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The “Joy” of Christmas

After the zen of my tree leaning decorating time with family, I headed to church on Sunday morning with an unusual sense of obligation.  After all, I had put it out there that I was feeling un-Christmas-like and I knew my community would not ignore that.  That’s what I get for being honest.  Oh well…off I go.

I sat down and the music started.  Christmas music.

I started to feel the lump in my throat grow, but I pushed it down.  I just didn’t want to cry.

As we were singing, something settled over me.  As best I can recollect, this was it: “This pain is ok.  How you feel is ok.  Your past, these feelings, your failures…they make you who you are.  I have turned that pain into your compassion, your empathy, your ability to feel so much.  That is My gift to you.  Without that pain, you wouldn’t be you.  When you understand someone, that is the gift that comes from your pain.  I have made you this way and it is all ok.”

And it WAS ok.  I didn’t feel a huge weight lifted. I didn’t hear angels singing, and I didn’t start feeling all “fa-la-la”.  But I was ok.  And in that moment, that was enough.

But God wasn’t going to leave anything to chance on this Sunday morning.

When all the announcements and songs were finished, Pastor Steve got up to teach.   I was stunned by the first part of his message so  I am not sure I will get this all right even though I was frantically trying to scribble it all down.  I’m not sure I can do it justice…but this is message (gift) I received.

On the 3rd Sunday of advent, we light the Joy candle.   JOY comes from the base Greek word,  “Charis” which means grace.  Joy does NOT mean happiness.  Instead, joy is the feeling that comes from knowing that we are in the midst of God’s grace.  Advent is the time of preparation.  All the circumstances of my life, even the dark places (no…ESPECIALLY the dark places), all the joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies have all brought me to this place, to be ready for a time such as now, to THIS time of Joy and preparation.

The state of living in the middle of God’s grace, being home there, no matter what it looks like,  THAT is joy.  Joy enables us to wait for what is to come, even if we don’t know what that is….and yes, to be ok with that.  In order to be ok with what is to come, we also have to be ok with what has gone before, all that has led us here.  Joy.

When we are looking for something we “expect”, like, I don’t know…specific Christmas-y feelings, we miss the moment for which we have been brought, the reason we are here.  <Note: These were not Steve’s exact words, but they reflect the combination of what I believe he said and how they translated for me.>

WHAT????  How did my pastor know all that stuff that had come into my head and heart before he even got up to speak??

Steve continued talking and I continued scribbling.   He said that the place God calls you is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.  The intersection of hope and fear (and dare I say pain and happiness) is where we find what we are made for.

Now sometimes I know I can be dense.  And there have been times in my life (more than I like to think about) that God had to use a 2×4 to get my attention.  But on this Sunday, the 3rd Sunday in advent, He just used Saturday tree decorating, some quiet thoughts and the compassionate words of my pastor to help me see without any doubt what He has been trying to tell me.

It is ok.  I don’t have to live up to any expected ideal of what Christmas is supposed to look like or feel like.  Reconnecting with my past hurts is my way to build heart connections to other people’s pain, so that I can be a more empathetic mom, a more compassionate friend, a more contented wife.  The expectations I have each holiday season have gotten in the way of seeing the grace and the beauty of the gifts my pain has brought.  The words that settled over me at the beginning of the service, combined with the words that were given to my pastor left no room for doubt.

I might still feel sad and lonely.  Expectations might still threaten to steal my peace and trick me into believing that I am not enough. Those things are ok, as long as I remember that those things are what brought me here, and this place, this time, this me is exactly where I am supposed to be, bah-humbug and all.

Tomorrow….some advice.

P.S.  If you are interested in hearing the entire audio of the Sunday message from Pastor Steve North, it can be found here.

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I hate Christmas????

On Saturday, when my family was finally decorating our tree, I couldn’t shake the questions that I asked at the end of my last post.  I even found myself thinking, “I hate Christmas” at the very moment when I was in the middle of stringing the lights.  Immediately, I started to think about what that meant and I realized something.  I realized that it isn’t Christmas that I hate.  In fact, when I listed all the things that Christmas means to me, I ended up with quite a list of things that I love:

  • The miracle of my Savior’s birth.
  • Buying presents for my daughters…the one time of year that I truly spoil them.
  • Christmas lights.
  • Traditional foods (HELLO Christmas cookies!!!)
  • Christmas music
  • All the beautiful decorations
  • The excitement that my kids feel (they are never too old to want to wake up early with excited smiles)
  • Christmas dinner
  • Giving
  • Special ornaments, especially the ones that were made by my daughters, nieces and nephews, and all the ones that remind me of the special times in their lives
  • Marveling at  the first Christmas pictures of my beautiful girls…how much they looked alike and how different they have grown up to be…and the true amazement that time has gone so fast
  • Receiving all the Christmas cards including pictures of all those beautiful kiddos (even though I suck and never send any of my own…thanks for keeping me on your list!)
  • The feeling of gratefulness for the incredible abundance in my life
  • Family time, including the gatherings of extended family
  • And the list goes on…

So what is the deal??  If I love all these things about Christmas, what it is that I hate?  Somewhere along the way, a light bulb went off.  I realized that it isn’t Christmas that I hate.  Instead, I hate how I feel at Christmas.  And when I dig deeper into that, I realize that I hate to remember painful things.  I hate feeling inadequate.  I hate the frustration I feel because I don’t feel the “right” emotions and excitement that I think everyone else must be feeling (even when I know that isn’t true).   In that moment, I didn’t get much further than that.  I tried to get caught up in the traditional light unwinding ritual with Becca, the happy memories associated with all the ornaments, the humor of the annual ritual of the leaning Andrews tree (surely one of these years we will put a tree up without the threat of it crashing down by the next day!)  For this day, the realization of all the things that I enjoy about Christmas was enough.

What's not to love about THIS?

What’s not to love about THIS?

And this?  Notice the mandatory "Andrews Tree Lean"??

And this? Notice the mandatory “Andrews Tree Lean”??

Tomorrow…my Sunday morning epiphany.

So…this is Christmas

In an effort to return to writing, and to break my writer’s block, I am going to work on  a series of posts that may be atypical.  At the end, perhaps you will have gotten a glimpse into some of the deepest parts of my heart, and perhaps they will allow me to again return to sharing it with you.

For many weeks, I have been doing my normal holiday thing, which means I have been feeling decidedly NOT normal.  I don’t feel excited about the holidays.  I don’t necessarily feel pressured by them either, at least not in terms of the effort it takes to pull them off.  It isn’t the extra activity or shopping or planning that get me down.  What affects me is the pressure to feel festive, joyful, excited, “Christmas-y”.

When people learn that I have not been bitten by the Christmas spirit, there are regular check-ins.  “How are you feeling?”  “Has the spirit found you yet?”  “Are you feeling better?” “But your name is JOY!”  If you are one of those people who are checking in, don’t worry…I know that your questions come from your concern and love for me and your desire to help. I know that, so please don’t feel bad when I tell you that those questions make me feel worse.  I have been reminded about how blessed I am (as if my problem was that I didn’t realize that I live a life of abundance), I have been instructed to go feed a homeless person or buy a gift for a needy child or DO something for someone.  Surely those things will make me realize that I have nothing to be un-festive about.  And again, I know that those suggestions come from a good place and that the people who suggest them genuinely want to help.  They too, should not feel bad when I tell you how much worse they make me feel.  Because now, not only do I feel uncommonly Scrooge-y, but I feel like I must be ungrateful too.    The truth is that although I have been known to grump out an occasional “Bah-humbug”, my problem is not that I feel ungrateful or unblessed or any uninspired by the birth of my Christ.  It is really just the opposite in fact, which only complicates the mess that I have created in my head as I try to sort this all out.

I also know that I am not alone, and that although there are many of us who feel this way at the holidays, the world doesn’t quite know what to do with someone who doesn’t love Christmas.

Every year, I feel inadequate and frustrated and alone.  I feel guilty that my melancholy might steal some of the happiness that my girls feel at the holidays, because I have raised them to pay attention and to notice when someone is hurting.  I feel bad that my family is subdued in their celebration out of some kind of watchful deference to the pain they feel for me.

Eventually, I succumb to the ritual decorating and Christmas music listening…and I have to admit that my beautiful tree full of ornaments, each one with a special memory or sentiment attached, the white lights, the handcrafted tree skirt, my childhood stocking, and the steady arrival of all the gifts I ordered online (I may succumb to shopping but I will NOT go to the mall!!) start to peck away at me, and I become more content.  My decorated tree becomes one of my favorite sights and that is good.

But how do I process the rest?  What about the painful memories of childhood hurts and adulthood rejections that inevitably return at Christmas?  How do I convince myself that I won’t allow the past memories to rob me of my present memory-making?  What can I DO with the sadness and the loneliness that the sadness creates? How can I make sense of all of this so I can move past it without feeling inauthentic?  How do I enjoy the holiday without feeling that by doing so, I have not somehow committed some kind of whitewashing of the pain?

To be continued.

6/2/12 Today’s Advice to My Beautiful Daughters – Believe

Faith really can move mountains.

A little over two years ago, my dear friend Kristen was given unimaginable news.  She was diagnosed with Stage IV Colon cancer that had spread to her liver.  It is hard for me to even imagine how she and her family processed this news.  As her friends, we were shocked, scared, stunned really.

This is Kristen today:
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Today, we celebrate her battle and her victory.  Friends and family joined her to walk in the area’s first 5K in support of colorectal cancer research and funding, “Get Your Rear in Gear”.  The team shirts say, “Rump Shakers – Never fear. We are here for Kristen’s rear.”

I don’t know how much you know about color cancer, but a stage IV diagnosis is about as bad of news as you can get.  To many, it is a death sentence.  But not Kristen.  I could tell you what the odds were.  Kristen doesn’t know this (until now) but I researched the odds.  I did what you aren’t supposed to do researched on the internet to try to determine her chances.  I cried my eyes out that day.  I was devastated.  I won’t mention the numbers I found because they didn’t mean anything to Kristen.  Numbers are just averages, and she isn’t average.  She was young, otherwise healthy and had the kind of faith that really can move a mountain.  She decided that she was going to kick cancer’s ass, and that is just what she did.  She had two MAJOR operations to remove the infected part of her colon and part of her liver, had setbacks with infection and healing, spent a combined several weeks in the hospital, and went through two separate rounds of chemo.   During that time, she never stopped smiling, never stopped believing.   The prevailing joke was that she made the whole “cancer” thing up for attention…that is how good she looked throughout.

She taught me that faith is everything.  Believing is everything.  The love and faith of family and friends is everything.  I’m no dummy.  I know there were times when she got discouraged and had doubts, but she had this massive contagious faith thing that she had spread to all the people around her.  That faith grew in all of us, and I hope there were times that our belief carried her when hers was feeling shaky.

Sometimes when things seem absolutely impossible, you just have to believe.  Believe in a truth that doesn’t make sense and defies conventional wisdom.  Believe in the faith that sustains you and believe that you can spread that faith around.  Miracles happen every day.  Not only is Kristen my hero, but she is a walking talking SMILING miracle, not just because she beat this terrible thing, but because she inspired us, made us believe, increased our faith…and that gift IS one of life’s miracles.
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