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.


Never Read Junie B. Jones at Bedtime

Let us come before him with thanksgiving
    and extol him with music and song.

For the Lord is the great God,
    the great King above all gods.

Psalm 95:2-3

Do you know the Junie B. Jones books? The Barbara Park series of silly books for children? Plum and I have been reading these and his laughter is the music I crave. I will read all night, I tell ya (a little Junie B. humor there) just to feel him collapse on my lap, unable to contain his delight. He, like thousands of children before him, find Junie to be outrageous and hysterical. Her sass, her thought process, her choices, all combine to create chaos for about 5 chapters until she gets sorted out, usually with a hug from her parents and a snuggle with her favorite stuffed animal.  He begs for one more chapter, one more please, more music to my ears. I remember his father doing the same as we read Harry Potter. Able to read by themselves but wanting that time together, to be close and experience the story with someone. I am grateful for the opportunity to read to this child as I read to his father so many years ago, to hear his giggles and his pleas to continue.

We are blessed to have a home filed with books, to have those favorites that we return to time and again, board books that I read to him as a toddler that he now flips through quickly, “Too easy, gran, too easy,” yet when the comfort of the familiar is what he desires, I notice that is what he has selected. We have children’s books in his room and figuring prominently in the living room, a bookcase exclusively for his growing collection. His subscription to the National Wildlife series of Ranger Rick magazines once took up a spot on the shelf, now the stack reside next to his bed, a favorite pre-bedtime pick. It is my indulgence like others buy purses or shoes or new make up or fancy watches, I buy this boy books. I am investing in his future, in his thoughts, in his development. I know what we do now will reverberate long into the future, in ways we cannot predict. I feel the pressure even more to get this right.

If I worship any thing beyond my God, it is education. I trust that my God is supportive of teaching this child His ways through silliness that causes great belly laughs even before bedtime, as we prepare this special boy to drift off to sleep and hand him over to the angels. I know I am blessed by every book we share, by every time he still crawls onto my lap, by the sweet sound of his voice as he begs for one more. We are blessed by children’s authors who understand that kids need an alter ego who gives voice to their desires while maintaining a sweet heart and a basic goodness. Junie B gets many chances to get it right, I think that is called grace. I am thankful we have her to remind us to offer that to each other.



Name Dropping

  Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name. 

1 Chronicles 29:13

When Plum finished his after school snack, pretend play began in earnest. Our script was  a pick-up basketball game, we began to select players. I was choosing friends from his class, I could keep track of the names better. He was making up names, how he remembers these things, I don’t know. Our teams were set, I thought and then he sprung the surprise pick on me, he said he had one more and it was Michael Jordan. Seriously? Never mind that we are playing pretend basketball and he is going to win anyway, he has to bring in the biggest name, the greatest talent? I tried to forfeit but he wasn’t having it. He wanted to show his skills and let his team kill me. Actually we discovered he was much better than Michael, whom he forget to play mostly. Still, he knew throwing out that name would throw me, would intimidate me.

In this house with a grandfather who obsesses over MJ, Plum can’t help but know about him. We talk about his sportsmanship, about his perseverance. We hold him up as a role model, even if he has fallen for grace a bit in later years. We know all about imperfection. So the name means something to Plum. The reputation has held strong for all these years. Just this week many names are falling, reputations are dropping, as truth about sordid, ugly, illegal behavior by top executives and power houses in industries is being exposed. Heart breaking to hear that idols we have watched on the big and small screen have treated women as objects, have shown so little respect to their peers. Their names will never regain their luster.

On this second day of gratitude focus, I am struck that I do not have to fear the secrets of God being revealed, the bad behavior, the sordid truths. God is God is God. We can indeed praise His glorious name, knowing we are safe in our praise, that this idol will not fail us. Knowing that Plum is aware that his fantastic dunking skills and his beautiful blue eyes and his kind heart are all really from God, I worry little about whose team we end up on. We are both winning with our Maker, who knows our names as well. Following His lead, we can find grace when we are tarnished, we can offer grace to those who falter. Just as I know I will never win a pretend game of basketball with this child, I am sure that God is who HE says He is, and that is everything.

Runaway Legos and Packs of Gum

The tiny yellow Lego kept rolling off the table as we sorted the newest set he received for his birthday into colors, preparing to build. I generally am given the sorting task while he supervises, he checks my work for errors with a running commentary on my inability to see the difference between dark gray and black, the fact that I often choose to make an “all the rest” pile which he corrects for me, and his delight in a particularly interesting piece. He surveys the blocks like all the presents under a Christmas tree, taking in the joy of bright colors and multiple shapes, knowing everything there was waiting just for him. Yet this one piece kept escaping the pile, I was distracted and didn’t lay it flat. As it landed on the floor after many near misses, I remarked that this one piece was trying to get away from us. My Plum asked why, why is it trying to escape? I think it doesn’t want to connect with any other pieces, it just wants to be free, I replied as I moved another red piece into the corresponding pile. “Oh, yeah, I get that,” he told me. “We all feel that way sometimes.”

My joy bringer hands me snippets of wisdom at least as often as I offer him the opportunity to brush his teeth. Neither of us are particularly grateful for these gifts when we get them but maybe we both know they are in our long term best interests. While I am convinced that he is a genius guru joy bringer, the truth is probably that most children have words of wisdom to share, if only we listen to them. The beauty of a grandparent relationship with a child is we have the time, we can take the time, we can hear the snippets and remember to record them. I know my own children were quite verbal about feelings and were astute in ways of the world, surely they shared their views with me and I should have recorded them. Yet dishes and work and laundry and the other sibling and stress and stress and stress caused me to hurry and rush and miss what they could offer. Certainly I sought to atone for being gone during their early years, I listened attentively and cared deeply. Still, I was mom. When we are blessed, our true adoration comes from our grandparents. I know I am atoning with Plum for all the missed chances with Arrow and Stella. Yet ours isn’t a clear “grand” relationship either. Chef and I have stepped in far too often as parents, our roles with this child are cemented by age 7, he knows we are important caregivers in his life, we are his safe place. He can connect and still wish to roll away from some places in his life. I get it.

Accepting his wisdom does not mean I forget that he is still a child and needs us to help shape his character, to enforce rules and structure and consequences. His heart is so sweet and pure that when he strays into the dark side, my reaction is swift. I respond with immediacy and hopefully most often, natural consequences. During his birthday party, an overwhelming affair for anyone but certainly a boy who really just wanted to get to the present part and then the playing with the present part, sitting through a game of unwrap a ball of saran wrap looked tedious and horrible and mostly like torture. He chose not to play, instead he watched as his friends took turns unwrapping little toys or packages of gum.  Later as friends were leaving, one little girl couldn’t find her treat bag, which contained her circle of gum “tape,” a top prize. We searched but couldn’t find it so hurriedly created a new treat bag and wondered if someone picked hers up accidentally. This little girl is a neighbor to Plum at mama’s, a child who looks out for him, runs to get mama when he falls and gets a scrape, has a problem on the bus, needs his shoes tied. I felt horrible that this child especially had lost her prizes.

The next day, her equivalent in our own neighborhood, A, came to play with Plum. As they ran about the ever less haunted house while Chef and I dismantled it, A said she had something she had to tell, that Plum had done something bad at his party. He watched her share his secret, that he had hidden the other little girls bag, he wanted that gum. Plum and I moved upstairs to talk, after we supported A for telling the truth and following her conscience. My first question to Plum, did you know that was wrong? Everything that came after was merely faulty judgement, impulsive desires, selfishness overruling his heart, take your pick. We wondered if God had any rules about taking what isn’t ours, if we have been given any pathway to correct our mistakes, and finally if once we atone, we are meant to live in shame. He decided he needed to use his piggy bank money and buy new gum for his friend. We emptied out his pennies, took them to the bank inside the grocery store and the good folks there helped him count out what he needed. He selected the gum, rang it up, put his money inside the machine, bagged his gum and walked out with a lighter heart. That my sweet, I told him, is getting right with God. His friend hugged him as he delivered her gum, he ran to tell me how happy she was. He was clearly happier as well.

My Plum turned 7 this week and I know he will have ever more opportunities to bring me joy and share his wisdom. I know more and more though that our chances to cement his character, to have the foundation laid that will carry him into a safe and healthy future, those days are waning. We know that he will choose to be free of his connections someday, that he will test out his boundaries and push the rules. I feel the importance of each and every moment now, the inability to let something slide. This child is absolutely too precious to risk. That is my own atonement. For now, we are building Lego sets, we are giggling at runaway pieces, we are delighting in his friends who support his good choices as well, we are loving on this child who every day, brings us joy.