Tag Archives: christmas

Slow Christmas

slow christmas

It has been a rushy week.

Most of my weeks are like that, but now that it’s December, everything seems to be moving faster than ever.

On Tuesday we woke up to our first big snow, and I had to rush to find the boots, the mittens, the hats, the snowpants. Rush to the bus-stop, to preschool drop-off, to my spiritual direction appointment where I blustered into that quiet space, out-of-breath and out-of-time with my own heart.

During that hour, my spiritual director suggested a book on spiritual formation: Surrender to Love: Discovering the Heart of Christian Spirituality.

“It’s a short book,” she said. “You could read it in a day, but why rush?”

Why rush?

I rush, of course, because have so much to do! I have to pick up Liam in twenty minutes! I have to get this essay done by the deadline! I have a 1pm meeting! 2 minutes until the bus comes! 15 minutes to run through the grocery store before I have to be somewhere else!

I am the kind of Type A person who wants things done, checked off, filed away, finished. I keep adding to my To Read list books on productivity and goals and time management. I feel like if I could discover some magic tool to handle my chaos, maybe I would feel a sense of control.

Which, of course is total crap. I know that. But also, I don’t really know that.

This obsession with this type of hurried productivity makes being a writer hard – what with all the deleting and revising and sitting staring out the window, waiting for the right word.

It makes being an in-process human person harder. Because, of course, sorting through the mess of your heart and soul and mind takes time.

It’s slow and painful and boring and it takes so. much. time.

*

I am thinking today about how everything about the beginning of the Christmas story is slow.

The angel comes and then it’s nothing but waitingbecause of course, pregnancy cannot be rushed. It takes nine months – sometimes longer – for a baby to get to full-term and make his way out. And those months are dragged slower still by the physicality of being pregnant. The nausea, the exhaustion, all of it making time feel like a sinkhole instead of a river.

Slow down, the story of the birth of Jesus is telling us. The days are dragging, and Mary is not showing. She’s waiting for the bump, the kick — waiting for her life to change.

It’s like the story itself is reminding us that for the new thing to be born it takes time. All you can do is offer yourself up to the miracle, let it take root in you.

And wait.

Slow down, slow down, slow down.

Listen, the world will not end if you do not get to that concert, that event, that kids’ school Christmas party. If the gift is late, it’s late. If the cookies do not get made, it’s okay.

Slow down.

You do not have to make Christmas perfect for it to come. Jesus comes anyway, every time – Christmas card or no Christmas card, with or without the Pinterest-worthy teacher’s gift.

Slower, slower, slower.

It’s Christmas.

You could rush through it…but after all, what’s the point?

Will it make it better? Will it make it fuller?

Slow down.

Slow down.

Slow down.

Here we are, at the beginning of something mysterious and quiet and beautiful.

Slow

down.

Notice it. Let it change you.

Advent Junk Journal

advent junk journal - inside

Advent is coming, and I am ready.

I’m always ready for the Advent season — but this year, it feels like it can’t get here soon enough, like I need the sacred space that it has to offer.

If you’ve read much here, you know that I am one of those people who is always so aware of the gap — that emptiness that exists in life whether you are a person of faith or not. I don’t know if it’s the depression or just my artistic leaning, but I feel it all the time like a gaping hole in my side.

And much of my faith angst comes from the cliches and formulas and bumper stickers that we slap over that gap in order to pretend it doesn’t exist.

God will not give you more than you can handle.

Let go, let God.

If you feel far away from God, guess who moved?

That hole in your life is God-shaped…and only He can make you feel whole!

But the songs and scriptures and of Advent aren’t like that.

They’re songs of longing and need and desperation. The hymns that are reimagined by a hundred different artists this time of year — O Come O Come Emmanuel and Come Thou Long Expected Jesus and Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming and all those others — recognize the darkness while also holding a space for the coming light.

Sit in the dark, but leave the Christmas lights on, Advent says.

See the beauty in the darkness. Light is coming, light is coming, light is coming.

Light. Is. Come.

And I need this season. I need this validation of both darkness and light…particularly as we begin another long, dark winter in Minnesota.

There is something important, vital, beautiful, essential that I find when I take the time to sit in this tension…

But it’s Advent in America, and so there are Hallmark movies and Christmas Light Shows and Big Giant Sales and Christmas parties and cookie exchanges, and so Advent requires a kind of intentionality.

It requires us to find a sustainable way to choose it all over again, year after year after year.

*

Because I love the Advent season so much, I’m annually tempted to do every possible Advent related thing. (And there are so many beautiful ideas. A couple of years ago, I crowd-sourced with my readers, and we came up with a pretty exhaustive and amazing list. And my friend Tanya Marlow has cultivated a great list for 2015 here.)

But his year, I’ve decided to just pick just a couple of things. (Sometime in the next week or so, I’ll tell you what I’m planning to do with the kiddos to help them to learn to make space in their hearts this season. But today’s post is just about my own personal engagement with Advent.)

Enter my Advent Junk Journal.

simple advent junk journal

A few years ago, at my church women’s group’s Christmas session, there was a table filled with all sorts of paper scraps. There was cardboard and envelopes and scrapbook pages and notebook paper. Anything you could think to write on was there. Old teacher logs. Calendar pages. Pizza boxes. Vellum. They even brought in a couple of old typewriters.

After we’d talked around our tables about Christmas and intentionality and noticing, we were invited to get up, to take whatever we wanted, to create our own space.

I was, to use the old cliche, like a kid in a candy store.

But that year, that Advent season, something weird happened. I actually wrote things down. 

That junky journal with its helter-skelter pages — all of which were different widths and lengths, all of which were shoved into a sort of messy, beautiful pile — gave me exactly the space I needed to capture the skittering thoughts and insights that I found coming my way that season.

Now I make one every year.

I don’t have quite the same variety of papers available to me, but I can always find random stuff around the house. Scrapbook paper I forgot I had. A notebook with lines that are too wide-ruled for regular use. That grocery list pad from the fridge. That stack of paper that Liam colored on and then decided he hated.

I cobble them together into one book with just the smallest space for writing. And then I keep it around when I’m reading through my motley collection of advent books. When I’m sitting in front of my sun lamp in the morning. When we have the Christmas music on in the evening. And so if some old hymn stops me in my tracks, the book is there. And I have just enough room to write it down.

*

I have a rotation of favorite Advent books that I read here-and-there throughout the month of December. They are the best — guides and voices as I try my best to sit still in the mystery.

I like having a few different ones because it gives me options depending on my mood. My favorite go-to’s are:

Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas – If you get just one, make it this one. It is such a well put-together compilation of great voices; you won’t be disappointed.

Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation, by Luci Shaw – The poet’s eye on Advent is a crucial one, and I love Shaw’s particular take. Gorgeous and haunting.

God is in the Manger, Dietrich Bonhoeffer – I just got this one last year and didn’t get a chance to read much of it. Still – there is something powerful about the advent prayers written in prison cell, and I’m looking forward to engaging with this one more this year.

I’m constantly going back to the Advent section of the Henri Nouwen reader Seeds of Hope, but I imagine that these same bits — plus more — are compiled in Advent and Christmas Wisdom from Henri J.M. Nouwen: Daily Scripture and Prayers together with Nouwen’s Own Words.

Advent with St. Franics, Diane M. Houdek – This is not, strictly speaking, a series of writings from St. Francis, but Houdek does a nice job of integrating his quotes, insights, and life to deepen the advent experience. It’s also the tiniest book I’ve ever seen, so it’s easy to keep in my bag and read when I find myself out and about and with a minute of boredom.

Preparing for Christmas, Richard Rohr – I’ve gotten in the bad (awesome?) habit of ordering myself a new advent reader at the beginning of each season, and I just bought this one for my 2015 read. I’ll keep you posted on that one, but it’s come highly recommended and I’m looking forward to checking it out!

advent required reading

But here’s the great thing about the Advent Junk Journal. There is only the tiniest space to write. There is no daily scripture reading with study questions and fill-in-the-blanks that mock you if you don’t have time to do them.

I make a point of never including much more writing space than a small notecard or post-it…and then I write down one thing.

One line or quote or insight or metaphor that struck me in my reading…

One verse…

A line of a hymn or a Christmas song that keeps running through my head…

A moment of transcendence with my children…

One unexpected thing that happened today…

One glimpse of a slant of light as it falls over the icy pond…

There are a thousand ways to encounter God, to experience the hard beauty of Advent, and what I’ve discovered is that more than spending hours reading and praying and journaling — it’s just catching one minute. Capturing one small incandescent bit of beauty falling like a snowflake. To jot it down before it disappears.

advent journal inside 3

What you need to make an Advent Junk Journal:

  • Random papers of any types/sizes. Envelopes. Grocery lists. Graph paper. Computer paper. Notebook paper. I had a bunch of unused Christmas scrapbook paper at the bottom of a drawer, so I used a bunch of that, along with cut-up dictionary pages, ripped up notecards, Post-it Notes and
  • Cardboard for the cover (Literally just rip the top off of some cardboard box. It looks even cooler if you rip it a little to reveal the corrugated inside.)
  • Book binding rings. The ones at the Dollar Tree are too small. Go with the bigger ones. (You want to have space to be able to add photos, cards, a random church bulletin, flier, or newspaper article)

That’s it. It’s the easiest craft project ever because it looks even better if you don’t line up everything perfectly. (This is perfect for Christmastime when the pressure to be PERFECT seems to reach its boiling point.)

Not crafty? There is no shame in that. You can still have your own version of an Advent Junk Journal. Get one of those tiny moleskin notebooks with just enough space on each page for one small thought. A stack of post-its. A handful of notecards. You could even just use the space in your daily planner to jot things down.

You can do this project however you like. Do whatever helps you mark the days. Whatever centers your heart toward beauty.

Whatever helps you to wait and watch for the light.

advent journal inside 2

What about you? How do you make space for intentionality at Advent?

Expand Into It

“Do you hear what the shipwrecked are saying? Let go of your paltry desires and expand your expectations. Christmas means that God has given us nothing less than himself and his name is Jesus Christ. Be unwilling to settle for anything else.”
~ Brennan Manning

Christmas Day 1

So it didn’t go entirely, exactly perfect.

Does that surprise you?

You’re ashamed to admit that it does. That you’re caught off-guard again, this year, every year, at how far from magical Christmas Day actually feels when everything is finally said and done.

You believed you were sincere when you thought the joy was in the giving, not realizing how much hope you’d hung on the reactions to those gifts. You poised the camera, trying to capture the split second of delight when the box was torn open, but you missed it every time.

Or maybe you saw it — and for a moment, it was exactly how you imagined it — but then it was overshadowed by the whining and the complaining and fighting. The everyday frustrations of your young children’s tumultuous moods appearing like unwelcome guests into your magical Christmas celebration.

You stuff red and green paper into overflowing garbage bags, and there are K’Nex and Legos all over the floor, and the whole room feels both full and empty. You ate too many Christmas cookies and are starting to feel icky. Half the lights on the Christmas tree went out. The dog got into Santa’s cookies and got sick on the living room floor. There are pine needles everywhere, like Christmas is shedding itself, dying before your eyes even as it’s happening.

Somewhere along the way, all those Hallmark movies with their special-effect-snow and their soft, fuzzy lighting wormed their way into your imagination. It’s not real, your brain said, while somewhere in the unseen depths of your psyche, your expectations were forming themselves around magical moments, nostalgic songs, movie scenes and greeting card sentiments.

Christmas.

The day comes and goes. You go to church and sing the song and wait to feel that awestruck peace, that holy hush in your heart when the congregation stands holding lit candles. If you don’t feel it, you find yourself disappointed in your own reaction: What’s the matter with me?

The family comes, or you go see family, and there is joy and happiness and tension and chaos. You say the wrong thing. You say the right thing but not enough of it. There are too many people and not enough time with any of them.

You receive things you didn’t expect and feel loved. You receive things that are so obviously not you, and you feel odd and unknown. Someone spent more on you than you spent on them, and it makes you feel bad, though you can’t put your finger on why. When you leave, you’re exhausted by the crush of feelings. Expectations exceeded and shattered all at once.

Christmas.

In the days after Christmas, you sit down at the comically messy kitchen table and sigh at how quickly it has gone. Again. Wasn’t this the year you were going to truly notice it? Grab hold of those holy moments? Take your time? Wonder? You made a point to buy all of the gifts early, and still the season was a locomotive, crushing through your hopes and best intentions.

You think you should have had lower expectations.

Then you read the line from Brennan Manning. Expand your expectations.

Not lower. EXPAND.

Christmas Day 2

It occurs to you that you had been expecting the wrong thing. A glistening moment. A holy, breathtaking ellipses in the chaos of your life. You’d wanted to feel the quaint peace of the stable. The sudden burst of angel voices into the night sky. You’d wanted — for a moment — magic.

Expand your expectations.

This was never about a moment. It wasn’t about one holy night, one perfect day. It was about a shift in reality. Emmanuel. God with us — in every normal temper tantrum, every mess, every strained moment, every disappointment.

Twelve days, apparently, between Christmas Day and Epiphany… nearly two weeks between the day the Light comes to the world and the time we finally get it.  Epiphany: a vision of God. And you find that it’s true: it’s taking long, normal, post-Christmas days to stop seeing all the imperfections, disappointments, mess, chaos — and start seeing a new vision. Expand, expand, expand.

Emmanuel. God is with us — not as for one holy, star-spangled night — but for all the average, routine, disappointing, terrifying, happy, forgettable nights of your life.

Take a breath on a regular Tuesday morning after Christmas. Expand into it.

Christmastime in the Suburbs

Christmastime in the Suburbs: For when you feel like you're doing this holiday thing all wrong

The night we lit the first Advent Candle, the CenturyLink sales-guy came to the neighborhood and seduced us away from a tumultuous relationship with Comcast with low rates and the promise of cable. We haven’t had cable in half a decade. Maybe longer.

The CenturyLink kid came into our house, took off his boots, loosened his scarf and sat at our kitchen table in the glow of our Hope candle. He sat there while my kids refused to eat spaghetti and meatballs, and we asked him questions about his life while Andrew compared plans and signed the papers.

Within a few days, a dish had been installed into the roof of our house and four-hundred channels were streaming in. Most of the channels don’t interest me, but I am thrilled that the Hallmark Channel, with its nonstop “Countdown to Christmas,” is here now to make my wrapping/baking/cleaning more bearable during these Decemebering days.

On the Hallmark Channel, there seems to be an overabundance of female executives who are obsessed with their work and who have some Lesson to learn about the Magic of Christmas. And some attractive fireman/lawyer/novelist/woodworker to help them figure it out. I finish some, half-watch others, turn some off only a quarter of the way in when it becomes clear that they’re bad even for what they are.

The Hallmark Movies are like glasses of cheap red wine. One or two is fine. But take down any more than that in too short of a time period, and you find yourself nauseous and filled with regret.

Christmastime in the Suburbs

I made an Advent Journal out of ripped cardboard and scraps of pretty paper, and every day I try to write down something. A quote from my advent reading; a moment from our day; a scattered list of gratitude. In the mornings, when I am reading the pretty words, writing in my pretty book, I remember that Christmas is complex and shattering and revolutionary and heartbreakingly beautiful.

In the morning, I remember that when we say Peace, we’re talking about a great power — the kind that banishes every bit of unpeace. But by the afternoon, I am bogged down again in all of my middle-mess. A book that’s almost-but-not-quite done. A blog that’s been ignored; a pile of half-wrapped, half-finished gifts. Gift cards still to buy for teachers and bus drivers. Christmas cards to get mailed out.

In the afternoons, the Light fades into the afternoon gray, and I forget about that powerful peace, and all I can think about is the mess. The kitchen, strewn with dishes and the dishwasher that’s leaking and the laundry that’s piled up on the bed, waiting to be folded. I’m thinking about the upended lives of friends in pain, wanting to do something — feeling stuck in the middle of my horrendously messy house. Not sure where to start.

In the morning, I want to make my heart a sanctuary for God. I sit in the dim-lit living room, staring blearily at my Christmas tree, and I know in that moment that nothing I do can bring Christ into the world. The he comes anyway, without any of my hand-wringing angst, without my struggling and scraping and scrambling to make things “ready.” In the morning, I understand that making space is not about eliminating mess…it’s just about opening my heart up wide, wide, wide. As wide as I can.

But then.

Afternoon.

*

I keep forgetting things at Walmart and having to go back the next day. I have been there a shameful amount of times this past couple of weeks.

On Saturday, when I went for laundry detergent and juice for the kids and a couple of other staples, there was a Santa Claus installed between the artificial Christmas trees and the toiletries. He was nothing like the magical, twinkling versions in the Hallmark movie — or even the moderately senile one we saw last week at Culver’s. This Santa was wearing a removable white beard with pronounced white elastic and could not have looked less jolly if he tried. Every now and then, he let out a half-assed Ho ho ho that sounded so strangled and hopeless it could almost make you cry.

So many illusions. All these strings behind the magic. It didn’t seem quite as exhausting until I was the one in charge of conjuring up magic for little people. Now it seems downright excruciating.

A few parents pushed their children toward the Santa, but the kids looked unsure…if not scared.  I wasn’t over there for very long — just long enough to grab a couple of gift boxes — but as I left, I watched a two-year-old burst into tears and resolutely refuse to get out of her cart and into Santa’s lap.

Probably best. If the photograph centered the picture even a centimeter wrong, neatly arranged bottles of shaving cream would find their way into the shot, shattering whatever illusion they might have been trying to capture.

*

I bought Ann Voskamp’s new Jesse Tree book and tried to read it to the kids, but at five and three, it’s too much for them. I kept reading the words louder and louder while they punched each other across my lap. I feel like Ann’s children do not respond this way when she reads to them and curse myself silently for doing a bad job of teaching my children the true meaning of Christmas.

What they actually interested in is Elife — our inherited Elf on the Shelf. They have a borderline unhealthy obsession with him, every morning waking up early to figure out where he is. One day, when friends were over, I heard Dane yell, “YOU GUYS. ELFIE IS WATCHING AND HE’S GOING TO TELL SANTA THAT YOU ARE BAD!” I smacked my head on the kitchen counter a few times and lamented my terrible parenting.

At three and five, Dane and Liam could care less about the Advent candles except for when it comes to who gets to blow them out. When I suggested that Dane and I go to the Dollar Store to buy a gift for his brother, he burst into tears and said, “But I want to buy a gift for ME!” and if I’d been alone, I’d have found a place to smack my head again.

I think that maybe we’re failing at Christmas, but then Andrew says, “Maybe this is the part where they learn the joy of expectation.” And for a minute I feel better.

*

I slide my credit card through the machine and buy a Chipotle gift card for the kid whose name I pulled off of the McDonald’s Christmas giving tree on a whim. I can do this — buy gifts for strangers. Feel a certain amount of satisfied goodness when I give it to the lady at the counter. We’re not poor — not in that way. Not rich of course— not free from money troubles — but not destitute. I can give good gifts to the people in my life. I can give good gifts to strangers.

In the morning, I am writing in my beautiful journal, feeling the gratitude of all of this.

But then Afternoon, and I feel just as poor as anyone else, standing in my fully stocked, wildly messy kitchen. I am not sure what it is I need to be delivered from, only that I am clinging to this story of a Deliverer born in Bethlehem.

I am desperate to believe that he will deliver even those of us who find our homes in the suburbs, our hunger and poverty not quite as physical but every bit as terrifying.

On the table — a pile of gifts that will communicate love, but not the kind of love that the world needs. On the counter — cookies that are sweet but that cannot fill our hungry hearts. Red wine that does not quench our thirst; Hallmark Movies on a reel whose fictional plots are a two-dimensional, shadowed attempt at capturing That Great Romance — the one I will never wrap my mind entirely around.

christmastime in the suburbs - culvers santa

Christmas is just barely over a week away, and I’m doing it wrong…and I’m doing it right. I’m rich and I’m poor. I’m giving, and also, I’m standing in my kitchen, destitute. I’m receiving something beautiful that I don’t feel, don’t understand, don’t know how to accept.

In the suburbs, the Christmas lights are glowing bright on lonely homes, and the trees are heavy with baggage and hope. The Walmart Santa is carrying his own set of demons, and the Hallmark Christmas Movies actors have washed out of hopeful film careers into this netherworld of sappy movies. They kiss, and the credits roll, but we all know that the story goes on past “Happily Ever After.” That it’s never quite that simple.

And it’s just another Christmas in the suburbs — just another month of seeking and being sought, of looking and losing and being found, found, found again by the God who always comes to the most unexpected places in the most unexpected ways:

A manger. A big box store. The buzzing silence of your own hungry heart as you eat a sugar cookie in two giant bites over the kitchen sink.

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