A New Use for Holiday Cards

A New Use for Holiday Cards

Let me ask you: What did you do with all of the Christmas, holiday, or New Year’s cards you received back in December and January?

If you’re like me, you held onto them for weeks, believing that one cold winter day you would sit down with a big mug of tea and re-read them, save the extra-special ones, and maybe even call or write those super-human individuals who had taken extra time to pen novellas of their lives in the past year. (Those people always impress me; I can barely get my cards mailed by Dec. 22nd, much less tell everyone what we did in the previous 12 months!)

Or maybe you even had grandiose plans of crafting with the cards you received – making a collage or ornaments out of them. Yes – one ambitious year perhaps you even admired all those sweet faces of your friends’ kids and planned to photograph each card, saving them to your hard drive or the cloud! (I actually did this. Precisely ONE time.)

But in all likelihood – you did none of that. You eventually let out a big sigh of co-mingled regret and relief, and recycled the colorful stash, secretly hoping that no one would ever ask you to recall the cards’ contents.

By now, the cards my family received would usually have been appreciated and tossed. But not this year.

This year, we are trying something new: we are making the cards a part of Lent.

In our home, we “say grace” before meals. It’s a good habit – one that’s meant to remind us from Whom we receive our nourishment.

Typically, we say the traditional Catholic blessing:

“Bless us, O Lord,
and these Thy gifts,
which we are about to receive,
from Thy bounty,
through Christ Our Lord,
Amen.”

It covers all the most important points and when said with genuine heartfelt devotion, offers the gratitude that’s due.

There is danger in repetition, however. After awhile, it can be tempting to ignore the words – to just go through the motions of saying them without concentrating on their meaning.

One way to recharge a mealtime prayer with its intended significance is to change it up a bit – not by re-wording it necessarily, but by adding to it.

So at every meal this Lent, we are taking a couple Christmas cards from our stack and praying for the families that sent them. Our prayers are not fancy or flowery, just straightforward expressions from the heart that the One who sees and knows all will grant our friends the virtues and strengths they need most.

If you wonder what that looks like, here’s what I said last night after the basic blessing:

“Heavenly Father, we thank you for our dear friends Pete and Amy and their children Brendan, Zach, and Ellie. It’s been awhile since we’ve seen them but we know they are in Your loving hands. Please watch over them and bring them closer to one another in 2018. We pray too for Uncle Bill and Clara. May you bless their new marriage and new home in California. Amen.”

Sharing these cards every night has given my husband and I opportunities tell our kids a bit more about old friends – people with whom we ‘swap’ Christmas cards but rarely see – people we knew long before the kids came along. It’s a side benefit I wouldn’t have considered before starting this Lenten effort.

Remembering people and holding them up….

We can start anytime.

Flip through your phone’s address book, glance over your Facebook friends, make a list of names.

Fold your hands and lift up a friend. Today.

Creating New Memories of Dad

Creating New Memories of Dad
Ashe Gold

Have you ever revisited a memory only to discover that your recollection was, in some way, skewed?

This happened to me recently.

I was thinking back to when I was 12 or 13, spending a day with my dad. We were in Morocco. Epcot’s Morocco.

My folks had recently divorced. At the time, my sister and I were living in Jacksonville, Florida, with my mom but for reasons I can’t remember, this day-trip to Orlando was just for Dad and me.

We were having a blast – “hoofing it” as Dad always said – walking quickly all over the park to take in as much as we possibly could in 12 or so hours. Just before dinner, we stopped at Morocco, and as we admired the leather goods in the shops, I told Dad I needed to visit the ladies’ room.

There, I discovered what every adolescent girl dreads.

And dear God. I was not prepared. No purse. No supplies. Nothing.

Feeling slightly nauseous, with butterflies in my stomach, I marched outside. Dad was standing by a dim streetlamp, basking in the sunset over the man-made lake.

“Dad, I need a quarter.”

He looked down at me with his calm, bright blue eyes, smiled and asked, “Why do you need a quarter?”

“Uhmmm. For the machine in the ladies’ room.”

His forehead wrinkled and lips puckered in perplexity.

Time stood still for me.

Perhaps a millisecond later, he began to fumble ferociously for a quarter, patting his shirt pocket and the pockets on the front and back of his shorts without feeling anything. Finally, he found the handful of change, opened his palm, and fished out one shiny 25 cent piece.

I took it from him without a word.

When I returned, he was fidgety. There was a crisp air of uncertainty about him.

“So,” he tried to sound casual, “Where would you like to eat? We can go anywhere in the world!”

So Dad. So typical of Dad to attempt humor just then. And I showed my gratitude with a grudging smile.

We settled on Japan, where, over my first-ever bowl of udon I also felt for the first time that necessary parting of ways – the separation that comes between the child and the parent, and in this case, between a girl and her father. Things would be unsaid. Experiences would be unshared. Life would be lived separately.

But there is more.

I used to think this story was about me and the time my monthly cycle began at Epcot Center. And it is – in a very small way. What’s more important however, is that Grace showed up that day, and taught me a lesson for life about men.

My dad is a gentleman through and through. That doesn’t mean he always responds with composure or perfect words the first moment of a challenging situation; it means that he will respond correctly when given the fullness of an opportunity. The distinction is important.

This little incident was a building block planted by Grace in my life. How do I know? Because my father’s response to me – initially awkward, but full of love and tenderness – was a foreshadowing of interactions I would later have with my husband. By looking back on this memory, I can see that I was being taught that today I am to give my husband room and time to respond with the love and compassion I know he has for me, even if the circumstances of any given situation take him by surprise.

Men get a lot of bad press these days, and yes – there are more than a few out there who are behaving poorly and thus becoming fodder for headlines, memes, and tabloids. But I’ve been blessed to know many good men – righteous men who through their actions, big and small, show their love and concern for the women and children in their lives. Fathers especially, who shepherd their families with perseverance and thoughtfulness. They aren’t showy or prideful about their contributions; they do it out of the purity of their hearts, and we would do well to honor them appropriately and regularly for it.

The love these men express is a reflection of the bigger Love – the eternal Love. The One that brought all of us into being through the free gift of Grace and uses individuals to do work in the world. Love is an unparalleled force that we cannot escape, and we desire it above everything else.

Relationships with parents can be complicated. Holidays like Father’s Day can stir up a whole host of emotions. But deep within, many of us want to feel or say something more than, “Have a beer on me, Dad!” “Play some golf!” “Take a load off!” or the generic, “Enjoy your day!” Even if our dads have passed on and our interactions were troubled, we want to have hearts of gratitude for these men who touched our lives so deeply.

The not-so-secret secret that Grace teaches is that gratitude is a practice that can be learned. So here’s an exercise for building gratitude for your dad (and indeed any man in your life) that you can try – today.

1) Think of time when he was tender to you. An isolated incident.

2) Visualize yourself through his eyes. Remember that you were his child. Consider how he must have felt as he looked at your face. However imperfectly he expressed his emotions for you, try to imagine the stirrings of his heart.

3) Add the emotion you feel from this “imaginative view” to your databank of knowledge about your dad. Assume his best intentions. Grant him a bit more grace in your heart and you will want to act toward him accordingly.

Can the past teach us about the present?

Does Grace always show up in our life’s story if we look closely enough?

I believe the answer to these questions is ‘Yes.’ And we can respond with gratitude today if we can gradually come to believe that there’s a God who was walking with us then, and who walks with us still.

Help Needed in Aisle 4!

Help Needed in Aisle 4!
Photo by Marian Trinidad. www.creationswap.com.
Photo by Marian Trinidad. www.creationswap.com.

“Help! Help on Aisle 4!”

I heard the voice from a few aisles over. It was a woman, sounding slightly annoyed but not exasperated. Like an employee on a walkie-talkie.

“Help, please.”

My, the bows and decorations I was looking at were pretty. And how pleasant it was to be strolling along with my cart, all by lonesome on this last weekday morning before school let out for the Thanksgiving holiday.

“Hello?!” she called. Urgency had been summoned into her voice.

I took another sip of my tea. ‘It’s that time of year,’ I thought. ‘We’re all going to start getting uptight.’

But then – I was suddenly shocked by a heavy, greater awareness that no one was coming. In fact, this woman and I might be the only people in this quadrant of the huge store.

My hands let go of the cart and my feet started moving in her direction just as her strongest cry yet rang out.

Help! Help me, please! Someone help!”

My legs were moving quickly now, and my head felt light. My thoughts jumbled.

‘Am I floating? Is this my body? What’s going on here?’

Many aisles over I saw her, an elderly woman with two enormous storage bins placed on end in her cart, and her finger wedged between them and the metal bars of the collapsible child seat. She couldn’t reach around the bins to relieve their weight, and might not have been strong enough even if she could have. I pulled the bins off and she stared at me with a pale, relieved face.

“Thank you. Oh, thank you.”

“Is it broken? Can you move it?”

She wiggled her finger and massaged the long acrylic nail, which looked a bit twisted.

“Oh, goodness. I don’t know what I would have done if you didn’t come.”

For a moment, I said nothing.

“Are you going to be ok? You can get help loading these into your car.”

“Yes. I’m ok. Happy Easter.”

Then I just smiled.

“Oh! Oh! Gosh,” she laughed faintly, “Happy Thanksgiving.”

“You, too. Happy Thanksgiving.”

I walked away from her with the firm knowledge that I had – just then – been an instrument, and that I could not in any way take credit for what I had done.

Left to my own devices, I would have ignored her call, would have kept on putting decorations for my own future celebrations into my cart.

That’s just how self-absorbed I was. Am. Can be at any time.

But I wasn’t given a choice. I was given a gift of being made ready to serve in His way at His time. And He stepped in and moved me right to the place He wanted me to go.

In this time of Advent, as I await with expectant hope for the joys of Christmas, I want to remember that true gifts are not things – they are found in the giving away of grace that has been given to us. A humble, servant’s heart is what made Christmas possible in the first place, and it’s still the greatest part of this season. 

Lord, make me a channel of Your peace. Use me this Advent in the ways You see fit. Use me to give away Your relentless grace.

Holy Moments – Day 26 – Come Clean

I love my dishwasher. No really. I LOVE my dishwasher. You can have all of my other appliances. I’ll even go to the laundry mat. I’m keeping this one. Forever.

We’d had so much trouble with the last dishwasher that I took a very long time picking this one out. I did tons of research and finally settled on – a Bosch. Not the fanciest model, but a basic Bosch – which still costs more than most other dishwashers, so I wanted to be very sure of this purchase when we made it 7 years ago. So sure that I carted my dishes into Sears and loaded them into the floor model to make sure they would fit the way I wanted them to. You should have seen the sales guy’s face.

Anyway – imagine my dismay today when last night’s gravy had become a gelatinous adhesive on the pots & pans, and the racks were decorated with spinach-leaf polka dots. Huh? This never happens. My machine does NOT let me down. Never in seven years had I seen such…such…ick when I expected sparkles!

I investigated. The culprit? A wooden chopstick jammed at just the right angle to block the lower wash arm. A little hold-up, and the mess remained.

Dishwasher

This got me thinking about what it takes for me to feel clean. To truly feel washed clean before God.

I know that I am a child of God, and that when I turned my heart toward Christ, the power of His love and mercy washed me clean of all my impurities and I stood before Him as if I had never done anything wrong. With my life, I want to show Him that I love Him. I want to thank Him for creating me, sustaining me, and saving me. But I still sin. And though I know He always loves me, in order to stay close to Him, in order to see His will for me most clearly, I have to clear away the debris that clouds my vision of Him – and that’s the stuff that I allow to get in the way of my relationship with Him. It’s my arrogance, my selfishness, my pride, my ego, my gluttony, etc. My sin. My sin might look slightly different from someone else’s, but it’s all dirty. And there’s no way to live a life of holiness when you’re sitting in muck.

So – what to do about that?

I was raised in mostly non-denominational Protestant churches. I’d heard about Confession. One of those things Catholics did. It sounded scary. And weird. Sit in a tiny dark box and talk to a priest about all the bad things you’d done? Hmm.

But then after a long spiritual journey, God led me to RCIA – the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults from 2006-2007. It’s the process by which adults join the Catholic Church. In the course, I learned the Church’s views on Confession, also known as Reconciliation. And I came to believe that there could be grace bestowed in this sacrament. And so, near the end of the course, on a Wednesday night, I made my first confession.

I wish I could say it was easy – that I was cool as a cucumber. Nope. I was 35, I wanted to be as thorough as possible, and had made a very long list. So by the time I walked out of the confessional (which was actually quite spacious and bright), my mascara was smeared all over my face and my hair was a total wreck. I vaguely resembled a raccoon riding a motorcycle.

I was totally, utterly exhausted. I drove home and went right to bed.

The next morning I woke up and realized that something had fundamentally changed. An enormous burden had been lifted. I literally felt lighter. And miraculously – somehow – healed. 

What I didn’t know about Reconciliation – or rather, what I’d been told, but didn’t believe – had actually happened. It was mind-blowing. Powerful. For the first time ever, I felt CLEAN. 

The chopstick of doubt (so to speak) had been removed, and not only did I feel clean, I felt closer to God than ever before.

God will forgive me when I tell Him my sins – whether in this sacrament or on my own. But it is altogether different to vocalize my sins to a priest who helps me determine my culpability, and gives me guidance and hope. The sacrament also confers grace which strengthens me to resist the temptations that have mired me and led me away from the Lord. Most importantly, I know that yet again I have drawn close to the heart of God, and that this is what He wants most.

I can’t say that every Reconciliation experience is a powerful as that first one. But each one has enough amazing grace to keep me coming back.

Holy Moments – Day 15 – Secret Dream

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Hearing encouragement from the right person can make all the difference.

I have a friend who spoke the secret of my heart out loud.

She had no idea that’s what she’d done at the time she said it. But with her words, she gave a dream wings.

“You should be a writer.”

In the very early days of writing my blog, it was her voice that gave me the confidence to click the ‘Publish’ button.

And to write again.

I quickly realized I needed to thank her.

So I did.

And then, well, grace came back to find her, too.

Because in big and small ways, that’s what He does.

Our emails mark the trail….

From: Gretchen  
Sent: Sun 10/05/14      4:20 PM
To: Laura 

Laura,

So, I’m sharing this with you because I keep feeling prompted to do so…probably because on more than one occasion now you’ve told me I should be a writer. Whether you were serious or not, I don’t know, but you couldn’t have known you were speaking truth to a private dream.

So – after years of thinking about it, I’m finally taking the leap and trying a little bit….[I] created a blog…It isn’t perfect…I’ve posted for 3 days and hope to be faithful to it….I hope you’ll pray for me. 🙂

Here’s the link….

Blessings,

Gretchen

 

From: Laura
Sent: Mon 10/06/14      10:07 AM
To: Gretchen

Wow Wow Wow…

I had just arrived home from taking the kids to school. I was still sitting in the garage waiting for Joel Osteen to come to a break in his talk so that I could run the XM radio inside to finish listening there. I was debating whether this particular episode was even worthy of my time as I had to get on with my “daily duties” and it wasn’t particularly striking a chord with me. I decided to ease my guilt by multi-tasking – I began to check the emails on my phone.

He kept stressing the point about how even a passing statement to someone that seems like nothing, could mean the world to them. We have no idea about how we can affect the course of someone’s life. We should never underestimate ourselves and the power of our words. I thought, “Ok. Makes sense. Still, no big aha moment.” …and then I opened your email…I may not have given any propulsion to your dream, but I feel like God was telling me, “Yes, even YOU, Laura.” My fists were clenched and waving as I audibly got the willies- in a joyful way. God is fun sometimes!

I went to your blog and read every last bit. You are amazing! 3 People?!

I hope you shout it from the rooftops so that everyone can experience your talent and inspiration! (add to favorites-click!)

In the meantime, I WILL pray for you and I will remember today’s message for a long time.

L

 

From: Gretchen
Sent: Tue 10/07/14       7:53 PM
To: Laura

Laura,

What an awesome experience to have all of those “promptings” for me to tell you then come together so that Monday morning you would get your God moment. He really is amazing. :).

Thank you again for the encouragement. I think the three followers are all friends…. My confidence goes up and down.

I’m certainly not ready to post it to FB or anything.… Facing that fear is hard.

But anyway – every bit of support is awesome, and helps me feel like maybe I’m on the right track.

Blessings,
Gretchen

 

I did eventually post to FaceBook and over time, in infinitesimally small ways, living a secret dream started to feel less scary. More like taking flight.

A Prayer and Song for Claudia’s Family

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Thank you to everyone who prayed for my stepsister, Claudia, earlier this year.  As you know, she went home to the Father, and will be rejoicing in Heaven this Christmas. But her family remains.  And oh, how they ache. If you would, please pray with me again – for them – this season.

And if YOU are mourning someone this Christmas, it would be my privilege to pray for you.  Please don’t hesitate to ask me.

Dear Lord, King of Kings,
You are Immanuel – God With Us.
Thank you for creating this Christmas season by sending your son, Jesus Christ – the Very Word of God, wrapped in human flesh.
In His life, he knew every possible kind of suffering – so that we would know,
We are never alone.
We thank you for His triumphant resurrection over death, and for His eternal grace.
Lord, you have promised to be with us always and everywhere, and your Word is Truth – for there is no impurity within you.
Please come and be with Claudia’s family.
Make your peace known to them.
Enfold them in your loving arms and touch their hearts with the expectation of joy to come.
Assure them of your never-ending faithfulness, and remind them of the ways you have already blessed them, so they can be renewed with hope for your goodness in the time ahead.
Strengthen their spirits and increase their faith.
Please hold them up and bind them together, so that they may find solace, and You, in the eyes of one another.
And Lord, bless Claudia’s children – Cata, Nick, and baby Matias – in a special way.
May their mother’s love be forever imprinted upon their hearts and souls.

In the name of our Saviour, Jesus, we pray,
Amen.

 

Day 29 – Write it on Your Heart

I got out the hearts today. The wooden hearts. We started writing on these at Thanksgiving a couple years ago, when I hoped it would become an annual tradition. Every person in our home for the holiday writes on one side of the heart what he or she is thankful for this year, and on the other, their name and the date. Over time, we’ll have a record of gratitude that can be arranged in a vase, or tossed in a bowl to be sifted through and remembered.

One of my very best friends gave me this ‘hearts’ idea, and I liked it because it’s similar to writing thank-notes or making gratitude lists.  And I like to write thank-you notes. Seriously. Some people find them tedious but I don’t. In fact, I’ve found that the old adage “you can’t hold a positive and negative thought in your head at the same time” is true, because when I’m feeling a bit down or having an “off” day, the best remedy for me is to write a thank-you note to someone, for any good reason I can think of.  And if I can’t think of anyone, I can always build on my gratitude list to God, starting right where I am.

I read (and re-read) an amazing book this year called One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp.  In it, she takes counting blessings to a whole new level.  How?  First, she unravels the word eucharisteo, the original Greek word used in the Gospel of Luke to describe Jesus giving thanks at the Last Supper. Eucharisteo means thanksgiving, and within it is the Greek word charis, meaning grace, and its derivative chara, meaning joy.  So, there is a correlation between giving thanks to God for the gifts of His grace that we see all around us (even the tiniest things!), and experiencing joy. The miracle is that this works even when we think there is nothing to be thankful for.

This year has been a difficult one for my family.  We’ve lost several family members, and we miss them this Thanksgiving. But when we had to say goodbye to each of them, I began my daily prayers with litanies of thanks for all the things I could think of about each person, and it pulled my focus off my sadness, and onto them, where they are now, in God’s light.

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Day 16 – Getaway?

Today we are leaving on a 4-day family getaway to Colonial Williamsburg.  We’re all super excited, and every single one of us has had a checklist of items that needed to be done prior to departure. My older two kids both had big assignments due today that should have, and could have, been completed at a more leisurely pace before last night. But they weren’t.  And one child had completed an assignment, shown it to me, and since it wasn’t what the teacher was asking for, put me in the position of saying, “You need to redo it.”  The other had a gazillion math problems I didn’t have time (or memory) to solve while cooking dinner. If you are (or were) the parent of school-aged kids, you know where this scenario is headed.

I’ll spare you the drama, but let’s just say that by 6:30 last night, my dear husband, who was still at work trying to clear his desk for vacation, had just received a full-on “vent” phone call from me. (It was soooo not fair to him.) After we hung up, the other 4 of us sat down to dinner.  All three kids were crying.  The older two because of their schoolwork. The younger one because of the older two; he couldn’t stand their tears and wailing.  How I sympathized.

It was time to pray.  And pray I did.  Not your normal dinnertime prayer, NOOO. I risked the food getting cold.  I asked Him to step in.  I called on Him by name for each of us, by name.  The red eyes and red noses started to clear as we ate in silence.  And miraculously, everything got done and everyone was in bed on time.

This morning, the day dawned and I was given a second chance to do better. The plan was to drive 1 hour round-trip to take my husband to the Metro so he could leave his car at home (instead of in a lot somewhere) for the next few days. Then, load up the dogs and drive 75 mins. round-trip in the opposite direction to the kennel, before dropping my little guy off at preschool for lunch and — get this — PICTURE DAY.  He was dressed and ready to go at breakfast.  All his other nice-looking clothes are packed for the trip…..Life was going well….And BOOM!  He spilled a full cup of orange juice down the front of him.

I could have lost it. I was definitely frustrated, even slightly angry. But I looked at what I had been given at that moment.  Time.  I stripped him down, put him in sweats, and had just enough time to wash and dry the outfit between runs to the Metro and kennel.

“His divine power has bestowed on us everything that makes for life and devotion.”

–1 Peter 3:1

Everything.  His divine power has given us everything we need at any given moment to move out of that space where anger and frustration is going to spill out and harm those we love. The only thing required is the only thing ever required – turning to Him and letting His grace in.

Day 12 – Family Movie Night

Saturday night is usually “family movie night” at our house. Our selections generally need to have broad appeal since the audience of five ranges in age from 4 to 42 and includes both genders. So – it’s not all action movies or cartoon animation, and it’s not all princess stories, either. Lately, we’ve been trying out some classics we think the kids might enjoy.  I’m happy to report that in the last few months, The Wizard of Oz, The Goonies, and The Sound of Music were hits!

Photo credit: "Maria" by jessowey, www.fanpop.com
Photo credit: “Maria” by jessowey, www.fanpop.com

 

What I cherish most about these evenings is not the break in routine from our very scheduled lives, but the feeling in our home just before we descend to the basement to get settled in. We make a bunch of popcorn. Then, the kids grab pillows, stuffed animals and blankets from their rooms and loudly haul them downstairs. They are jubilant and pumped with adrenaline. They “call” spots.  Who gets the little hideaway between the sofa and the Elvis lamp? (It was from my husband’s first apartment – none of his roommates claimed it when everyone moved out, but we still have it….worth some money, maybe??…..the kids love that nook.)  And who will get the alligator chair? – a green stuffed animal/pillow that we bought for child #1’s baby room, but that has mysteriously lingered for almost 12 years. And who gets the sofa, to cuddle with Mom?  (Thankfully, this last choice is not always the last choice.)

These joyful family rituals are the ties that will connect my kids’ childhood memories, along with family dinners, outings to museums and sites in nearby cities, school events we all attend, holidays, church on Sunday, etc. And the truth is, I know I couldn’t really appreciate these situations without a modicum of God’s grace.  Not because I don’t love my kids, but because try as I might, I still love them as only a human mother can.  And sometimes, the noise they make drives me nuts.

When I’m tired, and just looking forward to putting my feet up on a sofa, and watching a nice movie next to my husband, I sometimes have to step back and remind myself where all this luxury of time, good health, food, and a home came from. And when I do, and I offer thanks to the One who gave it to me, my preconceived notions of how I think I like my house to be – which is QUIET – go away. My perspective shifts.  And I love how it does. Every. Single. Time.

My perspective swings off of me and my preferences, and onto Him and His gifts to me…..Too numerous to count. Among them – three kiddos just psyched that we’re all here, and going to do something together, yet again. Thank you, thank you, thank you….