Are you ready for Christmas?

People say to me, “Are you ready for Christmas?” and I wonder what they mean. This is a very stripped down Christmas this year. Cards are sent. Watching A Christmas Carol. Tree is finally up (no decorations). Gifts have been given (handmade). Less is more, I’m learning.

Jim Carrey says “No holiday should manipulate you to the point where you’re going into debt just to show someone you love them.”

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Christmas books for children

These are all very good picture books for children that are about Christmas. I will add to this list as I find more.

Babushka by Sandra Ann Horn
The Little Drummer Boy by Ezra Jack Keats
A song in Bethlehem by Marni McGee
Why Christmas trees aren’t perfect by Richard H. Schneider
Eloise at Christmastime by Kay Thompson

Specifically featuring the Magi –

The Stone: a Persian Legend of the Magi by Dianne Hofmeyr
The Fourth King: The story of the other wise man by Ted Sieger
The Fourth Wise Man (retold by Susan Summers, based on the story by Henry Van Dyke)
Small Camel Follows the Star by Rachel W.N. Brown

Everything starts in darkness – a Christmas observation

Here’s Mary. She’s been told that she is going to bring forth the Messiah, the Savior, the King. This has been promised to her by an angel.

But things aren’t looking so good.

Her fiancé almost left her when he found out she was pregnant. Perhaps her family and friends actually did leave her – we hear nothing about them, and she and Joseph were alone when it came time to give birth. Far away from home, with no support system, no help. Stuck in a barn – no place for anybody to be, much less a place to give birth. Much less a place to give birth to a King.

How must that all have seemed to Mary? She had to start doubting everything. Maybe it was all a dream? Maybe she was going crazy?

Maybe she started talking to God, maybe a little less reverently than you’d expect. “Yeah, right, God! Sure, you promised that this special thing was going to happen, but what about this? What about right now? It doesn’t look so good, God. In fact, it looks pretty bad.”

But here’s something interesting to consider. In Judaism, everything starts in darkness. The day starts the night before – it runs from sunset to sunset – not sunrise to sunset. The month starts at the new moon – when it is darkest. When you can’t see anything.

This is God’s way.

Anything good starts when it seems like things are at their worst. The lowest point is the beginning.

Remember “It is always darkest before the dawn”, and “It can only get better”? That. A thousand times that.

When things seem to be at their darkest, that is when God is working the hardest, bringing forth the Light.

“Silent Night” with candles.

I love the experience of singing “Silent Night” in the darkness. Every person has a candle that is unlit at the beginning. By the end of the song the whole room is lit up.

There is something magical and amazing about the symbolism of sharing candlelight. A couple of people light their candles from the Christ Candle – the center of the Advent wreath. They share the light with a few others nearby. Then they share with others next to them. The light spreads out exponentially. Within a short time, everybody’s candle is lit, all from the light from one candle, and the effort of one person at a time sharing with another person.

This is how faith works. A few people get lit up by the light of God, and they share it with others. It is shared by personal experience and testimony. It is shared person to person. This is part of what we mean when we say that we believe in an apostolic faith. We mean to say that we got it from someone who got it from someone who got it (and on and on) from an apostle, who got it from Jesus.

There is also something magical about watching the light spread in someone’s face when their candle lights. They are in darkness, and then the light gets to them and their candle flame is low at first, and then gets stronger. As it picks up strength, the light blooms in her face. This too is what faith is like.

Share the Light, my friends.

Christmas Eve, 2013

I’ve forgotten what it is like to get my husband out the door to go to church. Is this what it is like to have children?

It has been six months since we last went to church. I’d figured he’d have time to work some of this out. I’ll find other church services and he says they are either too early or too far away or in a bad part of town. Or the place is too big – he’ll feel lost. The place is too small – we’ll stick out.

He says he wants to go to church, but when it comes to actually going to church he drags his feet.

I’m starting to understand why so many people who go to church are married women without their spouses.

It is embarrassing to me to go to church alone. We aren’t supposed to be “unequally yoked” after all. We are supposed to be on the same page. But the more excuses he comes up with and the more he drags his feet, the more I think I need to choose. Him, or God.

It isn’t fair. I use that phrase a lot. I’m tired of being the brave one and trying out new things. I don’t mean divorce. I mean going to church by myself.

I need church. I need community. I need order. Otherwise I drift away. Without making a regular time for God, I start to do my own thing and I’ve learned that my own thing isn’t that great.

I want to go with my husband. I want him to be excited about church. When I left our old church I told him that he could continue to go, and he hasn’t. He stays up late Saturday night and gets up late on Sunday morning.

I don’t think he knows what he wants.

We’d talked about going to church on Christmas Eve. It wasn’t a regular Sunday. It was special. Many people, if they attend church irregularly, will go on Christmas and Easter. It was important to me to do at least this.

I’d found a local church that met in a middle school gym. It seemed OK. Methodist – so it wasn’t Episcopal. I feel like I’ve burned my bridges with the Episcopal Church. Because it didn’t have a building yet, it met some of my requirements for church. I’m wary of churches that spend all their money on a building. Sure, they have a minister, so there is that, but the further away I get from the “normal” church service, the less likely I’m going to be able to get him to go with me.

Mid afternoon on Christmas Eve, I was preparing to go, and he wasn’t. I couldn’t believe that he wasn’t going to go. My whole Christmas plan started to crumble. I didn’t expect him to blow this off. He hadn’t said that he wasn’t going. I’d sent him email reminders. I’d told him about it. It wasn’t a last minute thing. It wasn’t a surprise. Christmas Eve is a given. Just like tax day, you know when it is going to happen.

He saw that this was important to me and he dropped everything and raced around, getting ready. It was a big ordeal. He was running late and a bit crazy. He doesn’t do well with last minute plan changes – even though it wasn’t. I started to wonder what was going on in his head. I started to notice the time ticking by and thinking that maybe I should just go on my own. I’d rather be alone and on time than with him and late, as usual. I’m really getting tired of being late.

Finally we left for the service. It was a quiet drive. And when I say quiet, I don’t mean peaceful. I mean that stony silence two people employ when they realize that whatever they say might cause a fight and a fight is the last thing they want.

Sometimes silence is golden. Sometimes silence is deadly.

We got there and I lost it. We were sitting in the car, in the cold, in the parking lot for the middle school which just happens to be the space for the church.

I sat there and I cried. I cried about loss. I feel like a person who got fired from her job of 20 years. I wasn’t at St. Philip’s for that long, but I was in the Episcopal Church for that long. I put a lot of effort into it for the last three years. I was an acolyte. I was a chalice bearer (you have to be licensed by the Bishop to do that). I trained the chalice bearers. I made the schedule. I trained the lectors. I took Communion to home bound members. I was training to be a deacon.

I was there every week, and one way or another I was serving every week.

I was starting a career with the church, and it was all over in a flash. I had the audacity to wonder out loud if we were doing church according to the way that Jesus meant, and I was stripped of my responsibilities. The priest got really angry at me. A story was invented as a cover. I don’t think anybody cared. A handful of people seemed to have noticed. I think that hurt the most.

All that time and all that work and it was as if nothing happened.

So I feel like someone who was laid off. I’ve been unemployed by church. I’ve gotten bit jobs here and there. (I’ve found alternative “church” experiences) It hasn’t paid the bills. (It hasn’t filled me up.) So now I’m searching for a new job/church and it is scary. I’m searching outside of my field, outside of my experience. (I’ve left the Episcopal Church and possibly church as we know it.)

And I’m scared and exhausted and tired.

I thought about just turning around and going back home. My face was a mess from crying. I wouldn’t know anybody. It will be weird. Church in a gym? How strange is that? Where’s the script? What do I do?

We were there already. I’d feel really bad if we skipped this. It wasn’t what I was used to but it was something. I steeled up my courage, cleaned off my face, and went in.

One advantage is that almost nobody knows me there. So a teary face wouldn’t be a big deal. And church is a place for the hurting. It is a hospital for the soul.

We sat in the bleachers. It was full! Our old church would have dreamed of having that many people for a service. And there was going to be two services.

The service was pleasant. The pastor was funny and kind. He didn’t read from a script. There was Communion, and the words were familiar even though the execution of it wasn’t. I’m not used to Communion with real bread and grape juice, but beggars can’t be choosers you know.

At the end we all sang Silent Night in darkness and lit candles one by one, just like how I like. That never happened in the old church because the head of the altar guild hated dealing with real wax. Fake candles lit by batteries just don’t cut it, in my opinion. But then she is a control freak.

After the service we went to a friend’s house and had a simple supper of chili and cheese and watched a quietly wrong Christmas movie (Rare Exports). They aren’t Christian, but they wanted to share a bit of Christmas with us. It was a pleasant time.

On the way back we were driving by a Catholic Church and saw someone pulling into the lot. Midnight mass, anyone? Scott, raised Catholic, suggested it. I am used to midnight mass starting at 10:30 and ending at midnight, so since it was 11:45 pm I thought we had missed it. Nope. I checked their website using my phone and their service started at midnight. We debated it. It was last minute. We weren’t members. I am not Catholic. It was very late.

Oh. Why not? So we did a U turn and went. The place was packed. We found a seat towards the back. Nobody stopped is and asked if we were members, or even if we were Catholic.

We played along. There is no “Book of Common prayer” like there is in the Episcopal Church. They kind of expect you to know what you are doing. I think this is how they weed out fakers like us. There is a booklet in the pew, but it is hard to understand and it doesn’t have all the bits in it. Fortunately there have been some wording changes to the service so some of it is printed on a handy laminated card. Even the priest was referring to it. If the priest can, we can. We won’t stick out.

Then it came time for Communion. This church is arranged in a semi circle around the altar, so I was interested in watching how the flow of people went. I watched and figured it out and then it was time. Up we went, and the people in the pew next to us stepped aside – they weren’t participating. I was tempted to tell them how to fake being Catholic but then that would out me.

They hadn’t said anything about Communion at the beginning. Not who could, who couldn’t. It is written inside the front page of the booklet in the pew, but they hadn’t even referred to that. I went on the “don’t ask don’t tell” idea, just like when I was in college.

As I was walking up I was really excited. I was glad to take Communion earlier in the gym, but this felt more real to me. Plus, there was the added fear of being caught.

I’ve taken Communion in a Catholic Church before, for many years. I had a friend who swapped out churches with me every other week. One week we’d go to mine, one week to hers. We stopped going when she admitted that she thought I shouldn’t take Communion in her church because I wasn’t Catholic. We stopped being friends then too.

I was in line before Scott, and I put out my hands together, palms up, right over left. The lay minister held up this cube of bread and said the words “the body of Christ, the bread of heaven” and put the cube in my hands. I looked at it. So weird. Dense. Not a wafer at all. An actual chunk of bread. Thick and dark and perfectly cut. It was the size of a die.

I popped it in my mouth and walked towards the chalice bearer. She looked a little foreboding. I thought I wasn’t clear yet. Maybe I was still going to get busted. Plus, I was still dealing with the odd texture of the bread.

Some churches ask you to dip (instinct) the bread/wafer, and some are OK if you sip from the chalice. I saw everybody sip and that is what I prefer. I got to her and looked in the chalice. Red wine. Good choice. Some use white because it is easier on the altar guild if there is a spill. But white ruins the symbolism. This was a paler red. Maybe it was watered down? The lights caught the hammered gold on the chalice. It was quite beautiful and it was all I wanted.

I don’t miss church. I do miss Communion.

In that moment I was allowed to commune. I passed. I faked it.

And in reality, I shouldn’t have to fake it. Jesus didn’t make any such rules. I’ve already written about it and I doubt there will be any change. But you never know. This Francis is a pretty progressive pope.

When it was all over we went out and greeted the priest. I hugged him and wished him a merry Christmas.

I think it has to be hard to be an unmarried priest. To have to work on Christmas and then have to go home to an empty house sounds very sad. Again, this is not a rule Jesus made up. He didn’t even want people to be ordained. We are all ministers.

So we had Christmas, even though it wasn’t what we were used to. Mary and Joseph didn’t expect to become parents like they did either. Alone, in a barn, away from home and help, they welcomed Jesus into the world and into their lives. I think this is what Christmas is about. It isn’t about what we expect, but what we allow. It is about being open to whatever God wants us to experience. God knows what we need far better than what we do. Our job is just to get out of the way and let it happen.

God bless us, every one.

“Home for the Holidays”?

I woke this morning to the sounds of “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” playing on the radio. That has been my dilemma for a while now. What is home? Where is it? Is it a place, or a feeling?

For many people, “home” means where their family is. My parents died almost twenty years ago, and the rest of my family isn’t kind. I tried spending Christmas with my aunt for a while and that just didn’t work out. I was always the “Tennessee cousin” – always in the way, always left out. I felt like I was crashing a party. There were a few members of the family who made space for me and seemed to understand who I am, and for them I am grateful. But it wasn’t enough to make it worth the drive, and the constant travelling to visit every other member of that extended family on that day was overwhelming to me.

Now that I’m married, “home” could mean my parent’s in law. I’ve faked it for years, but it just isn’t what I need. They mean well, but it isn’t quite the gathering that makes me feel the peace that I associate with the birth of Christ.

This past month it has been extra awkward, and if you’ve been following along you’ll know what I’m talking about. Just thinking about going over there is bringing back that old feeling that I’d almost forgotten – dread. I thought that my hernia was acting up – but no, that’s the feeling I get in my stomach when I am very anxious about something. It is a sharp, scary pain. It is the kind of pain that curls me over into a fetal position. It is the kind of pain that stops me in my tracks. The last time I had it was in my first year of college. I was away from home, in a dorm room, no friends, no car, no idea what I was doing.

That was about as un- “home” as possible.

If “home is where the heart is” then if there is no heart, no love, no peace, then that feeling crops up.

I’ve been meditating on this day for a month, after the whole Thanksgiving fracas. I talked to my spiritual director about this, and her take on it is that maybe God put me into this family to bring healing. Maybe I’m the Christ-bearer – that I need to bring Jesus into the situation. This doesn’t mean to preach to them. It means to be like Jesus. Calming. Peaceful. Compassionate. Loving.

The line from the 23rd Psalm has started coming to mind in the past few days. “You prepare a table for me in the midst of my enemies.”

This is not a vision of “home” that is particularly appealing. “Home” and “enemy” should not be in the same sentence. For many of us, it is. For many of us, “home” isn’t a place to run to, it is a place to run from. For many of us, at the holidays we remember why we left home in the first place.

So what is “home”? Home to me is where I can be myself. Home is where my husband is. It is where I can spend all day in my jammies, making jewelry or reading, stretched out on the couch in the sunlight. Maybe a nap will be involved. Maybe a walk around the block. Home is peaceful, and quiet, and calm. Home isn’t full of sound and noise and people. It certainly isn’t full of drama.

I’ve been doing the math on Christmas this year and trying to figure out what I can handle if I go over to my in-law’s house. Go, but leave early? How early is too early? Don’t talk about certain topics? Put on a brave face? Don’t talk to a certain family member who always likes to argue, especially about faith?

I really can’t handle being around someone who speaks ill of my faith on my holiday.

I can handle it any other time. I understand. I have a lot of the same issues with Christianity. I dislike the hypocrisy. I dislike the fact that the church has become something other, something where I can’t see Jesus for all the administration and bureaucracy. Sometimes “church” is more “crazy” than Christ-like. But on Christian holidays I really can’t take the criticism.

It is like I’ve invited someone over to my house, shared my special toys with them, and then they throw them down and stomp on them. It is rude. It is childish. It is thoughtless.

So, “Home for the Holidays”? I’d rather stay at home. But I’m expected to be at the in-laws. I don’t want to. I don’t want to play the dutiful wife. It was easier, way back when, when I got stoned for the holidays. Everything blurred into a nice warm glowy blob. Now that I’m sober it is all spiky and strange.

Kindergarten 12-18-13 – Holiday

The order today that I was given was J, S, and V. I chose V first because I didn’t get to work with her last week.

She is missing her front two teeth now. This seems early. Doesn’t that normally happen between first and second grade? I’ve heard that children are physically maturing sooner these days. The theory is that it has to do with all the hormones they feed cows and chickens. We eat that meat, we get those chemicals.

V was a superstar today. She was very quick at finding the letters. She wanted to work with the Insta-Learn board that we had worked with for the past month but it wasn’t in my basket today. In fact, there was nothing I recognized in my basket today. I’ve been tutoring kindergartners for three years, so it is a big deal to say there was nothing I recognized. Half the time I have to figure out the goal of the supplies in the basket. Having familiar supplies makes this easier.

There is always a goal. There is always a purpose to the different bags and boards in the basket that the teacher prepares for me. If I can figure out the goal, then I can figure out how to get there. It is kind of like writing a sestina. If you know the ending words to the poem, the poem virtually writes itself.

V did amazingly well, and I told her so. She beamed. I love seeing her smile, and I feel that she doesn’t smile that much at home. I didn’t even ask her about her Christmas plans because I’m just not ready to hear the stories she was going to tell me. She makes up stories about her home life all the time, because the reality is just too much. Or, rather, it is not enough.

If the average everyday home life is hard, Christmas is going to be impossible. I can’t help this. I can’t fix it. So I didn’t ask. I didn’t want to remind her of the train wreck that was coming in a week.

It is like when I was taking care of my Mom when she was terminally ill. I was in college and I didn’t want anybody asking me how she was doing because it meant I had to stop and be real for a bit. It meant that I had to take off my “everything’s fine” mask and show how much pain was underneath. Sometimes the kindest thing was for people to not ask and just pretend along with me that all was normal.

Interestingly, she did talk about a holiday – but it wasn’t Christmas. She was telling me about her Halloween costume. (a pumpkin) J later told me about his Halloween costume as well. (Robin, and his Dad will be Batman). So they know something’s coming, but they’ve got it mixed up. Or maybe they have it better figured out than we adults do. Christmas done with costumes and lots of candy might be a lot better.

We played with the supplies, V and I, working with letters and colors and numbers. We had a few moments of normal, and it was nice. Even I forgot about how different and potentially awkward Christmas is going to be for me this year. Somehow we created a little oasis for both of us.

We went back to the room and J caught my eye and waved his arm to work with me. Sure – why not? Now, this means I’m going to make sure I work with S first next time. They all seem to want to work longer with me this year, so I’m not getting to as many students as in the past. I feel they are trying to monopolize my time, and that isn’t fair to the others on the list. I try to redirect but there is only so much you can get a 5 year old to stay on target sometimes.

Half of my time with J was spent trying to get him to be gentle and calm. He threw the letter dice rather than rolled them. He jumbled all the letter cards and tossed them like leaves. A lot of time was wasted with him having to pick items up off the floor that he had dropped by being so exuberant. Or is it manic? He was also a bit loud, and I had to remind him that there were other tutors just down the hall. The teacher tells me he hasn’t made any friends, so I’m trying to work on the most socially off-putting behaviors as well as teaching him how to read.

Not having ever had children, I’m sometimes at a loss on how to work with them. But, I’m learning, and the biggest thing I’m learning is that each one is different. So even if I figure it out, the next student will surprise me.

Sometimes I dread going into the school to tutor. I never know what I’m going to be doing and how it is going to go. Usually I remember to pray beforehand, and that helps. It reminds me that God is always in charge, and whatever happens is whatever is meant to happen. It also reminds me that God is always with me, even when I feel lost and alone.