When Your Christmas is NOT Ideal

Aletheia's WrappingToday I am happy to welcome Melanie Brown to Once Upon A Writer. When I first read Melanie’s post I laughed, cried, and felt truly blessed. The kind of blessed you feel when you’ve just been set free from a heavy weight on your shoulders, or taken a long drink of ice cold water, or a deep breath of fresh air. On this Christmas Eve, I hope these words will be just what you need to refresh your spirit and prepare your heart for the gift of our Savior. 

~ Post written by Melanie Brown ~

My Monday started off as your typical December twenty-secondish kind of day. You know that kind of day where you try to keep a smile on your face and remain calm, cool, and collected because you know, after all, it is Christmas time, and we are suppose to be joyful; yet, on the inside, you can feel the pressures mounting and the list of things to do growing – all of those things you want to accomplish and experience so that you can have an ideal Christmas.

My Monday was just that kind of day, and by 10:00 that night I let out a big SIGH when I gathered all the kids together on the couch in order to read our second daily Advent devotional of the day before bed (because we are several days behind and it certainly isn’t ideal not to catch up on that!). Well, my mind was once again pondering over all the things I want to have just perfect before we roll out of here for Michigan at the end of the week. I was playing the “If only” game again. “If only . . . then my Christmas would be ideal.”

If only . . .
my house was spotless.
all the laundry was washed and put away.
the bags were packed.
I could get more sleep.
Madeline’s arm wasn’t in a splint.
the kids would stop coughing, sputtering, and spitting.
they would stop arguing and be nice to one another for a change.
property taxes weren’t due at the end of the month.
the van didn’t need fixing.
we had gotten more school stuff done before Christmas break.
Christmas gifts didn’t cost so much.
I felt like every gift was just perfect and what they wanted.
the gifts didn’t look like they had been wrapped by an 8 and 10 year old (even though
they were wrapped by two very eager kids to get some presents under the tree)
we didn’t have an emergency room visit and six doctor appointments in the last month.
the pie crust I made at 11:00 at night didn’t have a teaspoon of salt in it instead of 1/4 a
teaspoon like the recipe called for.
it were snowing and not raining.
and on and on and on.

Cold MedicineEven as I type I realize that all of these things really are rather trivial. The housework isn’t going anywhere. We still have clothes to wear. Bones will heal and coughs will fade. There will always be bills to pay. Wrapping paper will be torn to shreds in a matter of seconds and then crumpled into garbage bags. We’ll eventually make it to Michigan, and the kids might one day decide to love each other (although I’m not holding my breath!).

For many of you though, the things this Christmas that are far from ideal are not trivial at all. Some of you are facing major surgery in the very near future. Others of you are laboring to recover from surgeries past. For some, your hearts are breaking at the knowledge that your loved one will not be with you much longer and this will be your last Christmas together. Then there are those whose hearts grieve with an ache that never truly goes away over loved ones who have already gone before. Some are looking to the New Year and wondering how they will possibly make ends meet. These not-so-trivial things go on and on too, and they certainly do not make for that ideal, perfect Christmas we are always striving for.

Mad's ArmAs I sat there on the couch Monday night waiting for the kids to settle down so I could begin reading, it hit me like a ton of bricks. The very first Christmas was far from ideal. Now it’s not like I never knew this before, but I saw it in a fresh new light. Jesus knows what it’s like to live a life that’s far from ideal. There was nothing ideal about Joseph marrying a young girl already great with child. There was nothing ideal about having to travel to Bethlehem – let alone to pay taxes. It certainly wasn’t ideal for Mary to ride a donkey or give birth in a stable. The very first breath our Savior took was far from ideal as it was probably laden with the stench of animal dung. Yet, he left the ideal throne of heaven and came to this not-so-ideal world in order to save you and me who reek with the stench of sin.

Why then are we striving so hard to have an ideal Christmas when nothing about Jesus’s birth, life, or death was ideal? He came so that He might dwell among us (John 1:14) and be our High Priest (Hebrews 4:14-15) because He knew that only He could be the true Ideal we’re searching for. As Christmas day approaches then, let all these things in your life that are far from ideal be a reminder that Jesus knows and cares. Turn to Him. Let Him be your living water this Christmas. Drink deeply of Him, and if we cease striving for the ideal, we may just find that this will be our most ideal Christmas yet.

Melanie Brown is a wife, homemaker, and homeschooling mom of three. She lives with her family in Whitsett, North Carolina. 

How to Make Your Canvas, Your New Year, Your Life, a Masterpiece

Nativity 2Sheldon Rhodes had had enough. After 40 years of children’s ministry he was tired of people mistaking his home and Jest Kidding headquarters in Nashville, MI as some kind of daycare center.

Something had to change. Something about his property needed to proclaim God and his glory, needed to show anyone and everyone driving by what he, his wife, Vicky, and their ministry were all about.

The seed had been planted years ago. While visiting a church in Niagara Falls, New York, Sheldon and Vicky became aware that the church was doing a live nativity display. In years to come they watched this display become a beacon drawing people from miles around to come and see the Christmas story as they’d never seen it before.

Camel 2AngelA dream was lodged in their hearts, a vision to someday use their home and ministry headquarters to declare God’s glory not just at Christmas but all the year through.

On a December afternoon in 2013 Sheldon received a call from yet another person inquiring after his supposed daycare center. It was the last straw and perhaps a providential one.

A few days later on Christmas Eve he went to bed but couldn’t sleep. His mind kept thinking of ideas, of ways he could transform his home, his yard, his driveway into an epic nativity. He thought of lights, music, and scripture readings. He pictured Christmas brought to life and a drive-thru village that would tell the story from beginning to end of Jesus Christ and His love.

Christmas in July 2He saw his home and property as an empty canvas and with all his heart he wanted to use it to paint a masterpiece for God.

But how? And when? And where would they get the tools, the resources, the help they would need to make their dream a reality? It was all a little crazy wasn’t it? Could God really be in this?

On the day after Christmas Sheldon and Vicky got in their van and drove to Frakenmuth, MI home of the world’s largest Christmas store. For an entire day they roamed the aisles searching for ideas, dreaming of possibilities.

In January Sheldon shared his vision with his board of directors, and with their input and support a yearlong journey was launched.

It was a monumental task. There were setbacks, fears, and doubts but Sheldon and Vicky knew that God was with them, helping them, guiding them, supporting their plans.

Christmas In JulyChristmas in July 3Little by little God provided in many amazing ways. Expensive patterns and materials for a life-size nativity set were donated to the cause. Volunteers came in late July to prepare the grounds and other materials. Gifted painters helped to transform mere pieces of plywood into beautiful works of art.

Almost a year to date from the beginning of their venture, Sheldon and Vicky added the last piece of their nativity to their front lawn. With only days left until Christmas their vision had become a reality.

It was the end of yearlong project but it was also a beginning. With plans to keep adding to their nativity and ideas for other holidays Sheldon and Vicky can’t wait to see what God has in store.

If you were to take a drive to Nashville, MI, headed East off Hwy 66, traveling down State Rd, you’d be sure to see the Rhodes’ home and a lavish display of God’s love. It’s just what Sheldon wanted, it’s a testament to God and His glory, and it’s also a reminder to us.

Vicky Painting 2It’s a reminder that our lives, our resources, and the gifts we’ve been given are all empty canvases on which we can paint a display of God and His glory, a declaration of His love.

Seeds are planted all the time, dreams and visions of what could be. When we’re faithful with those seeds, as Sheldon has been faithful with his, there’s no limit to what God can do.

What stirs your soul? What keeps you awake when you dare to let your mind wander, when you dare to let your heart dream? Is it a life-size nativity display, a blog post, a business plan? Is it righting a wrong or fighting injustice? Is it a Saturday feeding the homeless or a home cooked meal for a tired mom?

Whatever comprises your canvas, make no mistake God is there. He’s in your vision, He’s in your dreams. He’s in your plans, your pursuits, your wonder.

Look close and you’ll see it, every time. When you step out in faith, when you work for His glory, His fingerprints, there on your canvas.

The colorful strokes of His glory turning plywood into art.

Turning everything all around into beacons of His story. Your heart, your vision, the work of your hands into the masterpiece of His love.

For more information on Sheldon’s nativity and/or Jest Kidding ministries please visit www.jestkidding.com.

Sheldon’s nativity will be on display 24/7 throughout the holiday season. Sheldon and Vicky welcome you to load up your family, take a drive, and see their display located at 10230 E. State Road, Nashville, MI, 49073.

When What You Really Need is Christmas Morning Joy

JammiesI woke up yesterday morning at 5:00 am. I wanted to go back to sleep but all I could do was lay there and think of everything that needs to happen between now and Christmas…

At 5:36 I gave up. Sensing the need to be with God, to pray over my nagging to-do-list, to make a plan for the day I got out of bed and came downstairs to my favorite spot beside the tree. I got my Bible, my journal, my calendar. I made up lists and lesson plans. I prayed. I did what I thought I needed to do to tame the anxiety I felt in my heart.

As my day went on I kept waiting for peace and joy to come but I continued to feel a weight on my shoulders. Instead of peace and joy, I felt irritated, grumpy, and extremely discouraged.

I know we all have days like this. I know we have an enemy who stalks us and hormones that betray us. I know the holidays can be crazy and rainy days endlessly dreary.

I know. I know. I know.

But despite my best efforts to combat it all, I still felt a little like Scrooge. Like George Bailey on his worst day.

In the late afternoon, I strapped my kids into our van and headed for the library. It was a promise I made that morning and while not a bone in my body wanted to go, I didn’t want to let them down, so off to the library we went. And do you know? We had a wonderful time.

Aletheia's EyesAfter the library and after supper my family gathered on the couch to watch A Christmas Carol. It was a perfect ending to a not-perfect day and as I went to bed I considered the day I’d had, my attitude and my actions. I began to rethink the days to come, the days between now and Christmas…

There’s still a lot to do. There’s cookies to make and presents to wrap. There’s time with family and friends. There’s the preparing of my heart for the King who is coming and everyday life to attend to.

But instead of seeing all of it through eyes and a heart that looks at the list and thinks, “I have to bake, wrap, fix, plan, prepare, create, be…” I now saw my list through “Scrooge-Bailey Eyes.”

At the end of A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life, the characters of Scrooge and George Bailey are given the gift of seeing their lives differently. Where they were once deeply disenchanted they become transfixed with the enchantment of their lives.

Ebenezer’s would-be-chains are broken as Scrooge makes mankind his business. George Bailey is no longer troubled by a broken-down house, a broken-down business or his own broken-down heart in light of what might have been. What used to bother, discourage, and dishearten suddenly beams with joy.

Seeing their world through different eyes, through a different heart they no longer think, “I have to…” but instead rejoice, “I get to…”

Scrooge wakes from the nightmare of Christmas Eve, from the nightmare of his life and says, “I get to serve my fellow man…”

George Bailey finds himself alive on a bridge with bloodied lip and thinks, “I get to go home to my family…

I lay in bed with my girls sleeping like angels down the hall and think, “I get to be their mom…”

I think of their faces. Of Aletheia at five and Tenley at three.

I think of this time. This moment. This now. It is all so precious. So temporary.

Christmas LightsHow many chances do I really get to shuffle them off to the library? To bake cookies? To gather ‘round the table for school?

How many years do I really get with them in fleecy footed pajamas? With little hands hanging ornaments? With Christmas lights shining in wondrous eyes?

The answer is, not many.

And the moments I spend with have-to eyes and a have-to heart are moments when the gift of now is lost, when the sacred and precious gift of now is wasted on a blind woman who desperately needs new eyes.

A broken woman who needs eyes to see, and ears to hear, and a heart to believe that it is a wonderful life. That Christmas is a carol and it’s ringing the truth of our days.

The truth that life is not a list of have-tos, but an endless gift of get-tos. And the difference between discouragement and joy, between anxiety and peace is found in the way we see the list, in the way we receive the gift.

Don’t waste the gift of now. Don’t have-to it away.

Instead, see and receive the gift of now with I get to eyes. Open the gift of Him with an I get to heart.

And find it all around. In the nooks and crannies of every day. In the lists, and the plans, and the life that unfolds…

Joy, like Christmas morning…

Peace, like falling snow…

Grace, like a bell, like a carol reminding us that it really is a wonderful, magical, beautiful life.

This life He’s given. This life we get to live.

When You Want to Find the Perfect Gift

Aletheia's PresentsThis Monday marks the start of a beloved Christmas tradition in my house: Chris’s Ten Days of Christmas. Every year starting on December 15th, my husband gets to open one present each day (sometimes two when he get’s snoopy) leading up to Christmas.

It’s a tradition that’s become rather legendary. Year after year our friends and family look at Chris, and all his presents, and think him completely spoiled. Honestly he is. But as his wife, I don’t mind. Chris spoils me all year long, and I love the chance to make him feel loved and special, to speak his love language of gifts.

This year, our oldest daughter is joining in the fun. This week, Aletheia and I went shopping at the dollar store for our “Honey.” With money from her piggy bank she made a list of items to shop for, got her gifts with a little help from mom, and came home to wrap them all by herself. It was awesome fun to watch her go. To watch her purchase and prepare gifts for her daddy and other people she loves.

MaryThe love language of gifts is a big deal in our family. My husband loves to give, and like a little kid on Christmas morning he also loves to receive. And now, what a joy it is to see our little girl following in his footsteps.

Sometimes it’s easy to get caught in the idea or the pressure of finding the perfect present. Something tangible, something bought, something wrapped and stuffed beneath the tree. But the art of giving is so much more.

I n his book, The Five Love Languages, author Gary Chapman explains that everyone has one or two love languages that resonate more deeply than others.

According to Chapman the five love languages include:

Acts of Service

Words of Affirmation

Quality Time

Physical Touch

and Gifts

Our strongest love language not only determines how we best receive love from others but also impacts how we are most likely to show love to others.

When it comes to Christmas giving consider each person on your list. How do they often show love to the people around them? What sort of ‘gift’ would most likely speak love to them?

Personally a gift that speaks volumes to my heart isn’t a present under the tree but the chance to go write for a few hours. For my birthday my mom watched my girls for a whole day so I could do just that. It was the best present she could possibly give me.

When we take the time to observe the people we love and find what really makes them tick we can often give to them in ways that are far more lasting and far more meaningful than anything bought from a store.

NativityThe best gifts are gifts that speak to the heart, that say, essentially, “Hey, I noticed this about you. I saw this need or sensed that unspoken desire, and found a way to fill it.”

These are the gifts that echo the One Gift we celebrate at Christmas. The One Gift need wasn’t placed under a tree but inside a manger. The One Gift that came and met the need of a lost and broken world, that filled the deepest desire of every human heart.

When it comes to love languages, Jesus speaks them all, and He speaks them straight to our hearts. He is the master of gifts. The master of all we enjoy.

This year, don’t succumb to the pressure of finding the perfect gift. Succumb to His example.

Be the gift. Meet the need. Fulfill a heart’s desire.

Speak the language of Manger Love. The language that swaddles everything in billowing folds of grace.

Today Was a Fairy Tale

My family's beautiful Christmas tree.

My family’s beautiful Christmas tree.

Once upon a time there was a beautiful Christmas tree…

We decided to switch things up this year. Instead of the multi-colored lights that we have used on our Christmas tree since I can remember, my mom and I decided to be daring and dress up our tree with crystal lights.

We knew we were messing with perfection. For years our multi-colored tree has been a beloved tradition, a jewel, a treasure. We weren’t sure we’d like the look of crystal lights, and it was hard to try something new but when we finished our tree and took in the sight of our creation we were thrilled with its newfound beauty.

The crystal lights, all eighteen strands of them, glistened like sparkling stars come down. We turned off the lights and watched our tree shine, a glowing masterpiece.

In the days that followed whenever my three-year-old, Tenley, walked by our tree she stuck out her tiny finger and excitedly declared, “Christmas!”

“That’s right,” I said. “Christmas!”

The more I thought about Tenley’s childlike declaration, the more I realized she was right. Our Christmas tree, all Christmas trees are a symbol of Christmas, a symbol of Christ.

With beauty, with light, the sight of a Christmas tree reflects the brilliance, the splendor, the radiance of a Savior who shines the brightest when all is dark.

This is what Christmas is, light invading dark. And isn’t that just like a fairy tale?

When Christ was born He came with beauty, He came with light. He invaded our world, our darkness. And still He comes shining the light of hope, the light of peace, the light of joy and rescue into the stumbling dark of our world, our hearts.

He shines the way so that we may see that the way is Him. He shines the way so that we may see that there is no way but by the light of His grace.

This Christmas, as you sit around your decked out tree, absorbed in its sacred glow may you catch a glimpse, a reflection of heavenly light. May you wake up this Christmas to the fairy tale found in the beauty, in the light of Christmas and a Savior who shines brightest when all is dark.