Dec 26, 2010

Out of the Manger and Into the World...

I was going to wait until after New Year's to post this, but some of my Facebook friends have already been commenting about "after-Christmas letdown". Been there, done that! This is something that I originally wrote 8 years ago, and just recently polished it up a bit for my Christian Writer's Group assignment, so it is not in my typical blogging writing style. It hasn't been critiqued yet, but I thought I'd post it anyway. I need the reminder as much as anybody! Just ask my hubby~I was once NOTORIOUS for "after-Christmas letdown". Then I came to realize that I cannot put the Christmas spirit away when the decorations come down. I hope you will be blessed by taking the time to read it.

Out of the Manger and Into the World

I couldn’t believe it happened again. “The Holidays” ~ that favorite time of year ~ were over and the decorations needed to be put away. I did not expect to get depressed this time, something I have struggled with in years past. My husband and I had made a very intentional agreement that we would pace ourselves throughout the Christmas season, not over spend, over decorate, or over do in any way. We were exhausted from the events of the year: a son who graduated from high school and began college; another son, a college senior, who moved back home and then got married; concerns surrounding our four aging parents and a couple prodigal nephews; my husband’s job loss and several months of unemployment; the deaths of several close family members and friends.

So while we didn’t do as much decorating as usual, I still thrilled at getting some of the nostalgic memories out of their boxes in the basement and making our home feel warm and beautiful with the season’s special magic. Instead of baking for three weeks, I baked for three hours one day. It was plenty. We joyed at attending several special Christmas events and having friends and family gather throughout the season. It truly was the most stress-free holiday I could remember.

But something still snapped in me when it was over and I spent the weekend after New Year’s, my traditional time to tear things down, having a gloomy, self-centered pity party. Tears flowed as I carefully wrapped each ornament in tissue paper and packed them into boxes. I felt very alone. My husband long ago gave up trying to console me during these times. We both thought “simplifying” would be the answer, and frankly, I was surprised that I was having this reaction again. I mentioned it to a friend, who promptly sent me an e-mail and included a quote from “Hugs for the Holidays” by John William Smith. It read:

"The birth of Jesus was the birth of hope. Don't let the wonder of that hope disappear with the decorations at the end of the holiday season this year. Follow that hope right out of that manger and into the rest of His life. Watch hope become a man, the man a lamb, and the lamb the Lord who will come for us again. When He comes, we'll look at one another and say, 'There will never be another day like today.' "

I immediately knew this message had been sent straight from God to me. How could I have forgotten so soon? The story of the baby in the manger doesn’t end when we put away our Christmas decorations. No, it has only just begun. The warmth and joy we feel at Christmas is all about hope, and we need to follow that hope right out of that manger and into the rest of the story. Jesus came to bring light to a very sin darkened world. His light always invades the darkness. Even the smallest amount of light in the darkest of rooms can be seen, because that is the nature of light.

As I turned the calendar page to a new year, I realized I had a choice to make. Will I allow after-holiday letdown to overtake me and wallow around in self-pity and hopelessness, or will I let the light of Christ shine in and through me? Will I miss the whole point of the season of hope, or will I follow that baby out of the manger and into a world that desperately needs to see His light?

"Lord Jesus, forgive us for trying to keep you as that sweet baby in the manger. Your Father, and ours, sent you into this dark world with a mission~~to bring us Light and Salvation. Shine your light upon us, and save us especially from the sin of self-absorption. Give us a sense of mission too, and empower us to proclaim the meaning of your coming to a sin darkened world. We look forward to the day when you will come again in power and great glory! In your Name we pray. Amen."

Dec 20, 2010

'twas the weekend before Christmas...

This past Saturday for the 31st time in Akron, Ohio, members of our community were treated to a fantastic (free) Tuba Christmas concert.

It was held at the EJ Thomas Performing Arts Center and conducted by University of Akron Music Professor Tucker Jolly. 480 musicians gathered to share their talents with 5600 in attendance at two performances.

I think there were two dozen of our family that were present. It was a light-hearted, informal event, with lots of decorated tubas, and many members of the orchestra and audience decked themselves with Santa hats and jingle bells.

First the tubas would play a traditional Christmas carol, and then the conductor would turn to the audience and everyone would sing along the second time through.

We had a great time ~~ and immediately afterwards we gathered for our extended family's annual Christmas party...

top, from left: Marcella, Barb, Cindy, me~ bottom from left: Bob, Mom and Don

For mom's Christmas present, the six of us are giving her a trip to the beach with ALL of us and our spouses in June! We've been saving up for it and we have reserved a huge beach house in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

We made this poster board and a notebook with all the details in large print for her to look at later on when she had a chance to absorb it all...We were afraid she somehow had gotten wind of our plans because about a week ago she said "I know you guys are up to something..." and come to find out, she thought we were buying her new pots and pans for her newly redone kitchen! So we were happy she was really surprised!

My mom's next door neighbor, Anna, offered to be Mrs. Claus for our party this year. My siblings and I provide gifts for the youngest children, mom's great-grandchildren, by drawing names. We left them outside the door of the party room, and Mrs. Claus stuffed them into her bag before coming in. I was a little nervous that my granddaughter would recognize her because she sees her all the time. I asked her, "Do you know who that is?" and she giggled and said, "yes! That's Santa's wife!"

20 years ago at our family party, mom had HER grandchildren decorate their dads as if they were Christmas trees...and I was actually able to dig out a few pictures to pass around. So this year we had the newest generation...the children of THOSE children...get their turn. It was a LOT of fun!

Finally, we play our gift exchange game for the adults. Each of us brings a wrapped $10 gift and we put it in a pile in the middle of the floor. We go around the circle and each takes a gift and opens it...OR...steals one that has already been opened! Each gift may only be "stolen" three times.

The younger kids are watching Charlie Brown Christmas while we play our game. We have a great time being together...and it works out well that have have a place that can accomodate all of us. There were about 30 of us this year!

We will be celebrating for two more weekends...! I just love Christmas!

♫ ...Love and Joy Come to you, and to you Glad Christmas too... ♫

Dec 13, 2010

on the lighter side...random ramblings...

Our SC family left to go back home the Monday after Thanksgiving. In the week following several of us got a stomach virus and so my normal time to start decorating for Christmas was delayed. I'm still working on it, but it will be greatly scaled back this year. I'm ok with that.

Our house has nine windows in the front and last year at the after-Christmas sales I purchased new window wreaths for $2. each. Ours had seen 15 Ohio winters and were a bit worse for wear. I was lucky enough to find nine foot spools of ribbon for 68 cents each, and used one spool for each new bow I needed to make...10 altogether since I needed one for the front door wreath too.

My hubby was good enough to hang all the wreaths in spite of snow blowing in his face and into the house, since we hang them on the outside, from the inside. It was a pretty big deal. Thanks Bob!

My niece, who is in college, redesigns and makes her own jewelry. She had her second annual sale and I got these beautiful earrings for only $3. Aren't they great?

Hubby got our tree set up and I called for the local grands to come over and "help" me decorate it.

It took several days, but we got it done!

This past weekend we enjoyed a beautiful Christmas concert at our church...

and we came back to our house for supper and a little birthday party for our granddaughter, who turns 5 on Christmas Eve...

Mainly we've been dealing with the snowy, cold weather here. Here are some of the things we've done to fill our time:

Supposedly the severe weather will only last another couple of days. I have my shopping done (I think) and look forward to getting things wrapped. I'd like to bake a couple batches of cookies and do a few other little things, but mostly I'm very content this year to enjoy home, family, and friends for the holidays.

As Rebecca over at Life and Godliness has stated it so well, I want to keep this season sane, simple, and sacred. So far, so good!

Dec 7, 2010

Are you believing?

Last night I was reading in Luke chapter 1 and again I was impressed with our need to believe God's Word. I read about an old man, a faithful priest, Zeckariah, who was taking his turn at serving in the temple. Doing what he knew well and was gifted for. Probably not too unlike us as we serve in our churches, he was going through the motions of the duties he was familiar with and he had done for years.

But this time it was different. Zechariah had been chosen to burn incense at the altar. Suddenly he had an encounter with the angel Gabriel. A messenger of God, the very God Zechariah was there to serve. The God whose presence was undoubtedly routinely prayed for. And yet he was terrified when He came. Terrified at the words He spoke.

Gabriel spoke words of peace to try to calm Zechariah. He also gave his message~that his prayers of many years had been heard and his elderly wife Elizabeth would conceive and bear a son whose name was to be John. This son would bring joy to many and would be greatly used by God. Zechariah stood there is total disbelief. He even asked for some kind of a sign that he would know this message was from God. (An interesting side note is that "Zechariah" in Hebrew means "God has remembered".)

Oh this is painful to think about. Painful because I've done the same thing. I shudder to remember the times I've prayed fervently for something, and when the answer came, I was surprised, I doubted, or I looked for more "evidence" before fully believing.

Zechariah received the consequence of his disbelief right on the spot. Since he was unable to give God immediate praise for an answer to prayer, he was struck silent for the next nine months and unable to speak at all. The angel said to him, in essence, "hell-O Zechariah, I am Gabriel...I stand in the very presence of God and I have been sent to tell you personally that your prayers have been answered! I'm bringing you good news and you do not believe my words. Do you not understand how you have just insulted the Almighty?"

The entire Christmas story is quite preposterous if you really think about it. A virgin has a baby. Angels appear and talk to people. A lone bright star guides to the place of birth. God becomes man. He is a Savior, able to forgive sins and grant eternal life. He was born to die.

All of these things are the Word of the Lord. Do we believe? Do we really believe? Have we accepted the message the story brings, this Good News? As the story of the priest Zechariah reminds us, disbelief has consequences. Lay it down, friend. Lay down your fears, your doubts, your desire to understand and control. Lay down your disappointments, your hurt, the injustices of life. Come to the manger and take a long, hard look. Really listen to the beautiful message of the Christmas carols. And believe.

Dec 5, 2010

Stop doubting and believe!

Did you ever have one of those experiences where you were going to just burst unless you told someone some good news? Well, that's me today.

Early this morning a friend was so upset and crying so hard that she couldn't even think straight. It all started yesterday when she was doing a good deed and baking cookies with a teenager who needed some extra tlc...When it was all over she could not find her set of engagement/wedding rings or her 40th anniversary diamond ring. She remembered taking the rings off so like any good Italian cook, she could use her hands to mix the cookie dough. She called the teenager to see if she had seen where she might have put the rings. My friend thought she had put them in the pocket of the top she was wearing, only to be devastated to look and find the pocket had a hole in it.

I told her I would pray. I got on my knees and had my talk with Jesus. I reminded Him that I knew how much he cared for people and their feelings. I visualized the little children climbing up onto His lap. I saw Him weeping with his friends over the death of Lazarus. I told Him how my friend was doing this good deed in His name, and how He had made us with the emotions that we have, and how much those rings meant to her because they were gifts from her husband of over 40 years. And I asked Him to let the rings be found QUICKLY.

She looked everywhere. She finally had to tell her husband, and he looked as well. She remembered that on the way back from taking the teenager home, she stopped at Subway to pick up sandwiches, so she called the store this morning to ask if by any chance the rings had turned up there. NOTHING.

But I KNEW the rings would be found. After an hour or so I even told my husband that I couldn't believe that my friend hadn't called me yet to tell me. It was one of those times when I just knew the prayer would be answered and while I thought about it, I wasn't wringing my hands or doubting at all.

Now, I need to tell you it has been snowing here last night and today. Probably two inches worth. Quite enough to cover up a couple of diamond rings that had fallen from a pocket with a hole in it into a parking lot of a Subway store. But my friend had an overwhelming urge to get in her car, drive a couple miles, and go look. A car was parked in the same spot where she had parked last night. She got out of her car and went and looked. There were the rings, about 8 inches apart, right where they had fallen and they had not been run over or touched.

Really, she shouldn't have gone by herself! She ran into the store, eyes swollen from crying and clutching her rings. To the kids who were working, she said, "I'm the lady who called you and asked about my rings!" Then she opened up her hands and showed them. One of the kids said something like "wow, those are worth something! where did you find them?" and she told them. As she was leaving, she turned around and said, "I just wanted you to know there IS a God, and He told me to come here, and I found my rings!"

Then she called me. As soon as I saw her name in the caller ID I knew she found the rings. I told her I had no doubt she would find them and was waiting for her call! Now that alone is a gift from God. Faith is a gift...not something we can muster up on our own.

God gave me the gift of faith to believe, and once again I am humbled to remember that He is FOR us. Why do we ever doubt?

This isn't about rings. My friend would even tell you that. This is about the everlasting love that a Father has for His children. For whatever reason, sometimes we just need to be reminded in a vivid way that He is THERE, and that He cares deeply for us. My faith has just been enlarged. Has yours? Oh friend, rejoice with me today!

Dec 1, 2010

Guess & win!

OK, It's Dec. 1 and I'm officially in the Christmas spirit! The first person to identify what this thing IS will receive a Christmas gift in the mail from me. Our (Italian) family made this 2 years ago...each of us made a piece of it. My hubby made the "stained glass" lighted window. We had no idea what it would look like until everyone brought their piece and it all got put together. Do you know what it IS??? Leave your answer in a comment!

Nov 30, 2010

♪ Hurrah for Thanksgiving Day ♫

Our Thanksgiving was as traditional as we could make it in the party room at my mom's condo. Mom and I set the tables for 30 the night before, complete with centerpieces--all from stuff I found in my basement! We also had an appetizer table which later on was converted into a dessert table, and we also had a separate beverage table. A long bar style counter top served as our buffet table.

Our menu was also traditional as they come: turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberry relish, corn, squash casserole, green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole, jello salad, home made bread, pumpkin pie and other miscellaneous desserts.

There were extra tables where we had activities for the children set up such as card games, board games, and coloring papers.

Hubby made a turkey poster for the children and each told something they were thankful for to be written on it's feathers.

Other special events of the day included the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving DVD...

... a birthday celebration for Ethan, who turned two the week before...

...and Wii games for the kids.

The adults were serenaded by Andy and Ellie...

...and we also played a hilarious group game called "I have never..." You start by holding up your ten fingers and you go around the circle, each person taking a turn saying something like "I have never been skydiving". If anyone HAS been skydiving, they have to put a finger down. So the last person who has any fingers still up wins. It was so much fun and had everyone in stitches. We kept it clean and with no personal attacks!

Some of the family members who had their dinner elsewhere came later for dessert with us. Altogether, four generations were represented. It really was a very happy day and of course no one went home hungry! Another great holiday with family and some friends too...another chance to thank the Lord for all of His blessings, and another chance to teach the youngest among us that being together, loving each other, and building happy memories are important family values that we cherish.

Standing out among our blessings was my smiling nephew, Rick, who finished his second tour in Afghanistan with the Marines this year, and also the healing of some relationships within the family.

To God be the Glory, great things He has done!!

Nov 22, 2010

I've got a LOT to learn!

It was small but mighty. We sat around the table, all four of us. Three-fourths of the group couldn't make it on Saturday morning. I was slightly disoriented coming in myself. I got up feeling a little depressed because I had too much pizza the night before and it showed on the bathroom scale. I was beyond tired. And I was wondering why I hadn't received anyone else's work through e-mail and feared I would be the only one having mine critiqued.

I'm not sure WHY I joined this writer's group. I somewhat know the person who is leading it, but no one else. I trust the leader because she has a sweet spirit and a kindness about her that tempers her intimidating list of credentials. She is a big picture person...a visionary who not only dreams big, but DOES big. And she is dreaming big for us. Actually she accelerates the dreaming process. Where I think "some day I'd like to write a book" she is on to "when we start to get published..."

While basically by personality I am pretty much an open book and wear it all on my sleeves to a fault, it is still intimidating to put your inner thoughts to paper, read it outloud to strangers, then sit quietly while they pick it apart. There is a protocol to doing this, and you are not permitted to to give any kind of explanation or mia culpa before you read what your wrote. You just read it and let the chips fall.

On Saturday I was the one asked to read first. The lady who sat next to me is a professional editor. Out of the corner of my eye I could see her quietly thumping her pen as I read my work. When I finished, she was the first to comment. "This lacks focus. I mean, I'm asking myself, why do I need to KNOW this?".

Just a few short weeks ago had anyone used those particular words, I would have been crushed and melted into a pool of tears. I would have taken it so personally, and probably would have given up altogether. While the words temporarily stung, I listened as the others weighed in. There were a few compliments on some of my detailed descriptions. That was something I had been criticized for at the previous meeting, so I had worked extra hard on that area. It felt good that they noticed.

The more they had to say, the more it was impressed on me why I am doing this. These people are here to help me. We are here to help each other. They gave me some suggestions not only on how to structure what I had to say, but some things I could expand on to make my work stand out and not look like "anyone's" story.

All of this is done in love. This is not a college class where you sink or swim. This is a group of Christian women who come together for the purpose of encouraging one another and for stirring up the gifts that are within us.

I have a long way to go. I'm very challenged, and barely have the room in my life to forge ahead with this. But I need this so much. All this costs me is my time, and a teachable spirit. I'm so thankful for this opportunity. Somehow in my heart I know that when the fog clears, I will see clearly that this was a God thing all along.

" iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another..." Proverbs 27:17 NIV

Nov 18, 2010

Thanksgiving~Then and Now*

Thanksgiving was always a special day in our family when I was growing up. I have nothing but sweet memories of all the preparations and of a feast day that was beyond comparison. Mom would get up very early in the morning and start the preparations for our holiday meal. We always woke up to that familiar smell of roasting turkey that we couldn’t wait to taste. There were four of us girls (along with our three brothers) and each of us were assigned jobs to do. Counting out-of-town relatives and friends we would invite, we always had at least 25 people for dinner. That meant setting up extra tables and chairs in the living room to extend our dining room table.

We never complained about the extra work, but instead took great pride in being part of it all. As we worked, the atmosphere was charged with excitement. It seems like every year we tried to make it even more special than the last. Everyone dressed in their Sunday best, and so all of us girls would put on one of Grandma’s starched and pressed homemade aprons. Some of the jobs we girls had from the time we were very young were stuffing celery sticks with cream cheese, filling our mom's pretty cut glass dishes with olives and pickles, ironing tablecloths and cloth napkins, and setting the table with the beautiful china from the hutch. We always made place cards and spent a lot of time trying to figure out who should sit where. As guests arrived, we would offer appetizers, such as cheese and crackers and our stuffed celery sticks.

My dad always insisted on a crackling fire to add to the festive atmosphere, even though by the time everyone got there, it would get way too warm in the rooms! But he loved the tradition. It puts a smile on my face to remember how happy it made him. My dad loved nothing more than having his large family gather together for holidays.

For many years, even after we all grew up and moved away from home, we came back for Thanksgiving. Each year the numbers grew as we found a place at the table for our own children as well. Mom loved doing this holiday more than any other. She was just like a mother hen gathering her chicks together.

Eventually we just became too large of an extended family to all gather in one home, so we had to start dividing up. Mine became one of the "host" homes...and a baton was passed. I kept many of the same traditions we had when I was growing up, and added a few of my own. As everyone gathered around the table, we would either have an appropriate Thanksgiving reading, some singing, or go around the table with each one telling something they were thankful for.

One year I made a small twig tree which I had in the middle of the kitchen table. Around it were construction paper leaves in fall colors with strings attached. As each guest arrived, they wrote something they were thankful for on the leaf and hung it on the tree. It made a nice centerpiece. To this day I love setting a beautiful table and making guests feel pampered. I’m sure it all stems back to my great memories of the way our family celebrated the holiday. I still like the simple appetizers, and usually have a few on the kitchen counter to hold folks over till everyone arrives and dinner is served.

We have some younger friends whose extended families are out of state and they often join us for Thanksgiving. A few years back they came early to help out. Something I like to do is have some hot cider steaming on the stove. My friend beamed as she carried hot cups to the front door to greet the guests while her husband helped by hanging the coats. How could a guest not feel welcomed? That same year we had a special reading about the history of the first Thanksgiving, and we also had guitar music and singing by our two sons and a soon-to-be daughter-in-law. Precious memories.

Sadly, many of us are geographically scattered now so it is rare that we all are together on Thanksgiving. But with grandchildren and great-grandchildren, we are still too large a group to be at any one house. Last year we tried something different. We rented the party room at mom's condo so at least as many as could make it would be all together in one place. The experiment worked out really well, and so this year we are doing the same. While my heart resists the necessary changes in long standing traditions, I’m looking forward to doing it again, knowing that being together as family trumps all. With grateful hearts, we will be thankful once again for that blessing.


*I recently joined a Christian Writers Group at our church and I needed to write something Thanksgiving-related this week. I reworked a post I did last year, trying to make adjustments according to critiques I've had so far. I'm really excited to be in this group and I know I will learn a lot! Thought I would post this week's work ~ please be gentle readers!