the gifts of Christmas

Christmas gifts Kris Mouser_Brown Foter.com CC BY_ND

There are good years when everyone is home, getting along well, happy with their gifts, and focused on the “reason” for the season. But there are also difficult years when what we hoped for or what we envisioned does not come anywhere close to happening. Both are very normal in life. The problem is not the difficulties. The problem is our expectations. Our expectations that Christmas will be perfectly wrapped, shiny-bowed, and glitter-dusted like a beautiful Christmas gift.

Our reality doesn’t match our hopes and expectations.

Maybe you have a “special” person in your family or group of friends. The one who no matter how many advent candles you burn or how many advent calendar dates you turn, you just don’t feel filled with Christmas spirit when you’re with that person. They push your buttons, triggering your feelings and emotions so that you are angry or frustrated or discouraged, or you feel judged and criticized no matter what you do.

Perhaps you have experienced a loss this year that’s going to affect your Christmas. There will be a gap, someone missing in the pictures, in the activities, at the table. Maybe you didn’t lose them this year. Maybe it was sometime in the past, but their loss still impacts you, especially in times like this. This is the first year my mom won’t be with us. I get blindsided by missing her when I least expect it.

It might be that you have done your shopping, your decorating and your baking, and you think you’re doing great… until you happen to spend time on Facebook or Pinterest or visit a friend’s home, and all of a sudden your work feels a little inadequate, a little sub-par, not quite how you would like it. Comparison gets to your head and heart, and makes you feel “less than” or incompetent compared to others around you.

If comparison does not make Christmas hard for you; it might be that your financial situation is more difficult than you had hoped. Maybe that promotion didn’t come through or maybe the new business hasn’t taken off or maybe you are out of work, and you don’t have the money to buy what is on the wish list. You’re worried about seeing disappointment in some young, sweet eyes looking up at you on Christmas morning.

You might be sick or care-giving for someone. Holidays with those realities makes celebrating more challenging. I will spend Christmas with my Dad. He has Parkinson’s, dementia, and alcoholism that are affecting his days and therefore they are going to affect our Christmas. He may or may not remember what day it is.

Maybe your difficulty is not the ones that you care for. Maybe it is more the lack of someone to care for… maybe you feel alone and lonely during these days.

These are real Christmas challenges for many of us.

It could be that none of these issues affect you this year. Last year was close to perfect for me. My biggest challenge was dealing with a form of survivor’s guilt – I call it “blessing guilt” – because I had all my children at home and we had a great time enjoying every minute of it, while at the same time close friends and family were dealing with all kinds of pain – the realities I just mentioned. I struggled to fully enjoy the gifts that God had given me without overlooking or underestimating the realities of others.

Whatever your reality this year, I hope you know that Jesus is not only “the reason for the season”, but Jesus is also the “answer” for the season and for all your needs. He is not distracted by preparations or decorations or gift buying or baking. He has plenty of time and energy and limitless power to take interest in what’s difficult for you, to come along beside you and help you.

Jesus had relatives who sometimes made life difficult for Him; Jesus experienced loss and wept; Jesus went through many difficulties and would have traded some of His experiences for another if He could. And His birth we are celebrating this season? A cross-country journey by a very pregnant teenage mom on the back of a donkey, an unsanitary birth with only a first-time father to help, and His first days surrounded by smelly livestock and shepherds?

Jesus understands a reality that is different from the ideal. 

I invite you to see this Christmas not simply as an opportunity to bake and decorate and buy and wrap, but also a time to reflect and lean into Jesus to find understanding and hope in a way that maybe you’ve never done before. Let go of your expectations of what Christmas will or should be like and embrace your reality – even your difficulties – this year. Struggles are often some of the sweetest times in our faith journey.

May God build your faith stronger
as He heightens your awareness of His presence always.

May He deepen your appreciation for people,
as you recognize that life is so very fragile.

May your contentment grow greater – with yourself – and your circumstances.

And may you become a more gracious person – grateful for what you have received and compassionate and empathetic with others in need.

Those are the best gifts.

grief comparisons

sadness

Photo credit: Wendy Longo photography / Foter / CC BY-ND

It has been three months since my mom died. Sometimes it feels like years ago. Sometimes it feels like yesterday.

I have not been able to write a blog post since that day. My mind has been foggy, scrambled, gray, and unclear. Some days my heart felt heavy, sad, and lifeless. Other days, I have sensed the warmth of her memory in the flowers and sunshine that she loved so dearly.

During the past months, some friends have asked how I am doing and others have kept an awkward distance, unsure of what to say.

Family members have all processed their grief uniquely, sometimes drawing close to each other, sometimes pulling apart because of tensions, anger, or a desire to process pain alone. Some have cried; others held their emotions in check; still others could not find tears even when they tried. Some went right to work arranging details; others were paralyzed by their loss.

In these three months, numerous other friends have also lost loved ones – children, siblings, parents, friends. Sometimes the deaths arrived as expected, peaceful, a long-awaited transition to a better place. Other deaths came suddenly, violently, shaking family foundations of faith and security.

Some of my friends experienced death much like I did… at the bedside, providing care and comfort, counting the minutes as they turned into hours. Other friends had no opportunity to sit nearby at the end or intentionally chose not to go there. Some appear unaffected by their grief; others are clearly rattled, and others experience a bit of both depending on the day.

I have found myself occasionally comparing my particular experience and my emotional response with others. However, I am learning that we cannot compare our different experiences with death any more than we can compare our different experiences with life. 

There is no right or wrong way to do this. There is no standardized approved amount of time, feelings, involvement, or impact that death brings to a person. Each birth, each person, each death is unique.

And so, for me and for you…

Take all the time you need.

Feel whatever it is you feel.

Do what you can and leave the rest.

Give grace, especially to yourself.

Chose safe people and safe places.

Sleep. Cry. Dance. Work. Laugh. Yell. Remember.

Don’t judge.

Don’t compare.

It is grief and so it will be.

∼∗∼

making choices

house search
I am a house hunter.
Hopefully just for a little while longer. My husband and I are settling in a new city and looking for a place to live. We have rented internationally for a long time. Now we are going to buy a home.

It has been quite the process.

I have been receiving emails for months that tempt me with the new offerings in my supposed price range. We have picked a realtor to help us search. Friends have made suggestions. We have scanned the internet realty webpages. We have looked at many maps and driven many miles through many neighborhoods and walked through many future home possibilities. Price per square foot, HOA fees, room layouts and sizes, finishings and amenities overwhelm our conversations.

Which style is me?

What do I like? What do I want? Big or small? Modern or cozy? Privacy or community? Move-in-ready or fixer-upper? Yard or carefree? Close to school district or mall? Stretch the budget or live simply?

Comparing with others only makes it worse. We know many people in the area. Some live in gorgeous, spacious homes; others in small efficient condos. Some have a pool; others a lake view. Some are amazingly decorated and organized; others are cluttered and in need of a few up-grades.

I have reflected on everything about me.

There was a day when my choice had more to do with my children and my job. What they needed was priority and simplified the options. Today I have very few real needs in a house, so it is just my chosen lifestyle that makes the determination. How do I like to spend my time? What is most important to me?

I want to be ok with who I am and my choices and not feel pressure to be like someone else.

I think the pressure and the comparison will always be there. Even at my age, I still struggle with wanting to be liked, wanting to fit it, and wanting to be someone I am not. Sometimes other people make it harder… questioning my desires and my decisions. Are you sure you want that? Wouldn’t you rather have this?

Over the years it has gotten easier. I am getting more comfortable in my own skin, but I don’t know if I will ever get over it completely.

So the search continues… for my house… and for my own identity.

How do you deal with choices and comparison? What helps you feel content with your uniquely created identity?

STOP to start

This past week, I heard various song lyrics that intoned, “I wanna fly!” I began to think about the desires I have to accomplish goals, fulfill a dream, or take on an adventure. I have plenty of ideas, but many times I get in my own way. I have learned that often I have to stop doing some things before I can start moving forward.

STOP judging

I don’t like being judged by people who don’t really know me: my marriage, my children, or my situation…  I don’t believe there is only one right way for all people to make it through this world, although sometimes I act like my way is the only way. There is such incredible creativity and diversity in people; judgmental, critical opinions are often completely erroneous because they come from an incomplete, only-from-the-outside perspective. If I don’t want others to judge me, I need to work at not judging others either.

STOP comparing

Often my worst enemy is myself. I compare myself to a phantom superwoman in my mind, created by uniting the best pieces of each hero I admire: my very capable boss, my creatively gifted neighbor, my compassionate caring friend, my genius intelligent mentor, my athletically chiseled trainer. My invented super-phantom is nonexistent in real life. I need to live in this world’s reality, not longingly covet a dream fantasy.

STOP holding back

At times, everyone feels inadequate in front of challenges and fearful of change. Thanks to some incredibly supportive family and friends, I have come to understand that I have a “voice” to share, and I have skills and experience to offer. No one else is just like me. If I hold back, someone misses out on my unique contribution… whether that is at home, in a friendship or at work. I want to add value to relationships and projects… I have to step out and speak up to do that.

STOP whining

One thing that frustrates me is a victim mindset, blaming someone else for lack of progress, relationships, income or any other thing desired but not attained. As much as I declare my opposition to this attitude, an honest self-evaluation proves that I blame others too… those that don’t follow me hamper my leadership, those who don’t respect me limit my effectiveness, those who don’t like me are why the friendship ends. Excuses are empty. I simply need to commit to doing and giving my best in every situation… and take responsibility for the results.

If I want to move forward… if “I wanna fly”, I will need to STOP doing these things first.

What do you need to STOP doing in order to move forward with your goals, dreams and adventures?

caring for our calling

Living out my calling as an image bearer and partner in God’s purposes is the great life adventure. My calling has value, power and purpose. God offers me abundant life, but the enemy of my soul would like to restrict and control me. I have identified four threats I battle in order to care for my calling.

                                                          CLICHÉ: As I mentioned in an earlier blog, human-made “rules”, communicated as cliché men’s and women’s roles, can inhibit my calling. Although I do not find clearly delineated role lists in the Bible, I do find lists of spiritual gifts. These gifts do not have gender limitations; there is incredible variety and freedom, and they are very important for determining my personal calling focus.

If I am gifted in prayer, service, mercy, teaching, leadership, exhortation, evangelism, or discernment, my particular gift(s) will show up as I work out my calling – at home, work and ministry. Self-evaluations and confirmation by others have helped me know how God has gifted me. When I operate out of my gifted-ness, I experience both great fruitfulness and great joy.

CULTURE: Having lived and worked internationally for many years, I have heard cultural excuses for limiting men’s and women’s opportunities and responsibilities.  Although I have a deep respect for culture influences, Biblical truth is my greater standard. Every culture has wonderful richness that we can glean, but no culture is perfect. Some culture norms go strongly against God’s commands. Jesus acted very counter-culturally in His interactions with women, in His service to the disciples, and in His encounters with sinners. When I choose to go “against the flow”, it sometimes carries a price – from subtle scoffing to strong criticism – but my most important priority is to honor God… and sometimes I get to demonstrate a new healthy example for others also.

COMPARISON: I am often my own worst enemy. Problems arise when I compare my gifts and desire another’s, or “grade” the gifts with different values. I criticize and judge others (“It’s not spiritual to…”) or struggle with feelings of inferiority and less value (“I should do more of …”). I take sides and disapprove of contrasting work choices, roles in marriage, and ministry involvement rather than embracing differences and expressing acceptance to others. Comparison is a powerful and effective weapon of the enemy. I’ve learned that I can fight comparison by giving grace and encouraging others instead.

COERCION: The extreme side of control is coercion – abuse, violence, exploitation. While I have never experienced these extremes, others do – especially women. Anytime I attribute less value to another (jokes, insults, inequity), I disrespect God’s calling for that person and weaken defenses against coercion. I am learning to respect and defend God’s value and purpose for every person.

One last thought… I can lay down any of my gifts/abilities/passions voluntarily and joyfully for a season – moment, day, …years even, in order to care for or serve another. Jesus limited himself for a time for us. However, that decision should not be imposed by clichés, culture, comparison or coercion… and it should always be done in the context of my value as an image bearer and my calling to be involved in God’s purposes.

I encourage you to get to know your unique gifting – also consider personality, experience, stage of life, etc – and then engage wholeheartedly in reflecting God’s image to a lost world. Enjoy the adventure!