When Christmas Isn’t Merry

When Christmas Isn’t Merry

Right now someone is buying a sparkly ring and practicing dropping to one knee. Someone is getting in the car to head to the hospital to welcome a tiny newborn to the world. Someone is arriving home from college glad to be in the safe embrace of home with a home-cooked meal at last. Someone just got news that her loved one is in remission. Someone just got a job.

And at the same time someone is facing her first Christmas as a single mom. And someone is devastated because there isn’t a new stocking on the mantel this year just like last year and the year before that. Someone heads home from college to fighting and a tense home. Someone just heard there’s nothing more the doctors can do. Someone is facing her first Christmas without a parent. Someone just found out she’s been downsized and doesn’t know how she will pay the mortgage next month. Someone is stuck at home with sick littles or desperate for a good night’s sleep. Someone is worried and afraid. Someone feels lonely and forgotten.

We feel like if Christmas isn’t merry and bright, all smiles and good cheer, then we’ve somehow messed up and missed out. But we haven’t. My favorite Christmas song is O Holy Night.

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
‘Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn’
Fall on your knees, O hear the angels’ voices
O night divine, O night when Christ was born
O night divine, O night, O night divine

There we are in all our brokenness pining for the Only One who can make us whole. But when He appears the soul feels its worth. At last. The thrill of Hope. Our weary heart rejoices.

The world tells us that our Christmas has to be merry and bright. But God whispers the truth. Fall on your knees, sweet child. I’ve got you. I know you’re broken and weary. I know your burdens. And I am shattering your darkness with the Light that brings Hope. I know you’re in the pitch-black of night right now, but I’m going to show you Divine.

God didn’t wait until morning. He didn’t wait until our circumstances were better or we had our act together because He knew that would never happen this side of Heaven. Instead, He comes to us in our weakest moment and brings the Light.

You don’t have to pretend your Christmas is merry if it isn’t. All you have to do is fall on your knees and hear the angels’ voices, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

Fear not, weary one, your Savior has come.

When Christmas Comes

When Christmas Comes

I am a little tired. I’m sure you can relate. This time of year just seems to do it to us. I can’t complain because my Peach is sleeping like a champ. But there’s usually an early morning feed and then she goes back down to snooze until mid morning. My older two, on the other hand, are part rooster and don’t like to miss a sunrise. Whatever your reasons, I’m guessing a nap sounds pretty great to most of the mommas out there right now.

I’m thinking Mary could have gone for a nap too. There she was feeling like a cross between an elephant and a jumbo marshmallow when she finds out she has to take a long trip…via donkey. I can tell you what my reaction would have been to that news, and let’s just say Joseph might have wanted to be well out of arm’s reach for that.

The truth is Christmas didn’t come to a mom who was watching Netflix and eating snickerdoodles. Christmas came to a weary momma who felt insignificant, ill-equipped, and unpopular. And Christmas is still coming to weary mommas. Mommas who feel like they’ve lost their voice in a child’s life. Mommas who don’t have all the answers. Mommas who don’t have the popular gift to give their kids or maybe any gifts at all. Mommas who feel like failures and mommas who are utterly exhausted.

Christmas comes in the middle of all our frenetic activity. The hope of Emmanuel pierced the night sky in all the craziness of a census, in all the hustle of sold out inns, and all the bustle of crowded streets.

But Mary, weary as she may have been, knew where to turn her heart. It wasn’t to a to-do list or a pity party. She looked around her at the manger and the hay and the smelly animals, at the shepherds and Joseph and the beaming star. Then she gazed down at her son–the Son–and she treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

Christmas comes to us in our weariness, our craziness, our hustle and bustle and invites us to sit and stare at the wonder of Christ.

Behold, Christmas.

Behold, Christmas.

IMG_2793Behold. Be still and hold on.

When I chose my word for 2014, I had no idea what a literal manifestation it would take in my life. When mid-way through the pregnancy the ultrasound tech measured my amniotic fluid on the low side, my doctor told me to rest as much as possible. I asked her if she had met my girls, particularly my curly-headed Firecracker. She laughed and told me to do my best. This Type-A personality struggled with it, but I knew it was necessary for the baby so I forced myself to rest.

Now, I have a precious newborn to feed which means hours spent on the couch staring at the Christmas lights and those tiny ears and eyelashes and fingernails. I still remember the first Christmas after becoming a mom. I remember looking at the nativity one night and tears welling up in my eyes. I was flattened by the weight of a mother’s love for her Son and even more so a Father’s Love for His children.

As we celebrate Advent, I pray my heart waits in expectation and anticipation of not only God’s provision but of His very Presence. For it is in that wait, that stillness, that holding pattern, that my heart hears, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Emmanuel. God with us. 

Behold, indeed.

Clementines at Christmas

Clementines at Christmas

IMG_8331We were high school seniors, sitting in senior project class, and somehow we got onto the topic of Christmas traditions. One of the guys said his parents set out a trail of clementines starting from his bedroom door and ending in front of his gifts beside the tree. I tucked that little idea away, saving it for a future day when I had kids of my own.

I love citrus everything, but I especially love citrus at Christmas. The first Christmas we were married, my handsome sous chef and I baked up dozens and dozens of Paula Deen’s orange blossoms and gave them to friends, family and total strangers, anyone who would take them so we wouldn’t be tempted to eat them all ourselves. A few years later, my friend Heather started bringing us back a huge paper sack of fresh citrus every year when she and Paul returned to Memphis from visiting her family in Florida for Christmas. I found a recipe in my Coastal Living magazine for citrus bars, and I juiced grapefruits, oranges and lemons until my fingertips were raw. There is something refreshing about the zing of fresh citrus in the dead of winter, some hint of life to come, a bright whisper of hope in the midst of gray.

I usually focus on the early chapters of Luke during December, but this year I have found myself drawn to Matthew’s account of that holy night. Keenly aware of my own wait, my empathy this Advent has left me wondering what it was like to wait 400 years in silence after the Old Testament. How thin was their hope, how desperate their prayers? After those 400 years, God broke the silence and pierced the night with a baby’s cry, the long, long, long-awaited Messiah.

But before Matthew tells us how the birth of Jesus came about, he walks us through a family tree. Often I gloss over when I see all those names, but as we’ve walked through Advent with The Greatest Gift, I feel like I’ve gotten to know these people. They aren’t just names anymore. My eyes linger on the small handful of ladies mentioned… Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary. So often I strive to be the perfect mom and feel hopeless when I inevitably fall short, but look at who God chose to be the female lineage of His one and only Son… Tamar, a woman forgotten who, being desperate, manipulated her father-in-law to sleep with her and give her a son. Rahab, a prostitute brave enough to hang a scarlet cord and trust strangers to save her life. Ruth, a widow in a foreign land with people not her own. Bathsheba, famous for her adultery with King David. And Mary, a seemingly insignificant teenager who willingly risked her reputation and life to carry in her womb the Son of God. After 400 years of silence, God uses the first chapter of Matthew to remind us that hope is never far. Hope is found in every story of redemption, every act of grace, every remembrance of His faithfulness.

This past Sunday I heard another story, this one not in the pages of my Bible but on a screen with a brave woman kneeling in a tank below waiting to be baptized. As I listened to her words and watched her chin quiver as she tried not to cry, I saw Hope in all its glorious splendor. Like biting into a juicy clementine on a bitterly cold winter day, her story was a vivid reminder that God brings life from death, light from darkness, hope from despair.

Ashley’s story will encourage you… watch it here.

‘Tis the Season

‘Tis the Season

girls and their treeAs far as food is concerned, this time of year is like none other.  The other day I ate raspberry chipotle sauce over cream cheese and crackers for lunch. To up the nutritional content of that well-balanced meal, I ate the last of the Harry & David pears Matt’s dad and step-mom sent us. I had saved the gold-foil-wrapped pear for last, and with each bite juice ran down my chin like eating a popsicle when it’s 100 degrees outside. A couple nights ago at Bunco my dear friend Jess made the most amazing apple cake with cream cheese icing. The cake was still warm from the oven and the icing was equal parts tangy and sweet. Perfect. And then there’s peppermint everything. Matt and I have a thing for minty desserts. When we first moved to Memphis, we went to Sheridan’s every night for an entire week to get a Grasshopper, vanilla custard mixed with mint and crushed Oreos. Since the first Christmas after Lydi was born, we’ve been making peppermint bark together. Lyd loves to crush the candy canes and lick the bowl after the melted white chocolate has been poured out. Matt and Lottie just love to eat the finished product.

Such a rich season, lights twinkling everywhere, the scent of cinnamon lacing the air and cream cheese and butter in, well, almost everything. Gratefully, this year we’ve managed to say no to a lot of good things. No to Pinterest. No to that overachieving elf. No to a billion parties. There’s nothing wrong with those things. They just didn’t make our list this year. Because of saying no to all those things, our pace this season has been a lot slower than previous years. Which has been lovely and terrifying. Sometimes I think I do my best to stay blurringly busy so I don’t have to truly face what my heart is feeling. With the cold temps we’ve been having, we’ve spent lots of time snuggled inside, lots of dance parties to Mariah Carey and Stevie Wonder Christmas songs, lots of late night Christmas movies with my hubby and lots of time saying thank you. Ann Voskamp’s reminder rings through my ears like a thousand jingle bells, “When we have an agenda for God, we can’t see the gifts of God.”

This Advent season has held some pain as all waiting does, but I’m grateful for Voskamp’s reminder. I don’t want to miss the gifts, abundant and lavish, that surround me. The smell of evergreen and Ivory soap as we flock our tree. Two little girls in fleecy footy pajamas going to look at Christmas lights. The curve of our oak Advent wreath and candlelight reflecting in their eyes as Matt reads our Advent story each night. Hot chocolate with marshmallows and watching The Polar Express as ice glitters our trees outside. Tacky Christmas sweaters and laughing with girlfriends. A trip to Target with our small group to shop for Christmas in a Red Bag and gushing over tiny baby clothes as one of our couples prepares to welcome their long-awaited son.

I may be waiting. My heart may be aching and longing, but I wait with hope. Because when I stop and look around me, I see the rich and lavish gifts of a God who loves me dearly. I see a million whispers of His faithfulness, a thousand reminders that He is Emmanuel, that He has come to us. I want to treasure these moments and Christmas memories, these decadent tastes and rambunctious dances, these mistletoe kisses and little candy-cane-sticky hands. These gifts, rich and lavish, that surround me.

A Bed Sheet, a Cat & Baby Jesus

A Bed Sheet, a Cat & Baby Jesus

Processed with VSCOcam with t1 presetWhen I was younger (I’m a bit embarrassed to admit by younger I mean twelve, not four), I would stage Christmas “pageants” for my family every year after Christmas lunch. I wrangled my poor brother and sister into being my actors and since it was just the three of us and I had to do the “directing,” they each played multiple roles. Gracie would be Mary and a wise man and an angel and an animal… Taylor would be Joseph, two wise men, a shepherd… you get the idea. There were props and I even put my dad’s reading lamp to good use as a spotlight. I carefully culled my parent’s cassette collection selecting the perfect song to go with each scene. Amy Grant’s “Tender Tennessee Christmas” made it into the repertoire one year, a decision that seems perfectly prophetic now, but my very favorite song, the pinnacle of my little home-spun production, was Sandi Patty’s “O Holy Night.”

The most infamous rendition of Sandi’s “O Holy Night” featured my sister’s gray cat Stormy as the Baby Jesus. Gracie, aka Mary, held the furry Baby Jesus, the lights were dim, a single light shone down on the mother and child, er, cat, and I held my breath. It was beautiful. And then Sandi hit her final note, “Diviiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiine!!!!!” And with that, Stormy decided she had had enough. She darted from the swaddling clothes, leaped out of the arms of the loving Mary and ran hissing out of the living room. It was Oscar-worthy for sure.

I can’t believe my poor siblings put up with this year after year, but I loved every minute of it. This morning, Lydia asked if I could help her create a manger for Baby Jesus (who looks a lot like Baby Tiana, thank you, Disney.) I laughed and almost sent my small group an email knowing they always get a good laugh when I tell them stories of my “productions.” A few minutes later armed with an old bed sheet, a Pottery Barn shower curtain and a motley crew of stuffed animals  we created our own little version of “O Holy Night.” And, as if on cue, Pandora started playing “O Holy Night.” It was the Glee version, not Sandi Patty, but pretty perfect nonetheless.

The past couple years, I’ve attempted to do the 25 Days of Christmas, and by Day 4 I’m pulling out my hair. This year I decided I wasn’t going to put that pressure on myself. Although yesterday, I tried to make these cute twig ornaments like my crafty, talented friend Kimmie did, and it was an epic hot-glue-in-my-hair-burn-my-fingers-twigs-fell-apart mess. So maybe instead of decorating sugar cookies we’ll hit up Muddy’s for a Grinch cupcake (key lime… so yum!) and instead of making adorable ornaments we’ll wear shower curtains as head dresses, but when I see Lydia’s eyes glimmer from the light of the candles on the advent wreath every night or when I walk by our nativity and see that she has moved all the animals so they are looking right over Baby Jesus, I know one thing… that feeling I had as a child when Sandi Patty hit that last note, that sense of awe and wonder at my Savior, she’s getting it. O Holy Night, indeed.

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Preparing

Preparing

IMG_2170I blinked and suddenly I’m wearing fuzzy boots with my fingers wrapped around a warm mug of steaming apple cider, the spicy scent of cinnamon and cloves filling my home. I know the holidays are near because Germantown Parkway has suddenly become a parking lot and our Netflix queue is filled with Polar Express and Mickey’s Christmas Carol. Every year around this time I make new resolutions, resolving to give love instead of desperate gifts from the end caps at Target, determined to remember the needy in my own community and around the world instead of filling toy baskets with more pink plastic, intent on celebrating that holy night when a brilliant star pierced the velvety sky illuminating a tattered stable, the night Love was born and Hope entered the world.

But while I start out with the best of intentions, my people-pleasing tendencies catch up with me, and I want to be everywhere and do everything. A couple years ago my favorite author, Shauna Niequist, wrote about this time of year inviting us to choose present over perfect. Those words reverberate in my soul throughout the year, but never more so than this time of year. Present over perfect.

I just got Ann Voskamp’s new book The Greatest Gift, unwrapping the full love story of Christmas. On the back cover, Ann writes, “I don’t want a Christmas you can buy. I don’t want a Christmas you can make. What I want is a Christmas you can hold. A Christmas that holds me, remakes me, revives me. I want a Christmas that whispers, Jesus.” Yes, yes, yes. The book walks you through the Advent tradition of the Jesse tree. Ann’s son Caleb carves these exquisite oak advent wreaths, and last year we used some of the girls’ Christmas money to purchase one. My heart is warmed just anticipating the memories we will make circled around our little kitchen table our faces aglow with the countdown of candles. I know in reality someone will probably burn a finger or singe an eyebrow or something else fun like that, but nevertheless we will gather together to remember how God used an imperfect lineage to show a world His perfect love.

I’ll never forget the Christmas after Lydia was born, my first Christmas as a mom. On a frigid night in December I held this child I’d longed for, ached for, waited for. I cradled her in my arms while staring at our nativity. Salty tears fell down my cheeks, and I was overcome with this gift unfathomable. My heart now knew what it meant to love a child, so great a love that I would give my own life to save hers. Most of the time when I look at a nativity, I want to see how the artist represented the Baby, but this time I could only see Mary. I imagined myriad of emotions she must have felt as she waited and wondered and watched her womb swell with her Son and her Savior.

I want to abide in the wait, to treasure, to ponder. I don’t want to be so busy with cookie swaps and Christmas parties that I miss out on these moments, these times to reflect and remember, to celebrate and stand in awe of that Holy Night. The night pain and darkness were shattered. The night Love was born.