Yes & Collective

Oh Holy Night

I love all things Christmas. I love the lights and the music and the decorations and the cookie-making and the party-going and the sparkle-wearing. I love watching all of the Christmas movies and eating chocolate out of Advent calendars and visiting Santa at Bass Pro Shop. I look forward to this time of year with the same anticipation I do summer—with a list of things we have to do and traditions we have to uphold.

Maybe this sounds busy and overwhelming and a tad overly-festive to you. But one of the things I love most about this season, about all of these traditions and to-dos, is that it feels like a built-in slow down for me and for our family. These are all things we do together, our little team, savoring time together, just us.

We decorate our house with obnoxious, mismatched decorations that my mother-in-law bought for me in abundance at Hobby Lobby years ago. We have Christmas music playing non-stop and Christmas candles lit and my girls beg to wash their hands because—you know—Christmas foaming soap! We linger here in this space because it’s cozy and pretty and it smells awesome.

We snuggle up on a pallet on the floor to watch The Polar Express 8,000 times, popcorn bowls next to us, hot chocolate with extra marshmallows in hand. We play Candy Land and make Christmas crafts and stay up a little later than we might otherwise.

We make gingerbread sleighs with my mom to give to teachers and friends and co-workers. We bake cookies in our sweats ALL DAY together. We eat extra bacon and waffles. We wear Christmas jammies as much as possible and throw healthy eating out the window and read the same Advent book every year.

For our first eight years together, my husband and I would travel every single Christmas—across the country to Pennsylvania or Ohio, Texas or Mexico. Then he was a pastor for a couple of years and we had to stick around for Christmas Eve services, and the staying home was one of the best things. To wake up in our beds on Christmas morning and cook breakfast for our friends and FaceTime with all of the family—it felt relaxing and unrushed and quiet.

We often talk about the Christmas season as the hustle and bustle, about consumerism and over-doing it, about busyness and fast-paced and just too much. I can’t help but think about what that first Christmas was actually like—a dark, quiet night in a manger where a baby was born to two first-time parents. Simple and strange. Maybe even a little lonely. The fear and the excitement, the pain of labor, and the delight of meeting their son. The lingering voice of an angel in Mary’s head, promising that her son would be called the Most High, that his kingdom would never end. Just the three of them—Mary, Joseph, and their newborn son.

Then… angels and shepherds and wise men and all sorts of farm animals came to see. First, the quiet and the unknown. A birth in a silent manger. And then… a communal celebration, unexpected visitors, gifts and proclamations. Jesus was here. The hope.

“And then, suddenly, her baby is born and the world knows without her telling anyone.”

As Mary sat there, holding her newborn baby, shepherds came to see. Confirming the promise that an angel had spoken to her—that she would give birth to the Savior of the World. She held this promise close to her heart, guarded it, for the duration of her pregnancy. And then, suddenly, her baby is born and the world knows without her telling anyone. Her response? A quiet heart. She sat and treasured these things, pondered them in her heart. The very celebration of her son, God’s promise fulfilled.

Part of the joy of this season for me is this—the story of that first Christmas. The mystery and the anticipation and the simplicity. The picture of our King coming as a baby to two parents who had no clue what they were doing, surrounded by a dark night and strange animals and a celebration of random people who came to see God’s promise fulfilled in the form of a tiny baby. It’s breathtaking.

And something about this season captures all of these feelings for me. There’s the simplicity of being together, quietly and peacefully, on a snowy Sunday afternoon in our living room. And then there’s the beauty of celebration. Coming together as a community of family and friends and neighbors and unexpected visitors to celebrate all of the goodness, all of the mystery, all of the overcoming.

“To say no to the things that don’t require our attention or attendance. To say yes to the things that make us feel more present and rested and alive.”

And in it all, I wonder, How can we capture Mary’s attitude? How can we stop and ponder all of these things in our hearts? How can we store up the riches of God’s showing up, God with us, as a babe, and as a man, and as the Spirit that dwells within us? Christmas is a time to remember how God saved us and redeemed us by becoming one of us, a baby born into our world. And it’s also a time to snuggle in and savor the moments with family and friends. To say no to the things that don’t require our attention or attendance. To say yes to the things that make us feel more present and rested and alive.

We’ve learned over the years that there are certain things that make this season more enjoyable and less stressful. We shop online and only for the kids in our family. We order Thai takeout on Christmas Eve because it’s just too much to do church and cook a big meal. We don’t travel very often anymore and we clear the calendar for the whole week of Christmas and New Year’s. We leave room for spontaneity and doing what we feel like doing with the people we love.

I hope you feel the freedom this season to enjoy all of the things. The quiet ones and the loud ones. The simple ones and the flashy ones. I hope that you can sit in the moments of stillness and silence and soak it all in. And that you can enjoy the moments of celebration and excitement with a big, fat smile on your face. I hope that you take time to think about the story of Christmas, to ask God what He has for you in this season, and to remember how He’s shown up for you. Treasure these things up, ponder them in your heart, and encounter the presence of your Savior.


SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE

I I remember magic… My brothers and I playing baseball in a field in our backyard, ghosts on every base. A frozen marsh in winter time, ice skating for hours on end. Sledding down the biggest hill I’d ever seen. Tubing down the creek by ourselves. Hide-and-go-seek in the cornfields.

We ate fresh vegetables from the owners of our farmhouse—stuffed peppers and sweet corn and zucchini. We rode our bikes down windy country roads to the general store to buy penny candy. We didn’t go to school for 2 weeks because of the blizzard of ’96, and spent our days sipping hot cocoa and making snow caves for our wiener dog to run through. The goats next door were Daisy, like the flower, and Hilary, like the president’s wife, and they ate food right from our dirt-caked hands.

At night, my mom would go down to the basement one last time to stoke the coal stove with enough fuel to last the night. In the mornings, my brothers and I would huddle on the kitchen vent because it was the warmest one. I’d watch my nightgown, filled with warm air, billowing out around me.

At night, I’d crawl into bed and sleep facing the door in case someone crawled through my window in the middle of the night to kidnap me. I’d shut the window in the dead hot of summer in case lightning struck me in my bed. I’d close my eyes as soon as the light was off so I didn’t have to see the ghost standing, leg propped against my wall.

“At night, I’d crawl into bed with my mom and whisper, “Are you getting a divorce?””

At night, I’d listen to my parents through the vent by my bed. “I’m trying, dear,” my dad would say. “I don’t like this,” my mom would say. “We don’t have a choice,” my dad would say. Hushed whispers about apartments in Florida, real estate investments, a lady whose name I cannot remember. I didn’t understand why these things made my dad so angry, my mom so anxious. At night, I’d crawl into bed with my mom and whisper, “Are you getting a divorce?” My heart racing, eyes wide open.

Two opposing feelings saturated this season of my life. At age 10, I was immersed in the most magical days of my childhood, and at the same time… I was terrified. How could these two things be so real at the same time?

When I think about some of the biggest moments in my life thus far, I see this same contradiction. When I was falling in love with my husband, I was also nursing a shattered leg and a shattered identity. When I had my first baby, I was also stepping away from a lifelong dream and a passionate community. When I had my second baby, I was saying goodbye to my mother-in-law as she battled cancer. There are few great, big celebrations in my life that aren’t holding the hand of sorrow, fear, or confusion.

I’m in the midst of one of these seasons. I’ve been in it for a while, if I’m honest. My kids are little and watching them experience the world and getting to spend my days with them is magical. But I also feel sidelined, confused by the monotony, the dulled passion, the lack of direction. I feel like I’ve been in a holding pattern, waiting for God to pat me on the butt and put me back in the game.

I don’t have a pretty explanation for this season—I’m in the thick of it.

A few weekends ago, I spent a day with friends at a Creative Workshop. We wrote and we painted and we worshipped and we talked. During worship I had a mental picture of me and Jesus standing in the middle of the ocean, on the ocean, dancing—a light-hearted, playful, fun dance between two dear friends. This couldn’t be further from how my mind feels… muddled, confused, frustrated, tired. But I felt God whisper, Em – this is your heart… engaged, free, passionate, hopeful. To live in this tension of the mind and the heart is to live. Period.

Jesus’ journey to the cross was no different. In the same moment that he gladly chose death, he also experienced unbelievable sorrow. Connection and abandonment. Hope and heartbreak. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? But for the joy set before him, he endured the cross… Despair and delight.

Here’s my question—can we be fully present in the tension? Can we embrace the magic and the beauty and the fullness in the same moment we acknowledge the frustration and confusion and the not-yet? I hope so. Because I am starting to see that it’s in this mystery that my faith is tested. It’s in this tension that my hope is solidified. It’s in this uncertainty that my character is refined. And our Father is here. He’s in it all.

“We live in the in-between. We are becoming. ”

I think I’m really hung up on defining seasons. On trying to stamp them with a theme or an emotion or a slogan of sorts. I realize that I miss something when I try to do this. We live in the in-between. We are becoming. In order to soak in all that He is doing and saying, we have to start to get comfortable with being in process, always.

I’m not there yet—that’s my mantra for right now. Probably for forever.

I have a deep love for Dolly Parton. She is an angel (someday I’ll tell you all about working at her theme park and meeting her). She says, “The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.” The rainbow—a symbol of God’s promise. We see a rainbow when the sun is behind us and falling rain is in front of us. The light, the glory, permeates the storm to show us the presence of God. That same tension. We stand smack dab in the middle of it. We stand between the sun and the rain and that’s where we see God’s promise.

I wonder, sometimes, if my days in the farmhouse would have felt as magical if my nights weren’t plagued by fear. Maybe the contrast created the intensity. Maybe that’s true of our day-to-day too, if we choose to stay engaged and present.

I want to get more comfortable with the tension. With the lack of definition. With the fact that magic and fear can co-exist in my little 10-year-old world, and magic and monotony can co-exist in my bigger 30-something-year-old-world. And maybe it isn’t so much about defining the season. Maybe it’s about standing in the middle of a rainstorm, uncomfortably soaking wet, while smiling and celebrating the rainbow in front of us. Maybe that’s the real magic.