No Cookies for Me

Childhood memories flooding my mind, I was barely breathing, my anxiety such that I couldn’t even keep coffee down. It was a horrible day, no escape from thoughts that I carried with me. Chef hugged me and said lets go to church, help with the Blessing Boxes.  Given that I hadn’t showered for days, that I didn’t want to see anyone, this seemed like a preposterous suggestion, yet he stayed with me while I finally cleaned myself and donned clothing that didn’t fit into the pajama category. Off to church we went, too late to really contribute to the task but seeking the peace and sanctuary that comes from when surrounded by believers.

Sneaking in the side door, attempting to encounter the least amount of friends, I was immediately reminded that preparations for a funeral were underway, the luncheon following was being prepped, the tables laid out with candles and mints and just enough color to be comforting, to show hospitality to those who are grieving, those left behind, to those who have gathered to share kind words and to hear them. Anxiety began to lift, my muscles unclenched as I moved into the church kitchen and chatted about how much ham was being served and instructed on the proper techniques of the dishwasher. Concentrating on events in the present rather than locked into those of the past helped me regain a sense of control, but more than that I could see that others were hurting in profound ways on this day, suffering and crying and still finding some laughs and seeking solace in the rites of the service and in each other. I remembered not what happened to me so many years ago but what the psalms tell us, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Ps 147:3

Moving on the classroom where the cookies and nuts and lotions and oranges were to be packaged in preparation for delivery to all those in the congregation who have suffered a loss this past year, those with medical crises and emotional upheaval, even to those who have given so much, they could benefit from receiving, I found we were indeed too late. The bright green boxes were closed up with red ribbons, friends gathered around collecting the number needed to match their delivery list. Dropping into a chair next to the program coordinator, my sense of failure, of inadequacy returned. Why couldn’t I summon the energy to get there on time? Why was I so self-involved I couldn’t give back to those who were more needy? Last year our family received on of these boxes, probably the year before too, too many years of turbulence and strife to keep track of, too many boxes of cookies showing up when I was too far down to pick myself up to remember. Then she hugged me and gave me the gift of perspective, the peace I was seeking all morning.

She told me with tears in her eyes that she hoped I wouldn’t be offended but I wasn’t getting a box this year. Thinking we were low on cookies or that I was in blessing time-out because I didn’t bake or sign up to deliver, she went on to tell me, “You have had a better year and this was how I could honor you.” Right there, smacked in the head with the Holy Spirit in the wisdom of no cookies. Thoughts swirled, crashed, smashed as echoes of laughter and joy rushed into my soul, a spiritual high that has only slightly abated. Me, I have had a good year in spite of the countless hurts and pains and sorrows, the pathways my mind is more accustomed to seeking out, I forget the silly moments, the highs, the peace, skimming over those like the ads in my twitter feed.

I truly don’t know how to survive without my church, without the constant dose of faith lived out by those around me. When mine is running on empty, when I am so lost in the darkness, I find their stories and smiles and hugs and ability to remind me who I am to be life giving. I cannot always travel to the mountains or to a third world country to regain my perspective. Thank God I can merely drive down the street and learn I don’t get any cookies this year.

What our Elf Brings to Us

For those who are on the sidelines of the Elf on the Shelf phenomenon, I get it. They are creepy as one of my friends suggested. They are extra work during an already hectic season. Each year we scour Pinterest and look for new and ever more enchanting ways to bring delight to a month that holds the promise of Santa and the birth of Jesus, do we really need an elf to add chaos and joy to our little ones? Like Starburst flavored candy canes, are we missing something by distracting from the real flavors and reasons for the celebrations? The answer could be yes and yet we have an elf who visits each night when Plum is here, an elf who wakes up each year the night after Thanksgiving and goes back to sleep on Christmas eve. Elfie brings magic, Elfie bring joy, most of all Elfie is a dear sweet friend to a little boy who one Christmas season several years ago had a wounded soul and a broken heart.

I can’t remember how I first discovered our elf, I purchased him online rather than the ones available widely in stores. That one did seem a bit clown like, a bit more creepy to me. What we sacrificed in bendability we gained in a sweet face, more along the lines of a stuffed animal really. I do remember that my sweet Plum was in the midst of time away from his parents for an extended period, he was broken and his little eyes had lost their sparkle. As his grandma, of course I would do anything to bring that back, anything to show him the joy of Christmas when he was lost at such an early age. So Elfie joined our family. Each night Chef and I would strive to out do the night before, back when he was here every night, the challenge was great. Plum grabbed onto the idea of a special friend who was all his, someone who came to visit him and bring him silliness and make messes and sometimes a trinket or some candy and cared so deeply about him that he flew from far away just to be with him. Plum reconnected with his playfulness, he found an outlet for hope.

I have discovered along the way, even as I have sometimes struggled to find the next adventure for Elfie, even on the nights when I was too tired to mess with creating some mess I knew I would have to clean up again in the morning, when I would have preferred to go on to bed, that Chef and I have rediscovered our childlike wonder as well. Most nights I set up something, generally pretty lame I’ll admit, I am less than creative after about 3 in the afternoon so by 8 or 9 at night, I am toast. Then Chef takes over and blows us all away. Over the top fun ensues, he always takes it to the next level. Then we sleep and eagerly await, along with our Plum, the first light of morning if he sleeps that late, when he rises and rushes about the house to find his elf and see what mischief has happened while he was snuggled and dreaming.

As the Christmas decorations are stowed each year, totes filled with bulbs and garland and nativity sets, Elfie stays on Plum’s dresser. He is a reminder throughout the year of the importance of relationships, even ones that pop in and out of our lives, that we are to take our blessings as they come, even in the shape of a toilet paper strew bathroom or a frozen lego blocks, that laughter matters. This is surely our last year with the elf, already Plum has come home from school announcing someone in his class told him that there is no Santa, that the presents come from your parents. I will miss the little guy, in spite of the extra work. Next year we will talk about the joy of discovering an elf each morning and how God wants us to rejoice at discovering His Son each day, not just during the Christmas season. Our elf has become an important part of our story, bringing the spirit back to a sorrowful child. I think that is holy and a bit less creepy.

Sounds of the Season

Tonight at church we will celebrate the Sounds of the Season, an annual opportunity for gifted members in the congregation to share their musical and dramatic talents with the rest of us who are great at being in the audience. A pot luck dinner will proceed the festivities, we are Methodist after all, and I was charged with making the main dish. Pulled pork feeds many and seemed like a great choice, until I realized I had to run in to the church at 6:30 am to get it started. The temperature has dropped, it is dark and only a few cars joined me as I drove in my chilly car to complete this task, I was I was less than excited about. Yet the quiet surrounded me, I found myself considering the real sounds of the season.

Actually the day began with the thud from a boy jumping from his bed onto the floor, the rustling of the search for slippers and his robe and then the slap on walls as he hit light switches, searching for whatever his elf had done while he slept. “Oh gran, look what elfie did! He is so rotten!” He followed the path of all his matchbox cars as they snaked through the dining room, over chairs and under the table and then into the living room, making car noises that little boys seem wired to create.  Giggles of delight filled the morning quiet of our still sleeping home as he found the tiny wind-up car, twisting the gear, raving it up to race about the table and fall to the floor, eliciting ever louder chortles. This is the sound of the season.

But maybe the sounds began last night as we traveled across town to see a living nativity  displayed by another church. Slurping hot cocoa, nestled under a blanket, wearing pjs and a robe shared with us by a dear friend, he asked about each scene and then told us, “This is true.” I can’t imagine a more beautiful sound than a child professing faith. He asked where other characters were, where was David, where was Goliath. He knows bible stories. The sounds of his Sunday school teachers joined us as we meandered through the scapes, the teachings have settled into his soul, they come forth when he needs those examples. Those are the sounds of the season.

Still with all of this, I was tired and a bit cranky, not enough coffee and there were toy cars all over my house, these issues were clouding my mind. The drive is only 10 minutes, barely time to let loose my thoughts of home before I reach the turn in for the parking lot. Yet the solitude of the drive made my travels more meaningful, I more quickly realized the quiet was refreshing, was welcome. I forget to list out my tasks for the day and instead considered the peacefulness of early mornings, the focus required for dark driving. As I neared the church, the lights, strung all along the circle drive and up to the busy road that leads into the parking lot. The front windows were awash with light, welcoming warmth on this cold morning. Awestruck, I followed the illuminated path, diving deeper into the silence as the gentleness of the spirit guided me. The quiet is the sound of the season.

Entering the building, fumbling with the key I have been entrusted with, the smooth slide into the lock, tumblers falling, rotating, each meaning that this church is home to me, isn’t home where you have the key to enter? Beeps, chirps as I push buttons to set the temperature of the oven, the soft separation of suction as the refrigerator opens, the crackle of foil as I remove the pans and the scratch of pas as I push them onto the racks. A quiet catch as the oven doors close, the sounds of this season when later tonight this meal will feed many who gather in communion and fellowship, the sounds of laughter and chatter echoing about the room, silverware clinking and children racing with spontaneous games of tag.

Retrieving the wooden tree filled with handcrafted ornaments made by a group of friends to sell for our first alternative Christmas market, proceeds benefiting two local organizations, I listened as the keychains rattled against each other, as the last bit of the string of lights bumped along the ground. The pop of electrical connection, the tree lit up,  shining months of dreams and hopes for those less fortunate, our desire to bridge some gaps between our congregation and our neighbors, I feel in love with the ministry of this church all over again.

Snip, snip, chop, drip, I heard the only other person inside the walls of the church at this early hour, the woman who hosts our coffee and donut/fruit bar each Sunday. alone under the glow of all the Christmas lights, she busied about making coffee and setting up trays of grapes that will be accessed by the littlest hands and the oldest alike, she is a mainstay, a fixture that most may not even see anymore. Yet, here on this morning I witnessed her ministry, a radical hospitality that begins each week in the quiet and solitude of this building that will soon be bustling. I heard the sounds of the season as she set out creamer and sugar, as she arranged napkins.

I don’t know what tonight will bring, I can imagine the music will move my soul and that the children will delight in the puppet show. Yet already I am awakening to the sounds of this season, the reminders that a baby was born in the chaos of a stable and brought us peace. May you find peace this season in the midst of the noise, friends.


Hope in the Form of Old Pans

During the Vacation Bible School this summer, a church member created some amazing decorations for the kiddos using recycled kitchen pans and cans and whisks. These old parts became robots, a delight for all the children. I have to admit that I have been coveting these items for months, knowing I didn’t have the vision or skill set to create such a fun item and also that Plum would love to have his own at home. This week I happened to be at church as the closet was being cleaned and I was offered the biggest robot of all, the one I have loved from its first appearance. Yes, yes, I would love to have this gift, yes, I eagerly accepted this present. Yet as I loaded him up in the car, he fell apart, he lost his body, his head came apart. Legs separated, He reverted to pieces and parts.

Before Plum got home, I pulled out the glue and then the glue gun, I reassembled this work of art as best I could, knowing he would never be the same and yet Plum didn’t know my meager efforts were falling short of the original vision. He shrieked with joy, he created play around his new buddy immediately. The robot has a new home to be loved and admired and stirring hours of imagination. I realized I am like that robot, created to be a work of art, built of pieces and parts that often come undone, that get damaged as we travel through life. Whole and beautiful as we sit in the sanctuary, still we are sent out into the world to bring new life and joy to others. I am created to leave the church and incite play and wonder and rearrange my broken parts to find an alternate purpose, rearranging those old stories and memories into shapes that bring beauty and resurrection. No, I am not built for the trash heap, just as these pans and the old hand held video game spring to life as my Plum describes the battles his robot is entering.

I was gifted with the efforts of another’s vision this week, the transforming power of art and play that lasts long after the show, long after the decorations are stowed for another year. I am reminded that our stories and our testimonies reverberate, that folks we may never even meet gain strength from our admissions of brokenness. from our acts of faith. I found myself in a broken robot this week, in the redemption of old soup cans and dryer vent tubing. I know I am more than the hurts and the wounds, there is hope for me as I am being made new in my faith, as I draw closer to the One who created me.

May you find hope in the resurrection of your whole self, may you realize the opportunities to become new and to spread joy and disrupt anger with play. May you know that the good you put out into the world matters, that it echoes long after you have left the scene. Six months later, I found hope in the artwork of a friend, in the gift from another friend.


Finding the Courage to Hope

Pulling all the totes down from the attic, the three boxes holding artificial trees, I mindlessly began my task of decorating for the season. Normally music fills the air as I transform my home into a welcoming place for Santa, a reminder of the birth of our Savior, yet on this day, I lugged, I hauled, I assembled and then stopped. The totes sat, the garland left hanging out, ornaments, with hooks ready left neglected. It took me three days to finish what I usually do in a number of hours. Finally I closed the totes with much left inside and hauled them back upstairs. As if I were doing laundry or mopping the floors, my mind was not on my work, my heart was elsewhere. Then yesterday, the first Sunday of advent happened and my attention was snapped back to the point of it all.

I watched the most courageous woman I know lead her granddaughters up to the altar to light the first candle of the season, to tell the story of hope. She shared of another advent season when her heart was shattered, her hope was buried with her murdered son. Yet on this day she was standing before us, lighting the candle of faith of things to come, with the children of her children, reminding us that hope comes not of the events of this world but the life of the babe born thousands of years ago. She believes, she gets up each day and she keeps breathing. How can I wallow with such an example?

My soul has been bruised and battered and dented and banged up these last few years, the pain of estrangement and then the horror of a the election, hearing the voice of an admitted abuser played daily on the news, today he endorsed another of his kind to win the Alabama senate seat. My hope has grown so dim, lost in the shadows of twitter rants and more and more men I once respected being uncovered as harasses of women. As if the loss of my children wasn’t enough, I now find the loss of my country looming, even escapism of television or movies or NPR is no longer a refuge, I can’t find a safe place for retreat. Then comes a lesson in hope.

Hope is not in the now, not right this minute relief, not an Ambien or a bottle of wine or a really good book to forget the pain. Hope is seeing through the trauma and the chaos to what is coming, trusting that what is going will be joy and peace and love. That is a pretty big leap, one for fools, I think. Fools who believe that the Christmas decorations are more than the red suited guy, more than the maxed-out credit cards, more than the elf who visits my Plum. Hope is listening to the story of a pregnant woman and her husband traveling to a far land to be counted, to determine the taxes, to find they had no place to safely give birth to God. I remember being in labor with Stella, telling the nurse to make it stop, the pain was too much, I wanted to go home and forget the whole thing. Then it was time to push and they told me to stop, to wait for the doctor. Yet there was no stopping, she was coming, it was time. Can you stop a freight train as it is rushing towards you? So she came into the world and the doctor barely caught her. God came into our world with this timing as well, as if to show us we cannot stop His presence, we cannot determine His timing. That is where the hope begins, in that moment of His showing up in unexpected places, in all the wrong times for us, those inconvenient and pain filled moments when we are least prepared and cleaned up and wearing our best clothes to meet our Savior. No, I think God brought us hope in the that baby in a smelly stall to two people who were sweaty and hungry and exhausted, terrified and alone.

My Christmas tress are lit, the bulbs reflecting light around the room. I know now that each sparkle is meant to cast out distrust, to illuminate the promise of what is coming. I have been reminded of hope, what began thousands of years ago. As I sit with my coffee and gaze at the trees, I am thanking my friend for her story and my God for showing up in my rubble and my mess. My hopes and dreams won’t be fulfilled anytime I soon, I suspect, but we are playing the long game here. Looking both back and ahead, we can find what was breaking through the shadows all along, Jesus was born in fulfillment of the scriptures and that is enough for today.


Releasing the Demons

I was asked an intriguing question this week, one I didn’t have a ready answer for, unusual for me. I am accustomed to knowing myself so well, to knowing my surroundings, feeling sure in the situations I allow myself to be in. Yet this question threw me, for a number of reasons. “What biblical character do you identify with during this season of struggling and difficulty?” My pastor in his wisdom was pointing me to the good book, in a way challenging me to dig deeper and find solace and comfort in the stories of old. He is sneaky like that. I can admit that I had not considered such an audacious and obvious route. Bridging the gap between those stories and my life is often difficult, I forget all the hardship and focus on the outcomes, the redemption, the transformation. I see the grace but minimize the ask. So which story is meaningful to me in these days of triggering news and flashbacks that are exhausting my ability to stay present?

Mark 5 tells this story: They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes.[a] When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him.This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.

When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him.He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!”

Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”

“My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” 10 And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.

11 A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. 12 The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” 13 He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.

14 Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. 15 When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 16 Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. 17 Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.

18 As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. 19 Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” 20 So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis[b] how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.

As I read and reread this passage, I was sure that I was being led to the wrong one. How could I identify with a man, during this time of struggle with abuses by men? Demon filled? Is that how I see myself? Yet this bit of scripture came alive and wouldn’t leave me alone. It began to replace some of my musings into old memories, it surfaced as I puttered around the house, as I drove to the store, as I fell asleep. I realized several truths about this story, about the relationship between Jesus and this suffering man. Jesus saw him, in the depth of his pain, when he was not himself and when his words were not respectful or worshipful or filled with faith. Jesus saw him. Jesus knew the man was separate from the ugliness that was within him, that he was more than the life he was living out. There is no point in the story where the man pleads his case, tells Jesus he is worthy of the transformation to come, that he begs for his own redemption. Jesus already knows him.

I realized I am more than the memories that haunt me, I am filled with the demons of others horrible behavior, their sickness is not me. This is a profound realization, that I am not what has happened to me. Allowing the demons to be called up and out, as they are coming through these flashbacks, requires some trust that Jesus will stay with me to cast them out, to rid me of their power. Reading that the man who was chained and bound because of the demons, when he trusted Jesus to exorcise him of this evil, not destroy him but restore him, such that all around were amazed when they saw him dressed and in his right mind, I want that. I want to be reclaimed by the true power of the One who sees who I am and who I am meant to be. I no longer want to cry out at night and cut myself with fear and sharp stones.

The journey with this man culminates when he begs to walk alongside Jesus and he is told to go out on his own, to tell his story. Such empowerment. He no longer needs the safety, to be rescued by his Savior. He can stand in his faith and trust that his words matter to the lives of those who need his voice. Yes, I can see that this story is the one I was meant to find, that this bit of scripture is coming alive as I struggle to find my way during these dark times. I see my Jesus is asking me to trust him with my demons, who will not be set free into the world but contained and destroyed, never to hurt others again. I am walking with this man who trusted Jesus so many years ago, who found his life again after horrific pain. He found light, he found grace.

Friends, I wonder what would happen if you asked the question of yourself, what biblical character do you most identify with these days? I found hope and a pathway out of fear. I pray you will do the same.