Sancti-not-me

imageThere’s an odd phenomenon I’ve encountered over the last couple of years. I find that parents, mothers in particular, when hearing how many children I have, tend to start explaining how they wanted more children or how they had considered having more or how they might use IVF to have more children. I’m not sure if my family size is a general conversation starter, much in the way modern art is. A sort of “What the hades?” type of thing. I might be hearing things incorrectly, but those explanations often sound like justifications about the number of children they have. As if I care how many children any one else has.

I don’t. Not because I am a rude or self-absorbed person, which I may be but that’s beside the point, the real reason why I don’t care about anyone else’s reproductive choices is because that’s my son over there, licking the slide.  See mom, whose hair looks brushed and actually has makeup on, you don’t have to explain how two kids works well for you. Two kids worked well for me too. My silence isn’t me judging you; my silence is me trying to remember if my son is wearing clean underwear this morning. I know I did yesterday, because he didn’t want to wear Doofensmirtz underwear, because he’s a bad guy. So, that means his underwear is relatively clean so that’s good. Did he just wipe his nose on his shirt again? Why? That sleeve was clean.

Huh? You have your hands full with two, yeah I can relate. I had two once. I used to dress them in matching outfits, and pack those snacks no matter how short the park trip. Yeah that one over there is mine too, the one running around your child trying to throw bark chips at him. That in his hand? Yeah that’s a waffle. It was his breakfast yesterday, he stashed it in the car, not sure where, since his sisters allegedly cleaned out the car yesterday.

Having large quantities of kids does not make me super mom. Don’t feel like you fail to measure up to my standards. I don’t typically wear my shirts inside out. Typically, I don’t treat spit up stains as accessories to outfits, but if you got it, flaunt it. Or at least look as if you know you’re covered in vomit. And I would scoot closer to you to visit, but there’s poop on this side of my pants. Hey I remembered a change of clothes for the baby, I’m feeling pretty awesome actually.

So no, I’m not judging you. I’m not close to judging you. I am wondering how loud I can raise my voice to get my daughter’s attention before you judge me. See, she’s supposed to be helping the toddler, who has now climbed the railing on the tall slide. But she’s still just spinning and singing. Thanks for having your child come to the rescue.

How do I do it? Not well. I’m sure one wears you out. I was worn out by one too. Now I’m just dazed and confused. You laugh, because you’re polite, but that’s the truth. Having more children than you doesn’t make me a better mother than you. It’s quite possible that there is nothing in this world that would make me a better mother than you. And I certainly don’t think anything of the number of children you have. I’m more preoccupied with the number of binkies I have now. Because I definitely had more when I left the house than now.

Motherhood seems to be the one occupation that you immediately doubt yourself. The default assumption is, if someone if doing it differently, she must be doing it better. Why is that? Why do we doubt ourselves so much? Why do we focus on what we are not doing for our children and not stop to think about everything we do for our children?  It’s not selfish or self-aggrandizing to think about what we do for our children. We don’t tend to think about it because it comes so naturally. We just mother as we should, as we can. We give what we are able. It’s because we want to give our children everything that we focus more on what we are not doing for them.

I know I need to stop that cycle in my own head. If I didn’t read to them last night maybe I need to step back and remember the caresses I gave them, the jokes I listened to, the chores I helped with. Not that reading to them isn’t important but that there were other important things that happened too.  Children don’t need a perfect mother. They don’t need us to solve everything for them, as odd as that sounds. They grow when they struggle with things, just as we do. We cannot be their everything always, and it’s unrealistic to expect us to be. And it’s good for them to see us struggle to balance and accomplish what we need to. It’s good for our children to see us work, work hard at caring for them.  Our children need US. Who we are. They need us to meet them where they are. We need to give ourselves to our children. And the way I give myself to my children most likely won’t work with yours. The way I spend time with them, the way I express affection, the way I discipline, the way I educate, it works, for the most part, for my family. And only my family.

By all means, look to other mothers for inspiration. But don’t let yourself feel guilty because your family life doesn’t look like theirs. It’s not supposed to. It’s supposed to look like yours. You can only give yourself and that will look the way it does. And your children, they don’t want anything other than your love as you give it.  That mom over there, in the clean clothes, stylish haircut with the home made snacks, she’s amazing. Her children are blessed. But she can’t give your children what they need the most. You. Your arms. Your kisses. Your encouragement. Your smile. Chances are your kids didn’t even notice her. They don’t know all that they are missing.  They just know that mom brought them to the park today…..because she’s the best mom ever.

January Reading

image“Up jumped Bilbo, and putting on his dressing-gown went into the dining room.  There he saw nobody, but all the signs of a large and hurried breakfast.  There was a fearful mess in the room, and piles of unwashed crocks in the kitchen.  Nearly every pot and pan he possessed seemed to have been used.  The washing-up was so dismally real that Bilbo was forced to believe the party of the night before had not been part of his bad dreams, as he had rather hoped.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Okay, so Christmas is not a bad dream.  Far, far from it.  But I always feel quite a bit like Bilbo in that scene from the second chapter of The Hobbit when all the festivities of the holidays are over; when our once-beautiful Christmas tree looks shriveled and forlorn; as the dry-as-toast pine needles are swept up; as we once again pack away our Nativity set, wrapping the Holy Family in tissue paper to save until next year; and we look out our windows (at least here in Oregon) and see the rain dismally dripping off the bare, black branches of the trees.

No, January is not, perhaps, my very favorite month.  But years ago I thought that, even with Christmas over and Ordinary time settling in, January could still be a beautiful time and decorations could still be up.  Winter decorations.  January could be a month to celebrate new beginnings, warm, snuggly blankets, steaming mugs of cocoa, the newest season of Downton Abbey, beautiful music like Windham Hill Artists, A Winter Solstice, and, of course, snow and snowflakes.  So, with that said, I have two snowy book recommendations that don’t have to be read during the Christmas season and can make you experience all the comfy-ness of being snowed-in, even if you live in Oregon…

imageTitle: Brave Irene
Author/Illustrator: William Steig
Ages: 3-9

This is a great classic children’s book.  The brave heroine–whose mother, a seamstress, is sick in bed–takes the dress made for the duchess all the way through a raging blizzard, forcing herself to get the package delivered on time.  She ends up with a sprained ankle, but is allowed to attend the ball and see the duchess dance in the beautiful gown her mother has sewn for the fabulous occasion.  Cute illustrations and a wonderful message about bravery and finishing what we start.

imageTitle: Owl Moon
Author: Jane Yolen
Illustrator: John Schoenherr
Ages: 4-9

Winner of the Caldecotte Medal, this lovely book reads like poetry.  A sweet, simple story of a child and her father who go looking for an owl, deep in the snowy forest, late one winter night.  Beautifully descriptive writing and flowing watercolor illustrations make you feel as if you are there in the cold, dark forest.

My New Year’s Resolution

imageSo, 2016 rolls around . . . more like rolls over, the head still pulsating, throbbing hot and tight from last year’s could’ve/should’ve/would’ve hangover. I sit in church and look down at baby #7, nursing full and strong, nestled deep against a nearly extra forty pounds on this 5’4 frame—there’s a project in and of itself. I look ahead at the academic must-do’s, do-over’s, and over-do’s, knowing full-well this year’ll be the same as last. The laundry room needs a paleontologist to uncover that formidable pile. More PE this year for everyone, that’s for sure. More diet-cleansing. More prayer time. Holy Hours. Charity projects. Home projects. Less Facebook. Better budgeting. Less swearing. More listening. . .

I look up and realize it’s the Consecration already and my eyes and ears and mind are full of ringing—not the the ringing from the alter, but the ringing of responsibilities, the ringing of the yelling, nagging, bragging, whining, and pleading I’ve done to get it all done, make it all happen, try to be all things to all people. But I’m still just this exhausted, habitually procrastinating, postpartum bimbo who’s too tired to even comprehend how far she’s really missed the mark . . . again. Yeah, happy new year indeed. More like, happy crash and burn, loser.

But I’m still praying. Still looking at that alter—sunlight streaming through stained-glass windows and rippling over bent heads and penitent hearts. Liars, cheaters, fatties, sexually frustrated, inconsistent, gossiping takers; good thieves and bad alike. We’re all here. Trying to concentrate our minds on a piece of bread so small it can fill the whole universe with the fire of Eternal Love and yet go . . . unnoticed. Neglected. Forgotten. Alone. And that’s how I feel. How I am. Alone. So much to do. So much to say. So much to try. To forgive. To forget. So much to be and to do . . . and so little of my being to do it all.

I think of my sins, my children, my husband, and household. I think of my trying and enduring, my forcing and refusing. All that I want to be and all that I’m not. All that I’ve tried to overcome, and all that I keep doing over and over again. Am I any better? Or am I worse? Is it about fighting the good fight, regardless? Good-intentioned roads and all that? I look up at that Bread, while the rest of them bow their bald heads, and look straight at Him. Do you see me, Jesus? Do you see what these people have got to work with? How can He expect us to ignite the world when we can’t even strike a match? We’re not living in the dark—we’re causing the dark! How can I help my people, when I’m as much in need of help as they are—maybe even more? How can I be the holy, that’s so wholly lacking in my broken heart and in my blinded mind?

I bow the old head, the one that stubbornly refuses to give up, even when common sense’d give the OK to do so. I clasp my hands. His gaze on me is calm, light. I listen. And then, I see. No, not really see but in my mind’s eye I see. Not before me, all that I have yet to do right or wrong. Not behind me, all that I didn’t do right or did all wrong. But beside me. A deep blue-indigo veil, wrapped gently about my slumping, flabby shoulders. I see a cheek, warm and soft, pressed deeply against my own. I see a smile, full of hope and energy, looking directly ahead of us. And I hear His voice. Not in my ears but in my mind:

You’re not alone.
And she is all the beauty, perfection, and goodness that you need to accomplish your work.
And I’ve given her to you.
So be small.
Be empty.
She will be beside you.
She will fill you up.
She who is your Mother.

It always is, isn’t it? His will, I mean. Always light and simple and doable. Practical, even. My grand plans are never grand and never mine. I resolve only to see her. To seek her. To implore her. And to love her. More than ever. My Heavenly Mother, the Mother of the Almighty God enthroned above, crowned with the moon and the stars and the earth beneath her feet, has got this for me. She’s got this one. And she’s got yours, too.

Merry Christmas!

imageBorn is the King of Israel!

“Christ asks for a home in your soul, where he can be at rest with you, where he can talk easily to you, where you and he, alone together, can laugh and be silent and be delighted with one another.”
― Caryll Houselander

A very blessed and merry Christmas from all of us here at Brave New Family:

Heidi, Rachel, Rebekah, James, & Katie

Star Wars: The Force Awakens ~ A Return to the Original Trilogy (Spoilers)

imageWhen I was really young (about seven or eight, I think) my mom told me that I couldn’t watch Star Wars Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi. Anymore. I had been watching it every day for about a month, and she told me that if I watched it anymore, I would ruin it for myself. I’m pretty sure she was just sick of the movie, but whatever her reasons, I’m glad she did. I didn’t watch it again for quite a few years, and when I did, I still really enjoyed it. I wasn’t burned out. I have read Star Wars novels, played Star Wars video games, and of course, seen all of the films quite a few times. I tell you this just to give you an idea of how much of a Star Wars fan I am. I can tell you the details of Galactic politics, and I at one time new both the Sith and Jedi codes.

I tell you all this so that you know how much of a Star Wars fan I am. So that when I say that I really, really enjoyed the new Star Wars movie, you have some context for that statement. From beginning to end, I had a good time. Even during the parts of the movie I didn’t think were particularly well done, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

The film focuses on brand new characters, not on the old heroes of episodes IV, V, and VI, and that is a very good thing. Rey (played by Daisy Ridley), a scavenger from the planet Jakku (you have to get used to the Star Wars names), is the primary protagonist, and she is a wonderful new addition to the Star Wars universe. Her confidence and wonder go hand in hand, and she engages the sympathy of the audience right from the get go. Finn (John Boyega), the other main character and an ex-storm trooper, is a bit more comical than you would expect for a protagonist. But in a movie filled with really dark moments, I found the comic relief to be welcome.

The new villain, Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver) is a bit more complex than he first appears. When you meet him in the film, Ren seems to be the new Darth Vader, killing innocents with no remorse, using the Force to terrorize his foes, apparently unstoppable. However, it becomes clear by the films midway point that his image is more or less a projection of power. He is conflicted over the evil he has become, and fear eats away at him. “I’m being torn apart,” he utters at a climactic point in the film, and it shows. This complexity surprised me at first, and I wasn’t sure I wanted it in a Star Wars villain. However, by the end of the film, I realized that it adds depth to the story that simply wouldn’t be there otherwise.

The film does have problems. The pacing of the entire second half is awful. Time is spent developing characters and plot points that, while maybe worthwhile in themselves, take time away from things that are more important to the overall story, and certainly from characters that I would rather have seen. Oscar Isaac’s Po Dameron gets relatively little screen time, considering his character is one of the three new heroes of the Star Wars saga, and Captain Phasma (played by Gwendoline Christie) does nothing of importance at all. Without her, the story would have proceeded exactly as it did, which is a bad sign for a villain.

While I understand director J.J. Abrams’ fear of recreating the prequel trilogy’s focus on politics, I would have liked a little more information on the state of the galaxy. Who exactly are the First Order? Do they rule most of the galaxy, or are they more or less a well funded and well organized terrorist organization? Does the New Republic consist of a few planets or is it the galaxy spanning government it was before the Empire? If the New Order defeats the Resistance, is the galaxy once again doomed? Answers to these questions would help the audience place the conflict of the story in context, give it some scope. As it is, we are given bits of information about each organization, and we have to piece the rest together. When I came out of the theatre for the first time, everyone had a different answer to those questions, which is probably a sign that more time should have been spent explaining the situation.

My final criticism is one that is not shared by everyone: I really wish they hadn’t borrowed so heavily from the plot of Episode IV. I mean, callbacks are fine, even echoes are great. Rhyming would have been excellent. But to simply repeat the chorus made this feel much more like a reboot than a sequel. Starkiller Base was grand, and would have served as an excellent story arc for all three new movies. To introduce it and then destroy it in about forty minutes is a bit absurd. If all it takes is an x-wing squadron and a few well placed grenades, then it really isn’t much better than the Death Star, after all. When are the bad guys going to stop building super weapons with such easily exploitable weaknesses?

However, all this included, I can’t overstate how much I really did enjoy the film. The new characters are excellent, the first act is absolutely spot on, and it includes my new favorite scene in all of the Star Wars movies (you know the scene I’m talking about). I think it is an excellent addition to the Star Wars Saga, and I hope that the rest of the new movies build off of it in style if not in content.

Cottage Cheese Cookies

imageAnother great treasure from The Gourmet Cookie Book, these Cottage Cheese Cookies are a favorite of mine. They are soft, tangy, and subtly sweet. I use a small cookie scoop to form the cookies – these are best when they are not too big.

Cottage Cheese Cookies
1/2 cup softened butter
1/4 cup cottage cheese
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1 egg
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt

Instructions:
Cream together butter and cottage cheese. Blend in thoroughly sugar, vanilla, and egg. Stir in flour sifted with baking soda and salt. Drop by rounded teaspoon (or use cookie scoop) onto greased baking sheet and bake in a 375 F oven for about 8 minutes.

Christmas Reading

imageChristmas.  I love Christmas.  Advent.  Gift-shopping.  Gift-giving.  Twinkling lights winking from the branches of trees.  Cinnamon-scented pine cones.  Flour-dusted kitchen counters, littered with tiny tell-tale fingerprints.  Creamy eggnog, flecked with nutmeg.  Reading to my children all the delightful stories we have gathered over the years and that we (try) to save for this most special time of year.

Because it is special.  Everyone knows it.  From our parish priests, to our next-door neighbor who helped put up our Christmas lights, to our own littles, to the friendly Starbucks barista, to that (oh, so wonderful) guy who delivers our rushed Amazon Prime packages.  Special.  But not because we try to have that elusive Christmas Spirit.  Or because we have spent less (or more) than we did on gifts this year.  Or because we finally got around to thinking about putting up a Jesse Tree.  Or because we got the perfect Christmas tree.  It is special because of Him.  We all know that. The God-Man, a tiny, frail little Baby, who opens His chubby baby arms so wide to embrace us.  Embrace the whole world.  We know.  That dark cave became the throne room of our newborn King.  That is why it is so special.  Let us go in to that sweetest, gentlest, Baby.  O come, Emmanuel!  We are awaiting you.

imageTitle: The Christmas Cat
Author: Maryann MacDonald
Illustrator: Amy June Bates
Ages: 3-9

When I thought about doing a Christmas book review, the very first book I wanted on my list was a beautiful, beautiful book that I received from my mom nearly thirty years ago, The Donkey’s Dream, by Barbara Helen Berger.  It has always been my favorite Christmas book, and almost never fails to bring tears to my eyes when I read it to my children.  Unfortunately, it is now out of print and pretty expensive.  But The Christmas Cat, while not as steeped in gorgeous Church imagery and tradition, is still a lovely addition to Christmas reading.  And it can be found for under ten dollars and at the local library, both big plusses.

“Jesus was beautiful, like all babies. And like all babies, he cried.”   So begins this sweet story about a little kitty who is the only one in the stable to calm little crying Baby Jesus.  Mary, Joseph, the donkey, the cow, the doves, all cannot sooth him.  But the little cat does and they become great friends.  Then, when the Holy Family must flee to Egypt, they think they have left the cat behind. The cat appears as a stow-away, just in the nick of time, to quiet Baby Jesus again and keep Harod’s soldiers from discovering them.

The soft illustrations are beautiful, as they should be, because this book was based on Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings.  Highly recommended.

imageTitle: Do Rabbits Have Christmas?
Author: Aileen Fisher
Illustrator: Sarah Fox-Davies
Ages: 3-9

“Do rabbits have Christmas,
I wonder, I wonder?

They have little spruces
To celebrate under,
Where snow has made pompoms
With silvery handles
And frost has made tinsel
And icicle candles.

Do rabbits have presents,
I wonder, I wonder?

They have little fir trees
To celebrate under.
But do they have secrets
And smiles on their faces?
Let’s go put some carrots
In rabbit-y places!”

I think that joyful piece speaks for the entire book, a little collection of frosty, winter-y, snow-glittery, Christmas-y poems by Eileen Fisher.  Soft watercolor illustrations bring this whole sweet Christmas package together.  This is one of those books that I never tire of.  I can read it again and again and I still want to read it once more.  Who doesn’t want to snuggle down on the sofa with little children on a cold December afternoon, mug of hot chocolate sitting happily by, and peruse a book of poems and pictures of little animals playing about in new-fallen snow?

Aslan is on the move

imageBlack Friday. It sounds ominous, although in truth it refers to a bookkeeping reality. Every year, there are stories in the news observing the chaos and, sadly, bad behavior. Sometimes all you can do is shake your head. These images prompted me to think about Christmas. About Christmas in today’s society. It’s a crazy time.  Hustle and bustle. Doorbusters and chaos. Hardly a reflective time.

Many people decry this commercialization of Christmas. They see it as loss of the truth behind Christmas. I don’t see it that way. The stores, the shopping, the décor. None of that bothers me. In fact, it produces the opposite reaction.  It makes me happy.

It makes me happy because in the history of the world, there is just one person who has ever been able to produce this kind of excitement and anticipation. This amount of joy and generosity. One birth alone could ever produce this kind of reaction two thousand years later. One man. And world still stops and celebrates because He was born.

So the world rushes and shops and parties. But the world also reaches out. There are toy drives, book drives, coat drives. Your grocery store has food drives, red kettles are everywhere. It’s not enough just to celebrate with loved ones, to generously celebrate family and friends. The world reaches out to strangers and those in need. The desire to spread the joy, the hope, the excitement of the season, it extends past those we know, to strangers. Everyone needs to feel Christmas joy.

Step back and remember what it is we are celebrating, that incredible moment of generosity.  A generous God giving Himself. What further need of proof as to God’s lavishness upon His children? He gave us the world. Quite literally. All good things come from Him. In that context, the outpouring of gifts and festivities at Christmas doesn’t seem as outlandish. It’s simply imitating what the world experienced that very first Christmas.  And so, those who don’t find themselves particularly religious find themselves imitating God the Father, giving to others with no expectation of anything in return.

The angels didn’t call everyone to come worship at the manger that cold night. They called some, who came and saw and were filled with joy. They fell to their knees and worshiped the Word made Flesh.  And then they left, singing praised to God and telling everyone what they had seen, sharing their joy. We are similarly blessed. We have the honor of being called to the manger. We have the privilege of seeing first hand, what the incredible miracle that is Christmas. It is a blessing to pass through Santa’s village, the pink aluminum Christmas trees, the glitter and the sparkle and find ourselves standing at a stable.  It is there, away from the glitz and the glam, that we find true treasure, true beauty, true joy.

So what does that mean for us, going forward? Not just during the four weeks of Advent but for the next eleven months. I think we need to step back to look at the world’s reaction to Christmas. To the world’s reaction to the reality that is the manger. We need to look past what might appear to be crude materialism and see the longing and joy and the desire that is present. The world still delights at the fact that God was made man. The world still joyfully celebrates His birth. Even though it is harder and harder to see Him through the tinsel and the parties and the brightly colored lights.

And that’s where we come in. It’s our job to clear that haze, to nurture that joy and that hope and whisper “yes, yes He is real. He is here.” The world that delights in the season of Christmas, so much so that they share that joy with strangers is a world that desires the Christ of Christmas. To feel that loved all the year round.  That thrill of joy? It’s our job to nurture it. To feed it with truth and witness. Because if anything is clear from society’s reaction to Christmas, it is that we all crave comfort that comes from knowing the truth. We are so greatly loved. So generously blessed. We have been given not just this world, but the next.

Leave it to C.S. Lewis to say it better than I. “They say Aslan is on the move… And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different…. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside.” Christmas is that time when the world feels the jump inside. And it falls to us to nurture than, so that their hearts don’t just jump, but thrill with hope and rejoice.

How to have the perfect Advent

imageSo the kids and I put up another Jesse tree ornament: Joseph’s colorful coat. We read Genesis 37:3: “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made an ornate robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.” I can’t help but think how frayed and torn and bloody that robe became. Like our own Advents. We’re this crazy mix of love and brilliant color, obsessive-compulsive and bitter and messy. How can anyone see through the muck and mire of all that crazy?

And so we see all the way through this Jesse tree—this Jesus-family tree of ours—it’s down right dysfunctional. But we try so hard to auto-correct, don’t we? To self-clean. We tidy our bedrooms, kick mud off our boots, comet our toilets, furiously brushing away the grime, the dirt—the evidence. That we’re messy, unkept, so easily tarnished. Most of the time we’re in between hiding from our fears and trying to breathe through them. Tension headaches, stomach ulcers, hyperventilation; hurried, feverish, panicked problem-solving. We want to get it right, make it right, be alright. But perfect is so hard. SO HARD. Everyone expects it, right? I mean, we’ve got to keep it up. Keep up the laundry, keep up the happy, the smiling, keep brushing away the tears that sting the corners of our eyes . . . Some of the time we even believe it.

Maybe we even have done it all right. Well, most of it. Made the best use of our day. Instilled the right eternal longings in our children’s open, grace-soaked, little souls. But sooner or later, hell breaks loose . . . again. We lose our temper. Curse in front of the 1st communicant. Reciprocate the hurt with our fragile teenager. Hate-words fall off our tongues onto the ears of our tried, faithful spouses. Then the kids are fighting at each other. Someone’s broke something. A sibling took what we said personally, we didn’t mean it that way. Years of baby stepping back into a real relationship, undone by a few misspoken words. God! It’s too much!

Everywhere we look we’re hurt and we’re hurting. Desperately trying to please, and desperately displeased. Like prisoners, imprisoned by our lives and by our people. And the devil? He snickers and hisses in our bleeding ears:

Until you get it right . . .
Until you are all better . . .
You’ll never matter . . .
Never be useful . . .
Never belong . . .
Never be lovable . . .

And we suck it up, savoring and rolling over and around those twisted, venomous words. Until we believe them. Until we live them. Until just getting up in the morning is an act of heroic virtue. Why bother? When we’ve tried and failed more times than Dolly’s had ‘a little work’ done.

Late is the hour of our despair when we have to admit what we don’t want to. That we are prisoners. Whether by the prisons the world made for us—our marriages, our special needs children, our careers—or by the prisons we’ve made for ourselves—our love of the bottle, our gloom, our incessant pursuit of acclaim. We’re trapped. We can’t get better. And we’ve tried so hard. Kept hoping this or that would be the cure.

But hope can’t come from the inside. We already tried. Help must come to us. We’re at the mercy of a second chance. A wild card. A free-pass. We don’t deserve it. Don’t even want it. But we need it. We always did. Drowning, helpless, darkness, and alone.

Yes, we need help. And what happens? In the darkest, coldest, loneliest of night, we hear a cry. A single cry, not from a galactic, super-stellar, demigod. But from the smallest, most helpless, vulnerable source we could never have imagined. And all that complicated, aching, gnawing, nauseating pain in the center of our gut, is soothed and healed, calmed and lulled through the soft, dimpled arms of a wanderer-pilgrim babe. He has no home here on earth. No place to lay His angelic head. He’s just like us.

And yet He calls to us. “Come. Come to me.” And guess what? You can just be. Just be as crazy and messy and bloody as can be. “Come,” He says. “Come unto me.” You’re a melting pot of neuroses and laughter and hate-words and need. And His gaze on you is all the warmer. All the gentler. You find yourself bowing low into a crib, as the scales of insecurity fall off you like a second skin, asking a shivering child-God to comfort you. And all that was duly and rightly belonging to Him, He pours out upon you instead. The only thing you ever needed and the only thing He really came to give you, is Himself.

Our Advent becomes less about breaking free of ourselves, breaking out of bad habits, breaking away from our prisons, and all about letting Him in. Let. Him. In. Into our hearts and heads and homes and holes. Into our beauty and into our ugly. Into our loves and into our hates. Realizing that we have no real self-correct function, no self-cleaning option, and that help must come from outside of our self-made prisons. And maybe, just maybe, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes . . . and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.” Let Him do the figuring out. Let Him open the locks. Let Him set you free. And you . . . just be.

What to Pray this Advent

imageSo, I’ve got a real quick poem for you, well, at least part of one:

‘Twas the night before Advent
When all through the house
Not a creature was stirring
Not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the smartphones with care
In hopes that some interior decorator
Soon would be there.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of Pinterest boards danced in mom’s head. . .

And that’s about as far as we get sometimes. The Advent season, as beautiful and holy as it is, can unfortunately be very much like any other season—a time to expose just how much we haven’t done. How much we’ve gotten wrong. We see gingerbread houses at Costco and realize we haven’t made those yet. We look at that dress hanging in our closet and realize we didn’t lose those 15 lbs we promised we’d lose by Xmas. Or we haven’t ordered our advent candles in time. The season to be jolly becomes the season to feel inadequate. To feel . . . not enough.

I love to reflect upon the story of Rahab from the Old Testament, from the book of Joshua. The story of a worldly girl, living in Jericho, who’s entire faith journey, hinged on one, single, scarlet rope hanging from a window. And through that one faithful, seemingly mundane act, her family was saved from the soldiers who’d come to overthrow their city. And God blesses her and sends a prince to marry her, just like a fairytale. And this once-pagan-prostitute becomes a royal princess, redeemed, made holy, and now it’s her name that is mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus Christ. And I think that can be our story, too.

We can feel that we’re not enough. That we’re not doing enough, or spending enough, or giving enough. That in the midst of all our praying and wrapping and shopping and cleaning, we still haven’t found Jesus yet. I think it’s then that we have to ask ourselves what is it in our lives that is like that scarlet rope of Rahab’s? That thing in our lives that feels precarious, or uncertain, or doubtful—and let ourselves be led. Let a little child guide us. Let an act of faithful trust, be that activity that invites the Christ-child into this holy season, and into the rest of our lives.

So, I’m going to keep working on my poem. Maybe I’ll add a few lines each year. Do you like it so far?