at new growth when I remember the struggle this plant's had. It once spent a night outside. It's lived without any sunshine. It's been forgotten and abandoned for weeks at a time. And it's still growing like a weed - like the tough little vine it is. 

One little leaf started a whole new life. And she looks happy now, doesn't she?

Sometimes a little light. . .  

and some stretching space for our roots. . . 
are just what we need to grow strong. 

And we'll discover the secret to thriving is trust. We trust the One who gives us all we need - because He is all we need. He's light and water and food and vine, and He gives us room to stretch ourselves long. 

And from our weak little root comes something unexpected: multiplication.

Considering the lilies (or the philodendrons),

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Free to Grow


After tonight, that's how many blogs I'll have left before Lent is o-veeeerrr. (I wrote that in the Pauly Shore voice. Did you catch that?)

At the moment, I have 50 ideas in the five-sentence stage, and I'm running out of words.

Plus I have an interview on Tuesday, so my brain is basically Animal trying not to think about drums. 
Photo credit
When I interviewed for my first official job at a school, the principal saw my Bible college degree and had a few questions. He wanted to know my intentions; I told him I didn't plan to teach Sunday school at work, and he laughed. He was a warm-hearted Presbyterian, and he was relieved.

Thinking back on that, I wonder if I could've answered better.

The truth is, the life of the Christian should be fruitful. And things like joy and patience, kindness and faithfulness make great employees. It's totally cool to be peaceful and self-controlled, even at work. 

That's the deal with fruit: It can go with you. 
But most of the time, I don't look much like love and joy and peace. Most of the time, even my strengths are weaknesses.

I'm a natural editor, for instance. Need someone to notice the tiny spot on your shirt, or to fix your church bulletin that says, "Your welcome here"? I'm on it. And that's good, but it means I'm a critic, too. 

I'm task-oriented. But I can be demanding. I'm focused, but sometimes I miss what's important. I'm logical, but I can seem cold.

And those things aren't the fruit of the Spirit. They're the fruit of my own life - the desire to do things for myself, and the drive not to ask for help. 

They're what happens when I won't admit my need. And good fruit doesn't come from us, anyway. Branches only bear fruit when they're connected to the vine. 

And when we know that, we're finally free just to grow. 

Leaning in harder,

Halfway Home: A Love Story

I'm obsessed with thrift stores. I don't know if it's the treasure hunting or the being cheap (or um, frugal), but the only thing better than thrifting is shoe shopping (not the same thing). And I don't buy shoes often.
Batman's awesome red coat? Thrift store!
Today Princess and I walked to a thrift store in our little town, just over a mile each way. At the start of the journey, she was running. She squealed and skipped and bounced (which just goes to show five-year-olds have more energy than 36-year-olds). 

But halfway there, that changed. Her energy ran low, and she said she was tired (which just goes to show 36-year-olds have more endurance than 5-year-olds). So we stopped on the sidewalk, and I asked if she wanted to go home. She shook her head, and we kept going. 
Cute blue dress she wore the day we spray painted this chair red? Totally thrifted.
At the store, we found her a dress, a shirt, and a pair of shorts. She was thrilled. And the whole time we shopped, she made her usual commentary: 

"Mommy, look at this beautiful shirt! It would look pretty on you." (It was a sequined half-shirt tank top.) 

"Why do they have so many baby shoes? Babies don't need shoes."

"Aww, this book has a cat on it! Oh. . . never mind. Looks like someone tried to eat it."

And she literally announced, disappointed: "Everything in this whole store is used! All the stuff we buy here is used.stuff."
The Christmas elf's dress: Thank you, thrift store.
I explained the idea of giving and receiving, using instead of wasting. But the dog-eaten corner of that book had done her in. The thrift store lost its sparkle.

On our way home, Princess's legs got tired again, and she sighed when we climbed the hills. She'd see one in the distance and ask, "Why do we have to climb these hills?" (Two miles is a big job for little legs.) I told her we were halfway home, and we had to keep walking if we wanted to get there. She kept moving.

And as we walked down the last little hill, she saw her daddy's car pulling into our neighborhood. She squealed and darted ahead, shouting, "I got my energy back, Mommy!"

Princess ran for home, and she ran for Daddy, and her secondhand jacket went right with her. 

She forgot about used stuff and tired muscles, and she just flew home.

Love is powerful like that.

Not stopping halfway, 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Coffee and Peace: Or What's Not a Sin

(Yesterday, the Preacher was working on a new blog layout for me, a little simpler and with more room for, y'know - words and stuff. So this is yesterday's post. Not that you're counting, but I'm a rule-follower. Now back to your regularly scheduled Lent.)

Fact: I was in middle school when I realized drinking coffee wasn't a sin. 
Photo credit
When I was little, my grandma was the only person I knew who drank coffee, and at the time she wasn't really a church-y person. I adored her. But kids are black-and-white, and I thought coffee was wrong because my parents didn't drink it, and my grandma did. 

I'm so glad I was wrong. 

It turns out I was wrong about more than just coffee. Over the years, I've found that feeling bad doesn't always mean I've sinned. Sometimes I'm just fighting pride, and sometimes I'm breaking away from a wrong message.

And maybe you can relate to these:

5 Hard Things That Aren't Actually Sins: 

5) Accepting help. I'm Appalachian at heart, and the first rule of Appalachians is this: Do it yourself. And the second is like it: If you can't do it yourself, ask your family. But don't accept a hand-out.

When we pastored in Ohio, one of our board members was a silver-bearded sanguine with a wide smile and a generous heart. He and his wife immediately became our family. One day, our friend wanted to buy lunch for the Preacher, but he declined. Our friend said, "Pastor, why won't you let me bless you? You're keeping me from a blessing." We didn't need help, but we learned to accept a gift with grace.

If the God who made everything with a word brought friends to pray with Him in the Garden and asked for a drink from a Samaritan woman, why are we so determined to go it alone? We can give and receive, both without sin.

4) Feeling sad or angry. Sometimes in faith, we confuse joy with happiness. It's hard to grieve or admit we're struggling, as though God created Stepford Wives instead of sons and daughters.

But the truth is, we're made in the image of a God with strong emotions: Anger. Grief. Sorrow. Jesus upended tables and made a scene. And of course He wept

Sometimes anger is sinful, but not always. God is infinite and perfect and also has shades of emotion. We can reflect Him in that.

3) Being honest with God. There was a time in my life when I only said safe prayers. I was sure if I spoke my real thoughts - my fears and questions and even my doubts - God would be shocked.

I guess that was before I read David's words, though. Or even Jesus's. As it turns out, I'm nothing new - and neither are you. God can handle our questions and our pain, and incredibly He wants to hear from us.  

2) Wondering about the time during church. Years ago at the end of a long service we attended, the speaker scolded the crowd. He said we'd been looking at our watches, and we were putting God on the clock. He told us to repent. 
Photo credit
And for that service, maybe he was right. But is it really a sin to check the time? Maybe people needed lunch. Maybe they were up late with babies. Or maybe they were just people who liked to know the time. It might be annoying.

But annoying me isn't really a sin. And neither is annoying you. So maybe we could just give each other a break? 

1) Making a mistake. Churches often define sin to kids like this: Sin is when we make a mistake. Then we list some possibilities to limit the field - lying, stealing, maybe cheating on a test.

Most kids don't take the limitations to heart, though. They're built to generalize, and they know a lot about mistakes - broken plates, lost glasses, chipped front teeth. They grow up thinking accidents really upset God. 

But a broken plate's just a broken plate, and declaring the wrong college major or driving a lemon or moving to Chicago when you wish you'd gone to Dallas. . . those are just mistakes. (Unless you're Jonah.) And God doesn't seem nearly as discouraged by our humanity as we do. 

He loves us in the midst of our questions and mistakes, our sorrow and our scrapes, our weakness and our overwhelming need. With grace, He opens pierced hands to offer peace. 

And peace is what all our rules could never give us.  

Free from not-sins,