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. 

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.

Trading Thanksgiving for Thanks-living

Snow Tree

Happy “Snowvember” from Michigan!

From the cozy warmth of my living room I stared outside in amazement. November 18th and it was snowing. I mean really SNOWING!

Even as I write this I can hear a collective groan from my fellow Michiganders. But not me! As I sat and watched the season spit its first fat flakes, my heart pranced giddy.

I love the snow. I love the cold. I love the winters we get here in Michigan, full of icicles, mittens, rosy cheeks, roaring fires, and hot chocolate.

“The only reason you love the snow is because you don’t have to work in it like I do,” my husband said, already shivering to his core.

He has a point. I don’t have to work in the snow, as he does throughout the winter. On most days I don’t even have to leave our house if I don’t want to.

It’s true,” I said. “I live a privileged life.”

In the days that followed, as I remembered this conversation, the thought crossed my mind: When it comes to life in North America, by comparison, don’t we all live a privilege life?

Note: I did not say our lives are easy. Or comfortable. Or Pollyanna perfect.

Snow FlagBut when we look at our homes, our cars, our clothes, the food on our tables, and the water that runs through our pipes, what do we have to complain about?

Yet despite all I have been granted, I know I do an awful lot of complaining throughout my days. I may not complain about the snow but I still find my own list of annoyances to groan and gripe about.

I love the Thanksgiving holiday but there is one thing about this special day that irks me a little bit. The concept of thanksgiving is worthy of so much more than a single day. It’s more than grace around a table and the carving of a turkey. I love that our nation sets aside an entire day to celebrate our blessings and give thanks to God for all we have, but, really, shouldn’t thanksgiving be something we do each and every day and not just once a year?

I recently wrote a post about how we don’t have time to fight, but only time to love. I’m learning that the same is true of giving thanks. We haven’t been given this day, this time, this season, to complain it away, always wishing for something different, something more, (or less in the case of the snow.) Our days, this moment, this season is laden heavy with gifts, with blessings, and the only correct response is a heart, a tongue filled with thanks.

Snowy PumpkinBecause here’s the thing: All those things we complain about, the snow, the traffic, the annoying lady in line at the post office, were given to us, placed in our lives by the very hand of God. The same God that tells us throughout scripture to do everything without grumbling and complaining. The same God that tells us in ALL things give thanks.

Sweet friends, we don’t have time, or room, or reason in our lives to complain, only time to give thanks. Because what more is being thankful than saying “Yes,” to God? What more is being thankful than opening our hearts, our lives to him and all that he gives?

Thanksgiving can change a life. Thanksgiving can change everything.

Even in the snow. Even in the cold, and the hard, and all things harsh and biting, we can exchange our complaints for words of thanks. We can offer up our privileged lives with not just a day, a month, or a season but a lifetime of thanksgiving.

Won’t you join me?

What are you thankful for this day? In what ways can you replace complaints with thanks? I’d love to hear from you!

Happy Thanksgiving, Friends. May it last a lifetime!

~ An updated post from the archives

Filling In The Blanks (A Message From the Archives)

Last February I wrote this post after spending a week with my sister and her family. Little did I know a whole year would go by before we had the chance to be together again. I’m happy to say my wait is almost over! By the time you read this post my family will be with me and the message I wrote last February will repeat itself from beginning to end.

As I prepare for my family’s arrival I thought this would be a good time to dig this post from the archives and share it one more time. May it be a reminder to you of “Kingdom Moments,” and the solace found in a thankful heart…

I know Christmas, by way of the calendar, has been over for a solid month, but for me, Christmas did not end until the last weekend of January.

Due to a new position at my brother-in-law’s workplace, my sister and her family were not able to make the 872 mile drive from their home in North Carolina to Michigan in time for Christmas this year. We all agreed that we would wait as long as necessary to celebrate the season if that’s what it took for us to be together.

“We’ll leave up the decorations until July if we need to,” I assured my sister. “Just. Get. Here!”

Finally, they made it, and for a full week we each drank deep from the glass family.

When they packed up their van and rolled out of our driveway, headed home to the sunny south, my heart began to ache. I don’t know for sure when we’ll see them again and that always makes goodbyes even harder.

Later, as my daughter and I sat at the kitchen table eating lunch, the quiet of the house consumed us. There we sat with room to spare, when just hours before, the table and the house had been full.

“Mommy,” Aletheia said. “I’m sad. I miss my cousins.”

“I miss them too.”

At three years of age, I know it’s hard for Aletheia to understand why she can’t see her cousins more often. I know how my heart felt in that moment and I could tell hers felt the same way. How could I help her understand and sort through the hard feelings that come with saying goodbye?

“Aletheia?” I asked. “Do you know why you feel the way you do? Do you know why you miss your cousins?”

Her sad, blue eyes spoke the words her mind couldn’t muster.

“The reason you feel sad is because you have five big holes inside your heart. One in the shape of Madeline. One in the shape of Conner, and one in the shape of Garrett, Aunt Melanie, and Uncle Landon too.”

“Yes,” she said with her tiny voice.

“And, do you know what else? I bet that Madeline, Conner, Garrett, Aunt Melanie, and Uncle Landon have some holes in their hearts too, except theirs are in the shape of Aletheia and Tenley.”

Aletheia nodded and we went back to our lunch, to our getting back to normal.

As my girls took their afternoon naps, I retreated to my room in search of my own sense of comfort for the holes that ached inside.

It’s a feeling I’m sure we can all relate to. At the end of something great, on the tail of goodbye, the sinking feeling of empty that is left in the wake of what I like to call days of heaven upon the earth. In time the ache goes away, but what to do with those moments when reality crashes hard?

Stretched across my bed, I pulled out my phone and opened my email. A week’s worth of blog posts from Ann Voskamp filled my inbox, evidence of a week too full of fun and family to stay on top of the everyday details that usually capture my attention.

I’ve written before, of my love for Ann’s writings and the way they have helped me in the past. I don’t mean to sound redundant, but once again, God navigated me to the right post at the right time and spoke to the holes inside my heart.

How can I fill the holes, the blanks left by a week that felt so much like His Kingdom, right here on earth?

The answer, I found, was simple: Fill the holes with Thanksgiving.

By remembering the moments that made the week great and the goodbyes hard, the holes can be filled with thank yous for God, the orchestrator and giver of each precious gift…

Garrett’s curls…

Madeline’s freckled nose and “little mommy” ways…

Conner’s boyish laughter…

Watching Twilight with my sister…

Landon playing in the snow with Aletheia…

Mom’s Christmas dinner…

Dad, asleep in his chair, while the grandkids romp wild…

Tenley learning to say “Coco” the name of our family’s furriest member…

Living-room ransacked with toys…

Late nights and early mornings…

Snow falling peaceful, the feel of “Christmas Morning”…

This is how my list began. As tears of remembrance slid down my cheeks, my heart was filled with thanksgiving for God’s goodness, for the joy of family and the comfort of His love.

The Coat in the Closet

For my eighteenth birthday my boyfriend, now husband, gave me a fur coat. He wasn’t rich. He was in love, and he wanted me to have something special, something luxurious, something fit for a queen so he worked his tail off in order to be able to give me this gift.

Despite the love and thoughtfulness behind his gift, I’m sad to say, that for years the beautiful coat he gave remained in our closet for years. Almost fifteen years later, the coat continues to hang in our front door closet, neglected and unworn.

It’s not that I don’t love or appreciate my husband’s gift. In many ways it’s precious to me. But somehow, whenever I try to wear it I feel conspicuous, silly, and awkward. My husband has told me time and again that he thinks I look beautiful whenever I wear my coat, but I struggle to believe him.

A few weeks ago my husband and I had a conversation about the coat and for the first time in fifteen years I told him the truth.

“I just don’t like it,” I said, trying ever so hard not to hurt his feelings. “It kills me to say that because I know how hard you worked to give it to me. I know how special it is, but I don’t know…sometimes I wonder what would happen if we tried to trade it in. Maybe find something more my style.”

He was quiet for a minute before saying, “We could do that. It makes me sad and I think you’re crazy, but I’d rather you have a coat you’ll actually use, rather than one that just hangs around in a closet.”

A few days later, Chris and I went to the shop where he bought my coat all those years ago. The saleslady admired my coat and looked up the trade in value. While she was incredibly helpful and happy to discuss our options I could tell she thought I was crazy. I knew she couldn’t understand why I would willingly trade my beautiful blue fox fur for something far less valuable.

Chris and I decided to take some time to consider our options and come back another day. When we got home he took a picture of me in the coat and sent it to our friend in a text message.

Jen thinks she doesn’t look good in this coat, he wrote. Can you give us your honest opinion? 

Seconds later our friend wrote back. She looks glorious! Blue fox is rare and exquisite!

Rare and exquisite?

As I read the words from my friend I knew God was using her to speak to me. “Don’t you see?” He seemed to say. “Don’t you know how precious you are to me? Don’t you know that in my eyes, you are rare and exquisite too?”

In that moment my heart for the coat began to change.

Fur Coat

Wearing my coat on the night we got engaged

I thought of our trip to the store. I thought of Chris walking the aisles of all those coats and picking one just for me. I thought of all the years he’s loved me, all the notes and gifts he’s given. And for the first time I could see this coat wasn’t a onetime expression of his love, but a reflection of our love story’s greatest theme: The theme of extravagant love for God, for each other, and for others.

The love my husband has for me is, in and of itself, a rare and exquisite gift. It is extravagant. It is a reflection of God’s love for us.

And I’ve taken both for granted.

Just like the coat in my closet how many times have I passed by God’s gifts, God’s countless expressions of love for me and failed to recognize how rare and exquisite they are?

How many times have I let my insecurities and shortcomings keep me from the extravagant gift of His love?

How many times have I failed to treasure and use His gifts or thought it better to trade them in for something far less valuable, less satisfactory?

The warmth of a fur coat…

The smell of a lemon…

The sound of my daughter’s voice…

The sight of a rose in full bloom…

My husband’s strong hand in mine…

A love story that lasts through the ages…

His one and only son…

His endless gifts are extravagant. His love? It’s the most exquisite thing I know.

They aren’t to be taken for granted. Tucked away in the closet, buried, neglected, unnoticed. They are to be used, valued, treasured. They are the theme of His love story for us. A reflection of His greatest gift. A reflection of His, the greatest, love.

This Valentine’s Day may you be reminded of God’s extravagant gifts, of His rare and exquisite love. May you pull them from the closet and drown in their warmth. May you know that you’re His treasure. May you treasure Him in return.

And just in case you were wondering, I think I’ll keep the coat.