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Being Present This Christmas


Christmas eve at our home was about dinner and then an evening of opening gifts. As young kids, we looked forward to it with great anticipation.  We usually had dinner at the Gaddie’s house, so mom and dad would let us open one gift before we went to dinner, and then the rest when we got home–usually late at night.

I remember some of my favorite gifts. Mrs. Beasley, a talking doll.  Shrinking Violet, another talking doll.  Mighty Mike, a truck that could do anything.  And when I got older, a pair of my favorite “Seafarer” jeans.

I think back about those holidays and I remember the tree and opening gifts and the feeling of anticipation. They were good memories.  Time with family.  Time with family friends.

But the focus was on the gifts and the opening of gifts. At times, it was embarrassing.  So many gifts piled under the tree.  We joined in the consumerism that drives Christmas in America.

Guilty as charged.

But, four years ago, that changed for me.  Our Pastor and a few other pastors from around the United States introduced a radical idea:  Advent Conspiracy.  It was exactly what I needed–affirmation that I could get off the treadmill of consumerism and celebrate Christmas in a way that honors Christ.

I’m so grateful.

Advent Conspiracy is about reclaiming Christmas for Christ — worshiping fully, spending less, giving more [time], and loving all during the season of advent. Advent Conspiracy asks us to be present this holiday–present in the lives of those we know and love.  To give of ourselves by making gifts or just spending time with those we love.  To avoid racking up credit card charges for gifts out of a feeling of obligation.  Instead,  to focus on Christ and his love for the world.  To worship Him, and in doing so, to love the world–to love the least of these.

Advent Conspiracy has changed Christmas for our family. We buy no gifts.  In fact, after Thanksgiving, the only shopping I do is for groceries and household items.  The stress of the traffic and crowds, the pressure to find the perfect gift for each person, is gone.

Instead, we pack up our car and spend three days together as a family at the beach. While it is still a “gift” to take a short trip, it is a gift of time together.  This is our fourth year.  And, I can’t tell you how it feels to have our now young adult children “anticipate” Christmas.  Beginning in July, the kids start asking about the trip.  And, from September on, we hear over and over how much they are looking forward to the trip.

It isn’t fancy or eventful, after all, it rains at the Oregon Coast all winter. So, we’re pretty much stuck indoors as a family for three days.  Together, we cook, read books, build puzzles, play games, sit by the fire and look out on God’s creation–and even brave walking on the beach in the wind and rain.  And, we also catch up on each others lives.  We spend time being present–living in the moment.  Laughing, talking, loving.

Advent Conspiracy–our celebration of Christ’s birth–is more than that, too. Advent becomes a season of Worship because we don’t have to think about buying gifts or spending money.  And, instead of giving what might be meaningless or trivial gifts, we give to local and international charities–to the least of these.  To those who Christ asks us to love as He loved.

God’s gift to us was a relationship with Christ–a relationship rooted in love. I’m praying that we celebrate Christ’s birth in a way that reflects His love.  I’m praying for a season of being present in the lives of others.

May your season be so blessed.

Here is the Advent Conspiracy Video.  I hope you enjoy it!


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Unfortunate Lives: Taking Off Our Game Faces


Sometimes I think that, as an American, I have an unfortunate life. I have much and those around me do, too.  Most of us have roofs over our heads — nice roofs, and walls, and furnishings.  And, most have food on the table. Ample food, although, not always healthy food. I live in a country where most people follow the rule of law — we have a government and laws in place.  And, I live in a country that hasn’t seen combat on its soil for decades.  I feel safe leaving my home and carrying out the business of my days. I have civil rights, freedom of religion, and the right to speak and write freely.

So with all those blessings, how could I believe I live an unfortunate life? While I have all the good — a home and food, a government, a country in which I have rights and privileges–I also have so much isolation. I–we, as Americans–might live in busy cities and share our homes with our families.  But we tend to live in isolation from others because we fear authenticity–we fear being open and candid and vulnerable with others.  And, we often don’t make the time to share in the lives of others in a meaningful way.

I become acutely aware of this every fall–when school starts. I teach in a demanding graduate program.  I’ve sat where my students now sit.   I stand now on the other side of the podium–in the front of the class.  And, every year, I see the same thing:  students, sitting upright in their seats.  Game faces on.  Trying to show, on the outside, that they are smart, intelligent, articulate, and successful. That they understand every word, concept, doctrine, and theory they are learning. That they are confident they will find success in school and beyond.  That life is a bowl of cherries.

But I know better. They show the game faces–the faces we show the world, even when our lives are in crisis.  I know this because I sat where they sat, game face on while I juggled family, marriage, and my mother’s terminal cancer.  I sat there with my game face on while my teachers and classmates were oblivious to how close I sat to having everything fall down around me.  I know this also because every year for the past eight years a few students come into my office, close the door and tell me.  The stress of school, the pressure to do well, the events of life ongoing while they are trying desperately to stay on top of their studies seems too much to bear. The game faces come off and I see the individual’s heart — their true self.  I see authenticity.

The rows of students sitting upright in class–and for that matter, the rows of people sitting upright around me in pews on Sunday–remind me that we are a broken people. But, because our worlds don’t look broken, we feel isolated.  We see a world and reflect a world that looks great on the surface.  But, when we look beyond the surface, we have broken relationships–shallow, meaningless or hurtful relationships–pain, crisis, loss, fears.  True suffering.  And we feel absolutely alone at times.

That is why I believe I live an unfortunate life, and that many Americans live unfortunate lives. The facade that life is good, the privilege of living in a country filled with affluence and rights and privileges and opportunities push us toward isolation–encourage us to put on our game faces.

I need authenticity. We, as people in community, desperately need it. We need to take off the game faces — the masks–and make life about building relationships, not about building lives that look good on the surface.  We need to engage each other.  Embrace each other.  And throw off the things in this world that prevent us from doing that.

We might fear rejection or humiliation if we take off our game face. That is a risk.  But, when the isolation becomes overwhelming, or when the task of making things look okay on the surface becomes too much, maybe then the risk will be worth it. And. maybe then we’ll find the lives that Christ wants for us.  Lives that allow His light to shine, even in the darkness. Lives filled with hope and joy and love and grace.

The Man Who Stored Up Relationships, Not Treasures


We arrived at the small, suburban home nestled in the southwest hills. As we approach the walkway, I notice the slightly overgrown yard and the open garage door.  Two white Toyota sedans.  The same, but different years. Both older but well cared for.

Rick and his family warmly greet us. We needed to catch up on life and kids and work.  It had been too long.  As the afternoon drifted into early evening, I felt relaxed and I gazed at this unusual group.  A group of people all chatting as though old friends.  A farmer, a secretary, a few lawyers, a professor, a judge, a homemaker, a few business owners.  Most of us would not know each other, except for these annual gatherings.  Strange how Rick had managed to bring all his friends together and made us friends, too.

We catch up on each others’ lives and talk current events. The occasional, “I’m sorry, I don’t remember your husband’s name” or “now how many kids do you have” doesn’t stifle the genuine warmth of the conversation.  We all know there are just too many of us to keep track of all the details.

But I notice more here. Not just the relationships that Rick has planted and grown from nothing.  But, I notice–as I do every year–how simply Rick and his family live.  Sparsely furnished rooms. Furniture that hasn’t been replaced in years–perhaps ever.  But a home that is clean.  Simple. Comfortable.

This man, who could have much more, chooses to live simply. I realize that as long as I have known him, he has never valued things.  I can’t recall ever hearing him talk of cars or homes or things he’d like to have.  Rather, his conversations focus around friends and relationships, family, education, great books, history, politics, baseball, and the economy.

I think of Matthew, chapter 6:

Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. . .

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more important than food . . .

–Matthew 6:19-21; 6:25

I think to myself, This man is wise–wiser than I ever realized.

As the sun gets ready to set, we begin our goodbyes and “see you next years.” I leave with the reminder of what it means to live in a way that reflects God.  A relational God.

The day reminds me that it is okay–in fact, good–to live counter-culturally. That is what God wants for us.

I am blessed and my spirit is renewed.

Godspeed,

Elizabeth

Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Graduation: The Teacher’s View


Graduation events begin today. Parents flying in from out-of-town.  Family gatherings.  Proud moments for children, parents, grandparents.  This is a big day.

The students, young adults, walk across the stage and receive their graduate degrees. Three or four years of hard work brought them here.  They feel a sense of accomplishment, completion, pride.  They should.

As a teacher, I am proud too. I see the growth in these students over the course of their time here.  From struggles and new beginnings — to confidence and moving on to another new beginning. They embark now on new careers.

The teacher is left behind. Students move on.  I find I am reflective, melancholic, about sending these students off.  Pleased for them.  Sad for me.

They have enriched my life. They helped bring out the best in me.  They helped me become a better teacher.

And so, I pray from the Psalms for each of these students.

Show them where to walk,
Let them give themselves to you.

Rescue them from their enemies, LORD;
Let them run to you to hide them.

Teach them to do your will,
for you are God.
May your gracious Spirit lead
them forward
on a firm footing.

For the glory of your name, O LORD, preserve their lives.
Because of your faithfulness,
always bring them out of distress.

In your unfailing love, silence all their enemies
and destroy all
their foes,
for
they am your servants.

Psalm 143 (modified)

Do you have a teacher who you left behind as you moved on? What about that teacher enriched your life? Do you ever wonder whether you enriched that teacher’s life?

Glimpses of a Child’s Heart


Words reveal my son’s heart. They take me by surprise. Not because the words are a surprise, but because such words are held. Reserved for times of need. Reserved for the unexpected.

A heart once revealed. Now, held close to the chest. Like a poker player’s hand.

I understand. I once knew that posture. Rare glimpses of true self revealed–to parents.  A breaking away. Becoming self.  Carefully choosing what is shown.

I long to know his heart. But, I understand. And so, I wait for the glimpses and rejoice in them.

I think: God must feel this way. He must long to know us. True selves.  All of us. The deeply hidden.  The unmentionable. The heart and soul.

He waits. Patiently. If I will just open my eyes.  My heart.  Turn toward Him. Seek Him.  Listen.  Breathe Him in.

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