Faith/Spirituality, fear, Patience/waiting, resentment

Waiting for Christmas (to be over?)

We are in the Advent season. In this case, Advent is a religious term meaning “expectant waiting”, in case you have heard that term your whole life and are embarrassed to admit that you don’t know what that actually means. Specifically, it refers to the days of December leading up to Christmas. I love how author Jan Richardson eloquently puts it; “Advent is a dance set to the rhythm of waiting.”

As I read about Advent last week, I was a taken aback by my reaction. It went something like “Oh I’m waiting alright. Waiting for Christmas to be over!”. Maybe it’s because I am the slightest bit tired of the work required to redecorate my entire house for a month’s enjoyment. And maybe it’s a tiny bit about the fact that my kids are teenagers now and doing the usual Christmas tradition activities are a chore to them ( Looking at lights with mom and dad? Boring. Going to Festival of trees? Yawn. Frosting sugar cookies? Laborious. Hanging Christmas ornaments? Tedious.) It’s also possible that the past few Christmas’s haven’t gone swimmingly and my expectations for this time of year aren’t necessarily as hopeful as I wish they were at Christmas. Sometimes I feel like I am just holding my breath, tying to “make it through” without incident or trauma (like Leukemia, for example…).

Maybe you have a similar something going on. When kids are little and excited it can be contagious. It definitely helps distract from what our hearts tend to reflect on during the holidays. The Christmas season, like no other season, definitely embodies the words of the famous Christmas carol, “the hopes and fears of all the years” that circle and weigh and even haunt us. Our expectations are either through the roof (I mean, after all, look around at all these happy people going to parties and spending extravagantly and baking cookies with and for their friends and family) or they are in the pit (Christmas means disappointment, poor behavior from relatives, relational strain, or painful memories of the year our parent lost a job or we lost a parent or our parents split up, or or or…) . Nothing ignites our fear (what if this Christmas isn’t like those of Christmas past? Or what if it is?) and confounds our hopes (should we dare to hope for joy, celebration, or the feelings of “Christmas spirit?) like the ringing in of the first Christmas song in the department store the day after Thanksgiving. It has begun. How much longer before it can be over?

Even though many of us or “waiting for Christmas to be over”, most of us don’t really want to live that way. We long to have that childlike anticipation about Santa coming or what’s inside that weird-shaped box under the tree. I don’t know if it’s really possibly for us to recapture that kind of enthusiasm, but I do believe that with a little, or large, tweak in our attitude and approach to Christmas, we can learn to enjoy it in a fresh way this year. And I am talking mostly to myself…

So here’s one thought…let’s take the words of “Oh little town of Bethlehem” one step further. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.” It is my belief, though clearly I struggle keeping it at the forefront of my life, that God came in human flesh at Christmas to fulfill my hopes and squelch my fears. Because he came, I can dare to hope. Hope for a different future, hope for a softer spirit, hope for a fresh start, hope for new patterns of living that produce a life I can embrace and cherish. And I can give him my fear. He came to cast out our fear of the future and also our fears created by the failures and damage done by us or to us in our past.

This doesn’t have to be a season we merely endure so we can get on with the new year. This can be a season of healing and gratitude if we take the time to remember what the gift of Christmas truly is: God in flesh. Who fills everything in every way. Advent, the waiting, can be a time to suspend all that is ordinary and bleak, and hover over the truth of what we can expect with confidence this Christmas: that God didn’t just enter our world as a baby on that first Christmas, he stayed. God is with is. Immanuel. And he is in the business of making us whole and feel wholly loved. Giving us hope, and casting out fear.

Faith/Spirituality, forgiveness

Jesus’ “birthday month”

I have a dear friend whose husband celebrates (and semi-requires his family to celebrate) his birthday, not just on his special day, but all month long. “His birthday month starts today,” my friend will inform me. It’s a busy time for everyone involved. Even though other activities occur out of necessity during that month, there is an over-arching theme that permeates each day’s responsibilities: the celebration of his birth and his existence in every regard. My friend is a good woman so even though she occasionally rolls her eyes, she cooperates and engages with what I would say, a pretty positive attitude.

I thought of this as I was doing my pre-Christmas-day reading. The book has dated readings and I started to panic a little when I realized I was on day 4 already! Every time I read it I will know exactly how many days (read: days to shop and get everything mailed and send out Christmas cards and bake cookies) are left until “the” day arrives. We all know Christmas isn’t just about the 24th and 25th of December. Advent, the time of preparation for Jesus’ birth, starts December 1st (and the bustle of Christmas in the retail world starts about a month before that!).

Jesus gets a birthday month…just like my friend’s husband. But I have to say, that even though it’s Jesus’ birthday, I have a natural inclination to make it about me. Let’s just take a minute to pretend that my friend treated her husband the way I treat Jesus during his birthday month. How honored will her husband feel if she regularly complains about the hassle of decorating or planning for or shopping for his party? Will her kids and family sense her love for them if she is cranky and short-tempered because this birthday thing is just getting to be a bit much? Will her actions and words during this month draw people into wishing they knew this amazing man who she has carved out her precious time to celebrate? Would her husband feel blessed and cared for if she didn’t do or buy anything she knew he really loved during this time, only doing what was fun and easy for her?

Does the God of the universe, who came to earth as a tiny baby so I could be free from sin and shame and loneliness and hopelessness, really “feel the love” from me during his birthday month? Have I been whining and complaining about decorating for Christmas? (Yes) Have I chosen to give him what he truly wants (forgiveness and grace and compassion extended to others) rather than what is fun or easy for me? Does my attitude about the Christmas season (Jesus’ birthday month) reflect well on him? Will others want to celebrate him also because of how I honor him with my words and actions? Have I made his birthday a month about me and mine rather than making him the common thread that runs through the Christmas carols, Christmas programs,  Christmas movies, Christmas presents, Christmas dinner and Christmas clean-up?

So, just a couple thoughts as you scurry through the next few weeks. First off, no, you cannot declare that you too shall have “birthday month”, because that sounds like a phenomenal idea to you. Second-we’re only 4 days in, so it’s not too late to start the party. Start putting your focus where (on whom) it belongs. Start doing the things Jesus likes because after all, it’s his birthday month. Start being mindful of how much you love him and acknowledge your gratitude for his unconditional love and selfless sacrifice. Start forgiving mean people who have hurt you on purpose or on accident. Start smiling. Stop complaining.

Stop waiting for Christmas to be over

(blog on that topic coming soon…)

**This is dedicated to my friend’s husband who shall remain nameless unless of course you helped him celebrate his birthday last month 😉

Addiction, Anxiety/Worry, Brokenness, Cancer, Control, Faith/Spirituality, Trust

“Goals”

At first glance, how I spent my day yesterday (bleeding over into today) might might appear like laziness or procrastination. And trust me, my skills are stellar in those two areas. In the past, I would have been all over this opportunity to get things in order and get back to regular life. Kill off the Christmas tree once and for all and vacuum up the tiny pine needles strewn about the house, after falling off of family member’s socks. Christmas is over and tomorrow is New Year’s Eve. We have had extra visitors in our house (and at this point, my very own 21 college-student-home-on-break, qualifies as a visitor) since before December 25th. And as much as I do love it, no routine, lots of people and opinions and plans can make me a little ticky after awhile. Yesterday was a prime opportunity to get the house cleaned up and back to normal. All the kids were sleeping, relatives were gone and husband was reading in another room of the house. I had the perfect window.

But then I read something that caused me to do it differently this year. I chose to squelch my urge to organize and engage in what the author called a holy “afterglow”, this space between the crazy of Christmas and the celebration of the New Year. It reminds me of the Recovery saying that has benefited me often (when I slow down long enough to do it): Pause. Pray. Proceed. The idea is that when you are tempted to act, usually rashly or emotionally, you play it different. Instead of barreling ahead with that angry phone call, posting a passive aggressive snippet on Facebook, or letting your words fly out your mouth without caution or control or compassion, you Pause. You Pray and invite God into it. And then you proceed (hopefully on to something more productive or healing for everyone).

This is a practice that is not only useful for the biggies, but for every attitude or thought or word that crosses our consciousness, all day, everyday. Today, I am using it as a guide as I reflect on last year and prepare for the year to come. In dozens of ways, i failed to accomplish my physical, emotional and spiritual goals. I truly wish I could say I ended this year a little more advanced in these areas. My standards for myself tend to be a bit high. But regardless of the little progress I did make, I am left wanting more. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. God has designed us to move forward. But, In the past, I would make very specific goals that were based on the hype and energy of the promise of a new year, only to abandon most of them and feel like a loser for doing so by February.

Today I am different. Maybe it’s from the battle with disease of Leukemia. Or the family disease of addiction seeking to steal, kill and destroy our family. Or leaving a church family after 20 years. Or losing many many relationships with people I thought were my forever friends. Or my son going off to college and my two teenagers getting their driver’s license. Not maybe. Probably. But those are just a handful of hard times that changed me. There are also countless blessings that have contributed to this “different” in me. Maybe it’s the new friends God has brought me as a result of Leukemia and addiction and having to find a new church family. Or maybe it’s from the snuffing out of old habits and thought patterns that don’t serve me anymore. Or maybe it’s because I am finally convinced that God, in His infinite wisdom about what I need verses what I want, can be trusted with my future.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe there’s a thing wrong with setting goals for yourself. Or with reflecting on ways we could have done it better in the past. But don’t hang your hat there. I can learn from my past and be prepared for the future. But ultimately I need to live a little bit longer in the Pause. Look back, look ahead, but don’t forget to Pray and invite God in before you Proceed. What I have found, and why my goals are a little more in flex than they used to be, is that what God has planned for my future will most likely look drastically different than my personal, calculated plans. I can remind myself of His faithfulness when I reflect on all the ways He took care of me even when life didn’t seem to cooperate last year. If am open, I can learn and grow and flourish this coming year, especially when I let God lead me, as opposed to the other way around.

Addiction, Brokenness, Faith/Spirituality, grace

Let your light so shine

It’s that time of year again. Time to pull out my Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light, Christmas Devotional (read my blog “Painter of light” from December 2015 to refresh your memory on his story). I have been reading this every year for about 25 years. Sometimes I lose steam after Christmas, and even though the book takes me all the way up to the New Year, I often stop reading it after December 25th. This year I decided to start at the end to see what I have been missing all these years.

It’s fitting for the Painter of Light to end his book with some insights from Matthew 5:14-16. If you remember the children’s Sunday School song “This little light of mine (I’m gonna let it shine)”, this is where it comes from. It says,

“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

…no pressure. Just be a beacon of God’s love for all to see. Let the way you live your life, by how you love and forgive and serve your friends and family and enemies, illuminate the lives of others so that they are compelled to turn to God in worship. Right…easier said than done. What about the days where am tired and overwhelmed and stressed out so I snap at my kids, tailgate the slow-poke in front of me and post something passive aggressive about my nemesis on facebook? The reality is that I am a work in process. My light “so shines” sometimes, and at others it barely peeking out, like the thin line of the sun right before it sets in the west. Kinkade points out that he thinks “that’s exactly why many people end up hiding their lights under a basket. Who feels equal to the task of lighting the world?”

To illustrate his point, he talks about lamps, and how they can be made out of pretty much anything. As long as the guts of it can produce electricity and have a place to screw in a bulb, you can make a lamp out of a cowboy boot, a vase, a typewriter, a coffee-pot, or even a worn out, beat-up, thrown in the dumpster lamp that used to work marvelously. When you read stories from the Bible, it’s crystal clear that God is able and most-likely apt to turn the most unlikely people into sources of light. He mentions leaders like Moses (a murderer), Jospeh (a brat brother who was thrown into a pit by his own brothers), and David (a mere boy and later, an adulterer and also a murderer). And then there’s me and you. Need I say more?

If this is true, then how do we go about shining despite our inadequacies? I think the key is a recovery principle I hear often: acceptance is that answer to all our problems. We have to accept the hard, sad fact; we are inadequate. As Kinkade says, “we have to realize that we’re not the ones doing the shining. We’re merely the lamp base, an earthen vessel that has been rewired to shine. Our job is to stay plugged in to the light and to let it flow through us, not to gleam under our own power.”

One way our light “so shines” is when we accept with thanks the gift of who we are. Instead of wishing we were different or better at certain things, we can be grateful for what is in our hand. What we have to work with. Accepting ourselves where we are at can be a hard decision for a lot of us. Many of us struggle with chronic pain, chronic relapse, chronic worry/fear, or chronic sin patterns. W can’t fathom how, or why, God would want to rewire us to be useful for Him in any way. Wouldn’t he rather just buy a brand new lamp thats cleaned up and pretty?

As I read this devotional, I do it with a less naive spirit than I used to. In case you don’t recall, Thomas Kinkade died of a drug overdose several years ago. Every entry I read causes me to reflect on what he might have been battling in his head at the time. Here’s the painful quote an article posted about his death at age 54 on April 6, 2012: “Who could have imagined that behind so many contented visions of peace, harmony and nauseating goodness lay just another story of deception, disappointment and depravity, fueled by those ever-ready stooges, Valium and alcohol?”

“Just another story of deception, disappointment and depravity.”  But even though that’s how it ended, it isn’t the end of his influence in the world. That wasn’t the only part of his story. His mistakes are not the only thing he brought to this world. I am still reading his words, millions of people still hang his inspiring paintings, ones painted as representations of what Thomas longed for. What we all long for. To bring light to this dark world. We just have to believe that our story is more than the sum of our failures and shortcomings. Our job is to stay plugged in to God, the Source of all light, and let Him use us in spite of them.

Anxiety/Worry, Brokenness, Faith/Spirituality

Trash Talk

Our city has a pre-Christmas tradition. Since 1989 an event called the “Festival of Trees” takes place at the fairgrounds. Various local companies decorate (or hire someone to decorate) an artificial tree, and other companies purchase it for an exorbitant amounts of money which is then donated to a local hospital. There is always a theme. Some follow it and some don’t. But there is always one common thread, extravagance. Sometimes, the trees are so elaborate and over-the-top that you can’t even see the branches. We have been attending this as a family for the past 18 years, since our first-born was able to enjoy it. And though the themes change from year to year, there is one consistent reaction that have without fail. I want to go home and throw out all my Christmas decorations and start over.

Compared to the creativity and newness and modern decor displayed at the Festival of Trees, my house looks like a 2nd grade craft project gone bad. It looks like Christmas bomb went off, and most of the items are pushing 20+ years old. Let’s just take a little inventory as I sit in my living room. My chairs are adorned with two pillows that my mother-in-law cross-stiched (which I love, but are not exactly current decor). Moving around the room I see children’s Christmas books (belonging to my kids but also my husband and I from our childhood), 2 wooden Santas painted by my aunt in the 90’s, a stuffed stocking ornament I apparently thought I could handle making as a sewing-challenged college student, Holiday CD’s (with nothing to play them on), and then there’s the best one. Blocks of wood painted by yours truly that spell out N.O.E.L on one side and with snowmen painted on the other. They are unique because in my first house, the posts to my 4 poster bed were too tall for the ceiling (possibly because my first “house” was a trailer in married-student housing 🙂 ), so my husband’s grandparents and I carefully sawed off the ends to make it fit. I hated to throw them away, so I repurposed them.

In short, I compare my hodge-podge, dated and home-made decor to the glamour and sparkle and innovative decor of the Festival of Trees. But in the end, as I sit in my cozy living room surrounded by all this, I have to say that I love my house at Christmas. I really do. And by now I am sure you can see where I am going with all of this. Comparing myself to other people has always been a point of contention with me and God. I can quickly get caught in the trap of wishing I were someone different. Wishing my gifts were different. Or my circumstances were better and easier. Or that my kids were as successful as their kids seem to be. Or that I was as good of a writer or singer as that girl. Or that my thighs were as thin as hers. And those are just the ways I am discontent outwardly. There’s also the temptation to be dissatisfied with my innards. Hard on myself for my character defects and jealous that so-and-so doesn’t’ seem to battle with doubt or impatience or anxiety or fear.

But when I sit and read and pray and really listen to the voice of truth, I hear God whispering to me sweetly, that talk like that is trash. It is not from Him. His words to me is that he cherishes me for exactly who I am at this very moment. Sure, there might be some junk he might like to purge eventually, but as sit before Him right this very minute, I am valuable. I am valuable even though my decor is not sparkly or modern or expensive or well-placed. Even though most of me is more like my ornaments, made of felt and glue and popsicle sticks or Disney/Star Wars figures with missing or super-glued on arms, He loves me. He cherishes me. He does not wish I was someone different or more put-together. He would pay, and has paid, an exorbitant amount for this broken, aging, mis-matched soul. This is the very good news the angels brought at the first Christmas. And it is the very good news I bring to you, sweet friend, today. He loves you for exactly who you are and where you are as you sit and read this right now. Do you hear me? Right now.

Addiction, Brokenness, Faith/Spirituality, grace, Relationships, Uncategorized

Painter of Light

I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of days now. Even now I am not sure what my take away will be by the time I finish. Maybe that will be up to you…

I have a long history with Thomas Kincaid-“Painter of Light.” Remember him? At one point 1 in 20 American Homes had a Thomas Kincaid painting hanging on their wall. One year he grossed $130 million. He managed to touch a place in people’s hearts that no other artist could reach. And many of them were critical and clearly jealous and bitter over his wild success. Kincaid had 2 main trademarks. One, he brought light and warmth to an otherwise average painting and two, he made us want to visit or live in those cottages or go to church in that glowing, snow covered chapel.

My journey of familiarity with Kinkade’s work started when I got married. One of my great aunts and her daughter owned an art gallery in Duncan’s Mill, California. As a wedding gift, she gave us a numbered print of a church in a quaint, wintery town. It hung on my wall until this year (when I repainted and decided I was ready to change my decor. I may have to hang it back up after I finish this blog…). In Vallejo, California, a Thomas Kinkade development was actually launched. It crashed with the rest of the housing market, but it’s purpose was to create a place of “calm not chaos. Peace not pressure.” I have visited one of his art galleries in Carmel and at some point I purchased a Christmas Devotional that was written and illustrated by him. I have read it every Christmas for the past 15 years. He talks about his faith openly in this book as well as in many interviews. On the bottom of most of his inspirational paintings he writes “John 3:16” with a fish symbol next to it. You can find a nauseating amount of knick-knacks, ornaments, bookmarks, etc. that tout his work at Christian Bookstores everywhere. When he writes, he speaks fondly of his wife, Nanette, and his four daughters. The home he depicts is one we all would long to be a part of, especially at Christmas-time. The cover of my devotional says “Thomas Kinkade spends his days creating beautiful worlds where light dances and peace reigns.” Only that’s not entirely true.

On April 6, 2012, at the age of 54, Thomas Kinkade died of an overdose. The papers said, “Who could have imagined that behind so many contented visions of peace, harmony and nauseating goodness lay just another story of deception, disappointment and depravity, fueled by those ever-ready stooges, Valium and alcohol?”. It makes me wonder how many of his pictures are hanging in those homes now? Did they take them down when they learned that the man behind the mood was a drunk? I took mine down for superficial reasons, but as I am learning more about this battle of his, it actually makes me want to put it back up. What Thomas WANTED to say in His work, what he DID say, is that we all long for that place where we can feel “peaceful, happy, and free” as we say in recovery. In one article, he referred to his pieces as “silent messengers in the home,” and was unapologetic about his almost clinical efforts to make his work uplifting. “Every element in my paintings, from the patch of sun in the foreground to the mists on a distant horizon, is an effort to summon back those perfect moments that hang in our minds as pictures of harmony,” he once wrote in Lightposts for Living. “My deepest desire is that my work will help people aspire to the life those kinds of images evoke.” In another article he says of his paintings, “It’s not the world we live in, it’s the world we wished we live in. People wish they could find that stream, that cabin in the woods.” And yet, the disease of alcoholism hijacked this dream and drug him to the pit of despair. By the end of his life he was separated from his wife and girls and living with his girlfriend. One night, he drank too much and took valium and never woke up.

So, what? I don’t know exactly. Looking back on the article, I just read that even though his death ended in a way that opposed the very values he spent his life’s work depicting through word and art, sales are actually rising. What a relief. I have seen, on a personal level and in more public venues, what can happen when people of faith fall. The greater tragedy comes when those who were once inspired by such a person, turn their backs on them in disgust when their humanity rises up and takes over. When they display weakness or succumb to a sin that we cannot seem to forgive. I have heard first-hand stories of people inflicted with the disease of addiction and how they hurt those they loved and did or said things that contradicted their core beliefs. NONE of them say that they enjoyed being a bad parent or unreliable friend or hateful husband. And even without addiction as an explanation, haven’t we all behaved in ways that were not consistent with how we desire to live? I don’t have to be an addict to act like a self-willed, self-focused self-indulgent person. My goal each day is to love God and love people more and better than I did yesterday. But sadly, by the end of the day, my review of what I did tells me that the person I loved and served most was me. I guess one of the things I am trying to say is this: suspend judgment. There are people around us everyday who are acting in ways that are counter to who they really desire to be. There is no end the the obstacles that keep them, and me, from succeeding. Keep this story in your mind as you spend time with family, friends and co-workers who you feel like strangling. Instead of running around frazzled and stressed out and angry because of the pressures of the Christmas season, try to empathize with those whose hearts are living in chaos, grief and anxiety. Maybe YOU can be that “peaceful stream, that cabin in the woods”. Maybe you can help someone be touched by the glow of light on on otherwise dull painting. If you are one of those people who long for that light, and like Thomas Kinkade just can’t seem to reach it, get help. Find recovery. Find God. Find friends. Find me. I believe the words of the scripture: “For God comforts us in all our affliction so that we in turn may comfort others in the same way we have been comforted by God.” God has brought me through much. He has given me “comfort” in my soul. If I can help you find that comfort, I will. Most of us are either one version of Thomas Kinkade or the other, depending on the day. Let’s help each other out.