The most beautiful Christmas tree I ever saw was a discard on its way to the dump. It had been a lean Christmas for us, and in the absence of funding for elaborate decorations, my mother built a simple faux fireplace on the main wall of our living room. The mantle allowed just enough room for our stockings and for the nativity scene to rest in prominent view as the center of our celebration. The whole display was actually made of cardboard, but it was colorful and festive and she got it special for me, so I was perfectly content. My uncle, however, who came visiting the day after Christmas, found it confusing. He pressed my mother at some length for a good reason that I did not have a Christmas tree, as all children rightfully should. (This is probably a good time to note that it was my first Christmas, and he was only five years old.) Not having the financial acumen or social sensitivity required to grasp the situation, he finally resigned himself to the injustice of it all and – no doubt at the behest of the adults – decided to spend his energies playing outside. Some time later, in the midst of dinner preparations, my uncle came bursting back into the house. He was red-faced and out of breath, yet oddly reserved and mannerly for a young boy in the throes of vigorous exercise. This could only mean that he wanted something. Sure enough, not even waiting for a pause in the conversation, he donned his most cherubic face, widened his eyes with pure innocence, and inquired as to whether he might have six of my mother’s chocolate chip cookies, please, right away. This was oddly specific. My mother had made plenty of cookies and was happy to dispense them to her sweet little brother generously, but there was something curious in his manner that led her to question him. Why six cookies, and why the urgency? It turns out, my uncle hadn’t resigned himself to injustice at all; he had been busily setting things right. As he was enjoying the outdoors, one of our neighbor boys had been assigned the chore of taking his family’s used Christmas tree to the curb for pick-up. Sensing providence and opportunity, my uncle immediately approached the boy and began wheeling and dealing for its acquisition. Since cookies were the only currency available to him, that’s what he offered and the neighbor decided six would be fair. All my uncle needed was to take those cookies out, and the tree would be ours. Swallowing back a rising lump in her throat, my mother opened the cookie jar and let him choose his six perfect cookies. He ran them outside, then talked his new friend into helping to carry it into our house. These two earnest young boys muscled my tree across the street, through the door, and into a corner near the nativity scene, then somehow managed to prop it up securely enough for display. This was some tree. What had originally been perfect form was now lopsided from the weight of its former decorations. There were scattered clumps of crushed icicles all over it on random branches. It had lost a fair number of needles at the hands of its young movers, too – but it was mine: my tree, my gift, bought with the uninhibited love of a young boy who cared enough to go find it for me. Love made it perfect. I don’t know whether my family added any decorations to my tree that night, or how long it was allowed to stay. In truth, I don’t actually have a visual memory of it at all, just images imprinted on my heart from the story as we’ve told it over the years. Yet that tattered old leftover tree remains as the standard to which I hold all Christmas trees, and the epitome of love made tangible and real. Oh, and to this day, my mother still gives her little brother cookies for Christmas. Every year.
The first week of Lent is finished, and I am happy to report that it was largely a success. My girls and I accomplished all of our goals and stayed faithful to the promises we made. We supported each other in our different struggles and came away from it closer than ever. That’s the good news.
The bad news is, Saturday sucked – like, a lot – and it was all my fault. I was awful. I was moody, depressed, and overwhelmed with every little thing my girls did or didn’t do. I went to bed that night exhausted and on the verge of a significant identity crisis. I was so distracted that I forgot to set my alarm and overslept for church the next morning.
Want to know what fueled this horrible, no good, very bad day?
I gave up sugar.
To be precise, I gave up white carbs (as per the 4-Hour Body prescription) because I know what a stumbling block empty foods are for me. I use them to distract, divert, and procrastinate, and I always feel terrible later. Since I am focusing on Hebrews 12:1 this Lent, casting off complex burdens with food seemed the obvious choice.
The initial results were devilishly easy on the physical side. I have given up soda, junk food, and even this range of carbs before, each invariably resulting in at least one day of detox: migraines, fatigue, nausea, the whole bit. This time, nothing. My body felt fine – even good – the whole week.
Then there was Saturday.
I have to say it scared me a little bit and here’s why: What if I’m not the nice girl I have always thought I am?
My whole life, the words that people have used to describe me have always been along the lines of friendly, optimistic, helpful, sweet… What if it turns out that I’ve just been hopped up on sugar for thirty years? What if my soft, gooey center is vinegar instead of jam?
Turning to research for answers, I noted with dismay that identity crises go hand-in-hand with addiction. Some addicts become addicted because of an identity crisis; others experience the identity crisis as a phase of recovery from the addiction. The luckiest of all turn to addiction for relief from the identity crisis, then face a new identity crisis later during rehabilitation – a cyclical loop of uncertainty.
It will take some time for me to dig up my root causes, and I won’t bore you with my soul-searching here. Suffice it to say that a new project as I press on through Lent is going to be reviewing who God says I am, meditating on my identity in Him rather than in human eyes. I thought I already knew this. Clearly, I have overestimated my depth of understanding.
Coincidentally enough (if you believe in such things), I just happened to see Flight this weekend in my race to be fully informed before the Oscars, and this struggle is brilliantly portrayed therein by Denzel Washington. The question of “Who am I?” is a recurring theme in his life and the life of others who struggle around him through the story. It’s not a pretty picture, to be sure, but I am encouraged knowing that I’m not the only person to wrestle with such seemingly elementary issues.
Today, I am thanking God for movies, long baths, my family’s gracious patience, and especially Sundays!
Last week, I got a name for a behavior that has long afflicted my youngest daughter. The behavior is craving and /or consuming substances which are not food – recently it has been crayons and pencil erasers – and the name is pica.
Lots of people manifest it, but no one knows exactly what causes pica. Some theorize that it is a symptom of nutritional deficiency, others that it stems from a low level poisoning such as of lead. Many people who are diagnosed on the Autism spectrum experience it (though of course, there are some who believe Autism itself results from mineral poisoning, so that may be redundant).
Whatever the cause, the universal consensus is it’s not good for you.
My daughter is diagnosed with PDD-NOS and has eaten non-food substances off and on nearly all her life. When she was a toddler, it was dirt and sand. By preschool she favored play-doh and plastic toys. Now that she is eight, apparently she has graduated to school supplies. Until now, we as a family have tended to shake our heads at her cuteness and shrug it off. We know it’s unhealthy, and we certainly discourage it, but every time she successfully phases out the behavior, then later it becomes something to joke about.
The thing is, she knows it’s not good for her. Her mind responds well to rules, and she has memorized the reasons for not doing it, can quote them for you endlessly. She even has put to memory some alternate choices to help her not do it, such as twiddling her thumbs or eating a cracker. Yet the minute her brain turns elsewhere – for perfectly good reasons such as doing school work or playing pretend – back in the mouth goes the pencil. Knowledge is not enough.
In my ideal world, I will sniff around and research and think through it enough to discover the root cause. Then I will fix it, and she will have conquered the problem forever and can move on to grander pursuits that are not socially awkward, such as becoming an astronaut or saving all of the lost kittens. My ideal world eludes me every day, unfortunately. In the meantime, I am working on creative solutions involving things that are okay to put in her mouth (dental hygiene tools, perhaps?) and praying for guidance so that we can truly beat this thing for good.
Pica is a very visible faulty behavior. It’s easy to look at the kid shoveling sand in her mouth and think her either silly or defective for doing it. Yet in this case, once again, the little children lead me and I have to ask: Am I so very much more evolved myself?
I consume things that are not food all the time. Facsimiles for reality have more of a place in my daily routine than truth. A burger with fries is not a meal (depending on where they came from, it might not even be actual food!), and a full belly is not satisfaction. Showing up for work is not doing a good job. Waving to my neighbor is not being a neighbor. Facebook is not friendship. Attending a weekly church service is not righteousness. Quoting scripture is not speaking for God.
I am rather convicted by this picture of filling up on falsehood and potentially hurting myself in the process – all in the name of relieving a damage that I can’t quite even define.
My Sunday School class yesterday discussed a similar topic while studying the book of Micah. In the final chapters, the prophet chastises the people for practicing ritual without heart and lists among the consequences always eating, yet never being filled. That’s spiritual pica right there, and I totally have it.
There’s more to my life and call than this. I know there is. Today I am praying to move beyond knowledge and into active pursuit of real life. I would rather suffer now for what will feel better later than forge relief now with what will hurt me later.
Plus, I’m tired of wiping this dirt off my mouth all the time.
I had a classic parenting moment this weekend. My ten-year-old came to me with a problem – mean girls – and I spent about half an hour with her explaining the phenomenon. We covered everything from the art of recognizing knuckleheads in the wild to rooting herself in the knowledge of how God sees her. I was firm, I was eloquent; we ended the session laughing and I was excited for the new strength I was sure she would carry with her for the rest of her life. Problem solved.
Later, I set myself up for a writing session…and I completely froze. The reason: a bad opinion some one had expressed about me a couple of days earlier. I became fixated on the insult and utterly failed to produce so much as a single sentence, all because I knew that somewhere out there, at least one person would call B.S. on anything I had to say. Defeated, I found some other diversions to pass my time staring at the screen, then closed down for the night. Negativity wins.
It is disappointingly easier for me to talk than to walk. Convicted on this point, I decided to cope in my typically nerdy fashion: research! Here’s what I learned about negative feedback, and how I am planning to beat it next time.
1. The most common image I associate with the word feedback is the horrible, spine-decalcifying squeal that sound systems emit by accident in a concert or speech setting. This type of feedback occurs when sound waves from speakers pass into a microphone and are re-amplified and cycled through the speakers again. I’m not sure that this is a perfectly technical application, but to me, it is a reminder that allowing my thoughts to loop and process around the opinions and words of others only creates increasing dissonance.
The solution is so simple: Move away from the source! Put some distance and intelligent boundaries between myself and destructive voices around me. Of course, simple is not the same as easy, and it takes practice. Until I get good at it, I can always try the time-honored tradition modeled for me by the girls of Friends: get the words out of my head and onto paper…and then burn them.
2. In medical terms, negative feedback is one of the control systems used by an organism to regulate internal functions regardless of external conditions or circumstances. In this system, the organism will automatically make changes in order to reduce something it is producing. For example, if my body is producing too much heat, it knows to excrete sweat to try and reduce the temperature.
Similarly, I can develop a set of pre-determined responses to negativity. Good examples include reading the Bible, calling a friend, creating a music playlist around the theme (not to include only revenge-based hits like “You Oughta’ Know” or almost anything by Linkin Park), etc. If I am prepared ahead of time, I’m less likely to lapse into bad habits or succumb to paralysis – no matter what is going on around me.
3. Feedback has become a popular concept in the workplace, indicating a form of ongoing training that helps employees learn what to do and how. Positive feedback involves praising the person for her strengths; negative feedback focuses on what the person is doing wrong, and then creating a strategy for how to change it.
This reminds me of a former pastor of mine, Rev. Tracy Saletta, who taught me to view difficult people as “life coaches.” By their very existence, antagonists create boot camp-level real-world experience in practicing the example of Jesus. Loathe as I am to give any credit to them, I know that there is value in this training, for character development if nothing else. I do not, of course, mean to indicate in any way that the life of a believer is best served as a doormat, because that’s not the model Jesus laid out at all. But can I pray for the ones who hurt me even as they are jeering and beating me up?
Or rather, will I?
It’s the first Monday of the New Year – how are those resolutions coming?
When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, the people I know tend to fall into one of three categories:
1. The super-disciplined, who can and do make self-improvements on a regular basis regardless of the season. These guys see goals as personal challenges, and weakness as a nemesis to vaporize.
2. The adamantly content, who spend the first week of every new year actively and loudly eschewing resolutions. They know that they’re not going to change, so they’ve decided not to want to – and they really want you to be free as well.
3. The earnest but struggling, who go through a self-imposed cycle of shame every year. I tend to be among them. December 31st, for me, is a day of hard assessment. January 1st brings elated motivation and an illogical sense of optimism. Then somewhere around January 15th, when all of my efforts have come to few if any visible results, I begin to slip. By February, I am publicly mocking myself so that everyone knows I failed again – but I’m really okay with it!
That’s because breaking up my fallow ground, as the Bible puts it, is hard work. In fact, gardening is the perfect metaphor for my efforts, because it is equally deceptive.
Gardening magazines and books all feature lovely, idyllic photos as their centerpieces, don’t they? Most display peaceful images of cultivated yards complete with bright, healthy blooms and lush greenery, outdoor furniture staged in relaxed positions, and perhaps even a bonus water source or bird house. Catalogs of gardening tools show us smiling ladies patting the dirt with grace and surrounded by shiny, clean instruments – all artfully arranged to demonstrate how simple and rewarding the task is.
I’ve seen farmers and gardeners at work, even helped a family member or two with their horticultural endeavors, and it is not pretty. The picture we should see, if some one truly wanted to prepare us, would be of a profusely sweating gardener, gritting her teeth, armed head to toe with heavy duty garments and implements. Her skin would be sunburned and spotted with calamine lotion, her hair a tousled mess under her protective headgear of choice. She would look more like a soldier heading into battle than a relaxed grandmother.
We rarely see pictures of the work, only of the results. Therefore, our expectations are skewed and when we don’t see those results right away, we believe it’s a personal failing.
There is good news for us, and bad news, and they are both the same: It’s supposed to be hard. People, like plants, don’t grow overnight, and we need a lot of help and cultivating to come out right. We will do well to stop comparing ourselves to the rest of the world’s yards and instead dig in where we are.
To that end, here are three resources I am using to stay motivated in the battle. I pass them on, hoping you will find encouragement, too.
1. Almost anything that Steven Pressfield has to say, but especially his book called The War of Art. Best quote: “The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it. Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.”
2. I am reading the Bible all the way through for the first time in about 15 years. My aunt gave me a wonderful schedule for doing this, available by subscription through Samaritan’s Purse. Instead of slogging through chapter by chapter in order, it breaks it down into different sections daily (Tuesdays are history, Thursdays are poetry, etc.) – so much more conducive to success. You can find a similar breakdown here.
3. Tim Ferriss is my go-to guy for goals involving radical life changes / pursuits. He’s a maniac for health, and his approach is not for the faint of heart – but if you can stick with it, it will get you where you want to go fast.
Here’s to a productive 2013 for us all. May we yield at least a few blooms or fruits for ourselves and our loved ones by the end. If so, all that sweat and grime will be totally worth it.
I am a Christian. I have been an active believer in local churches for all thirty-seven years of my life. I probably fall toward the conservative side of the pew when it comes to tradition and doctrine, and I actively enjoy apologetics, eschatology, and inductive Bible studies. And it is with a full heart that I can honestly wish everyone this year: Happy Holidays, Season’s Greetings, a Blessed Winter Solstice, Happy Hanukkah and/or Kwanzaa, and even Merry Xmas!
It has become very popular in the fellowship of believers these days to be cranky about such alternative salutations. It is our God-given, or at least Constitutional, right to celebrate Christmas. It naturally follows that we should be able to wish others a merry Christmas without being persecuted or stamped down for it. I agree with these concepts. But is it really the answer to beat others over the head with our merry Christmases and refuse to receive their best wishes in any other form? I humbly submit: No.
It is unbecoming of us to post ugliness in the name of Jesus. I don’t think He is offended by the fact that there are people out there celebrating other things at this time of year…especially when it’s not even the accurate historical date of His birth. I don’t think that He cares if we abbreviate the manufactured name of the holiday down to Xmas so it will fit on a gift tag…especially since “X” has been used as His initial before. But I do think He cares whether we actively love one another despite our differences. Yes, I’m pretty sure I read that somewhere once.
I am celebrating Christmas this week, and so when I am out and about, I am wishing people a Merry Christmas. A week and a half ago, I posted a message at work wishing people a Happy Hanukkah, and I will wish people a Happy Kwanzaa as I see fit next week. I am not trying to be inauthentic or people-pleasing when I do this. Rather, it’s the same thing as saying “Happy Friday!” or “Have a nice summer!” I genuinely wish everyone – Christian or not – a day of blessing and positivity and progress down the path of meeting and fulfilling our respective destinies. I’m praying that we can all just accept each other’s intentions and toss the semantics to the curb.
Merry Christmas, y’all.
“I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel…”
I hate to admit this, but in the past, I have written off this bewildered confession as evidence of weak character on good old Charlie Brown’s part. How can anyone not be happy at Christmas? There are lights and parties and movies and treats and friends and snow and presents… Why, you couldn’t escape Christmas cheer if you tried, I’d have thought. Clearly, this was just a means to a story – almost an unbelievable stretch, to be honest – and our protagonist would get over himself in the end.
Cut to me sitting in the living room just last night. It was a perfect Christmas moment. I was quietly basking in the glow of the Christmas lights and the fireplace. My family had just bid farewell to the last of about twenty-five good friends and relatives who had attended our Christmas Open House. Candles were burning, my tummy was full of homemade treats, and the house had settled into an almost poetic stillness. It was even snowing outside, a particularly rare gift in this region. All was right with the world.
At least, it should have been. Yet even in the beauty and tranquility all around me, I could feel nothing at all. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t lonely or stressed out or fearful. I just could not connect with my surroundings and all that they should have imparted. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel… I get it now.
Observing the media during the Christmas season (which they cheerfully insist begins in August), we get a pretty good picture of how we should be. The grocer’s commercial assumes our typical families will be frolicking about the kitchen together. Morning radio shows inform us of which toys and electronics are every happy kid’s must-haves. Jewelers’ billboards demonstrate the ideal couple’s celebration, which is backlit by the frosty glow of a skating pond and featuring a diamond no smaller than your average beagle. These are the messages we receive.
It is no doubt due to all of this helpful guidance that Christmas has a stereotype of inciting depression. For instance, my family’s baking projects may involve dancing, but most likely in an effort to extinguish spontaneously combusting butter, or to peel the youngest child from the refrigerator’s ledge. My divorce was final years ago (probably due to a glaring lack of ice) and the economy has made a mockery of must-haves for anyone. It becomes easy to wilt under an inadvertent message of inadequacy and failure.
Thankfully, Isaiah 42:3 tells me: “A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out.” I don’t know for certain yet whether the root of my blues is circumstantial, psychological, or biological, but I know this: God will not let me be snuffed out completely. Above all things, Christmas is my reminder that God keeps His promises. I know that He remembers me, and that He will preserve me.
My new church has a tradition that I think is very cool. In the middle of December, they hold a Blue Christmas service designed to address this phenomenon. It is structured around dealing with the pressures and feelings of loss that are so common this time of year. Basically, it gives us an organized setting in which we have permission to feel whatever we need to feel, and to receive grace and prayer for it. I will be attending with a sense of profound gratitude.
If you are among the blue this season, I would like to encourage you to find a similar outlet if you can. You are not alone, nor are you defective. You have a good reason for feeling – or not – this way. I pray that you may find resolution and relief, and that your flame will be rekindled.
If you are not one of us, I implore you to be kind. We will try not to cry all over your party clothes.
originally posted 12/13/10