Here’s an Advent Update, regarding shaping this season in our household:

  • As Noël Piper recommends in her book, Treasuring God in Our Traditions, we’ve been lighting the Advent candles every meal shared. I’ve loved Advent candles ever since I was introduced to them by my family as a child, so this feels natural. Problematically, our family eats together frequently. I have no idea whether the Week One candle will make it to Christmas. We have The Little Candle That Could, alive in the Advent wreath!
  • The Jesse Tree is going strong. It’s a newer tradition for us, and one we’ll keep alive for many years. It’s like recounting in summary the old Old Testament “path” to Christ’s coming. We read accounts from The Jesus Storybook Bible or the biblical narrative directly.
  • For the first time, this year the four of us will attend midnight service together. Jared and I have snuck off before if another adult was home with the sleeping boys. Last year, we four attended Christmas morning service, which I found special. But we can’t very well do both midnight and morning service, so we’re simply choosing midnight this time. Back at home after the late-night service, one gift each will be opened, in the form of new pajamas for the family. We’ll also use that moment to give a gift to the Lord. I’ll have given the boys advance opportunity to prepare an offering (a craft, drawing, or for Noah, some giving from his allowance savings), and Jared and I will share the charitable giving we’ve chosen, making it a family experience. Perhaps we’ll lay our gifts next to the nativity set.
  • Come morning, I’ll make apple cider doughnuts, which I experimented with on Braeden’s birthday. Jared and I didn’t purchase gifts for one another… we’ll be giving to the above purpose instead, and will have plenty of fun with the pajamas and the name-draw exchange on his side of the family. (Admittedly, when we decide an expense is worthwhile during the year, we just go ahead, or save until we’re ready, rather than waiting for Christmas.) I decided to give four gifts apiece to the boys: Something You’d Like, Something You Need, Something to Wear, Something to Read. This idea came from Jones Design Company, though I changed the first line from want to would like. After all, I know what Noah wants, and it’s a $400 Star Wars Legos set. Also, would like allows me the opportunity for thoughtful giving, rather than committing to (potentially boundless) expectation… I think that’s a worthwhile lesson for them in both giving and receiving.
  • The paper-whites are fabulous. We have our first blossom, as of yesterday.
  • One last thing: I was inspired by this blog post one year, and fished down an aged copy of The First Noel: The Birth of Christ from the Gospel According to Saint Luke. It’s simply the account from Luke, taken verbatim from the KJV and copied onto beautifully illustrated pages, children’s-book-style. (See the blog link for some serious eye-candy.) Come Christmas morning, I think we’ll pile into bed first thing and have Noah (as our youngest reader) read aloud to the family. New pajamas, a crowded down comforter, Christmas morning light, and the Luke reading to start the day sounds perfect to me.

Welcome, Advent

Since Noah was a pre-schooler, (pre-scholar?), I’ve been meaning to implement a rich, meaningful Advent-and-Christmas season that will delight his heart with magic and romance, opening our home to peace and worship for a  lasting impression on his yet-still-forming heart. Now his little brother is four, and I feel I haven’t gotten very far.

But we do have a little by way of traditions, and, on this opening day of Advent, I’ll share them. I am hopeful that I’ll have plenty to add as I get more serious throughout this 2012 season.

First, a back-ground. This is what I remember affectionately about Christmastime when I was a little girl:

  • The lights. My dad would pick me up from ballet class, and we’d drive quietly through downtown with its holiday scenes aglow in the early nightfall. I’d be all worn-out and happy. That’s my favorite memory.
  • Christmas Eve services. The entire church would gather, in my mind hushed and excited. I remember finally becoming the age when I could hold my own candle. And I remember the whispers, “Merry Christmas!” when we realized our watches read midnight. I still call them midnight services, though I’m coming to realize no one else does — they don’t start at midnight — but as a child, it’s unparalleled, to be part of midnight on Christmas Eve-to-Day, worshiping and singing all together. That’s my other favorite memory.
  • Christmas shows, climatically The Nutcracker.
  • The tree. We’d go out as a family to load it onto the roof of our sedan. There was an evening dedicated to decorating, and the tree would fragrance the living room for weeks. I’d sit next to it, reading and listening to my silly Wee Sing at Christmas album. And, appropriately symbolic, the glow was always there running out the darkness when I got out of bed.
  • Family devotionals on Sundays. We’d light the candles in the Advent wreath, do a reading, sing, and Mom served eggnog afterwards.
  • Presents. Anticipation met on Christmas morning. Aaron and I would battle out who could be the passer-outer, and it was customary to go slowly enough that each unwrapping held an audience of the entire family.
  • Tamales. That went with present time. Before the big 4:00 dinner, of course.

There are plenty of other things my parents did to make it special, but those are what I remember most. And even though I’m not perpetuating all of the traditions (like a new, fragrant evergreen), they remind me how those pleasures sink deeply into a child’s heart and beg him to ask and remember the cause of such sacred, celebratory treatment. Christmas was magical to me. And it should be.

So though it’s not enough, here’s how we’re starting this year…

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Last year, I came across this Jesse Tree devotional by Ann Voskamp. I printed out the illustrations, Mod Podge-d them onto cardboard, and added some glitter pen. We read a brief scripture passage every day, then place the illustration onto our tree.

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Today was the opening prophecy of the Savior coming from the line of Jesse (Isaiah 11). I don’t always read Voskamp’s added devotion. Instead, today I flipped to Matthew 1 and read the fulfillment genealogy, from Jesse all the way to Jesus. Some of the names made Noah giggle.

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This is our little tree. In the past, we didn’t have space (okay, or motivation) in the apartment for a large tree. My mom gifted us with this little one a few years ago. Jared likes plants. So he planted it. And it’s been around ever since.

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I have four of these paper star ornaments, from Ten Thousand Villages (a fair-trade, internationally-sourced, non-profit shop). I like them a lot, and it’s all we do in addition to the Jesse Tree ornaments.

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I love paper whites. So after Thanksgiving, the boys and I potted these. I hope they’re abloom on Christmas Day!

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I searched for an Advent wreath for years! There aren’t many out there, and the ones I found seemed too commercial for my taste. A lot of people make one, or decorate a simple one with greenery. But I found this on ebay. The original plan was to paint it, maybe black, but now I love the rustic look of it, like old church pews. (I need a center candle for Christmas Day.) The idea is that each Sunday leading up to Christmas, you light one more, in drawing nearer to the Holy Day. As my parents did, I use this time to have a family devotion…

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And work on singing a new hymn.

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Also, one of my best seasonal memories was “moving the little girl.” I received this painted wood nativity set when I was a year old. It includes other figures, such as three Magi (they’re off in the distance [closer to Babylon?]  and thus not pictured), and a little girl. Each morning I would hasten to the piano to move the girl one step closer to the Christ-child. She always got there right on time. The only trouble she caused was when I got married and bundled up the nativity for transport. Apparently, the family was all very fond of her.

Regarding gifting, I’m on the fence. Jared’s side of the family draws names for a secret exchange. We get to buy something special and desired for one person, which is fun. My dad, brother, and I have been gifting each other with edibles, without having ever discussed it. I love that. I am anticipating my dad’s pralines already, and am looking forward to making something of my own to share. With my immediate family, I have two inspirations…

One is this blog post, also by Ann Voskamp. She realized, through her child’s innocent question, that their gift-giving didn’t reflect the object of the holiday, which is celebrating the Lord’s coming as a baby. She expresses some beautiful ideas about choosing charitable offerings as a family. In my vision for us, each member has an amount, “spends” the amount in an approved catalog (such as Compassion or World Vision), and then we “open” our gifts and share them with one another on Christmas Morning. Rather than that, but looking forward to it as a future possibility, I think this year Jared and I will forgo gifts to one another and choose to sponsor something, or someone,  international as a family.

I’ve also been considering this blog post, by Jones Design Company. In an effort to simplify and allow room for the sacred, Emily is scaling down to four gifts per child: Something You Want; Something You Need; Something to Wear; Something to Read. At first, I had the opposite response of her personal objective: four gifts? That’s more than I had intended. However, not really. I already have a book for each in the mail. Oh, okay, I’ll tell you. Just don’t spoil it, okay? Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing, by Sally Lloyd-Jones, and Day by Day Kids’ Bible. If you’re not yet familiar with Lloyd-Jones, check out the Jesus Storybook Bible. It is unmatched in excellence of expression in storytelling, artistry, and theology. As to Day by Day: last year, Noah was ready to move beyond stories, and I carefully chose his first full-text bible, the ESV Grow!. However, he’s now stuck in Genesis. I try to tell him he can roam about (Proverbs? Gospel?), but he insists on taking Genesis one tiny bite at a time. Day by Day seems like just the right in-between step. So there’s Something to Read. We’re always in Need of school material, so that’s easy. Something to Wear: our tradition has been new pajamas on Christmas Eve. We could do that, or add in something wearable for the morning. And Something You Want. In the past, we’ve let grandparents realize the biggest wishes. It is special, though, to do something special for your special kid.

Those are my ideas. We’re also limiting sweets during Advent to only social gatherings (Advent is traditionally a fasting season, but when surrounding culture is immersed in feasting, I see our only choices are to adapt or become closed-off). And I think we’re going to revisit some scripture memorization practice during December.

I’m happy to have plans evolve, that there’s great inspiration from my childhood as well as motivated people willing to share, and that I can play it out, one day at a time, with two wonderful boys. Happy December!

Second-Grader in a Tux

I’ve been overwhelmed lately. I know I’m not supposed to admit that, but now it’s out there, and I’m not taking it back.

 My good friend Stacey pulled out of her Houston home Friday morning, to settle with her family in North Carolina. My head for so long had been telling me how lovely and bright this was. When it actually happened though, my heart screamed a bit. Stacey is such an inspiration, teacher, and friend to me. I never quite felt deserving of her friendship, but her quiet grace paved the way to many, many long conversations. I’m delighted about the course of this change – and I will miss her terribly.

 I’ve been feeling isolated from my church lately. Wow, there’s another one I’m probably not supposed to admit. On one hand, it’s my fault: Jared works Saturday and Sunday very late (I write this at 12:16a.m., while he’s showering, and will serve him dinner in a short while). So while we do have Sunday mornings available, it’s difficult to get our family moving. When we do go to church, I don’t have that sense of belonging anymore that I enjoyed deeply in years past. This isn’t the place for me to pin details up, and I know the members are supposed to be the instruments of change if indeed there’s to be change… but I also wonder if the Lord is allowing this to be a dislodging for our family, if there’s indeed to be a job-related move for us in the semi-near future.

 I’m still having trouble with another close relationship. I sense personal direction from scripture, and I’m massively grateful for that, though it doesn’t make it easy whatsoever.

 Oh, and I’m also grateful for a secondary car. I’ve been driving that while learning a huge hunk of what it means to buy a used car, a privately-sourced one, and what all these different makes and models and mileages and maintenances and prices are supposed to mean, pertaining to wisdom for our family.

Noah was asked to be the ring-bearer in my friend Erika’s wedding, to her new husband Anthony. She was a good friend to me in high school and beyond. It was an absolute delight to share the glowing celebration with her. Here’s a little eye-candy of my fellow!

The New Home

In years past, moving took up a weekend. That is inconceivable to me now! This has been a week-long process, just getting items from A to B. It’s enlightening to see all we should have already passed along. How I love children’s resale — the idea of sending a sentimental piece away is much lighter when you can envision a mother choosing and utilizing it herself, for her own little one.

In our new home, we have exclusive use of four rooms: two bedrooms, a bath, and an open area we call The Cove, which will serve as a reading nook and homeschool space. I love The Cove! School previously took place in our apartment’s dining area, which held a world map, a shelf for schoolbooks, a shelf for dishes, and of course the table. Now, I have reinstated use of my first-ever furniture purchase: a daybed I bought around age eighteen. It’s so dear, we’ve lugged the frame around for nine years, tucking it away at random — and I’m finally using it! It is lovely. Equally lovely is having a special place just for reading, reviewing, and conversing. (We’ll still do most of our new learning work at the dining table.)

Our bedrooms are tranquil (though cardboard-boxy at the moment), and our roommate Kristi has made effort to extend extra hospitality. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, and she’s given me happy permission to structure it any way I like, as long as her favorite gadgets are still within show. I’ve discovered I don’t mind not controlling the rest of the pantry, as long as my own mason jars o’ grains-and-nuts are there to greet me from their own systematized shelf. So far, the process of room-mating has been simple and fun.

A short and general word about this blog and its purpose: The purpose is for me to write reflectively, allowing a few people of their own choosing to look in. If I were to wait until I had things figured out beyond flaw, I would never write, never share — and sometimes it’s the very act of journaling that helps me to process the things happening in my personal life. I never distribute my posts to individuals unless they have opted into automatic subscription. Although I know and accept that it happens, I don’t merely publish a blog to be read; I publish a blog because it’s a place for me to think, to review back on, and as well for people to see where I am if they’re interested. I probably won’t stop writing. Everything here should be considered editorial or personal reflection, rather than authoritative truth. If you want authority about any matter, definitely further your research, and go to the source when possible.

Happenings, September 2012:

– relocating to a different part of town, to begin residing with a good friend of our family. Downsizing accordingly.

– Jared’s dissertation research accepted for publication. Woo-hoo! He’s a few pounds lighter, just by stress lifted, and polishing the resume.

– a few weeks in, and beginning to feel comfortable facilitating Noah’s weekly class of home-schoolers.

– a few weeks in, and weighing my home-school goals against a month’s implementation. Consider what stays, what goes, what adjusts.

– corresponding with my mom. Not pretty. There are difficult spiritual themes, and I’m struggling to understand how to balance, indeed if there’s capacity at all to balance, my roles of wife/mother with adult daughter. I’m also struggling to hold fast to my identity and my virtues when they’re abruptly challenged by a lady I’ll always feel connection and loyalty to.

Someone who I’m sure will read this asked me today about stress management. That was kind. But I hadn’t thought about it before, or even that I qualified to be asked such a question. I said truthfully that I try to maximize enjoyment in small pleasures like my new favored cuppow. Here’s my official stress-management list:

– enjoy those small pleasures. Work with gusto, as towards a God-given assignment, and find something to delight in. If there’s a convenience I enjoy, I try to really enjoy it, and be thankful.

– friends. God has given me beautiful women as companions this season of life. Some I see irregularly, but with effortless come-together moments; some weekly, when we tackle our issues — uplifting, challenging, teaching, and affirming one another.

– marriage. I hold on to my mister. I want to be a blessing to him rather than a hindrance, and he’s good at seeing me for what may be an ounce of good, rather than a pint of bad. Over our years, I’ve learned that issues are nowhere near as important as supporting one another personally, and that blessing my husband and home is one of the most important works I can do.

– get smarter. This is easy with home-schooling, because one can’t ethically enforce learning for someone else without gaining a few things along the way also. But I also mean scriptural: I’ve been captivated by the wisdom books lately, and I’m trying to let scripture be my compass. I’m reading Proverbs, I often listen to Mark Driscoll podcasts, and I try to engage in some kind of study, be it group-oriented or just quality non-fiction. I weigh everything against what I’ve already seen true, which simply is my self-permission to toss out worldly expertise that’s incongruent with scripture.

– take a step away from reality. When things get really intense, I escape into another character’s heart and mind for a moment. My mom thinks this is a terrible idea. I think it refreshes me, and prepares me to step back into my own relationships with renewed grace and thought. I terribly enjoy live theater (free, because Houston rocks that way), I’ll admit to a TV show while Jared’s working late on weekends, and, when things are really tricky, I pick up a novel.

Today is  Sunday. We’re moving furniture on Tuesday!

A Discipline of Pleasure

It’s Friday night, and I’ve just returned from seeing Dominic Walsh Dance Theater perform an homage piece to French sculptor Camille Claudel. It was at Miller, meaning I got to pop into the outdoor theater with coffee in-hand, choose a free seat in the breezy twilight, and take in a true masterpiece.

DWDT is a contemporary ballet company of technical excellence, creativity, and sophistication. Camille Claudel is unique in that it incorporates a host of mediums: projected photographs, spoken narrative, an on-stage cellist (nothing beats the pairing of an on-stage cellist with a classical dancer!), a superb vocalist, and of course, the thematic representation of Claudel’s art of sculpture. However, the art was delivered such as a feast: in courses, deliberately and perfectly proportioned, to be slowly enjoyed before the next surprise comes.

I don’t know much about Claudel, though I know more tonight than I did yesterday. As I’m running through a classical education with my son, which presents world history in sequence over the course of several years (and is entirely repeated with depth and detail as the child matures), these days I tend to think, “Ask me in two years, and I’ll be  better-informed.” I’m positive we’ll come to Claudel (1863-1943), though presently we’re in Ancient Rome. :)

In this last fall/spring season, idolatry was something I thought often about. It would be easy, perhaps, to see Claudel’s obsession as idolatry. It consumed her, as does the art of many greats. For the young Christian, spiritual discipline is a necessary pairing to artistic discipline, in that one must practice remembering the source and purpose of such outpouring. However: this summer, I hadn’t been thinking as much about idolatry. I’ve been thinking about pleasure.

Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white. Let no oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that He has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. (Ecclesiastes 9:7-9)

I loved Ecclesiastes a long time ago, then forgot about it as thought it were a bonus rather than a substance, and now I’m learning to love it again. Mark Driscoll says something like, “We often take ourselves too seriously, and God too lightly; we need to learn to take God seriously, and lighten up and laugh at ourselves.”

I hear Solomon saying that emotional enjoyment is, of all unexpected ideas, wise. Abandoning yourself to the pleasure of a lively moment is good, fitting, and righteous.

Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his toil. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil — this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart. (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20)

The French know how to eat. Claudel knew how to sculpt. And, if “He has made everything beautiful in its time” (Ecclesiastes 3:11), is it possible that these acts are essentially participations in common grace? It is the business of God to create beauty and pleasure, knowing every piece we can get our grubby hands on will be misrepresented and misused. But He does it anyway, for common grace, for ultimate redemption — and in all of His creation is a glimpse of His delight and glory.

Further, in both sad and blessed reality, Claudel’s work has far outlived her person. I too own furniture, publications, and jewelry that have each outlived their originators or original owners. Might I be so fortunate as to have a legacy, both spiritual and tangible, that lives on beyond my days. Solomon has made me aware that “All are from dust, and to dust all return… He does not know what is to be, for who can tell him how it will be? No man has the power to retain the spirit, or power over the day of death.” (Ecclesiastes 3:20, 8:7-8)

Therefore. I need more beauty in my life. More bread and wine and sweet conversation. More flowers, more art, more time to play and breathe. More hearty effort towards the pleasure of my family and friends. Without apology, for life is made to be enjoyed and savored. — Not as a replacement for pleasure in my Creator, for Solomon concludes,

“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgement, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

I’ve written about seeking the Spirit and discerning His will by His fruit, rather than trying to drum up His fruit with my willpower to fit into my ideas for functionality. He will lead; and often the scent of love, joy, and peace is the right indication of where to go. Ecclesiastes propels this same thinking of a harmony of pleasure and purpose — not merely “under the sun,” but under the King.

Too-Sacrifial Honoring

When I’m thinking clearly, it’s never time to write. And when it’s time to write, my thoughts go fizzling away with the end of the day. I’ll jump in anyway. If I don’t, I’ll never get this penned.

I’ve been thinking about the fifth commandment: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Ex. 20:12, ESV)

Plenty have noticed this as the first commandment with a promise attached. I’m not so sure. At least not for general context. God doesn’t provide formulas for us to plug in and further our personal agendas. The bible is full of wisdom literature, but not of a formulaic kind — it’s the wisdom of principle.

Commandment #5 is not, “If you (human) do A, then I’ll (God) do B [for you].”

This word was, in context, written to the Hebrews, the generation God led out of Egypt. I’m thinking that, if the second phrase is closer to a qualifier rather than a promise, Hebrew youth who honored the God-fearing testimony and teaching of their parents would indeed be preserved and guided in the land they were inheriting. It’s the same thinking as “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22, ESV): not that a husband stands in the place of Lord, but that a wife honors him because they are each and together under the Lord. What if husband and wife disagree? She seeks what is godly: if the request merely confronts her selfishness, she may submit. If it’s sin, she may well deny her husband and serve the Lord. Same, too, I say, for children of parents.

The collective Word is true for me. All of it is sacred. But to speak plainly, I am not under the law of Moses, but rather the law of grace. I have been given freedom, for freedom’s sake, and I and it were bought with a price. If a parent were ever to challenge a part of my life, I would be responsible for listening to them initially, but also comparing the advice against Commandment #1: “You shall have no other gods before me.” Because what should we do when it seems a parent is enforcing law (in the name of Law), but what they say actually opposes the Law I know?

That’s veiled speech, and I know it.

Details are tricky. Here’s what I know of God and creation, as per this context: God made Adam and Eve. He set them together, he called it very good, and he told Adam to hold on to her, knowing well the relationship would become greatly wounding. Then Jesus came, and the New Testament is brimming with parables and prophecies about wedding festival. Paul was so emboldened by the Spirit as to say that marriage is our human picture of Christ and the church.

I also know that marriage today is not en vogue. It may be respected, but it’s hard to sign up. I have an acquaintance, Kasey, whose story I think illustrates this well: She’s been living with a fellow for quite some time, and they seem a true match. They began planning marriage. She, normally collected, found herself experiencing great stress until she realized the root of her emotions. They nixed the wedding plans. But they’re going to stay together, looking for a piece of committed happily-after-ever. And I have to respect it, and this is why: She associates marriage with divorce. So many of us do. When Kasey’s family history spoke unwelcome to her heart, she couldn’t imagine marriage without an impending threat of divorce.

It is so hard for me to emotionally accept that a person in my life thinks the worst of me, and wishes the worst upon me, than anyone else in my circle, and yet I’m supposed to honor and indulge their plan for my life. I don’t. In fact, every conversation shared with them requires this effort afterwards in which I summon up the courage to believe the awful things aren’t true. I do have value. I do have a voice, one that’s not ridiculous. I do have a future.

I met a seven-year old last week who has a more confident speaking voice than I. (That’s part natural gift, part mother’s investment, but still… she was seven!) It is sometimes so hard to believe that when I speak, I’m not being torn apart in the head of every listener. It’s sometimes so hard to believe that marriage is a worthwhile surrender. I don’t even question my husband. Rather, it’s the torture of what comes from outside: divorce exposure; in-laws who would compete not to the death, but to the divorce (of me); and scripture voiced alongside ideas that self-interest is the only best-interest. I’ve heard of some couples who make a pact not to say the d-word. This post isn’t for them.

I sound angry. I am. I sound impatient. I am. I have come to regard impatience as an asset, when it inspires reflection and good revision. My new principle is: Be patient with people, impatient with sin. Especially sin that seeks to destroy you and the ones you care about. When the sin is carried by someone you care about, it’s the same: love them, reject the sin. To do anything else is to honor the sin, and ultimately dishonor the carrier. In this regard, and in my circumstance, I say that dishonoring the words of the parent is the truer form of honoring their person.