Changing Christmas

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I love Christmas. I love the trees, the lights (though I am looking for lights not made in a sweat shop), the smell of pine, the cookies and the silly movies. I love spending time with family, and I love singing Christmas songs. (O Holy Night is my favorite). What I don’t like is the gift giving.

The American habit of giving too much, particularly to children, is profane. Many do use the excuse of Christmas to buy the things people need – clothes, a replacement item, or a needed tool. I can handle that. Even giving one special gift is welcome and can have great meaning. But for the most part Christmas is consumerism at its worst. I get a bit nauseous Christmas morning when I see children – even children I love and am related to – going from one gift to another with little consideration for any of it, or worse, thinking that they are entitled to such abundance.

In years past, I asked my family for gifts that I could distribute. One year it was trial size deodorant that was particularly needed in the homeless shelter I volunteered at. Thankfully, and to my great delight, my family accommodated this request. Truly I was over the moon about it and felt like I had been given the world.

That is was Christmas should be about: giving gifts that are passed on or shared with others. After all, the entire reason we celebrate is to acknowledge the coming of God as Man in order to reestablish a broken relationship. Shouldn’t that be what we give each year, an opportunity to heal broken relationships?

Whether the gift is tangible, like deodorant, or something more personal like time spent over a meal with a new friend, we should aim to give far more than we receive. A family that is consciously planning to give to others is a far more joyous thing than children rifling through unwanted presents.

This year, I’m trying to think of a way to draw my family into the spirit of giving to others. How can we work together to share our abundance? I don’t have many answers yet, especially since Christmas won’t be spent in my neighborhood where I know how to naturally engage in community. However, I am committed to changing the focus this year, not just for me but for all of us. I don’t expect the change to happen in a moment, but little by little, year after year, I hope to change the focus from consuming to relating and sharing.

How will you change your Christmas?

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For ideas on making a strategic change, visit Advent Conspiracy.

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Pruning the Good

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At the end of each growing season, the vinedresser prunes the branches that were most productive during the season. Rather than have them sap the energy from next season’s fruit by growing the branch, they will cut the branch back drastically. Even though it has been highly productive, perhaps even because it was highly productive, it will be pruned. When the new growing season starts all the energy stored up in the vine is able to find its way to the new fruit rather than the old branch.

When I read this I had an “ah-ha” moment. Finally something made a bit of sense about the last year and a half. You see, while I wasn’t altogether surprised by my move to Chicago, it wasn’t one I was quite ready for. I felt like I still had so much more to do where I was. Not only that but I had people around me that I was able pour into and who poured into me. I had family, impact, and many plans.

Yet God very clearly moved me to the city. I’ve loved living here, don’t get me wrong. As I’ve often mentioned, Chicago is the first place that I’ve truly felt at home. Granted most of that had to do with my internal peace and healing, but still there is something about this city that makes me come alive. The people, the food, the energy, the lake, the opportunities, the diversity, the brokenness, the beauty that arises even out of the worst situations are all things I’ve found in Chicago. This is where I know I’m suppose to be.

Still I feel like my right arm has been cut off. Outside of a small group of people, I’m not involved in the lives of others as I once was. I no longer do life with people who I could call up at a moments notice, who worked side by side with me in my neighborhood, who I was able to disciple and pour into, who discipled and poured into me. For the first year, I attributed it to moving, getting established in my new work and world, and the reality of proximity. But I think there is something more at work. I have a sense that in this second year, there is something that will come out of the pruning of the good.

Rather than bemoan the fact that I’m no longer tightly connected to the people I love so much, I need to see what is right here. Who and what is God raising up in my life right now? What is God about in this moment? If I focus on then and there, here and now will be lost, as will what is to come. I either trust God and let him prune where he sees fit, or I don’t trust him at all. There is no other choice.

God prunes the good for a good reason. Prune away, Master Vinedresser, prune away!

Retreat

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This October is a retreat month. I’m not retreating from life, but retreating to recapture and redefine life. Yet these retreats have been hit or miss, sporadic and unconventional. I started the month praying, “God, what would you have me know or experience by the end of the month?” The only response that came to mind was a prayer to remember who I am, God’s daughter.

Two weeks into the month I disappeared for 24 hours. I had hoped it would be 48 hours hidden away among the prairie grasses, talking trees, and babbling brook. But it was just 24 hours that allowed me to reconnect with the stars and my art. I even got a glorious fire. Surely that escape provided the answer to my question, “God, what would you have me know or experience by the end of the month?” Sadly, no, it did not answer my question. Just the gentle prayer, “Help me remember who I am, your daughter.” And a word to meditate on, “Courage.”

And now the last week of the month is here. Once again I have taken time to retreat from the noise, as least as best I can. I have absented myself from Facebook for the week. Well, mostly. A shooting outside my office on Monday was detailed, and articles that I find worthwhile have been shared. Yet I have restrained from checking and filling the void with the noise of Facebook posts. Rather than looking outside myself, I am forced to look inside. It’s what I wanted, what I’ve longed for all month, but now that I’m looking I find the inside is a little cluttered.

The clutter is my old habits of thought and emotion. I find myself tripping over things that no longer have any use or validity. Whether or not I actively purged them from my life previously or not, I’m now seeing them as something unfitting for my life. The house has changed, the layout is different, yet the same old custom pieces from the old place are here. They don’t fit. They stick out, disrupt the flow of space, and simply look wrong in this new setting. Other pieces have been moved in to fill the gaps, but now the old pieces are ill-suited. They must go.

I’m not a big fan of clutter. This might surprise you if you saw the paper on my desk – at work and at home – or the piles of books that line my bedside, yet those have purpose and flow. Some times the piles are bigger, some times they are non-existent. It is “stuff” that I am constantly purging. If I don’t use it, need it, or love it, I lose it. It is now time to lose some soul furniture that I no longer use, need or love.

It is time to immerse myself in the new world of belonging, engagement and kinship. I need to deepen my understanding and experience of what it means to be God’s daughter. I need to learn a new language of inclusion (of myself) and embracing. I need to know what it means to have the courage required to move beyond “just” healing and reconciliation and into growth, expansion and joy.

Adjusting

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This last week the supervisory staff of The Salvation Army Family & Community Services met for two days to flesh out the goals in our strategic plan. The issue of change was the theme: how we engage change as individuals and how we, as an agency, were moving into change. We came away with a unified, collaborative plan to move the work forward over the next year or two. It was exhausting but well worth the time away from the office.

This Saturday morning as I sit in the silence I begin to think about the season that I am in. As a backdrop to the retreat we used the verses from Ecclesiastes on change: “for everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven.” Those words resound in my heart today as a harbinger of my new reality. As one for whom change is a way of life, I’m not exactly scared but I am curious.

When I fell the other week, I felt alone and broken. My weakness was not something that I enjoyed in any way, shape or form. Yet even in the midst of that pain and weakness, I realized my initial reaction of being alone was brought on by habit rather than reality. In the past I had been alone, for so many reasons. But that is no longer the case. Yes, I live alone and am not really a fan, but I have people who are present and active in my life. I am known and accepted. I am loved and wanted. These are all new realities for me. I am in a new time of life that for all its awesome beauty is a bit of a transition for me. I can no longer define life in the same manner as before. I need a new vocabulary.

I am having to navigate my way into what so many people consider normal, yet for me is as foreign as the land of Oz. The color is heightened; the companionship is unusual and unexpected but welcome; and the adventures are thrilling yet terrifying. Like the Tin Man, Scarecrow, or Lion I am having a hard time embracing what has been mine all along. Yet I am. I am embracing this belonging, even as my head spins.

There is a time for everything. Now is the time to belong, to embrace, to be known and to know.

This could take some adjusting.

Pain & Weakness

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After a fall, sometimes all you can do is pick yourself up and keep going. Sometimes you need to dismiss the pain, take a deep breath, and put one foot in front of the other. Sometimes you need to show more courage than you feel in order to keep going. And sometimes you need to let your pain show and your weakness be exposed.

Today I fell. Unable to mask the pain because my neck and shoulder issues are too serious, I was able to disguise enough of the pain to continue with my meeting and then to have dinner afterward. At first I just wanted to go home, because I knew how bad that fall really was to my body. Pain was shooting down my back and not just through my shoulder, though that was bad enough. I knew, however, that as soon as I got home I’d break down, and I did not want to do that. I didn’t want to spend the evening in pain and broken. So I shaved off an hour, distracted myself with good food and company, and ignored the pain and shakes.

As an adult, we rarely have the luxury to be sick or hurt. Work, responsibilities and life wait for nothing or no one. Yet sometimes brokenness happens. In this case, it was physical. In other cases, it is far more complex. For me, this particular physical brokenness highlighted how much I absolutely hate being weak.

For decades I treated personal weakness as the greatest sin imaginable. Others could be weak, but I could not be. If I was weak (which of course I was) then I would deal with it in private, not letting anyone know. Clearly that was a recipe of disaster.

I’ve learned how to embrace my weakness, in all its forms. I’ve learned that my weakness is what will keep me approachable, humble, and connected to others. Yet it is not easy. I don’t do weak well nor easily. My tolerance for pain is quite high. My ability to ignore an ache has been cultivated over many years. Still weakness is not something that sits easily with me.

But tonight I am weak. The pain has eased, but it was greater than I let on. Now I’m simply tired of keeping it at bay. Tonight I let my pain out, so that in the morning I can start anew.

Who I Am, Your Daughter

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Last night, on October 1, I spent the evening praying about what I wanted this October to be like, what I wanted to see happen in my life by the end of the month. I didn’t really get any answers, but I did have a distinct prayer: Father, help me remember who I am, your daughter.

Such a simple prayer, to remember who I am. I’ve spent so much time discovering that person that you’d think it would be instinctual. Yet today, on October 2, I found myself physically and emotionally tired. It wasn’t a tiring day. I was tired. Worn out. Bushed. Wiped. Yet I woke this morning with that same prayer on my lips. “Father, help me remember who I am, your daughter.”

So was there something I forgot? Was my tiredness a reflection of my relationship with God? Did I somehow forget in a few short hours who I was? Hardly!

The fact is I am God’s HUMAN daughter, with human pain and human needs. It doesn’t make me any less his daughter that I’m physically tired. Who wouldn’t be tired with a shoulder that continues to ache and a disrupted sleep because of that shoulder? Who wouldn’t be tired when a new doctor shoves a two inch long needle in one’s shoulder in an attempt to alleviate the pain? (It didn’t by the way). Of course I was physically tired.

Emotionally I’m tired because it is fall. I see “tired” as a vast improvement from other years when fall was a four letter “F” word. Even while I am enjoying this fall with the crisp mornings, sunny afternoons, blowing winds, and falling leaves; even while my mind and eyes are enjoying this time of year, my body and emotions remember the events of the past. Will the events of the past ruin my fall, making it yet again a four-letter “F” word? No, I don’t think so. Life is different, and I am different. Yet still the truth of the past and all that I lost are felt. And I’m okay with that.

I’m okay with my past and my pain. I’m okay that I am not the same person I was, and yet I am more me than ever before in my life. I am okay that today I was tired, that all I wanted at the end of the day was a good, long hug. Because even while I was tired, I remembered – just as I asked of God – who I am. I am God’s daughter. With all the rights, responsibilities, obligations, authority, humility and power that comes with that. I am God’s daughter, and that can’t be taken away no matter how tired I am.

So I am grateful that I remembered who I was at the end of this tired day. It was the spiritual hug that I needed when a physical hug was not possible. I am grateful that God answered my prayer: Father, help me remember who I am, your daughter.

Embracing the Love

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“Love takes courage, and anyone who says differently is an a**hole!” the old man told his soon to be born grandsons. This line from the play Smokefall rings through my mind not just because it is hilarious (even if you don’t like the language) but because it is oh so true.

The play at the Goodman Theater involves many themes of love, of family, of heartbreak, of predestination, and of transformation. If you have the opportunity to see it, you should. It will have you thinking (and laughing) for days.

What stood out to me is how the play reflected the complexity of life. In one’s twenty’s life is still mostly simple. Life has such hope and such ambition. This all lasts until the first child or first death or first heartbreak, then life becomes inordinately complex. However, it is a shame to disillusion the young with the vagaries of the adult world. It is cruel to take that simple dream from them. Yet it is also cruel not to give them the tools to triumph over the complexities of life when they come.

“LOVE TAKES COURAGE!” the old man yelled. Yes, to love after heart-break, after death, after pain takes great courage. To reveal our hearts to others whether in friendship or romance takes great courage. Sometimes more courage than we think we have.

I wrote last week about embracing the pain. Yet it is absolutely impossible to embrace the pain of our lives, whether physical or spiritual or emotional, if we cannot embrace the love as well. Masochism is not the answer. If we only embrace our pain, as some do, we become nihilists who bemoan all of existence and make life miserable for anyone around us. I’ve actually met someone like this, and it takes great fortitude to maintain any kind of relationship. In fact, I couldn’t do it because I did not have the support system in place to help me bear the torrent of bitterness. I embrace my pain but not at the expense of foregoing love.

Having experienced pain, loss, betrayal and grief makes it harder to embrace love (in all its forms), yet once we do, it makes it so much sweeter. Just as adding salt to a recipe highlights the sweetness of the ingredients, so does pain or grief make all worthy relationships that much more special. Friendships mean more. Relationships have depth and purpose. It is far harder to take people for granted. I know I can’t.

Yet love takes courage.

It takes courage to speak the truth. It takes courage to offer ourselves when the potential for rejection exists. It takes courage to love without strings and without expectation. It takes courage to embrace our pain even as we embrace our love.

Ecclesiastes talks about the meaninglessness of life. I believe Solomon was weighed down by the overwhelming power this world has to bring us to our knees. The pain of this world has an ability to take us to the breaking point. Yet even Solomon understood that in the midst of toil and strife it is critical to have someone by your side, someone you are toiling for, someone to uphold you in your hard times. It is even better to have two by your side.

So despite how hard this life is, how much pain we must endure, how much grief we bear, it IS possible to bear it. It IS possible to not just survive but to thrive. We do that by simultaneously remembering our pain and by choosing daily to embrace love.

“Love takes courage, and anyone who says differently is an a**hole!”

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Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,

    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls

    and has no one to help them up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.

    But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,

    two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.