how to “do Christmas” like the little drummer boy

I am that little child with that flimsy toy drum strapped around his angular little boy shoulder. Come, they told him. The sticks strike that moon face, commanding air and passers-by to listen to the rhythm, the foolish parade of one. I am that simple, repeat refrain. And even then, he does it better. He found the drum and the sticks and the bravery to begin.

Honest talk, I’m getting a little worked up facing this blank page. I am sad for being gone, sad for not playing my song (foolish as it sounds), sad for hiding my gift under a bushel basket full of distractions – mindless social media and early bedtimes with a tired brain.

My wet mess of a face almost matches the mess I meant to clean in our apartment when Pat left with Zella two hours ago. I don’t know why, but imagining myself into the story of the little drummer boy is just so exactly where I am right now. I guess the small gesture – lifting strap over shoulder and calling on a hidden, inner repertoire – convicts all my defenses.

Whew, I didn’t know I needed this kind of cry – let me take a moment. Let’s all take a moment.

I know – it’s not technically Christmas music. But sometimes the song beating rhythms behind our ribcage isn’t jingling bells. Most times, in my case. The Advent season is not triumphant. It is precious beauty, but it is sad too. We are the reason Jesus came all the way down, all the terrifying way down, from celestial glory to stomachs growling and torrential storms. I am both loved by this act and reminded that there was reason for His condescension. I am the reason.

My proneness to wander so pressed on the heart of God until it broke Him and compassion poured out in the real life of a little babe.

 

Anyway, I salute you – little boy and your silly pa rum pum pum pum refrain. Thanks for being brave enough to bang on your drum and make a grown woman cry while thinking about it. Here is me striking my drum in your honor.

in the midst of my escaping

I’ve been listening to this song by Young Oceans, called The Gates. It makes me uncomfortable because in the middle, if I sing all the words, I am a liar. The music sounds more confident than I feel, but the words betray a heart that feels so many other things.

I wanna wake and feel Your glory
I wanna speak in tongues of angels for You Lord
I wanna sing a song eternal
I wanna trample on the curses of the earth
I wanna call upon Your healing
I wanna see the sick and weary be made new
I wanna swim inside the blessings
I wanna swim inside the blessings of the Lord

It’s all the things I want to want, but I’m too weak or frail or scared or lazy or tired or selfish. Or I am all those things.

The beauty of Christmas – Christ coming to earth – came wrapped inside wrapping inside wrapping inside wrapping this year. It came slow like the full nine months of labor pains, much deeper than I’ve ever anticipated this season before.

And when I shake with sobs in bed or pray for water hotter than my tears in the shower, I need Emmanuel. I need the truth of “God with us” on earth. When I wish I was 13 years old again or when I go to sleep to be hidden, I need Emmanuel.

I’m not proud of wanting to escape. But when life is hard, you just dream of it being easier I guess. Easier commute to work, easier free time, easier time management, easier professional life, easier marriage, easier living, easier. Not lazy, just better. I’m not proud of wanting easier.

Maybe that’s why I love liturgy so much. It makes me say the words I do not feel. And that’s why Scripture memory is a life vest these days. Even if those are the only words I repeat, the only ones I sing… even if I don’t feel them completely, I know there is a gift wrapped inside a gift wrapped inside a gift that is more inside than any thief of joy.

God with us. He is here, even when I am not wanting Him. He is here, when I want to be elsewhere. God with us, pursuing us in love.

Did You say, ‘seek, you will surely find’?
I am searching, Lord turn Your eyes to mine
But I’m weary, pacing at these gates
Jesus come, come now, don’t delay

Like a child, ever faithful may I be
This I ask, God of mercy hear my plea
I have wandered with a soul impure
For this scorn, Father, send a cure

Last week, I memorized from John 11:25-26, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die…”

It’s one of those verses that’s hard to say, but I stumble through. I speak and trust God will grant the belief I need to be moved by these words. He is good and true and He is holding me up in the midst of my escaping.


 

Find all the writings on grief at this link and join with us as we mourn in hope.

generosity in bleak winters

My mom says I’m in the ICU, emotionally. She says I shouldn’t push the great grief weight away and I couldn’t even if I wanted to. She says to read those books she sent because it is not good to ignore it.

I know, Mom. I know.

Advent season is different this year – strange, like I am experiencing it for the first time.

This time, it is crude and rough as much as it is beautiful and bold. It feels more like a stable than a fancy Christmas Eve production. It feels stripped down, but that’s not right either because nothing was stripped away in that manger scene. That’s just all there was – stable, manger, animals, bright star, labor pains, angel choir in the pasture, shepherds on their way to worship.

This is not the acoustic version of something more glorious. This was the glory, all of it.

And I feel the glory in the weeping gut of me, gripping an anchor and believing there is hope in this simple story.

My Aunt Sherry shared a sweet phrase from one of her Advent readings – that, in this strange season of glory, we are “spiritually pregnant with hope.” I guess I get that. Pregnancy is not fancy or perfectly wrapped. It is weird and painful and awkward. It is declined invitations and sleeping early and it is emotions on emotions. But, it is also life. Pregnancy is that beautiful affirmation that God is still invested in creation, still interested in life. It is hope the shape of a lime or a prune or a grapefruit or a watermelon.

The advent sermon series preaches generosity and I am learning this is God’s glorious version – the best release of His love. He chose to make His Son humanity with every bit of regular, un-fancy, and painful awkwardness. God was most generous in Jesus. Christ emptied Himself of all that He had rights to – all the glory and the fame and the comfort and the beauty and right relationship so that we could receive the greatest gift. The glory of the Christmas story is that Jesus grasped instead the ordinary so that all of creation could be made glorious.

But Jesus was not a stable born baby that grew to great fame. The story doesn’t ever get more fancy. The glory is inside the ordinary, painful, trudging out of his life.

I was talking to my sister about this the other night, about how we can’t get into “the spirit” of things. It’s easier than you might think to let the city hype and lights fade to background noise, but I’m sure I look like a Scrooge. I am just trying to figure out how to anticipate this whole story – the glorious and painful ordinary of a Son who came into the world struggling and to later suffer and die. I want to desire the coming of Jesus – the birth, life, death and resurrection of Him – because it is the only delight where the sparkles don’t shake off. It is the anchor of hope I hold with white knuckles, the glory story that is as deep as this grief story and more painful than morning sickness.

We gather on Sundays for Advent dinners at our apartment. This past week, I made shepherd’s pie because it sounded like comfort food, almost like a Midwest casserole. As we reclined at table, I read the opening prayer:

May the splendor of your glory dawn in our hearts,
we pray, Almighty God,
that all shadows of the night may be scattered
and we may be shown to be children of light
by the advent of your Only begotten Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Evan lit the candles and Tam told us the reason, “As Scripture testifies: Jesus is the Word through whom all things were made. In him is life and his life is the light of all people. We prayed confession together and read the Scripture from Matthew. We recited the Lord’s prayer and sang “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” before closing in prayer again.

I don’t know what it looks like to be generous in bleak winters like this one. I don’t understand the heart of God to love us so deeply in our wickedness to send such a gift in such an un-fancy way. But that is the glorious story – the first, best and only version. That is the glory story and I want to be pregnant with hope about it. I want to believe that all shadows of the night may be scattered and that I may be shown to be a child of the light.

I think that might be the only way I can be generous in the bleak winters, to believe He scatters shadows of the night and that His light is in me as He lives and reigns in this world. Giving my heart sounds like more energy than I’ve got. Maybe I could manage stepping into the light, believing He is the light, and praying He make me worthy to tell the glory story. Maybe I could manage that.

Sidenote: I’ve been listening to my friend Wilder’s Christmas album on repeat. So good.


Find all the writings on grief at this link and join with us as we mourn in hope.

a deep and bellowing good

I am not prepared for this, for Advent.

Last week we feasted and gave thanks and it was the starkest thanks I’ve ever offered, I think. It was rickety and raw, like the rusty farm gates on my childhood farm. It was a functional thankfulness that felt very different than singing “Count Your Many Blessings” with all my aunts and uncles and cousins in the basement of Grandpa’s house. No less abundant (my head tells my heart) but very much different.

I think that’s okay.

A special place had been prepared for each guest and our table boasted a capacity crowd. The whole day was arranging and baking and tasting, folding special printed napkins and finding/ironing the tablecloth we bought at Fat Albert’s, the neighborhood “everything” store. Olive branches hung from string lights above us and the Feast of Thanks groove mix mingled between our shoulders.

I blinked it all in behind candlelight and treasured the rickety emotions for later sorting (ahem… still sorting). We represented a collection of states and histories and families and stories, memories and pains and wounds and griefs. But we were all present and belonging at this table set for us.

There’s a little snapshot of the crowd gathered. We were present, each of us breathing and eating under a canopy of twinkle lights in a Brooklyn apartment in the middle of New York.

And now it is Advent – that season where we prepare to remember that God sent His Son to be born into this world. God sent His Son to breathe and cry and joy and struggle and feast and gather and mourn here, on this very earth.

My heart is sluggish and resistant to the idea of anticipation, but just today I realized how I have been very desperately looking for signs of life for a while now… looking for proof that life is good. Not family portrait good or campfire songs good, but a deep and bellowing good – the kind that carves the grooves my grief runs through. And here, in Advent, is God’s affirmation.

Earth was not just a good enough place for the Son of the Creator of the Universe. God sent His Son to get bruised knees and dusty feet and a full belly in a place that He still loves, for a people He still loves.

Advent has always been good news of great joy because I remember God’s provision in Christ – that God invited us in our sin to meet our Savior. But, this year I needed to feel God’s deep and bellowing affirmation that life on earth is not a consolation prize. We are not in a waiting pattern for something better, later, next, sometime, future.

In the middle of strife and sick and thorns and death and my rickety thanks, God is affirming that His redemption has already started. He is still knitting life together in wombs. Today, I heard a heartbeat in mine. That static-y “wooga wooga” sound is nothing like pleasantries and everything like bellowing affirmation.

I signed up for counseling today and my scattered heart needs it, but this was a special kind of therapy in a doctor’s office on 46th Street. I was squeezing Patrick’s hand and we were both watching life wiggle around inside my belly. “Oh, so active!” they said. We giggled and marveled and asked silly questions. And God affirmed, deeper than all my efforts to be okay or move forward or understand.

And it’s all very complicated, but I am holding on to that affirmation that God is making new life, because that somehow affirms all the lives that He is sustaining.

I can’t believe I am awake past midnight. Pregnancy is beautiful, but pregnancy is also super weird. At least I had some good Christmas tunes to keep this late night company.

chin up, child

I had been looking out at the rain because I could not wait to wear my rain boots. I was supposed to do laundry but instead I spent yesterday drinking french press in oversized flannel, making pancake invitations by candlelight and trying to forget that Monday is a regular work day.

By the time I left the apartment for church, I had forgotten my umbrella and my sense of New York direction. A hundred puddles and one wet coat later, I found the familiar old church on 5th and Rodney.

And not even cold, winter rain could keep the delight out.

Because that’s what happens when you meet with Jesus. It may not always look like bright colored bits of NYE confetti in Times Square. It may never look like that, but God promised delight in the flatlands when He promised abundant life (John 10:10).

Today is a regular day and I would lie if I didn’t say it was hard to get dressed in this routine. This is the flatlands, but there is delight hidden here. I’m going to choose belief all day long, going to chase delight while I run on level ground. 

Things and people and plans seem slippery these days, but there is one thing I can confidently hold tightly. The tighter I hold Jesus – the more I purpose to know Him and find out what pleases Him – the greater I will experience the best delight.

God promises to sustain in ways we don’t know we need, to fill in places we don’t know are empty.

Delight is something I choose when I believe Jesus is my greatest treasure. It’s something that spills over when I can’t hold the abundance inside any longer. Delight is a face I wear on the subway and in the office and flipping pancakes in my apartment. It is what happens when God meets needs I didn’t know I had and fills places I didn’t know were empty.

Delight is dependent on one thing: God being a promise keeper.
And today, He is saying, “Chin up, child. There is delight in this day!

 

real life is in the flatlands

(I wrote this in the Chicago airport but the complimentary Wifi ran out before I could publish it. So, here I am at 1 am back in my Brooklyn apartment posting my last Christmas entry.)

Real life is not vacation.

It’s not the slow, beautiful weeks spent in between months of regular workdays. Real life is both I guess, but today I go back to the flatlands because there is nothing mountaintoppy about living regular life.

I’m making pancake monday plans and texting all the folks I need to meet up with and brunch in with and dream big with. I’m dreaming up new chalkboard designs for the business owner down the street and I’m summoning courage to fight regular fights.

Because real life is in the flatlands.

I read that phrase in my advent devotional yesterday and I’m convinced it will be my theme this year. Jesus was born a baby to no pomp and circumstance – certainly not to all the ceremony we give to this time of year – but then he grew up regular. He lived life in the flatlands. He worked and walked and greeted neighbors. He sat down to dinner and learned how to work an anvil in the woodshop. He participated in traditions and went to family reunions and walked through the markets and had sleepless nights.

I’ve noticed that on vacations and at family gatherings, conversations always seem to circle around to bigger questions about purpose and calling and hope. There is a herd of elephants in the room inside questions like, “Is this it?”

Because being engineers and doctors and teachers and ministry leaders and salesmen and bankers and non-profit workers and hourly wage earners… well, that’s something. But it is certainly not “it” or there wouldn’t be so many elephants. We all know that no matter how successful or stagnant our lives feel, we can’t ever win a bigger prize than what has already been offered to us.

That prize already happened. He was born in a manger and we just celebrated His birth. And He is holding all things together until we walk into eternity by His side. He is why life in the regular means anything and why it means everything. Christ holds life together (Colossians 1:17), all the ordinary everyday-ness of it, so that His glory is proclaimed.

Christ is with me now in the flatlands of real life because He has already lived the flatlands before.

I’m headed back to Brooklyn with a lot of questions. Every regular day in the flatlands is not exciting. Sometimes (most times) my days are just regular and I know God loves to make His name great in mangers and woodshops and plain, crowded city streets.

above, below, within

It feels good to be tucked inside my parents’ country farmhouse, away from apartment supers and monthly subway passes and all the financial details about adult life I would rather avoid. It feels good to be under someone else’s roof, especially two someone elses who somehow manage to make frugal feel abundant. We feast and play and laugh and revel in holiday spirit and there is always something in the cupboard to throw into the pot on the stove.

And it has me thinking about living above, below and within my means.

I remember having a phone conversation with my dad after his first mission trip to Kenya. He said, “Caroline, we have so much here. We just don’t have any idea. We can easily live on so much less than we do but we choose toys and vacations and excess instead.”

That was years ago.

I am typing out this post today while wearing a brand new pair of ice skates my dad found at a thrift store. It wasn’t even a Christmas gift. It’s just because he is a giver. He could do a lot of things with the money he makes in his second (or third?) career, but he and my mom choose to live like he is still milking 50 cows. Because they want to be givers.

My parents will always be one of my favorite studies as I try to figure out how to be a giver. It really doesn’t matter what I am making or the bills demanding payment. It’s about a heart condition. It’s about being ruled by anything or anyone other than the infant King.

So, how do I calculate intangible glorious riches into my budget? How do I prize what Jesus prized and value treasure that does not rust? How do I make my bank account better reflect those kind of priorities, without feeling like my bank account needs to have a giant cushion between it and negative numbers? (Or any sort of cushion at all).

I’m not sure, but I want to be a giver.

I always want to have enough to add another plate to the table. My Grandma Avonell was famous for that kind of abundance. She never turned away a stranger or a neighbor from the heavy oak table that now sits in my parents’ dining room.

Add a leaf to the table and water to the soup, because giving is always within our means.

Feeling poor is hard and it makes my generation uncomfortable. We don’t want to struggle… but if we have to, we don’t want anyone else to know about it. In NY, we don’t want our friends to see our sparsely furnished, cramped apartments or notice our hand-me-down trends. In Iowa, we don’t want our friends to know we are still renting or without a retirement fund. Everywhere, we fight hard to look like we get to enjoy the things of people with means.

We want the instagrammed vacations and the airport selfies. We want the newest version of the riding boot to pair with our pinterested ensemble. We don’t want to struggle and, I guess, who would?

I’m still in advent mode, still reflecting on the miracle of God planning from the beginning of time to send His only Son to earth as a baby… to later suffer and die.

It was the most extreme case of living below his means. He was a king with the deepest trust fund, royalty with the most lucrative inheritance, but he was a helpless baby in a crude manger born in the middle of nowhere. And this was God’s plan.

God intended struggle and suffering when He emptied His Son of everything royal in order to pour out royalty onto an undeserving creation.

I’m trying to understand how to joyfully choose struggle and suffering with the small sum in my bank account. God was not stingy with the greatest treasure and He was not arm twisted into giving. It was God’s delight to send love through His Son. He sent Love out of His great love … and then Jesus struggled and suffered “for the joy set before Him.”

I’m not good with numbers, but this means conversation is a heart condition that I want to figure out. I want to be a giver when it hurts and when it is easy. I want to be a giver when it doesn’t make sense and when it is obvious. I want to be a giver when what I really want is to be everything else.

The heart condition of a giver is really about belief. Do I believe God is a Provider – in Iowa and NYC and in harder to reach places? Do I believe God gives good gifts to His children and do I believe He has already given the best and most valuable gift?

I’m praying my heart into belief – belief that above, below, and within is a conversation that is not too big or complicated for the Lord.