This week we lit the candle of joy for Advent. However, I am fixed in a season of lament. I am not in despair, nor am I enduring any particular suffering personally, but I know many who are. Among family and friends, there are those who have lost loved ones to COVID. Some are dealing with job loss, divorce, and yet more are spiritually discouraged. The political distractions have weighed us down and we are disheartened by the public discourse so full of vitriol. It is a heavy season.
We are isolated.
Or maybe it’s just me. But I suspect not.
What does it look like to wait for His glorious appearance as His church while not fully in community? What does it mean to remain faithful while at home, sheltering in place?
More of our worship times have gone to Zoom with the colder weather and spikes of COVID cases. While our family’s participation in the Eucharist looks like the photo above, I know the truest story is that we are still being lifted up to the heavens week after week as we take in the body and blood of Christ. The heavens and the earth yet rejoice.
Although it is difficult for me to muster the emotion, my faith knows the hope of joy and peace we will one day experience fully.
Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory.
We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.
Romans 5:1-5 (NLT)
Does God feel far away as we are in the midst of a pandemic-induced isolation? Does he seem distant from our political and social strife, or personal sadness?
Because our Creator created us for community, it hurts when we are without the physical presence of others. In truth, we are created in his own communal, trinitarian image. We most often experience God through others.
How did Mary, the mother of the Christ, endure? Did she feel God was far away with every sideways glance at her growing belly? She was likely shunned. Her life had changed drastically. And yet, when she may have felt the loneliest, there were Elizabeth and faithful Joseph, and God drawing closer to her, growing inside her, the closest he had ever been.
So he is with us, just as he promised.
He doesn’t necessarily carry us out of our grief and hardships, but sits with us in them. Entangled with our moments of sadness, we also have the joy of hope. We have Christ Himself.
Although I grew up celebrating Christmas, it was not until recently that my family and I began to observe Advent more in earnest. During the last several years, we began reading through the Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament throughout the month of December. Our church annually held candlelight Christmas Eve services. We bought our own wreath with pink, lavender and white candles. We struggled year to year to find a devotional that seemed right for us.
I was eager to write down my own thoughts around the profound gospel message of Advent and Christmas. While my kids worked on math or grammar at the kitchen table during our home school year, I stole fifteen or twenty minutes here and there, delving into Scripture and the unfathomable idea that God would love us so much that he would become human.
This idea of incarnation from a God who loves us and longs deeply for us seems rich with meaning and significance far beyond the scope of one holiday season. It has been a spiritually rewarding experience to attempt to articulate the implications of God being one of us. In living a small, specific life, Jesus shows us he understands, he loves, he walks alongside us. There is so much comfort and challenge in that!
Immanuel: When God Was One Us is available through Amazon both in paperback and Kindle editions. I pray it may be a help during these times of chaos and stress and distraction.
from the Preface:
Christmas is a favorite time of year for many people, and for many, it is the most stressful or depressing. My desire is that this book may be an encouragement to both. In acknowledging both the joy and anguish of the season, we honor our dependence on God in a genuine way. It is my hope that this daily devotional will help quiet and focus our minds and hearts to celebrate and worship the Savior who came down to be one of us….In whatever way you participate, I pray you experience the truth of his presence, and eagerly await with me his final Advent.
Today, I would like to share a Christmas poem with you. It is by one of my favorite contemporary poets, Wendell Berry. I am not sure it is really a Christmas poem in the most traditional sense, for I think part of the poem speaks to the ordinariness of the moment. So much of the time we want Christmas to be extraordinary.
I appreciate authors who remind us of the holiness and the beauty in daily routines. I love when someone can effectively point and say to me, “Look. Don’t forget to notice this. Here is the divine thumbprint right here in the middle of your day.” Berry does this beautifully with his suggestions and anticipations of the holy family appearing in an ordinary barn.
So much of the time I fight against compartmentalizing holy things and ordinary things, spiritual and earthy. But Berry’s poem here showcases what the Gospels also do in extraordinary ways: it points out that we are not unreasonable to think that the most marvelous things can appear on a Tuesday, in the middle of a routine we have encountered countless times before.
Berry’s caution is that we be ready to see the holy.
A frequent greeting which falls from our lips this time of year is “Are you ready for Christmas?” And by this we mean, have you finished your Christmas shopping, do you have the meals shopped for and planned out, do you know where all the relatives will sleep, or how you will get to both sides of the family on Christmas Eve. We might rethink our intentions with this inquiry.
Are you ready?
Are you eagerly awaiting what has been long promised you? Are you resting in exuberant hopefulness? Is the Advent of the Son foremost in your thoughts? Are you ready to celebrate his once-upon-a-time birth and his most assured return?
May we be open to receiving the divine in our life. May we be open to recognizing the blessings and the light, just as the wise men recognized the bright, auspicious star. May we make room for him as we make room for the others before us who need a place to stay, a warm meal, or a sympathetic ear. Are we ready to welcome him as we welcome others in our lives? As we wait this advent, may we grow into a reflection of the holy Infant’s abiding love.
Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!
Someone asked me a day or two ago if my kids were getting antsy during our school time, ready for Christmas. I laughed out of frustration, admitted they were and questioned why in the world they should be. I mean, we took a large chunk of time off in November, going to Florida earlier in the month, and then spending a week down south at Oma’s and Opa’s. But it’s true. When there is an impending holiday, it IS hard to keep your nose to the grind stone, regardless of how much time you have had off previously.
We are struggling to teach new concepts at this point, and are basically treading water. My attempts at simplifying include possibly cutting grammar down to one more lesson until the new year (or possibly out altogether until after the new year). This is both for their sanity’s sake as well as my own. We are plodding through with math, happily continuing with volume four of Story of the World, and doing bits of reading and answering questions for science. I hope the older two are enjoying our Christmas read alouds, as well as the novels they are reading on their own.
As for my five-year-old G, he drifts in and out of our read aloud, depending on the story. He and I always read at bedtime. Currently, we are making our way slowly through Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Sometimes he wants to read out loud to me, but will only do so if it is Honus and Me by Dan Gutman, a book series A enjoyed a few years ago. The last week or so he is constantly trying to escape from me. He wants to play by himself, or most often with S. He has become increasingly more difficult to find in a compliant frame of mind for anything having to do with kindergarten curriculum. I think he needs a break from me. I am trying not to burden him with too many “have tos” this month.
Today after building with our citiblocs and our calendar time I let him play alone, collected paper and cookie cutters, and invited him back to make an advent calendar.
Don’t judge. We are not a crafty bunch here, and this was a spur of the moment thing. He chose the gingerbread man shape. We’ll remove one figure from the stairway each night before going on up to bed. Only two more weeks! In the meantime, we wait…
We wait for cookies and friends, for outings about town and unwrapping presents. We wait. Just as so many people have waited throughout the years for an answer, a lightening of their loads, waiting with anticipation and trepidation and waiting in faith.
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to…live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the present age, while we wait for the blessed hope- the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ..
If someone were to ask me what my favorite topics are during our homeschool day, I would have to include history, but the read alouds are by far my favorite. Even before we began homeschooling, even before I began bandying about the term “read aloud,” well, really long before my boys were even crawling, we have read together. While there are many wonderful academic and professional articles explaining the benefits of reading aloud to our children, the most profound reason for me is the shared vocabulary and language we acquire together. By this I do not exactly mean that we learn new vocabulary words together, or write down definitions from a dictionary, but rather our hearts speak the same language because we have traveled together through the pages of historical fiction, biographies, fantasies, allegories and adventures.
There are times when a single word conveys more than if one of us had spent dozens of words describing a scene. How powerful and fraught with meaning the following:
C A I R P A R A V E L
the unbreakable vow
churning butter with Ma
“All’s well that ends well.” coxswain landlubber
“no good, dirty rotten, pig-stealing great great grandfather.”
S T A Y G O L D.
You may or may not recognize all these references. I know my boys will certainly know the context and significance of each and every one. And if we are having a bad day, or we need a quick reminder of our bond, if we want to explain a correlation, or illustrate a similarity, we have the common (literary) language with which to do so.
Like most years, I am finding this season hectic. In looking for a balance between a manageable school load, and maintaining a home, it is difficult to determine what is necessary. Although I refuse to give up read alouds, I wasn’t sure we would have the stamina to begin a fresh book at this time of year. So, what follows is our list of seasonal short stories and excerpts, nearly all set at the Christmas season.
We have only read a few so far, and who knows in what order we will share them, but here is our Christmas 2015 read aloud list (not including our advent reading, of course). These are stories hand picked in hopes of promoting a true spirit of generosity, goodness, kindness and compassion that may long carry my boys past the holiday season. Admittedly, it is a challenge to find read alouds simple enough for the five year old, yet engaging enough for the 12 and 13 year olds. The following list combines some tales with thought provoking stories with complex vocabulary for the older two, as well as simpler stories which should be nostalgic for them. If someone barely in their teens can feel nostalgia.
As we recall these stories we might contrast Scrooge with Stefan Avdeyitch. We may see similarities in Jo March and Anne Shirley. Whatever may come out of our reading, I hope it will ignite dialog and bind us closer together. I hope you enjoy this list, or create one of your own. Please share if you do.
God bless us, everyone!
CHRISTMAS Reading list 2015:
1.”Where Love Is, God is There Also” by Leo Tolstoy. Technically, this is not a Christmas story, but it does take place in the winter. It quotes so much from the Gospel of Luke and Matthew and concentrates on love for mankind that it exudes the spirit of Christmas without naming it. This is not a children’s story, but one that older children should be able to appreciate. I can hardly make it through the poor cobbler’s tale without my voice cracking at least a bit at the end.
2. Elves and the Shoemaker by Paul Galdone. A classic.
3. from All of a Kind Family Downtown, “Christmas Stockings” by Sydney Taylor. I adored this book series growing up and learned so much about the practices of Jewish holidays from them. Henny and Charlotte were my favorites, but I also harbored a special love toward Guido, their Italian neighbor.
4. “Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry. When I was about A’s age I began saving birthday money and allowances to purchase leather bound books with gold pages. Dickens. Poe. R.L. Stevenson. And finally O. Henry. This Christmas classic is both sad and heart warming. It’s the one where the poor, young couple both get what they want for Christmas…sort of.
5. Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien. I have written about this collection last year. These letters, which the fantasy writer wrote to his children as they were growing up each Christmas, are poignant, in keeping with the times and laugh out loud funny. Hints of his trilogy abound. Goblins appear and make trouble. Polar Bear inevitably saves the day…and the toys.
6. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. No explanation needed. No matter how many movie or play versions you have seen, the original is superb.
7. from Little House on the Prairie, “Mr. Edwards Meets Santa Claus” by Laura Ingalls Wilder. There are many wonderful Christmas stories from this entire pioneer series, but for some reason this one has always been my guys’ favorite.
8. “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote. Sad , sweet, poignant and almost lyrical in his writing, Capote recounts for us a piece of his childhood long gone. Largely neglected in a small town in Alabama, he and his elderly cousin set out to make fruitcakes for their acquaintances. As a bonus I found this lovely illustrated edition at our library. Even with the lengthy text, it held even G’s interest.
9. from Anne of Green Gables, “Matthew Insists on Puffed Sleeves” by L. M. Montgomery. Because boys know what it is like to want something so badly, too.
10. “The Burglar’s Christmas” by Willa Cather. A surprising ending. A family reunion. The meaning of grace.
11. from Little Women, “Playing Pilgrims” and “A Merry Christmas” by Louisa May Alcott. Jo and Marmee. Because we may all have presents at Christmas, but there is always something more.
was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay:
in fields where they lay keeping their sheep on a cold winter’s night that was so deep.
As parents we strive to cultivate in our children a truth faith in Christ; we also fight against many cultural norms. It is a daily fight to keep materialism, egocentrism, and shallow worldviews out of our homes and hearts. This is precisely why yesterday’s church service pleased me so much. As we sang this beautiful Christmas hymn, I felt I was participating in my own culture, without having to fight against it. I was happy to participate in a typical custom and tradition – the singing of Christmas carols.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel
Whether your faith sustains you daily, or whether you only nominally believe, whether Christmas is for you a holiday full of presents, family and warm memories, or whether it is the fulfillment of God’s promises to bring His Son to help His people, if you celebrate Christmas, you most likely sing carols.
I was struck Sunday morning in church services by the sheer beauty of sharing something with the fellow believers around me, but also with those outside a religious context. I am not always happy with the lessons pop-culture throws at us spiritually, politically, and morally. Yet, today, God’s people are joyful in their sharing of this cultural tradition. However, in my mind, it is because of Christ we sing.
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on
whom his favor rests.” Luke 2:14
The angels emerged on the scene, albeit a small, bucolic scene, praising God’s plan in marked contrast to popular culture. While the entire Roman world was benefitting from “pax Romana” the angels sang of an abiding, ancient, eternal peace. Their chorus resounded of a peace beyond political realms, and social boundaries. Sunday morning we stood next to other believers, professing His birth for the sake of our community and for the sake of the world. We sang of the peace of God.
And by the light of that same star
Three wise men came from the country far;
to seek for a King was their intent,
and to follow the star wherever it went;
Like the wise men, for many of us peace is an incomprehensible, distant thing.
“He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.” Ephesians 2:17
The angels sang of both glory and peace. The joy and warmth of the season should be felt in this message – We thank God.
We share His gift of peace with all we meet.
As you love the holly leaves this winter, as you breathe deeply of spicy evergreens, may you breathe in and love His peace, whether you are far from Him now, or close enough to call Him Christ.
There are times when I gaze upon my oldest son, A, and just feel profoundly blessed. In these moments I feel both thankful and competent in parenting him. When I truly look and see him for who he is in all his astounding intelligence, quirky behavior, and compassionate, tender heart, I am humbled and proud that he belongs to this family. I am happy that God placed him here in our care. Then there are those other times. No, I am not a horrible parent, nor does my love waver. And yet there are other times, other times when I am quick to lose patience. Quick to think that Asperger’s is just an excuse today for disobedience and callousness (Did I just say that out loud?). Quick to actually tell him that I have already answered that same question four times in a row. During these times I begin to feel disatisfied and overwhelmed. How in the world will I parent today, much less through the weighty days ahead of me?! How could God find him a home here? Why has he entrusted me with so much?
Motherhood can be overwhelming.
Then, I think of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a young girl. How did she get through it?
“May it be as you have said.” Luke 1:38
A is a precious soul whom God has entrusted to me and my husband to raise, nurture, and point in the right direction. Mary, however, was given the Creator. How is it even possible to train God? How is it possible to teach God to fold laundry? to breathe deeply before he gets upset? to pray?
“With God all things are possible.” Luke 1:37
Did Mary feel overwhelmed, impatient, unworthy? How did she cope when she just didn’t feel capable? When she didn’t have an education? creativity? energy?
“for the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is his name.” Luke 1:49
There are times when my grandiose plans for the day, or the year, seem to overshadow the simple fact that A, S and G need me to point them to Jesus. There are a myriad of things they need to learn before they reach eighteen, but no task is greater than pointing them to Jesus.
“[Mary] treasured all these things in her heart.Luke 2:51b
As a mother, Mary knew that in order to teach the Son, she had to spend time with the Father. As a mother, I struggle with teaching my son, because I so often fail to spend time with the loving Father. He pointed the wise men toward Bethlehem by a unique star. The shepherds ran, dazed and excited, pointing others to a lowly stable in Bethlehem. Life skills and social skills are important, but what is vital is that A know Jesus. Someone needs to point the way.
I recently sang the old Christmas carol, “Angels We Have Heard on High.” Part of the third stanza prompted me to think of Mary and Joseph as vulnerable, as vulnerable as I am.
See Him in a manger laid,
Whom the choirs of angels praise,
Mary, Joseph, lend your aid,
While our hearts in love we raise.
They struggled. They were small, as small as a stable. All Mary had was her willing heart. She knew how to point.
Motherhood is overwhelming. Although I may not be as competent as A deserves, I am always able to point, to point to the One who inspired a unique star.
Proudly, S has just reached the double digits. It is unbelievable to me that a decade has already breezed by since his perfectly round, smiley face entered the world. Now that the homey and family-oriented celebrations of Thanksgiving and S’s birthday are over, there will be another blur, and then we will be up late wrapping last minute Christmas presents. Have you begun to feel the stress and hurriedness of the season? In between history lessons, shopping, preparing meals, bed time stories and mopping the kitchen floor, I highly doubt there will be much time for me to find a clever Christmas craft. Let’s face it – boys just do not care about making snowmen out of pom-poms and cotton balls. Yet, I want them to find the holidays meaningful and memorable. I want them to internalize the truths of a Christmas advent. It is not just about Christmas shopping, baking and cookies; it is not just for the fun of hand crafts, but about being joyful, deeply thankful, and expectant as we imagine peering into the feeding trough of a stable in the Jewish countryside.
Christmas, in so many ways, is already for children. There are presents. There are cookies and cocoa. There are parties. And so, I hardly feel like a killjoy when I invite my children to sit down with me to open the Bible and read some prophecies. These prophecies from the Old Testament help us to define the signficance of Advent, a patient, watchful waiting for the Promised One. Do I believe that A, S and G are as excited about doing this with me in the evening, as say, licking the cookie dough off the beaters? Hardly. Do I believe they fully grasp the profundity of Christ’s incarnation? Of course not. However, even G, at three years old takes his emotional cues from us, his parents. He is excited when we are. He is calm and happy when we are. These are the seeds as a parent I wish to plant: Christmas is a time to be quiet and thank Jesus; Christmas is a time to share the beautiful stories with those you love.
The following are some of the beautiful stories we will be sharing in the evenings. I have listed the prophecies of Christ which deal specifically with his birth and identity. We will be choosing one per evening. I have no visual aid, but if you have a crafty idea for how to make this more visually appealing for little ones, by all means let me know! I am just choosing not to stress over this, but to allow God’s Word to work on little hearts at this time of year.
ADVENT READINGS WITH CHILDREN
Genesis 3:15 – Man has done bad things, but God always had a special plan. Jesus is the answer to our problem. He came so we can be friends with God.
Genesis 22:17-18– God even reminds Abraham of the promise. Everyone will be blessed because of Jesus.
Isaiah 7:14– Jesus will born to a girl not yet married. Jesus will be human, but completely from God! His name will mean “God with us.”
Isaiah 9:6-7– Jesus will be our peace. He will last forever; He is God.
Jeremiah 23:5– Jesus will be from David’s family.
Psalm 2:7– Jesus is God’s Son.
Psalm 132:11– Jesus will be a king on David’s throne forever.
Micah 5:2–Jesus will be born in the small town of Bethlehem, the town of David, but will also be God.
Jeremiah 31:15– Jesus will be protected by God, even though the King will try to destroy him.
Hosea 11:1– Jesus will spend time in Egypt under God’s protection, and be called out of Egypt as someone very special. This verse has so many fulfillments. It may be interesting to discuss with older children how Hosea could be talking about Israel and Jesus simultaneously.
Zechariah 6:12-13 – Jesus is the “Branch,” a word sounding like Nazareth or the town where Jesus grew up. He is both our priest and king combined.
Luke 1:26-2:20– Many of the prophecies above are already seen fulfilled. THIS is why we celebrate Christmas. Our LORD has come. The angels rejoice, and so do we.
Christmas Eve and morning will be filled with tearing into packages, squeals of excitement, and Lego boxes littering the floor, but I hope over the years my boys will also remember the quiet thrill of waiting for Jesus’ coming. An advent not just for uncovering the chocolate behind the flap on the calendar,but instead an invitation for watchfulness through the centuries, for celebrating a Jewish baby for the world.