Monday, November 30, 2015

Spending Ourselves

A few Christmases ago, we we ate coconut, spaghetti, and pineapple for Christmas dinner. It was a mission trip to Costa Rica, so that should also explain the Christmas morning kayak trip through mangroves. (And the Christmas Eve trip to the turtle sanctuary.) We left Christmas gifts at home under the tree, with three cats wondering if perhaps they should do the job of unwrapping.

We also decided to do Christmas differently when we got home. In light of the fact that we were going to work with Nicaraguan immigrants who didn't have the means to buy uniforms so their kids could go to school, we wondered how we would feel about coming home and opening a room full of gifts we didn't need. Wisely, we figured we would not feel so great about that. So we planned an alternative.

For that year, we agreed that all presents had to be made, not bought. I made photo albums for everyone. Bought groupons for classes to take together. Even finished those T-shirt quilts I'd been saving T-shirts for for approximately twenty years. (OK, I did not technically finish them. Some of them may have actually been a wrapped up box of fabric squares that were going to be a quilt someday when they grew up. But at least I got started.)

You know what? Our kids loved them. They spent more time poring over those photo albums than they had ever spent fascinated by a new device or game. They appreciated the time and love that went into those gifts. Every year since then I've thought, maybe we should do that again. And maybe we will.

One of the biggest ways we can slow down our holidays is to slow down financially. Slow down by rethinking what needs to be bought and who needs to be impressed. I know, making gifts can take time. Feeling we have to make Pinterest-level gifts for everyone on our list does not induce feelings of peace but rather heart palpitations.

But we don't have to. “Not bought” does not equal intricately hand crafted marvels. It means creativity on another level entirely.

Here are a few easy ideas to get that creativity flowing.

Cut the list. 

I'm not kidding on this. Who told you you had to give gifts to your mail carrier, the person three cubicles down at work, your great-niece, and your best friend's dog? There are no rules here unless you make them. A sincere note of appreciation is enough. (Although the dog will probably eat a note, so maybe not.) 

A card mentioning something you've noticed about that person. A list of reasons you'r glad you know her. A Bible verse that makes you think of him.
Really, affirming words, if they're sincere, last longer than any gift. (Except fruitcake and bad knick-knacks. Those lasts forever.) 

Exchange names among family members rather than trying to buy for everyone. Agree to make a charitable donation instead of give gifts. Minimize your list and take it from there.

Mass produce. 

Can fifteen people on your list all receive the same loaf of homemade bread and a jar of jam? Yes, they can. Done. Stop stressing over making each one different. No one will remember. Believe me on this. (And if you still have fifteen non-family members on your list, see tip #1.)

Go with you gifts. 

A handmade gift I greatly appreciated :) 
I can scrapbook. Maybe the thought would give you a migraine. Maybe, though, you'd be a whiz at uploading those same photos to Walgreens and making a quick photo album. Totally counts as homemade. Go for it. Go with whatever God-given abilities and passions were assigned to you. What do you love to do or create? How can that translate into giving? God gave us passions and gifts so we could bless others. Yours included, whatever they are.

Gift someone with time. 

A lunch together. A class together. A road trip together. Anything that ends with together. T-I-M-E spells love in our culture. Gift it lavishly. It will be the most treasured thing under the tree.

So take this as a challenge. A Don't-Step-Foot-in-a-Store challenge. Slow down financially this year by making gifts, creating memories, appreciating tangibly, and gifting with time. Forget Black Friday. Seriously, Black Friday is like an abusive relationship anyway. You know it's bad for you, but you keep going back. Break it off now.

Black Friday is an abusive relationship anyway. Break it off now.

If you find you ned to do something else with all the money you save, there are some good options listed below.* Buy something someone else desperately needs given in the name of someone who doesn't really need anything. Because nothing says “I love you,” like “I bought a goat in your name.” I'm serious, actually. It's true.

We're celebrating the One who had everything and gave everything so we could have anything. He didn't spend money to woo us--he spent himself. Want to slow down financially this Christmas and stop the spending crazy train? Give of yourself. Simply, not in a “I can make cuter and more personal handmade gifts than you can buy” sort of giving. Because we all know those people, and they are annoying.

In small steps or big ways, start spending yourself this year rather than your credit cards.

In what ways do you try to focus on people rather than presents? Do you have great go-to's for simple gifts? Please share!

Prison Fellowship/Project Angel Tree

Monday, November 23, 2015

Leave Room: When the Christmas Calendar Is Too Much

I have a calendar on my phone, a calendar on my computer, a calendar on my website, and a calendar on my wall. You'd think I would never miss an appointment. You'd think I would never double book anything. You'd think I went backpacking on a yak in Siberia. No, you wouldn't, but that last guess would be equally as accurate as the first two.

I still screw up the calendar.

And now it's December. The month when we routinely add 314 things to our calendar that we will feel guilty about never being able to do. Because that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

We are calendarically challenged (your new word of the month), and we need to slow it down for the holidays, not ramp it up. That's not to say we turn down social occasions and stay at home all month with our twinkling lights. Socializing is good, even for us flaming introverts. But let's slow it down to the right kind of socializing.


What really “makes” Christmas for your family members? Cutting down the tree? Christmas Eve service? Eating baking cookies? Listen to every person, and then schedule in the things that matter the most to each person. Yes, schedule in baking cookies. Or it will happen at the last minute because you have to squeeze it in and you're frazzled. This is not the time to be adjacent to knives, blenders, and hot ovens.

Everyone feels listened to, and the important things happen.

Add in slowly. 

Start to pick other things you want or have to do. School programs. Worship time. Visits with people from out of town. Look at each time-sucker holiday event and ask your self a couple questions. Is this something I really want to do? Is it something that means a lot to another person? Is it something that shows my gratitude toward God? Is it something I have to do or risk unemployment? If the answer is yes, put it on the calendar. When something new comes up, go through the mental process of asking these questions before you make an automatic yes. (Or no.)

Protect downtime. 

Keep free time free. Resist the urge to fill it in with “just one things more.” Yes, it might fit. Yes, you might enjoy it. But it will also stress you out to look at a full calendar and feel like you cannot escape its selfish demands. Guard those non-colored areas on your calendar as if they are gold. They are. They are your golden time to do nothing, enjoy one another, read together, or go on a drive in your pajamas to see lights. These are important activities. If you decide at the time that you can and want to do that one extra thing? Then do it. But you'll be free to choose. This is the only time I'm going to give you a pass on not committing to an event. Treasure it.

Celebrate weirdly. 

My family usually gets together after Christmas sometime. The crazy is over, the gifts are half price, and everyone is sick of coma inducing amounts of food so there's no need to cook lavishly. Choose a not-normal time for those things you'd like to do but can't fit in. A breakfast party instead of a dinner one. Invite families to volunteer together. Have friends with little ones over for hot chocolate, pj's, and a favorite Christmas story time after dinner and before bed. It's short and sweet and fun. Create an event at a time no one thinks of, and since you created it, you get to make the rules. Rules are, you don't have to set up a photo booth and handmade placecards. Unless you want to.

Leave Room.

Sometimes, interruptions to your calendar are good. The shepherds' willingness to listen to the angels and take off for the stable meant only good things. I'm not sure how the Christmas story would have gone down if they had said to the angelic host, “You know, we're kind of stressed right now. Can we take a pass on the newborn king thing? Maybe next month, when things slow down.” Well, I am sure. God would have found someone else to do their job. And they would have missed out.

But divine interruptions can't happen with a blacked-out calendar. Leave room. Leave room for His presence to surprise you on a starry night. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

Less Is More Christmas

Christmastime is heeeere . . . yes, the warbling song stylings of the Peanuts Christmas special are in my head. I love Christmastime. I also love the Peanuts, so there is that. I know, it's early yet, but there is a reason.

Unabashedly, I love it. I love the lights, the colors, the smells, the shiny wrapping paper, the songs, the general kindness. I love everything about Christmas.

Almost everything. I do not love the craziness of trying to get it all done. The last minute stress. The certainty that you have to get one more thing for one more person because said person is going to get you something and it will definitely be better than anything you can even think of with your hot-chocolate-hangover brain.

Plus I do not love “Santa Baby.” At all.

So I'm not Ebeneezer Scrooge, and I'm not Buddy Hall (the guy who wanted his Christmas lights to be seen from space). I'm just a Christmas lover. And a realist.

Being a realist, I want to take the best of Christmas and retain the reason we celebrate it (hint—the “Christ” part) and meld them into a holiday that celebrates peace on earth, not insanity in the dollar section of Target.

Light parades? I'm there.
So can we do that? Can we do a less is more Christmas with all the things we love and not the expectations we hate? I think so. 

If you were following my posts earlier this year, you know my daughter and I chose to go through the book 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess for the second time. It's all about slowing down, looking at what we have and what we need (don't need), and finding ways to change our habits and expectations by employing some radical life changes. (Start here to find out more about that great experiment.)

Love the MSI Christmas decorations
We didn't finish the experiment at that time. We did practice loosening the chains of food, clothing, and media before we declared a break for a while. Some of the things we learned, as well as some of the thing I've learned being both a mom and a pastor during Christmas (now that's a double whammy right there), can illuminate the question: How do we slow down and do less while celebrating the season in the ways we love?

So we're going to go through a few ways to do that this next month. Slowing down financially, electronically, calendarally (Yes, I did make that word up), and spiritually. Stay tuned. I think you're going to like it.

In the meantime, here's a quick peek at some of the ways I've already found online. I hope some of them sound fun and useful for you as you enter the happiest/craziest/holiest time of the year.

We'll start with the calendar next week. I'd love to hear your ideas, too.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Rocks, Rails, and The Bible--They're All Hard

As you read last week, I've had some health challenges in the last year. Or so. 

Funny thing is, once approximately 27 doctors, 478 blood tests, and 3500 random guesses/unsolicited advice/WebMd visits were all involved? The answer was something no one expected. One of the drugs I've been taking for eight years to keep my body from rejecting my donor kidney was causing my body to reject basically everything else. Like food.

Food is important. I think I learned that in health class at some point. But now I'm quite certain of it. Nutrients contained in food keep us alive. And my body was having none of them. For a long time.

So . . . something meant to make me healthy and well ended up poisoning me. It happens, to a select few.

Spiritual Poison

Hard, hard rocks
Spiritually, I'm afraid it happens to many of us. I think automatically of the Pharisees that Jesus confronted time and again. His basic message to them? You have a good foundation. You want to know how to please God. But you've taken it so far from its purpose that you're poisoning yourselves. And everyone else.

The Pharisees had rules. Lots of them. They began well enough—with a desire to obey and follow God. They began in Scripture. But they got a tad out of hand. Anytime there are 613 rules for getting through your day, things are a tad out of hand.

My medication began well. It was intended to keep my body from killing a life-saving donor kidney. And it did that. But along the way, it started killing me instead. That's a little out of hand. A bit of straying from the original intent.

I fear--no, I know--we've done that, too. We've looked at the guardrails God set up for life as He intended and, instead of being grateful for their life-saving capacity, we've used them to beat others into anything but life. Too often, we've poisoned the body with something that was supposed to help it.

Bedrock is Hard Stuff--Be Careful

We've taken the basic moral bedrock and, instead of standing on it with arms outstretched to heaven in gratitude, we've smacked peoples' heads on it. Not always. Often Christians are awesomely gracious, and I have been witness to that beauty so many times. But enough for some to feel poisoned by the people God meant to be good news. This is not good news. For anyone.

Gratitude is November's watchword.

The way to respond to God's guardrails is with gratitude, not self-righteousness. 

And the beautiful life they give.
When God does it his way.
I am grateful for the chance to live with fewer consequences for my dumb choices if I live by the rules. But I am not free to glibly inform others that their consequences are their own dumb fault. I'm not even free to decide that this is true. Only God can decide if an effect is a result of some cause. It's not in my bandwidth. It's not up to me to call a tsunami or an earthquake or AIDS God's judgment because I don't get to be God. The complex nuances of cause and effect in my own body turned out difficult enough to navigate, let alone believing I can judge those effects on a cosmic basis.

Gratitude dictates that I fall on my knees in worship and then rise in service. Not judgment. Gratitude that I have what is life-giving should make me a life-giving conduit, not an arbiter of who gets to be in and who is out.

Making God's life-giving Word into something that poisons those it comes in contact with is something for which we will surely answer.  [tweet this].The last year and a half have taught me a great deal about turning something good into a weapon rather than a balm.

 “I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.” (Luke 7.47)
(Even better, read the whole story from Jesus here.)

In what ways can we use God's life-giving words to give life this week? How can we guard ourselves from the opposite? Let's talk about it.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Too Whatever (Being Real, and Grateful, about Our Bodies)

It's been a year. A year and a half, actually. Eighteen months since I began a health odyssey that started as an innocent stomach bug and ended much later. Well, it hasn't really ended, but I can see the finish line from here.

Long Story Sort of Short

The stomach bug didn't end in 24 hours like it's MO says it should. It didn't end at all. To summarize, for over a year, I could not eat much, had constant abdominal pain, could not get up and do anything for more than fifteen minutes before exhaustion set in, had a body temperature like I was floating on an iceberg, and had to stay in immediate proximity to a bathroom at all times. TMI? My friend, you have no idea. I will never again underestimate the value of normal bowels. Just saying.

I lost over 50 pounds involuntarily. That's not as awesome as many women assume. Because it was so fast and unhealthy, all the muscle mass has gone bye-bye with the fat. Do you know there are muscles in places you never even thought of that you need to function? Like even vocal muscles? Yeah, truth.

Why am I inflicting this story on you, like you just got stuck in the DMV line behind the old lady who wants to tell you her entire pitiful health history, in graphic detail, just before getting a driver's license you are quite certain she should not have, given that history?*

There is a point.

A year and a half ago, I could not imagine uttering phrases like “I really need to gain some weight.” A year and a half ago, I would look in a mirror, or at a photograph, and think, “Eew. Look at that fat stomach and those chubby short legs. I hate the way I look.”

I knew this was wrong. I preach all the time about girls owning their bodies and not being ashamed of them. But what we say and know to be true and what we feel in our hearts are not always the same deal, are they?

Now I look at photos and think, “Eeew. I look like a poster for a 'Don't Do Meth, Kids' campaign.”

My arms and neck are scrawny; they look like I imagine my mom's would have if she had lived to be 80. I am not 80. Or even orbiting in its proximity. I have bags and creases the size of an elephant's under my eyes as a result of of chronic dehydration. Half of my hair has gone AWOL. And that famous thigh gap? Yeah, got that, too. It's not nearly as glamorous as it's made out to be.

Now. A picture i really hate. I give it to you.
Too fat. Too skinny. Too fill in the blank. Whatever, people.  
I am over it.

Ten Seconds of Awesome

For about ten seconds in the last eighteen months, I looked like we always fantasize—exactly the right weight. Then the scales tipped too far the other direction, and self-criticism set in again. And I realized, how dumb is that? To only feel confident about how you look for ten seconds of your life? What a waste of the other millions of seconds.

Is constant self-criticism really a good use of the time God gave me?  [tweet this]. 

Is a focus on the unattainable a colossal waste of what I can attain right now, today?  [tweet this].

Do I care too much about what counts too little?  [tweet this].

Have I failed to be grateful for the amazing gift of a body that's alive, no matter what it looks like? Have I failed to be thankful for a soul that's alive?

So you know what? I'm owning it. At least, I'm trying to. Let's be real, here, I am a proud creature, as are most of us. I don't like looking at photos of myself when I look far worse than I want. Yet I want to want those photos. I want to own them. This is who I am, this is what I look like, and this is where God has brought me.

And to deny that and be ashamed of seeing it, looking at it, letting others see the truth and beauty of what it looks like to be deconstructed and revived? Thats a worse kind of pride I don't want to harbor. It's a pride that won't let others in because I only want them to see the image I want to portray. It's not ministry--it's just selfish. It's thinking so much about me I don't ever look away from the selfie to see the ones who need me to be real for them.

I want to spend November being grateful on the blog. You know, because, Thanksgiving.

Grateful is Good

Today, I am grateful. I am grateful for where I am. I am grateful for what I've learned. I am so grateful to be alive, to be getting healthy, and to see an end to this long tale. I do NOT take for granted that I can get up and have energy to do life anymore. 

A year and a half of enforced nothingness has taught me gratitude for just about everything my body can do and did do before without considering what a miracle that is. I am grateful for whatever that body looks like, in whatever stage it is, because it works. It functions. It is capable of doing whatever it needs to do to be what God wants me to be. I have been forcefully reminded that this is really all it needs to be.


What do you need to be? What are you not owning as yours, as something God can and will use? Look at it. Take a picture. Whatever works. Say thank you. Even if you don't really mean it just yet. Saying it starts the work of meaning it.

* True funny/slightly terrifying story. I once had a woman hit my car five times with her car door because she could not figure out that she had parked too close to me to be able to get out of her car. (The full parking job is a story unto itself.) She just kept hitting me, perplexed as to why it would not open. I was Sitting. In. the Car. She proceeded to get out of the car (after finally reparking, a half dozen times), grab her walker, and get into line at the DMV. Jesus hold us all if that lady actually got a renewal and is on the roads.