Sunday, December 27, 2015

When Life Doesn't Look Like a Hallmark Movie - For the Hurting Heart This Holiday Season

Christmas day has come and gone, ornamented trees are coming down, lights and decorations put away, store shelves stocked with goods for the next holiday.

For many people, Christmas is over, for our family, it has just begun.

But maybe, for you, the one with the hurting heart, the one who is grieving a loss, the one who has lost their job, is suffering the pain of divorce, is aching from loneliness, maybe you're ready for Christmas to be over, too.

Because, sometimes when we're hurting, the holidays just make the hurt worse.

Why is that?

Is it because with the holidays comes a hopeful expectation for something better, something more in life? And when things don't get better, don't become more, we just become more deeply aware of all of the things that aren't right in our own lives?

It's supposed to be the "most wonderful time of the year." But it isn't, is it?

I know that feeling.

This is the third Christmas that I've watched my husband suffer from Lyme disease.  The third Christmas where my prayers for his healing have not yet been answered.  The third Christmas where I have shopped alone for gifts. The third Christmas where I have sat across from him at a beautifully set table covered in Christmas dishes, candles, and steaming plates prepared with love, and watched him struggle to be present to any of it.

I see his eyes drift in and out of conversation, one minute he notices the six beaming faces delight as they snarf down chocolate cake with peppermint ice cream.  The next minute he is far away, and I know it is my turn to bring the conversation to a happy place....until he can find us again.

And yet I'm keenly aware, at the dinner table and at all times, that my efforts must match his supreme efforts to really be with the family, heart and soul, when really all he wants to do is curl up in bed and try to forget how this awful disease has taken a hold of his body and turned it into something he can't stand to live within.

If you're still with me, if you, too, are one with a hurting heart this Christmas, I want to tell you one thing: Christmas is not over.

Maybe you want it to be.  I feel you.  That was me last year and the year before.  Frustrated, cynical. Tempted to leave the Merry out of Christmas.

But, something broke through all of that this year. 

That something, call it the Holy Spirit, the fruit of prayer, or mercy, pierced through my doubting mind and my hardened heart, and reminded me that Christmas is not made of sentiment.  

It is not a Hallmark movie, our favorite tunes and a cozy fire, the hoped-for gift tucked under the tree, or even a perfectly polished life placed upon that tree like an ornament for all of our family and friends to admire.

Don't get me wrong, those lovelies are all nice, but the truth is,

Christmas isn't any of those things.

Christmas is HIM, just HIM.

It's the truth that He came for you and for me. Whether we feel it or not.  And, if for a moment you think that He doesn't love you, or doesn't understand the weight of your burdens, or can't possibly feel just how raw and real your pain is, try to remember, and then hold on to the truth that...

He came into the world in utter poverty,
in filth, it piercing cold, and he had no home.
Within moments of his birth, already His very life was in danger.

For 30 years, no one knew Him.  
He hadn't wealth or fame, or accolades - 
And He. Was. GOD!

He wept over the loss of friends, was rejected, spat on,
falsely accused, assaulted with temptations.  He was hungry,
tired, angry, poor. And He, too, desired for things to be
different, but embraced the hardships anyway.

And He held on to that cross in total freedom, in perfect Love,
not only to redeem us, but to show us how to hold on too.

So what is it that we, you and I, are enduring that He cannot possibly understand, cannot possibly love us through?  Nothing.  Not one thing.

Yes.  That is Christmas.

And I'm slowly learning, through my husband's suffering, that God will never force us to receive Him. Not as the infant lying in the manger, nor the man crucified on the cross, nor the resurrected Savior. It is up to us, through grace-filled acts of faith, to love Him in return through our trust - trust in the very purpose that God has written within our lives - even within our hardships and sufferings.

More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.  (Romans 5:3-5)

As much as we long to be freed of our crosses, let's us not be afraid to embrace the reality that they can have a mighty transformative power, if we let them!

The lack of this or that in my life over these past three years has served to show me not what is missing from life, but what is truly present.  
(Photo credit, unknown)
Suffering has a way of adjusting our focus and our priorities.

Some days, when I feel as though an ounce more struggle will surely break me in two, there stands beside me two chubby bare feet, two little hands clinging to my legs, two little eyes gazing up at mine, and a giggle that is so utterly sweet, I can't think of anything better.  

Joseph is the butter on my daily bread. Without the pain he would not serve as such a healing balm to my heart. Before the pain, I would not have noticed him so completely, because I would not have needed him so deeply. 

Man, am I thankful for him, for all of our children, and for every good thing in my life that I am seeing with a fresh set of eyes - and loving with greater appreciation than I ever did before.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. 
I do not give to you as the world gives. 
Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.  (John 14:27)

The heart that trusts is a heart that is able to experience joy, even in the midst of suffering.  Our smiles become not a mask of our pain, fears and frustration, but a sign of our confidence in the infant Jesus, in Emmanuel, God with us, in this truth: He has come for ALL OF US.

The Lord Himself goes before you and will be with you;
He will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid, do not be discouraged."
(Deuteronomy 31:8)

And He knows us - better than we know ourselves.  And he will never leave us. Not for a second

So, as the world around us tucks away the trappings of Christmas, let us not, you and me, say farewell to to the gift of this beautiful season.  Let us hold on to it today and in the days to come, trusting, hoping and clinging to its promises (He has come for US!), and let us hold on ever tighter in the moments when life hurts the most. 


Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Blessing Bags Project - Helping Kids Help the Homeless

"Truly I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these brothers and 
sisters of mine, you did for me."
(Matthew 25:40)

Whether we're heading to doctor appointments, or simply wanting to check out the latest museum exhibits, there are a few streets in our neighboring city where we are certain to encounter homeless individuals.

My heart always sinks when I see the needy.  Most often, our family really tries to go out of our way to meet those people, to ask them if we can buy them a meal or anything else they may be in need of. But, when we are running late to our destination, I can't help but think to myself, I wish I had something (other than money) to give them as we're passing by.

This past fall as I was running out of Wal-Mart, late getting home to relieve the babysitter, I spotted a homeless woman wondering through the parking lot.  I had no cash, and no time to run and get her a hot meal.  As I dug through my bag of groceries trying to collect as few things to offer her, I wished I could just put my life on pause and take her across the street for a hot meal.

When I arrived home, I shared with the boys my encounter with the woman, and asked them straight up, "What do you think we can we do as a family to be more helpful?" After a little bit of brain-storming, George suggested that we make bags of small necessities that can be kept in the van and offered to the homeless whenever we are out and about.
I loved his idea.

While Steve and I are thankful that Benedict and Andrew are old enough to volunteer at a local soup kitchen, it's more of a challenge to find ways that our younger children can serve the needy, too.  This was an answer to that challenge!
George and Henry hard at work.  I love it when they don't know they're learning!

We decided to pitch the idea of creating the "Blessing Bags" to our CC community, and they graciously agreed to help out.  George, Henry and I spent just a few hours over a week's time gathering supplies, collecting donations, and boxing up all of the goods for our assembly line.
With many helping hands, our little homeschool community was able to assemble fifty blessing bags in just minutes.  All of the kids were so enthusiastic and did such a great job completing the project!

These are the items we included in the bags:

- one pair of black socks
- hand warmers
- small package of Kleenex
- toothbrush and small toothpaste
- sugar-free gum
- trail mix
- chap stick
- hot chocolate packets
- $10 Wal-Mart gift card

The bags themselves were purchased from Oriental Trading, and most other items were either donated or purchased at Sam's Club.  I also purchased some inexpensive tags at a craft store and stamped on each side of them the saying: May the comfort of God's love fill you with hope and peace. 
Thinking about making the bags with your own family, church, or school community?

Many businesses, especially big-box stores, will be happy to donate items if you request them far enough in advance. Share your story with friends and family, and more than likely someone will want to pitch in! One request that is pretty simple is for the toothbrushes and toothpaste.  Don't be afraid to ask your dentist for these items.

Just a few days after assembling the bags, I came across a very helpful article which included details on how to make care packages for the homeless.  After reading it which items are appreciated, and which ones are best left out, I felt like we did a pretty good job choosing the items for our bags, but maybe we'll consider including a few different items next year.

I hope the blessing bags can become an annual tradition for our community.  Perhaps you, too, can initiate the project in your own family, homeschool community, church, or neighborhood! 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Advent - It's Never Too Late To Celebrate

Yesterday was, according to my little guys, Pink Candle Sunday.  Not having any sisters, the boys have declared pink, and every shade of it, to be a girls only color.  That is why, every year at this time, in total humiliation, I must offer our priest the "forgive us our trespasses" look during Holy Mass as my boys try to contain their giggles over father's rose pink vestments.

Oy vey, and pass the eggnog.

Really, Pink Sunday, better known as Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of joy, is ever a sweet reminder for us to remain hopeful and joyful in the very meaning of Advent - adventus - coming.

He is coming!

Perhaps, if you are reading this, you might feel as though it is too late to even consider celebrating Advent with your family.  I say, it's never too late! Why? Because Advent is not about the external decorating for yet another holiday, but rather it is first and foremost about the interior disposition of the heart.

Sure, the external reminders that we place about the home, or traditions often practiced, such as the hanging of the Jesse Tree ornaments or lighting of the candles on the Advent wreath, are all wonderful, but truly not necessary for one to live fully the beauty of Advent.  Why? Because one of the primary goals of living Advent as a season of preparation (usually through sacrifice and prayer), is to foster a longing for Christ.  We await His coming.  We long for Him as the Israelites longed for their Savior.  We take the time to reflect upon our lives, to look deep inside our hearts seeking to find those very things that we may have placed there in priority above Jesus, those temporary comforts and distractions that we may have accepted as an artificial substitute for the only One that can truly satisfy.

So, here we are, just two weeks before the end of Advent and the beginning of Christmas, and I say, it's not too late to lay aside the pre-Christmas party that our culture has declared to be the norm, and begin living the true meaning of Advent!

If you are ready today to focus your mind and heart on Advent through prayer or spiritual reading, but have also resolved to make a better attempt at experiencing the Advent journey in your home next year (I do this every year!), here are just a few things to consider as we approach this holy season in 2016:

1. Silence It - Those voices in your head that you hear after reading every blog post and Pinterest page about the very best way Advent happen in your home? The ones that leave you feeling like it should be doing something more, or different, or better than the way you're currently doing it? Yeah, go ahead and shush those babies. {Struggling? You gotta read this!} 

Silence the distractions - the voices that tell you you're inadequate, the overkill of television and social media reminders of what we really need this Christmas, whatever it may be that keeps you from finding that moment of quiet where you can really hear God speak to your heart.

3. Sanctify It - Ora et Labora! Yes, this can be such a crazy busy time of year.  Maybe you're just longing to sit like a monk during vespers, completely recollected three times a day in perfect silence to pray, but if you're not wearing a habit, that's not going to happen, right?  So, we pray while we work - while we fold laundry, bake cookies, clean our homes and run the carpool.

And, if there is a moment somewhere in between all of the activity, hopefully the graces we so desperately need to help us devote those precious moments to prayer will be lavished upon us. I started praying this novena prayer a couple of years ago, and finally memorized it.  Since it is said fifteen times a day, I can meditate upon it's words while doing any of my chores throughout the day.

2.  See It - If you like, place a few reminders around your home, those special things that are meant to help keep our hearts and minds focused on the meaning of the season. But, don't feel like you have to do everything or do everything everyone else is doing! Do what is meaningful to you, and make the most of it!

I've been trying for years to be that "great" mom that make the homemade Jesse Tree Ornaments for her children, and have never even come close.  Finally, one of my brilliant offspring suggested I just buy some instead.  Genius!

In addition to the Advent wreath, our read-aloud book basket, and Jesse Tree, we're trying out two new traditions. First, the Advent Tree.  
This is a simple way to make your traditional Christmas tree pull double duty.  We strung up lights on what will soon become the Christmas tree, and then adorned it with a beautiful ribbon (thank you Hobby Lobby) that has every name of Jesus inscribed upon it. Simple! We will add our family ornaments and the angel on Christmas Eve.
Second, instead of setting out the nativity (we will wait until Christmas!), this year I created a special place on our buffet for the beautiful hand carved statue that my family gave me for my birthday. Meditating upon Mary's serenity as she cradles her son, is a reminder to me that Jesus is everything. Only in Him will I find true peace and joy.

4.  Savor It - Instead of just getting through Advent, why not to savor it?  For me this means putting the phone down, setting the camera aside (I know, it can be second nature to capture every cuteness, but sometimes it's wonderful just to let the picture leave its mark on your heart!), minimizing shopping and decorating, and saying no to unnecessary activities and obligations if I can.

Breathe in God's peace, breathe out the stress. Maybe there are only two weeks left of Advent, a time that can truly inspire a deeper longing and greater anticipation for the Christ Child in our souls, but it's never too late to make the most of it!

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

We're Two of a Kind Workin' On a Full House - Garth Brooks, Gratitude, and Lovin' Your Man

Last week, when Steve received a text from a good friend asking if we'd like to go with him and his wife to see Garth Brooks in concert, he couldn't respond "yes" fast enough!  Garth's music sat at the top of our cd stacks through high school and college.  We made a lot of memories to his music country swing dancing, road tripping, and for Steve, passing the long hours on the tractor stacking hay in the hot summer sun.

We still love to take a spin around the kitchen floor to his tunes while the kids pull k.p. duty.

One of our favorite hits from back in the day was Two of a Kind Workin' On a Full House. During our engagement, we'd talk about our dreams of raising a big family in the country on a farm, and this song became a soundtrack for that dream.
It was such a neat feeling to be standing in a sold-out crowd Sunday night, singing along to this song, Steve's hand on my expectant tummy, knowing that our house really is becoming a full one!

We talked non-stop all the way home about the concert, our favorite songs, and funny stories of our dating and engagement days.  It was truly wonderful.

Unfortunately, when we got home, the tacos I snarfed down before the concert decided to wake me up.  I grabbed my robe and snuck out to the living room, where I found a comfy space on the couch right between two Hot Wheels and an algebra book.

In the silence of the late night hours, as I waited for my stomach to settle down, I couldn't help but think back upon the day and all of it's blessings.

The afternoon prior to the concert had been spent outdoors.  We soaked in all the loveliness of the fifty-degree weather by trekking out to find the perfect Christmas tree, then Steve played basketball with the boys, squeezing every last drop of sunlight out of the day.

As I sat at the dining room table trying to whittle away at my online Christmas shopping, my attention was constantly drawn away from Amazon and out to the great intensities of both laughter and fierce competition on the basketball court.

Something inside of me felt so indescribably happy and content.
Joey getting ready to saddle up for a ride around the yard.
Rose. She's part horse, part pillow, part pooch - and not a bit the watch dog type.
I grabbed my camera and ran out to snap a few pics of the boys.  It's the every day stuff that I love the capture most.  The big events are wonderful, of course, but it's the ordinary things that I never want to forget, because they are the substance of our life together.

Somehow, as I marveled at our family from behind the lens, I knew I would need these very pictures to remind myself during the most difficult days, when Steve is feeling so terrible that both of us are challenged to remain hopeful that he'll ever be healed, that there really is is joy between the pain, and generosity within the exhaustion.
I am amazed every single day at how Steve is able to answer the call to be a father to our sons, no matter how badly the Lyme is trying to beat him up on the inside.

When I see that that kind of love, I know it's the kind of love that changes people. It makes us better, helps us to forget about ourselves, and moves us to love freely, unreservedly, selflessly.

Drawn into the memories of the afternoon, it suddenly dawned on me, as I sat curled up on the couch, arms wrapped around my expanding middle, that while I've been trying for weeks now to finish up all of the Christmas shopping, that there is one ultimate gift I need, forever and always, to give our children and that is to love their father, and to love him well.

Sometimes I feel like as a mother I can get caught up in the idea that the best gifts I can give to our family are the gifts of a perfectly kept home, remembering to make special treats for every occasion, volunteering to lead our children's activities, coaching sports....all of the things that, while are at root very good things, can make life so unbelievably crazy that I lose sight of the time and attention that those, whom I so desperately love, need and long for.

At the top of that list is my husband.

Not the kids.

My husband.

Advent is such a perfect time to take a moment to evaluate how we love, to settle our little restless hearts down, to ponder life quietly in our hearts, just as Our Mother Mary did.

This is hard for me, because I'm such a doer.  But, I would be amiss if I really believed, for even a second, that filling my heart and my time with the details of busyness will actually make me a better wife and mother.

Loving my husband through thoughtful conversation, anticipating his needs, being a good listener, creating opportunities for him to spend time with the children, complimenting his strengths in front of the children, these are the things that truly matter.  

I realize that no family is perfect, and some of you may be feeling frustrated reading this, especially if you're experiencing a difficult time in your marriage right now.  I want you to know that, as I write this, I have paused to pray for you. I want to share my deepest empathy and compassion with you, but also I want to encourage you.  Don't give up.  Keep praying.  Keep striving. Keep loving.  The Lord will honor your generosity, your love.

When you and I love our husbands well - even if it feels difficult at times, we show our children how to love.  We give them a great sense of security.  We give honor to their father, and show them how to honor and respect him, too.

Our truest love for one person, is not of a singular focus, it is a love multiplied.  It pours out over our children in the most beautiful ways, and (by God's grace and design) becomes the very best gift we can give them - now, in this Holy season, and always.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Cuisinart 8 Cup Food Processor Times Two - One For Me, and One for You!!

Something kind of awesome happened here yesterday.

While my eyeballs were multi-sensing between third declension noun endings (Latin nerds we are) and cyber Monday deals, I had one hand on the phone and the other swinging between a cold cup of coffee and a hurricane toddler.  Check-marking my way through a list of phone calls that had to be made, I finally arrived at the very last one: "Call Sur-la-Table customer service."

Ugh.  Customer service.  You never know exactly what you're gonna get served, right?

But, people, this is where the awesomeness begins.
Just before Thanksgiving, I decided that in order to keep feeding this small army of men, who are hungry 24/7, I was going to have to rethink my battle plan in the kitchen.  While there's no room for a double oven or a six burner cook top, there is room (well, I can always make room) for a few smaller appliances that can help me zip through the prep work.

With coupon in hand and a free shipping code, I ordered a new food processor...only somewhere in the whole order-pack-ship process, they thought I needed not one, but TWO food processors.  So, yesterday I rang 'em up and requested that they send me a shipping slip so that I could return the second item.

Apparently that was just too much hassle for them.

So, they told me I could KEEP IT!!!!!!!!!!

I felt like I had just won the culinary lottery.
{All Photos compliments of Sur-la-Table.}

What is one to do with two food processors, exactly?

The third born suggested that he be allowed to disassemble it and use the parts to reconstruct a robot. That seems complicated.  And, dangerous. Blades + electricity = a trip to the ER.  Let's stick with Lego's and play dough.

While the boys discussed whey they thought I should do with my bonus machine, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it, and that's to GIVE IT AWAY TO ONE OF YOU!!!

We are all so busy at this time of year, so I don't want you to waste one moment trying to figure out what you have to do to win this thing.  You don't have to "like" or follow anything! Just follow the prompts below, and be sure that I have your name and e-mail so that I can contact you if you're the lucky winner!

*If the Rafflecopter is being uncooperative, you can send me an e-mail with your info, and I'll happily add you to the entry, or message me on Facebook.

a Rafflecopter giveaway