Friday, December 28, 2012

Let's remember the stable

Jesus was born in a lowly stable, not in the finest hotel

As I was sitting on my comfy couch yesterday afternoon, my thoughts were aswirl of what needs done before Christmas. My list was out and I was checking and adding things like a banshee. I have presents yet to buy, cookies to bake for two separate events, and a grocery list that is a mile long. I promised myself I wouldn’t get lost in the crowd of Christmas this year and instead of jogging on the fringes of it I almost lost myself in the middle of it. My kids wrote out their Christmas lists, as they do every year, in detail. Their lists are things they would love to have, but which my husband and I peruse and pick at will. Not everything can or ever will be bought – don’t we all have a list in the back of our minds of things we always wanted? Still, for some reason their lists started to blend together and make me go cross-eyed and unable to focus. What am I doing this year to be different? Or a better question, what am I doing to MAKE a difference.

My thoughts drifted to my friend who lives in Hartville – my very best friend. You know the kind? Where you don’t see each other for months and when you do it’s just like you have never been apart? I met her in San Antonio, Texas when I was serving a VS term back in 1988. We looked at each other and said, “Hey, there you are BFF!” She introduced me to my husband, so even if she wasn’t my best friend she would be special in my life. She is one tough cookie, and several years ago she decided that Christmas wasn’t all about the presents. She made plans, crazy plans, and on Christmas morning she loaded her vehicle with roasters of sausage gravy and biscuits, headed to downtown Akron and Canton, and fed all the homeless people that came out of the woodwork. Her family went with her and since then it’s become a tradition. She doesn’t just do it at Christmastime though - she goes sporadically throughout the year and shows up where they live, always with food, sometimes with clothing, and always with a heart full of compassion and love. She has gotten kicked out of places, yelled at, been put in scary situations but she keeps on going. She is my hero. 

What are we doing to spread God’s love and the message of Christmas? Talking about it in church on the safety of our benches? Do we send out care packages to a place in another state, then sit back and feel like we’ve done our part? Are we sitting on our comfy couches wondering what we are doing and what’s important about Christmas? I know I have been. I don’t know if I have the guts, like she does, to change it. I think about our Christmas traditions and I grow selfish and mean – kind of like the Grinch’s heart? I want to keep my traditions the same because they are revered in my heart. Why then, do I feel a small pinch when I realize that Christmas is only a few short days away and what have I done to make an impact – ANY impact? We may scrape and save to purchase presents for our kids, and those kids will love what we get them. They are not selfish kids, but they are warm and clothed, well-fed and well-loved. They have seen the other side of poverty, having visited and stayed on the mean streets of Mexico - it’s ingrained in their brains. But we have so much poverty here in the U.S. that’s ignored on a regular basis. We have kids that go to school hungry and sad, their bellies crying for even a crust of toast that my kids would throw away without a thought. There will be families that are cold on the streets and that will welcome a hot meal of sausage gravy and biscuits from a fierce and brave soul that obeyed God when she heard him talk to her heart. 

These people live in our backyards, in our towns, just out of view of us “regular” folk. We talk about them with disdain, bitterness, and fear in our hearts. Why can’t they just get a job and quit being a nuisance? I know when I’m out and about shopping and marking things off my list, grabbing that expensively-priced coffee with the sound of jingle bells in my head, that those less fortunate are far from my thoughts. I throw a few coins in the red metal tin and keep walking to my car. But the words of John Lennon linger in my head: So this is Christmas and what have you done? Jesus wasn’t born in a manger full of clean straw and water – he was born in a dirty stable full of animals. He was born into the lowest place there could be. We forget this. I forget this. We set up our nativity scenes of a clean-looking lovely stable where a clean baby Jesus lies. Mary and Joseph’s robes are spotless as are the robes of the shepherds who view him from just outside the door. As I set up my nativity this year, a cherished tradition, I noticed the faces of my figurines and how pale they were. I’m sure that Mary was not a blonde with fair skin and that baby Jesus didn’t have light brown hair as well. Has “our” version of Christmas become so traditional and the same that we can’t see past it? 

My thoughts are conflicted this dark morning as my warm cup of coffee steams before me. My Facebook feed streams with people that are telling me what they are thankful for – as I, too, am thankful for what God has blessed me with. But I want to remember as well that dirty, cold stable that Jesus was born into. I don’t want to stray so far and be so comfortable that I forget and begin to fear those that don’t have what I do – or look at them from the very tip of my nose. I’m not better. Every day, there is a mom or dad that is struggling to find a place to keep their kids warm for the night. They don’t want to be in the situation they are in, and it’s not as easy as telling them to get off their “lazy bottoms and go to work” – whoever said being less fortunate makes you lazy? We need to change our words of disdain and anger and turn them into words that heal. Jesus wasn’t born into a beautiful mansion fit for a king – he was born into a filthy stable for a reason – to remind me and you of the least of us.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A few quotes that move me.

helping others

Christmas is here. The lights are softly glowing in my home, inside and out, and sharing the glow of the tree is the best thing there is. I'm convicted this time of year, always, about what I haven't done. Have I made a difference in someone's life? Have I complained too much this year? Have I been hateful and full of bitterness? These quotes speak to me, and I wanted to share them with you:

“You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.”  ~ John Bunyan

“We only have what we give.”  ~ Isabelle Allende

“No one has ever become poor by giving.” ~ Anne Frank

“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.”  ~ Charles Dickens

“I don't want to live in the kind of world where we don't look out for each other. Not just the people that are close to us, but anybody who needs a helping hand. I cant change the way anybody else thinks, or what they choose to do, but I can do my bit.” ~ Charles de Lint

“Love is not patronizing and charity isn't about pity, it is about love. Charity and love are the same -- with charity you give love, so don't just give money but reach out your hand instead.”  ~ Mother Teresa

“Give, but give until it hurts.” ~ Mother Teresa

“Sometimes those who give the most are the ones with the least to spare.”  ~ Mike McIntyre

Friday, December 7, 2012

The "real" Christmas tree debate

It’s 5:30 A.M. and I’m sitting here quietly surveying my household. A cup of java is steaming in my hand and I can see the fog is heavy outside this morning. Christmas paraphernalia is spread out all over my table and the lights of our tree are visible in the living room after being darkened for the night. I feel cheery and warm this drizzly morning.
We are “real” tree people. I grew up in a household that always had a fresh pine tree to decorate. The smell would permeate the house as the fiasco with the bottom branches was evened out, and the tree was finally nestled into its home in the metal base. Décor from homemade crafts, school projects, and vintage balls were hung with care on intertwining branches and a star found its home at the top of the tree. I carried that tradition into my marriage and every year of our twenty-three married Christmases together have seen a real pine tree ensconced in our living room. In the end, it may not be the cheapest way to go. Artificial trees are by and far worth their money over and over. Spend $100 on a nice one and it will last you many, many years. But for me, sacrificing the ambiance of a real tree and the adventure we always have picking one out is not worth it to me.  I will gladly spend that $30-$40 every year.
In the early days I used to buy a tree in whatever grocery store was selling them. I remember buying them from the small mom & pop store in Walnut Creek when we lived there. Scraggly scotch pines filled our living room and I felt we had it all with those first trees filled with hand me down ornaments and vintage ones I had collected and bought from thrift stores. That was back when you could still buy a beautiful vintage Christmas ball from Save & Serve for ten whole cents. Prices have gone up a bit, but I still hold on to the collection I amassed all those years ago. Our babies, in succession, have laid in front of our trees – their eyes full of wonder at the lights and spectacle of Christmas that overtakes the house. Somewhere along the line, probably when the kids got older, we headed down to New Phila to a small Christmas tree lot that looked like it was straight out of a movie. Row after row of trees stood under strewn lights, Christmas music playing, and we walked each row until we found the perfect one. The kids would dodge in and out of the tree rows and shout to each other about this tree and that one. Finally, we would hoist it on top of our vehicle, strap it down, and head home to put it up.
I’m not sure what made me want to do something different this year. We have never been to a tree farm to pick one out, but I posed the question to my Facebook friends where the best place to get one was and overwhelmingly one place was mentioned:  Fencerow Farms just south of New Bedford. Now, I’ve lived here my entire life and I’ve never heard of Fencerow Farms. After being told and hearing people rave about how quaint and awesome it was we decided to meander down that way on a rainy Sunday. We headed out and turned right on SR 557 and immediately I realized that all those chipped signs saying “Christmas Trees” were the path that was leading us. As we drove farther, turned south in Charm and headed back that curvy road, the Christmas songs were blaring on the radio and I could feel the mood in the car change. Every care or trouble we had seemed to drift away as we got closer and closer. Finally, a sign came into view – nothing fancy, no lights or anything – pointing the way down, down a hilly narrow drive. We saw a farm with an outbuilding warm with lights and smoke curling up and away from the chimney. We parked and got out and row after row of perfect Christmas trees spiraled away into a field as we stared in wonder. It was too late to actually cut one of our own so we chose one already cut. We even went home with a $6 Charlie Brown tree for my daughter’s boyfriend who doesn’t usually have a real tree – she said it was time to change that. The small little shop held antiques and trees with ornaments to buy. A big wood stove put off heat and we sat by its warmth and sipped cocoa as the kids ran through the shop like they were small again. There was magic in the air that night, and as we drove away they said that this was the coolest place they’d ever been to get a tree.
Our beautiful tree is now glowing softly in the place of honor in our living room.  Its verdant green branches are hung with orbs of white and balls of sparkly color. The smell of pine and sap fills the house and it finally feels like Christmas with our “real” tree in place. Maybe someday, when I’m old and gray, I’ll give in and buy an artificial tree. Chances are, though, that I’ll be dragging my grandkids out to help me pick out a real one – because without the smell of pine, softly dropping needles, and watering the tree every other day – it wouldn’t really seem like Christmas. It’s the best money you’ll ever spend.