Sequins and Plaid

I spent a good part of yesterday and this morning preoccupied with what to write this last post about. How do I wrap up this blog? And how do you conquer a subject like Christmas morning? It feels like a lot of pressure. I think the only way to start is by asking the question that is begging to be asked:

Was it a different December?

In some ways, no. This December was like every other December: full of extra responsibilities, a tighter schedule, more expectations, the hum of the holidays. Plus, some unexpected stuff, too, having nothing to do with Christmas, and everything to do with the nitty gritty of life. If I was anything in December, it was tired.

But this December was different, too. As I sit here on Christmas Day, just like I have every other morning in December, I cling to the one thing I have all month long: grace. And that has made this month different for me.

Last night I was trying to think of a way to summarize this Christmas, everything I learned and struggled with, everything that brought me tears of joy and so much peace. As I was sitting in church I found the inspiration I was looking for, right in my lap. My son was sitting there in his red plaid shirt on the lap of my gold sequin skirt. That picture, of sequins and plaid, was what I had been searching for.

So much of this month was filled with working man’s plaid: the frustrations of everyday life as usual, along with all the devil’s flaming arrows: temptations, despair, burdens, grief. So much of this life is weary work, an uphill trudge in this cold, cold world.

But.

There are the occasional opportunities for sequins, the dress of celebration and light. The days, like Christmas, when we are surrounded by sparkle, the wonder of grace upon grace, the moments that raise the hairs on our arms, the joys in life that call our hearts to the knowledge of heaven.

This is December: a mix of sequins and plaid. The harsh realities of life and sorrow and work, mixed in with the bright spots of hope and joy and celebration. And I found this December, this different December, that grace dawned every single morning.

The everyday muck was still in every nook and cranny of my life: trying and failing and trying again, battling against my sinful nature, my pet sins, my expectations, and the trials of life. But the everyday grace of coming to Him? This grace was all sparkle, all sequins. This grace always turned me away from myself, my plans, and my shortcomings to Him and his love.

This is the beauty of grace, that

…when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.

Titus 3:4-7

Things change not when we find a magic formula for figuring out our lives or for getting it right. We’re just not going to achieve that perfection this side of heaven. I learned otherwise:

  • Things change when we learn to “leave it on the hillside” and find some “quiet.” The most important thing is that “it needs to be said.” When we put Jesus first, we get an abundance of change. We get to be “free from fear,” of our sins, of death, and of anything in this life. Even when we get “derailed,” we can find balance again in our “fulcrum.”
  • I learned to “just be still,” because when we set aside time for him, “it’s joy we get.” We get more joy from the knowledge that Jesus wants to be “together” with us, the “best and worst of us.”
  • It’s best to “begin at the end” knowing that heaven is our true “home.”
  • The “road to rejoicing” is easier when we begin with repentence, “pack light” and allow ourselves to have “empty hands.”
  • Sometimes there are no words for the frustrations, the sadness of this life, and the hopelessness in this world, but at those times we must look to our Light, spend an “extra hour” on our knees, and look forward to the “great expectations” we can have for heaven.
  • We may have had it right in “kindergarten,” but we always have to remember to “check it twice.”
  • While we are here on earth, our Father “calls us to hope,” to place our focus “above the clouds” where we will see his “bright star” coming again at His next Christmas.

Soon we will leave December, and what will we take into January? It’s the knowledge of sequins and plaid, all wrapped up in the sweet grace of God. All the bad and all the good, the hopes and disappointments, the longing and fulfillment, the sighs and the smiles, the tears and the laughter, the frustrations and little victories. It’s all life here on this earth, but it’s all wrapped up in God’s grace. Grace upon grace upon grace. That our failures can become fodder. That our fears can be soothed. That our sins are forgiven. That are hopes are secure. That His promises are truth. That His love is unchanging. This knowledge of grace, this Word made flesh, this is our everything. And this Christmas morning I can’t help but classify as sequins.

This Christmas morning is the dawn of that redeeming grace. My redeeming grace.

A Word of Thanks

When I began this blog 25 days ago, I didn’t think anyone beside my family would read it. I began this blog to keep myself on track, and I wasn’t expecting other people to come along for the ride. But I’ve been blessed with so much company. Thank you to new friends and old, from one side of the country to the other, who have celebrated December differently with me, who have read and encouraged, cheered and supported, commented and shared. Thank you to my family for being there, just like I knew you would be. Thank you to my husband, my live-in editor for bringing me hot mugs of coffee, for holding down the fort, and for being my soft place to land. He’s given me a lot of grace. And most of all, I thank my God for his Word, his answered prayers, his quiet discipline, his almighty love. I possess grace upon grace upon grace.

Above the Clouds

Yesterday afternoon we took off on the 1652 from Fort Lauderdale to Chicago. Making our ascent, I couldn’t help but appreciate the change of perspective: how distant the world below us became with all its traffic and artificial lights, my job and responsibilities, my home and my desk with its to-do lists, the shopping malls and noise, everything that tried to get me down. All receded away until they were tiny specks below us, until we were above the clouds and couldn’t see anything except for white fluff and brilliant sunshine.

The change of perspective was welcome, as was the break from reality. Up there, everything from the month of December faded away and was replaced by the fact that we were on our way home to our tribe of faraway family and friends. I felt so light. Below the clouds life rushed at me, above the clouds I was free-flying and basking in the sun.

This is God’s perspective, isn’t it? He knows that the world below us is insignificant and tiny, and that the world above us is heaven itself, our eternity. Above the clouds, he’s fitting the pieces of our puzzles into place in His perfect timing, even if it doesn’t feel like it to us. In heaven, our Lord is above time, calling us in His Word to trust him with our eternity.

But he’s not a faraway God, all white-bearded and distant. He doesn’t watch up there unattached. His hands are active and far-reaching. He listens to our prayers. His home is also our hearts.

Which is why he parted the clouds one night long ago, and kept his Word. In his almighty perspective, he knew the timing was just right, even as some had given up hope and turned to themselves. He moved aside heaven and made his Word flesh.

No. Our God is not a distant God. Our God came to our messy, muddy earth with its confusion and sin, its dirt and its clouds. He got down here right among the mess, starting in that feed box of a manger and then later among the crowds and noise. And since he is God, he walked among this dirty earth without giving into it, without letting sin touch his life. All for this reason:

You…

…and me and every other precious, but lost and confused heart. Jesus gathered us all up into himself, all our sins and missteps and terrible dark things, and carried them up to that cross. And died with you and me in his mind and on his heart.

That’s when the curtain came down and those clouds parted for good. No more is there a distance between God and me, no more do I fear his punishment, no more do I wallow in despair.

And in his resurrection, I will also stand victorious over death one day. I will share heaven with Jesus, I will get to leave this sorry earth. I won’t have to drag around this sin-infested body anymore. I will get peace like a river, I will bask in his light, I will see as I was meant to see: without the clouds of sin blocking my Sun.

All because he came. All because he saved me. All because he parted the clouds.

Although it’s not a Christmas hymn, it’s a victory hymn. It says it all and so it works perfectly today. The hymn I’ll have in my heart today is this one, beginning especially with the second verse. I savor these words on days the world has got me down, when I’ve messed up…again…and when my heart is heavy. It clears away the clouds for me, this side of heaven:

In Christ alone, who took on flesh
Fullness of God in helpless babe
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones He came to save
‘Til on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live

There in the ground His body lay
Light of the world by darkness slain
Then bursting forth in glorious Day
Up from the grave He rose again
And as He stands in victory
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me
For I am His and He is mine
Bought with the precious blood of Christ

No guilt of life, no fear in death
This is the power of Christ in me
From life’s first cry to final breath
Jesus commands my destiny
No power of hell, no scheme of man
Can ever pluck me from His hand
‘til He returns or calls me home
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand

Pack Light

I’m sitting in front of a small mountain of luggage, mostly packed. All that stands between me and the airport is this hill: suitcases, carry-ons, backpacks, blankies, camera case, purse, laptop, lunch box. My husband and I spent the day combing the house for a  whole set of Spiderman underwear, little black tights, a tangle of cords, pairs of mittens, and winter coats in storage….then doing piles of laundry, cleaning out the fridge, running errands, cleaning up wrapping paper, organizing gifts, canoodling every precious item into place and finally ruffling through the bills and receipts and Kindergarten “treasures,” the paper trail of the past week.

Bleh. All this stuff.

Stuff we use to celebrate, stuff to give, stuff to pack, stuff to comb through, stuff to treasure as a memory, stuff to trash. Stuff. Stuff. Stuff.

I need a vacation from all this stuff, but first I just have to get it all to Wisconsin.

It occurred to me that the reason I’m so tired of all this stuff is because I’ve spent the whole month dragging it around, whether that be decorations or food, presents or papers. All our family’s things. All my things.

It makes me think of my dad, who takes a two week vacation and packs two t-shirts, a set of underwear, and a good book. I admire him more and more as the years go on, because I think he has it right:

Pack light.

Don’t drag around too much stuff: not too many things of this world, not too many worries, not too many expectations, not too much striving. The things we should be spending our precious time on don’t weigh a thing: playing with our children, having a real conversation with our spouse, laughing with friends, helping out a loved one, appreciating nature, reading God’s Word, praying. These investments are so light, so freeing compared to the stuff.

When Mary and Joseph journeyed to Bethlehem, they packed light: probably just the clothes on their backs and some food, but they had it all because they had the Savior on that journey.

A Savior who freed us from having to make this world our everything, a Savior who saved us from all this stuff as a means to fulfillment, a Savior who gave us something more than all the stuff in the world combined: a restored relationship with our Father.

In light of this, everything else is seen as it is:

What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage…

(Philippians 3:8)

And as we make our journey through this December and throughout our lives, we have it all no matter how much stuff we have. The enormity of our blessings in Jesus helps us to loosen our grip on this world and all it contains. It allows us to even keep our hands open, allowing God to give and take what’s best for us.

As I near the end of this blog, I’m starting to reflect on what I’ve learned by cataloging all these thoughts. And one of the best things I’ve learned is that Christmas with all its stuff is good…and bad…depending on our attitudes toward all of it. If we drag it around, clench it so tightly, demand perfection, and seek to fulfill every expectation, we really end up with nothing but frustration. But if we seek our Savior, we can let go of this stuff, allowing it to come with thankfulness and delight or go with peace and contentment.

To transverse December (and life), it’s simply easier to pack light, right Dad?

He Calls Us to Hope

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day: Jars of Clay

He calls us to hope, and he always has.

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet, the words repeat
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men

‘Til ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men

But peace on earth? Goodwill? These are tough words at times. Like last Friday, when it feels as though there is no love in the world. Tough words to swallow when I feel alone or misunderstood, defeated or banging my head against the wall in frustration. Hard to comprehend when I someone I love dies or leaves, when I find out someone is sick, or when another bomb explodes over the Middle East.

And in despair, I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth”, I said
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men”

The temptation is despair, isn’t it? Despair that even at Christmastime, people can’t pull it together enough to just get along, to be kind, to take care of their children, help their neighbors, support the elderly, and treat the government with respect. And looking at myself, I know that even with my best intentions, I fail miserably, too. The world is an awful place because we all carry the chains of sin around with us.

But God calls us to hope, because hope is a by-product of faith. Hope is a fruit of our belief. Hope expresses faith.

See, when those angels came and shouted jubilantly to those shepherds…

“Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests”

…they weren’t talking about the fact that God had made the world a peaceful place. Those angels were exclaiming that Peace came to earth: a Savior from sin, from this sinful world.

“For today in the town of David a SAVIOR has been born to you, his is Christ, THE LORD! (emphasis mine).”

He never promised a peaceful earth, but through Jesus, his followers could follow Peace around in the flesh, then watch him die to make peace between God and man. He was and is literally the Peace between us. Now we have that peace in their hearts. The peace of forgiveness. Peace in the promises he always keeps. Peace in the hope of heaven.

When God calls us to hope, it isn’t to hope that this earth will have a peaceful Christmas, it’s for the hope that someday when Christ comes again we will finally have peaceful, perfect heaven. On that day, all that is right will prevail. Justice will be done. And all our hopes will be fulfilled. This is Christmas hope, the firm hope that God has saved us and is sending Jesus again to take us home.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep
“God is not dead, nor does He sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, goodwill to men”

Bright Star

This morning I woke up early to write, and as I logged on to begin, I found a message from my sister Stephanie. One of her friends wrote a new Christmas song, and knowing I would love it, she shared it with me.

This songwriter is named Zach Steinbach, and he plays in a band called The Color Truth. Hearing the gospel in his words left me speechless. His picture of our brokenness and our messy world is so accurate that the gospel stands out like the bright star it was meant to be. I’m hanging on to that light, my Jesus, this morning.

Bright Star by ZSteinbach

(to play, click on the gray cloud-like squiggle at the top of the page…took me a bit to figure that out. Enjoy! ;)

Into the silence of nothing;
Dropped to the depths of despair;
Straight through the heart of a planet

covered by clouded air
Shot from highest of mountains;
the crystal clearest of streams;
God would be born as a weathered person like me

Savior come down and warm this bitter scene;
I need you now, sing my broken melody;
Won’t you somehow let this old world see
Right where you are;
Shine your bright star through me

Friend to the mess and the misfit;
Love in the lines in his face
Still he was bled by the ones he came to save
Why do we do that? How could they be so blind?
Jesus tell me
“Son- their sins were mine;
Your sins were mine.”

Savior come down and warm this bitter scene;
We need you now, fix our broken harmony
Won’t you somehow let this whole world see
Right where you are;
Shine your bright star through me

Let us be your star
With our humble hearts;
so All may see your light
Like that Christmas night

Let us be your star
With our burning hearts;
so All may see your light
Like that Christmas night

Won’t you somehow let this whole world see
Right where you are

Checking it Twice

Oh what joy it is to ride…in a van filled with the last of my gifts, all tucked away and checked off my list. I do not have to enter a mall or a Wal-Mart or a cyber-anything until after Christmas. I have to say, as I was driving home last night, the radio was turned pretty loud (I may or may not also have been dancing and singing at the top of my lungs). It was a great feeling, walking out of that mall, away from the crowds and hustle, knowing that I had finished my Christmas shopping. Insert sigh of relief.

But when I checked my list twice, I realized I had forgotten someone. You know that feeling, when someone’s given you a gift and you didn’t realize you were exchanging? or that you forgot? Eek. Awkward. Shameful. Although I’ve checked everyone off my list (husband, kiddos, moms and dads, siblings, nephew and nieces, friends and teachers…check, check, check), I realized with a sinking feeling that there’s one person I forgot. It’s someone I forget regularly, and I feel horrible every time we get to the exchange.

You probably know where I’m headed with this. I’m talking about God. We don’t often talk about getting God something for Christmas, although we spend a lot of time talking about how God gave us a magnificent gift. We have seen the taglines so many places (Jesus is the world’s best gift!). We know that the gift-giving tradition began to remind us that God’s greatest present was his gift of a Savior, wrapped up in swaddling cloths and placed in a manger.

God sent a Savior to bring us back to him, even when in unbelief we didn’t have the desire to know or love him. God gave the gift of his Son to the whole wide world, hoping that through another gift (faith in his Son), our relationship might be restored.

(In the Bleak Midwinter, sung here by James Taylor)

What then can I give him? Empty as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part.

What then can I give him? I must give my heart.

When God gave us Jesus, he did so longing for something in return: our hearts. Once our heart is belongs to him, his hope continues. He wants our love. He wants our praise. He wants our thanks. None of these things costs a penny. None of these things even costs a lot of time. But it’s what our God and Savior wants for Christmas and for every day of our lives.

My gift is praise, my present is thanks. Dropping to my knees I can give these gifts. Singing to him in praise, I can give these gifts. Listening to His Word, sharing his Gospel with my children and friends, trusting him with everything from my salvation to my worries…these are other ways to give to God. When I check my list twice, I realize that giving to God begins with a heart full of love.

Kindergarten

I attended my daughter’s Kindergarten Christmas program last night, and I couldn’t be more proud of her. She sang beautifully and knew every line. Plus, she’s got it all figured out:

1. Christmas is a reason to smile. Jesus is here! How could you not be happy?

2. Christmas is a reason to shout. What’s more fun than singing at the top of your lungs?

3. Christmas is a reason to share. How can you not Go Tell It on a Mountain?

When you’re a kid, Christmas is magical. The anticipation of Christmas morning! The promise of presents! The lights on snow-filled streets. Christmas vacation and sledding and building snow forts. THE SUGAR: Hot chocolate and candy canes and a freezer chock-full of cookies. The fancy shoes that clack happily down the church aisle. The  parties and houses full of friends and loved ones that come to visit. The music that fills homes and schools and malls. The reality that all you really want is under that tree.

Can you remember that feeling? Of being a child at Christmas?

One of my favorite parts of being a parent is reliving my childhood through my kids. Getting excited for Christmas morning, just to see them so excited. The pleasure of performing Christmas traditions because I remember the safety and love in their rhythm. Quietly marveling at the candles that light up a church on Christmas Eve night, and being filled with the wonder of it all.

It’s more than just the Christmas fun; it extends to Christmas faith. To the way a child can know everything there is to know by simply saying, “Jesus loves me this I know.” To the way a child wholeheartedly trusts the fact that Jesus came for me, that his love is a personal thing. To the way a child can sing Joy to the World, and have that joy written all over her little face.

Christmas really belongs to children, doesn’t it? I don’t think I ever celebrated it better than when I was a child.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).

I’m praying for that faith today, that childlike faith, and all the wholesome peace, joy and hope that comes from knowing that Jesus, that baby, came for me.