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.

How to Really Save this Christmas (and we’re not talkin’ Black Friday)

Black FridayFor the past few days I’ve been hearing this voice. Two voices, actually. One that sounds kind and gentle, sort of like a best friend and another that sounds demanding and anxious, like the voice of a stressed out boss.

I know this sounds a little crazy but I’m also pretty sure these dueling voices are heard by each of us at some point during the holiday season.

As I write this post Thanksgiving is just two days away. I love Thanksgiving and all that goes with it. The family. The love. The FOOD! We’re hosting this year and while everyone is bringing a dish to share there’s always lots to do.

My mom and I, we have pies to bake, roasts and turkeys to thaw. My girls have been busy making decorations and of course the house, if not spotless, should be company ready.

The friendly voice in my head keeps saying, “No problem! We’ve got this! You have plenty of time to get it all done. Put on the Christmas music and enjoy baking with your girls. Don’t worry with perfection! Memories and a thankful heart are your top priorities this week.”

But that other voice…that voice that fights for attention. That angry, bossy, voice that won’t shut up until it’s heard…it goes something like this… “Ummm, hello? What are you thinking? Have you seen the living room and the dust that’s been collecting since June? You have casseroles to make! You don’t have time for lunch with your out-of-town-friend. And don’t forget story time. You promised to take your girls this week. They will be SO disappointed if you don’t go…oh and while you’re there, you better do some Christmas shopping before Black Friday sets in. Remember that coupon expires on Wednesday. And one more thing…”

The scary thing is, this voice doesn’t go away. As Christmas gets closer, it gets louder with its endless rants on shopping, spending, gifting, wrapping, planning, prepping, cooking, cleaning, decorating, visiting, and Fah-la-la-blah-blah-Blah-Blah-BLAH-BLAH!

It thrives on expectations and disappointments. It wields its power in the lure of perfection. It strikes with the threat of not coming through seeping its poison into the honest desire for everything to be merry and bright.

But there in the ranting, the demands, the clamoring agendas, the friendly voice remains. Like a friend it is loyal, constant, and true. While softer and harder to hear it never stops whispering the call, the invitation, the offer of peace, and stillness, and calm in the sales-driven, fruitcake, Santa lovin’ storm.

It reminds us that at the center of the Christmas season, there is still a Savior…a Savior who still saves. A Savior who can save us from the holiday madness we’ve created if necessary.

The balance between following the Christmas norm and following the Reason for Christmas is slippery as ice. But friends, it doesn’t have to be so. It can be as easy as online shopping.

Because in the end it comes down to a choice. A choice between two voices. A choice between two saviors.

We can listen to the voice, to the Savior that brings life, that fills every desire, that meets every need. Or we can listen to the voice, to the savior we find in our own abilities, in our cheap substitutes for the life we long for.

There is no shame in wanting a Merry Christmas. It is right, and holy, and true, to seek life and wholeness, and home-spun warmth throughout the holiday season. But this life we desire can only be found in seeking the Savior. By finding Christmas in Him.

There is a quote by Ann Voskamp that I turn to each year when the Bad Boss voice gets a little too loud. I think I shared it last year but it’s worth sharing again:

“Whenever Christmas begins to burden, it’s a sign that I’ve taken on something of the world and not of Christ.” ~ Ann Voskamp

This year as Christmas comes full force, remember these words and use them. Let them be a barometer, a compass that points you to Him.

And may the full-force of your Christmas come. Not in coupons, sales, and Black Friday discounts. Not in Christmas lights, music, or presents. Not in credit card debt for gifts we don’t need or traditions that set standards too high.

But in quiet moments spent with Him. In popsicle-ornament memories with kids. In the beauty of snow falling quiet to earth. In laughter and a perfectly-imperfect home. In baking that makes your heart sing or in the pie you bought at the store because baking’s not your thing and you’d rather sit by the fire in read.

Let Christmas come in Advent, because He IS coming, in beauty, in peace, in love, in joy.

He is coming for us, just as He came all those years ago. With passionate love that turned the world upside down. That made a King into an infant and darkness into light.

He is coming. And He is Christmas.

The only Christmas we long for. The only Christmas we need. The only Christmas worth celebrating.

Today Was a Fairy Tale

100_2033Today I’m welcoming back my friend and fellow writer, Jessie Heninger, to Once Upon A Writer. I hope you enjoy her beautiful account of finding fairy tale magic in everyday life as much as I have…and then…go for a walk in the woods!

~Post by Jessie Heninger~

Monday is my favorite day. The kids go back to school, the crazy, that is our life on Sundays, is over and it’s Brian’s day off. An entire school day to spend as we please… wonderful.

Autumn in Michigan is spectacular, a color extravaganza before the dreary months of winter. So this week we dropped the kids off at school and drove to Holland. We stayed off the highway, and for once the weather cooperated. It was gorgeous! We did a little window shopping (seriously $80 for a baby outfit!) dreamed about retiring to Lake Michigan, ate gluten free pizza for lunch. It was lovely, but oh it gets better…

I was under the impression that downtown Holland went right up to the lakeshore, it doesn’t. So we asked Siri to take us to the beach (which she did not do, she hates me). Eventually we made our way to Saugatuck State park. There were two trails leading into the woods and we chose perfectly. It was a golden trip that wound through trees alight with color and a forest that was practically dripping with magic.

Jessie Headshot

Author Jessie Heninger

For me in a forest like that, smelling the wonder of the woods, I feel a presence. It’s so strong it almost feels tangible. Everywhere I looked I saw what my imagination is trying to do for the characters in my novel. Only it was better. I pointed to a spot and told Brian, “Giants, right there, I mean that’s exactly where they’d come through.” He laughed at me good naturally. (Thank God that man thinks I’m quirky in a charming way and not just completely nuts). We continued to hike through shadowed forest and then suddenly the woods brought us to the beach. Dark grey, cold waves practically touching the majesty of that forest.

Lake Michigan is really special to me, and being there with my husband on a kind of unexpected trip…there is so much wonder and magic in this world. Sometimes all we see is the darkness and the sadness but there is so much color just blazing and waiting to be discovered. I love it when my eyes are opened to that. When the sacred comes and touches us in a moment of beauty and awe. Pure wonder when the heart feels something we can never put words to. Bliss.

To read more of Jessie’s writings please visit her blog Confessions of a Housewife at www.jessieheninger.wordpress.com.

The Truth About Suffering

Fairyland QuoteThis past June my husband and I found out we are expecting our third baby and while I was excited to share this news with our family and friends there was one friend I couldn’t tell.

Within days of discovering our happy news I received an email from my friend, Caye. In this email Caye openly shared the devastating news that she had just lost her baby at seventeen weeks.

I have journeyed with Caye through one miscarriage and to hear that she was now facing another, when she had just started to grab on to the hope that this pregnancy would last, broke my heart for her and her husband and their dream of having a family.

In a desire to be sensitive to the grief and loss she was going through I decided not to tell her that I was pregnant until I knew she had some time to heal. It was hard to keep my news from her. I didn’t like the feeling of not being open, of hiding something so important from a friend I felt so close to, but I couldn’t stand the thought of hurting her, of adding to her pain.

A few days ago I had the pleasure of spending some time with Caye. After weeks of not being able to get together it was good to see her and I could tell that something was different. Instead of sadness she was full of joy. Instead of grief she had hope in her eyes. I sensed in my heart that the time had come to share my news with her.

“Caye, I have something to tell you but it’s kind of hard.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “What is it? Tell me.”

“I’m pregnant,” I said with my hands literally covering my face.

“Oh my gosh!” she said. “I had no idea. How far along are you?”

“Nineteen weeks,” I said with an apprehensive smile.

“NINETEEN WEEKS!” said Caye.

Together we laughed and hugged and I know my sweet friend well enough to understand that she was genuinely happy for me. I explained to her why I waited and how I’ve wanted to tell her for so long.

“Thank you for waiting,” she said. “It would have been hard. There was a time when it would have really hurt but now…”

I watched as tears filled her eyes.

“But now, I’m over-the-moon happy for you. God has done such a work in me through this suffering and it is so, so good. I can’t believe what He’s done.”

For a moment we were both quiet, because really, sometimes there just aren’t words. But there is friendship, and there’s this way that two hearts that know Him and love Him and love one another have the ability to understand.

I’m not sure how to express what her happiness meant to me. What her words spoke to my heart. What her courage and openness inspire in my life. I am honored to be her friend, to walk with her through suffering, to walk with her through joy. And my own joy feels more complete now that she is a part of it.

Caye’s words on suffering remind me of what Mr. Beaver says about Aslan in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe:

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” (The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis pg. 86)

When we make the choice to walk with God through this life on planet earth we are not choosing a God who is safe. On the contrary we’re choosing a path that is marked with pain and suffering. There are pitfalls, and trials, and tests. There is adversity, darkness, and danger. But even in the wild, even in the pain, even in the darkest night He is there, working in us, molding us, shaping us. Creating something beautiful, creating something good.

And in the end, isn’t it the good we’re after? The beauty? The wholeness? The satisfaction of staring down adversity and finding what we’re made of?

The satisfaction of finding Him?

I’m currently reading a book by Catherynne M. Valente titled, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship of Her Own Making. (Awesome title, I know!) And in this book Valente writes of her main character, September:

“There must be blood, the girl thought. There must always be blood. […] It will be hard and bloody, but there will be wonders, too, or else why bring me here at all? And it’s the wonders I’m after, even if I have to bleed for them.” (pg 36)

This life, it is hard and bloody. And sometimes we’re left wondering why. But in it all and through it all there is One.

There is a Lion, who isn’t safe. There is a King who is always good.

There is a Savior who went to the cross, to prove once and for all, that there are wonders worth bleeding for.

For more on Caye’s story please visit http://www.cayeser.wordpress.com.