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.

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rainy day – muddy heart

photo

This rainy morning is my heart today – gray, foggy, cold, muddy, and deplete of any desire to do productive work. I want to return to bed, wrap myself in the comfort of soft blankets, drink coffee… and forget about the real world.

Do you ever have days like this?

Intellectually I battle my mood… We need the rain. It is good for the plants. We’ve had such a drought – I should feel grateful. The rain will end soon, and sunshine will cheer me up again. I can DO this. Just get up and get moving.

My reasoning doesn’t really help much. I am simply out of sorts today.

There are legitimate reasons for my mood. The rain really is p.o.u.r.i.n.g. down, the mountain dirt road is truly very m.u.d.d.y. and not conducive to driving.

My husband’s father is dying in another city, and our conversations center around hospice decisions, flight options, keeping family informed, and the schedule implications for my “other” life and future international trips. The emotions in my heart and the thoughts in mind are as gray, and foggy and muddy as the world outside my window.

Understandably so.

Some days are not full of sunshine. Some days are gray and sad and not my favorites. Some days are not productive… or are they? Sometimes doing less means time for quiet reflection, soul-level conversations, nourishing prayer, healing grief, needed rest… 

I am normally an active, optimistic, sunshine-loving, type-A person, but I am learning to accept my rainy days and foggy thoughts too. They are a part of my life, inevitable and unavoidable… even purposeful. Cleansing and new growth come from the rain… for the earth and for me.

How do you handle the gray days in your life?

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*Update: My father-in-law died on Saturday, Sept. 14. My husband flew to be with him in his last hours. We appreciate your prayers for the family.