Crosses On The Tree

PLEASE NOTE:  TODAY’S POST IS BASED ON THE CHRISTMAS LETTER I INCLUDED WITH MY CARDS THIS YEAR.

crosses on the tree

A friend asked the significance of the crosses on my Christmas tree. After all, we’re celebrating the birth of Jesus in this season and not his death.

On the first teaching card in the Godly Play lesson titled Faces of Easter we don’t even see the face of Jesus; rather, we see the faces He sees as he looks up as a newborn. Part of the lesson says, “The baby may even see the image of the cross on the faces of Mother Mary and Father Joseph.” As the teacher says those words she gently finger-draws a cross just above the bridge of the nose on the faces of Mary and Joseph.

To me, Christmas and Easter are inextricably linked. You can’t have one without the other.

And one way they’re linked is by something as simple as a breath. Jesus took his first breath the moment he was born and his last breath when he died on the cross that Good Friday.

Unless we have a medical condition that inhibits our ability to breathe, we give virtually no thought to this autonomic body function that connects us to the universe. Go ahead right now and take a deep breath and appreciate what links you to the rest of humanity.

When we’re desperately ill, we may not be able to breathe on our own. And when we’re frightened or numb with anxiety or grief-stricken, it can seem as if we have forgotten even how to breathe.

One of my favorite Christmas songs is Breath of Heaven sung by Amy Grant. Songwriter Chris Eaton, a friend of Amy’s, originally wrote the song with different lyrics except for the chorus. Amy convinced him to let her rewrite the words to tell the Christmas story from Mary’s perspective.

Grant says the song has turned into a prayer for her. The reason it turns into a prayer is that it fits the circumstances of so many people; it is a cry for mercy. On songfacts.com she is quoted as saying: “Some nights on stage I can hardly get through the song for knowing all of the collective, unspoken pain of the lives in front of me. And so the words become my prayer for the listener…”

I think of each of you as I look at the crosses on my tree. Whatever joys fill your life, whatever heavy loads you are bearing this Christmas, my loving wish for you this season is a sense of peace with every breath you take.

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Amy Grant – Breath of Heaven

Just Like Cupcake

Today’s post is based on my 2005 Christmas letter.

In November 2004 we made the difficult decision to put down our beloved family dog of thirteen years. Like most old dogs, Cupcake had developed many physical problems. She endured twice daily insulin shots for diabetes. Minimal pain medication for her aching joints had to be carefully monitored as it could have further damaged her ailing liver. Cupcake’s clouded over eyes severely limited her vision. She was nearly deaf as well, and she often became confused, appearing to not know where she was.

We no longer put her on a leash for walks since there wasn’t a risk of her running off. She loved to be outside; rooting around near the trees and bushes smelling for squirrels and other dogs. I usually lingered slightly behind her, letting her enjoy herself. At some point, she would look up and her body would stiffen. I knew she was afraid that she was lost and alone outside. She would stand frozen until I came up to her, touching her gently, saying her name and telling her I was there watching over her. I swear I could see the relief that flooded over her old body. Soon, and with a little spring in her step, she would continue on her way.

It dawned on me that most of humanity ends up like Cupcake. Our eyes become so filled with visions of “things” we want that we lose sight of what God wants for us. Our ears turn deaf to His voice when we are too caught up listening to the busyness and needs of our daily lives. We stumble along and are suddenly frozen with fear that we’re lost and alone. Then God touches us gently, speaking our name, and gives us loving reassurance that He is there beside us, watching over us, loving us more than we can possibly know.

With Open Arms

with open arms

The iconic Cristo Blanco, a 26-foot white statue of Jesus Christ, towers over the city of Cusco, Peru, on Pukamoqo Hill. Legend has it that Pukamoqo Hill holds soil from the four quarters of the Inca Empire, so this was a spiritual place for the Incas. Cusco has been described as the gateway to the more famous Machu Picchu.

But an even large statue of Jesus Christ is in Rio de Janeiro. At 98 feet (not including the base), Cristo Redentor, (Christ the Redeemer) stands tall on the summit of Mount Corcovado. It’s said that the statue is the most recognizable landmark of Rio.

What the statues have in common, of course, is the outstretched arms.

Arms open wide can have various meanings. When the arms belong to my friend Judy it means get over here so I can hug you. They can signify this is the real me; I’ve got nothing to hide. Or I come in peace. And as Episcopal priest Rt. Rev. Michael Curry was quoted as saying, “Our belief (is) that the outstretched arms of Jesus…are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.”

Consider my favorite parable, the prodigal son. When the father in the story sees a far-off figure trudging along the road, he knows without knowing that it’s his son. You remember…the young guy who scandalously asked for his portion of the inheritance before his father died, then left home to squander it away on a wild life. When the money ran out and he was reduced to daydreaming about eating the pigs’ food, he decided to return home and ask for a job working for dad.

This father, who likely had been shamed by that son and who had also probably spent many sleepless nights worrying about his younger progeny in that faraway country, might have been justified in a little passive-aggressive behavior when the boy showed up. Dad could have stood with his arms crossed, tapping his foot on the ground as the boy approached.

But no, we’re told that the father ran to the son with open arms, hugged and kissed him, and then arranged a huge celebration to welcome him home.

Those open arms meant I love you. I forgive you. There is nothing between us that can’t be overcome.

We’re now in the second week of Advent. My wish is that you embrace the beauty and peace of the season of waiting with open arms.

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Interesting painting and discussion of Jesus’ open arms

The Color of Christmas

a blue Christmas

This entire day I have been thinking about people I personally know who are suffering in some way. My heart is full of loving compassion for them. If you are one of those people, you will know that this is written for you tonight.

Thanksgiving was not happy for these friends nor will Christmas be merry.

Some of the tragic circumstances involve recent deaths—a loving mom not yet 50, a grandson from a brain tumor. The year of “firsts” is upon those families; the first Thanksgiving and the first Christmas without that special person; birthdays, anniversaries, and other holidays will follow.

One friend has a grievously ill adult child who has spent the past several months in the hospital; this mom already lost her other son a few years ago. I pray for them and have asked many to pray for Denise and Catzby, and yet I feel as though words are not enough. No matter how much I wish I could, I cannot fix this for them and I feel useless.

Some of my friends have a chronic illness and live everyday with pain. Cancer and other life-threatening conditions have entered some of your lives. Getting ready for the holidays may not even be something you’re considering.

Others have lost a special someone…a mom, a dad, a grandmother, a grandfather, a sister, a brother, a son, a daughter, aunt, uncle, cousin, friend. Regardless of how much time has passed since that person’s death, we all miss them terribly. If Christmas was especially important to our loved one, this time of year is even more difficult for us.

And it’s made all the more trying by the “noise” about Black Friday and Cyber Monday and Doorbuster deals and how much everyone will be stressing because there are only 28 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas instead of the usual 35. None of that matters to people who struggle to get out of bed each day because they are desperately sad.

Some churches offer what’s referred to as a blue Christmas service. My church, St. James’ in Warrenton, VA, is one of them. To quote from the church’s website: A “blue Christmas” service acknowledges that Christmas is not always met with joy and celebration. Sometimes it can be difficult to participate in the glad carols and merriment of our Christmas services. This service provides an opportunity to light candles acknowledging the people we miss, the pain or emptiness we may feel.

If Christmas is a difficult time for you, this type of service may offer you some hope, and I encourage you to find a church near you that provides a blue Christmas service.

For the rest of us who are doing okay, let’s remember to live the words of Henri Amiel from 1868:

“Life is short. We do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So, be quick to love; make haste to be kind.”

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The Piano Guys and Craig Aven “The Sweetest Gift”

One man’s take on the “year of firsts”

Invitation to St. James’ Warrenton blue Christmas service on December 18

 

Not A Holly, Jolly Christmas

A snow hug…photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

The 2018 holidays are officially behind us, and there are those among us heaving a huge sigh of relief.

Not everyone has a holly, jolly Christmas.

I helped a friend yesterday mostly just by listening. Her extended family and friends had been giving her a hard time because she hadn’t been upbeat enough for them over the holidays.

Three years into having lost her husband of 39 years, she has tried explaining to them the double-whammy she faces. Her husband died in mid-November 2015 so that means there are two sets of family holiday traditions that no longer exist for her.

Both Thanksgiving and Christmas are forever changed.

When a person of deep significance in your life dies, the holidays can be devastating. So many memories are tied to the Thanksgiving and Christmas season. Yes, that year of “firsts” is the worst, AND some people are never able to fully recover to celebrate again.

That does not make them bad people or somehow wrong.

There are individuals (whom I choose to believe are well-intentioned) who want to impose a “could you just get over it and move on” directive on others.

If there is any wisdom I have gained in this life it’s this: Grief and the process of recovering from it is a highly personal state. There is no timeline for when we “should” or “need to” adjust to life without someone we love.

And again, the memory-laden time of the holidays can be overwhelming. Some of us may want to immerse ourselves back into life, being surrounded by people. And some of us don’t. We just want to go away on a trip or be left alone.

There is no wrong answer.

No one has the prerogative to tell others how to live their lives. It’s enough to show up for them, listen empathically, and love them. We include them in events but we don’t guilt-trip them into attending if they say no thanks.

And please don’t look pained when folks say the name of the person who has died. Join them in saying the name! When we dance around their loss by talking about anything else, well, that’s less than helpful.

My friend’s face truly lit up when I brought up my own favorite memory of her husband. “I remember the time James was trying to make homemade spaghetti sauce and he…”

Remembering the dead is not maudlin or living in the past. It’s supporting people who are really saying, “I still love and miss this person and I don’t want him to be forgotten.” Or “I need you to remember her like I do.”

Forget the gift wrap and the bows next year. Give the gift of remembering someone no longer on this earth to the person who is missing them.

Keeping Time Beautifully

Keeping TIme

The cover of the Linnea Design calendar book

In this big-box store, Amazon-Prime economy, it’s easy to forget about the small businesses of the world. One Christmas gift for my daughter Laura was a gentle reminder to me that there are companies among us who truly care about each customer, who put their soul into their products, who want to astonish us by both their products and their service.

One of our family Christmas traditions concerns calendars; Laura thoughtfully chooses photos to match monthly birthdays and anniversaries then puts together a memory-filled Shutterstock photo calendar for me. I search for an interesting, nothing run-of-the-mill calendar that I know she’ll enjoy.

My search this year took me to Linnea Design via Amazon. They specialize in poster type calendars with rich colors. I could have bought the calendar on the Linnea site, but I got it for the same price plus free shipping on Amazon, so….

But when the Amazon package arrived in a regular Amazon box with bubble wrap, I realized I hadn’t read the description fully enough. The pages are indeed individual posters, so I needed to buy a frame for them. I went back to the Linnea site, ordered the frame and a monthly book (with the same poster pages) for my desk.

Upon its arrival, I found that the company had inadvertently sent another poster calendar along with the frame and book.  I called to let them know so they could adjust their shipping practices if necessary. But mainly I called to tell them how impressive their packaging is.

The poster calendar was in a bright red, heavy stock, tri-cut folder that fit the poster pages exactly. It was adorned with a wrap-around two-inch white ribbon and sticker. This was then placed inside green tissue paper, folded with precision, and taped. Clearly, someone invested time and care in ensuring that this looked great!

The phone was answered by a woman, a real person, on the second ring. I was trying to ascertain if there was a customer service manager, and the woman said, “Oh dear. It sounds like you’re calling with a complaint. How can I help you?”

When I said that actually I was calling to say thanks for making my day with this beautiful packaging and product, I could hear her beaming through the phone line. Then she said, “Wait until you see next year’s packaging! We’re already working on a custom ribbon.”

I did mention the extra calendar, and she said to keep it and thanks for letting them know, that she would pass it along. Then she said, “We have just six employees, so I won’t forget.”

Six employees. And according to their site, one of them appears to be a dog:

“Sparky, the Wonder Dog, is the morale officer in charge of snacking.”

Buying from a nice small company made my heart go pit-a-pat. I wonder which of the six employees wrapped the calendar. Although he’s referred to as a “wonder dog,” I’m willing to bet it wasn’t Sparky.

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Linnea Design

 

The Sounds of Christmas

Sounds of Christmas

photo by Norma Thatcher

Please note:  Today’s post is based on the Christmas letter I included with my cards this year.  So if you are a close friend or family member on my card list, you may be reading this twice! But there is additional information contained here plus there are some great links at the bottom.

Jingle bells, silver bells, church bells, sleigh bells, the Salvation Army Kettle bell—they’re all part of the sounds of Christmas.

We create the crinkly noise of placing a gift in tissue paper before it’s placed in a box. Roll out that giftwrap…cut, fold, fold in the sides, then fold, fold the top and bottom ends. The tape makes a zipping sound as we tear off pieces to seal up our offering.

We chop, measure, and pour ingredients into the bowl. There’s the whirring sound of the mixer, the rattling of the cookie sheets. The timer dings when the cookies are baked to perfection.

If we listen, there are many sounds of Christmas besides the familiar carols and hymns.

I wonder what sounds were heard as the first Christmas arrived. Was it noisy or quiet?

The book of Luke is quite stingy with details. Did Mary and Joseph make the hundred mile trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem alone or perhaps travel with others making the same trek to their ancestral hometown? We like to assume they took along a donkey to carry their belongings and for Mary to ride.

And yes, we are accustomed to the “no room in the inn” story, but there are Biblical scholars who insist that Bethlehem (off the beaten path) could not have supported an “inn” in its accepted meaning. The New Testament Greek word used (kataluma) actually means guest room; so it may actually have been no vacancy in the guest room of someone’s house.

Luke doesn’t actually state that Jesus was born in a barn. The statement of Jesus being laid in a manger (an animal food trough) is likely what brought forth that understanding. Did Mary and Joseph, as some scholars insist, end up staying in a lower room of a home that housed both people and animals? It would have been terraced to separate the animals from the human living area. It makes sense there would have been a manger.

The truth is we don’t really know about Jesus’ actual birth. Maybe Mary and Joseph weren’t even alone. Perhaps other women, per custom, assisted Mary while the men waited elsewhere smoking cigars.

We can’t be certain of any specific sounds of that night. And that’s OK.

I choose to believe the time just after Jesus’ birth was peacefully quiet. The new little family of three was settling in for the night. The cattle were slowly shifting around trying to adapt to the change in circumstances. Light from the magnificent star overhead cast about, cutting the darkness.

Quiet. Stillness. Peace.

Advent, done well, helps prepare us for the arrival of our King. When the commercialization of Christmas seems intent on overwhelming us with the non-stop noise, we need only step back into that moment of quiet, stillness, peace…and reflect on God’s gift of his Son to the earth.

The name says it all: Immanuel – God with us.

May God continue to be with you at Christmas and in the coming year.

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Over a thousand people came together for this video – a must watch!

Amy Grant’s “I need a silent night”   

One view on inn or guestroom

 

 

Merry Plastic Christmas

Christmas tree farm

Photo courtesy of Analise1988 on Pixabay.com

The American Christmas Tree Association sounds so, well, all-American. Say the name aloud and your brain may conjure up a Hallmark vision of a family and their dog tromping through a snow-covered field of trees as they search for their very own tree to cut down.

The ACTA’s marketing plan has enabled them to more than double their market share of tree sales since 2010. That year 8.2 million trees were sold compared to 2017 when that figure jumped to 21.1 million.

It’s too bad that most of those 21 million “trees” were manufactured in China.

Yes, the ACTA represents artificial Christmas tree manufacturers whose products are made primarily of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and metal.

PVC is a petroleum-based, non-biodegradable plastic. It does not have a healthy reputation. Why have Americans been seduced by the “natural looking” plastic Christmas tree?

Some people cite environmental reasons: Leave our trees alone!

But real Christmas trees are grown specifically for harvesting! Growers replant 1-3 seedlings for each tree harvested. It takes 7-10 years for a tree to grow before it’s harvested for sale

So citing “environmental reasons” as the reason to buy a plastic tree from China (how big of a footprint is that?!) doesn’t make sense.

The association that represents real Christmas trees is the National Christmas Tree Association. Their members are actual people; real Americans growing trees in America. Many of them, such as Loweland Farm where I buy my tree each year, are multi-generational family owned businesses.

Here is some information from their site: “While they’re growing, Real Christmas Trees support life by absorbing carbon dioxide and other gases and emitting fresh oxygen. The farms that grow Christmas Trees stabilize soil, protect water supplies and provide refuge for wildlife while creating scenic green belts. Often, Christmas Trees are grown on soil that doesn’t support other crops.”

And think about the memory making aspect: I dare you to compare the idyllic scene noted earlier of the family choosing a tree (either to cut down or to pick one that has been pre-cut) to pulling a dusty box from the attic or basement or garage and sticking plastic branches into a metal trunk.

Oh I know there are more expensive flip trees and snap trees that go up in less than a minute. Some are even pre-lit so you don’t have to string the lights. And of course, you can spray a fake scent on your fake tree to make it seem more real.

Recycling a real tree (some call it treecycling) has gotten easier. Earth911.com states on their site that over 93% of real Christmas trees are recycled.  Most communities have tree pickup service so the trees can be chipped or shredded to produce mulch.

Living where we do, we simply drag our tree back into the woods.

Artificial trees are not recyclable since PVC is non-biodegradable.

Yes, the out-of-pocket expense for a real tree is more on an annual basis. Like other expenses, I include the cost in my Christmas budget. And yes, certainly there are those with allergic reactions to real trees, and I’m sorry those folks miss out on the real-tree experience.

But for the rest of you with artificial trees (and you know who you are!), I encourage you to leave that box in the attic/basement/garage next year and buy a real Christmas tree.

Get back to keeping it real, baby.

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New York Times article on real vs. artificial

Some facts about real Christmas trees

 

 

The Not-So-Perfect Tree. Again.

Christmas tree

Photo by Norma Thatcher

My Christmas tree is lopsided by nature. It has some serious gaps. Branches stick out here and there. And it seems that every year I forget that Fraser firs relax and lower their branches as they adapt to our home’s indoor climate. So the ornaments hanging on my tree’s lowest branches are now grazing the floor.

I’m neither complaining nor upset. These anomalies make my tree all the more endearing to me.

In 1981 Woman’s Day magazine reprinted a story from Guidepost’s Family Christmas Book. Written by Dick Schneider, it told the story of an evergreen tree growing in a small kingdom in Europe. The tree believed it had a chance to win the most perfect tree contest; the prize was reigning in honor in the palace hall for everyone to admire.

Each evergreen vied for this honor. They kept their branches closed tightly so the sleet and snow wouldn’t cause issues with their perfection. On windy days they opened their branches so the breezes could pass through without causing harm.

But the star of the story took pity on various animals and birds as the winter weather got progressively worse. It lowered its bottom branches to protect a rabbit being chased by dogs. The tree opened its top branches to shelter a wren. During a windy gale, our tree with a heart protectively closed its branches around a fawn that had strayed from its mother.

So what had been absolute perfection was now a sorry sight. The bottom branches drooped. Gaps had been opened and would not close. The trunk leaned a little to the left. Broken branches oozed pine gum.

In fact, when the Queen arrived on her sleigh to choose the most perfect tree, she was horrified to see this example. She considered having it cut down and burned immediately. But then…she noticed the feathers sticking out from the upper branches and the tracks of the various animals that had found shelter and protection from the tree, and her heart melted with understanding.

When the Queen chose the damaged tree as the most perfect, everyone in the kingdom agreed. “For in looking at its gnarled and worn branches, many saw the protecting arm of their father, others the comforting bosom of a mother, and some, as did the Queen, saw the love of Christ expressed on earth.”

And that’s why real Christmas trees, including mine, are not perfect.

Trees serve as a role model for us. They remind us to open ourselves to the world, to serve others, to be the one that helps when others say no.

The last sentence of the original story sums it up beautifully: “…the trees have learned that the scars suffered for the sake of others make one most beautiful in the eyes of God.”

Vintage Was Not An Advantage

vintage tablecloth

The vintage cloth with new “vintage-looking” decorations.

Last year I found a beautiful vintage tablecloth for my large dining room table.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you likely know I cherish my finds of “gently used” old items.

When I sit in my small antique rocker, I consider the many babies who likely have been lulled to sleep by its subtle to and fro movement.

I picture my secondhand serving bowls and platters gracing the tables of families long gone from this earth. It’s OK that I spend time hand-washing these dishes that were created prior to the moment when “dishwasher safe” imprinting was a reality.

And so I imagined that my long vintage tablecloth would also add the same type of ambiance to the gatherings at our home.

But there is one serious drawback I hadn’t considered. Vintage cloth translates to the situation of that behemoth of a covering needing to be ironed.

Ugh. I can’t stand to iron. I’ve avoided ironing my entire life. Full disclosure: When I was a cheerleader in high school, I didn’t see the need to iron my whole blouse since 98% of it was covered by a pullover sweater.

So I took a shortcut and ironed just the collar and the cuffs on the sleeves.

My mother was appalled.

Alas, there are no ironing shortcuts with a tablecloth.

I lugged the ironing board up from the basement and begrudgingly began the task. I stopped to write a note: “Buy wrinkle-free large Christmas tablecloth.”

Because ironing provides time (in this case, LOTS of time) to think, I thought, you know, I have some friendships that fall in similar categories as tablecloths.

Some are no-iron/wrinkle-free that require little work on my part to maintain in excellent condition. Others are a little more fragile…vintage-ish and require some tending to maintain.

My wrinkle-free friendships are just that…I feel super comfortable in them without worrying I’m going to say something that might be taken the wrong way. These no-iron women and I truly understand each other.

The requires-tending friendships are also meaningful to me, and I need to adjust my attitude regarding the care they require. I can’t begrudge the time they take; I want to honor the time they take.

We knew the truth when we were kids; we knew it as young adults. It’s good to remind ourselves of it as we grow older. Not everyone can be our best friend or even be included in a group we consider our closest friends. AND…it’s still wonderfully fulfilling to have friends outside that circle.

And I have great news! For $12 my local dry cleaner will wash and iron my vintage tablecloth for me.

I found an ironing shortcut after all.

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A site for vintage tablecloths