Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Family Matter. People Matter: When the Holidays Become Something More

Three years ago my holidays looked different. A lot different.

For several years I worked in retail at our local mall. I worked to help pay my way through college while raising our young family. It wasn't particularly hard work or labor. I actually really loved my job most of the time. I worked primarily in children's clothing stores. As a parent I found it to be fun and rewarding to help other families shop for their kid. Sure there was the occasional bad day, but mostly it was a good job. That is, it was a good job for most of the year.

My job always became stressful and overwhelming around the holidays. It wasn't just that my hours doubled. It wasn't that I couldn't ever get weekends off because my employer didn't let anyone request time off. It wasn't the lack of parking spaces. It wasn't the crowded mall. It wasn't that our customers were suddenly grouchy, agitated and unfriendly. It wasn't the stress and the strain of the holidays. It wasn't all the frenzied preparation and never enough time to get it all done. It was how people didn't matter.

I remember one December morning with vividness. It was December 19th, 2009. My son's 1st birthday. It was also the day of my college graduation. I would get to finally walk with my class with my family watching. However, I had to work that day.  I had been assured I would have special permission to have the day off but no I had to work. Two things to celebrate, and I was working. What should have been a joyful day for our family turned into extra stress as I rushed from graduation ceremony to birthday party to my job. It was a hard. All this family to celebrate with us and I had to leave. I headed to work and as soon as I pulled out of the driveway I was in tears. I went to work, having to smile my way through it even when customers were rude (because of course it was my fault that we didn't have what they needed for their perfect Christmas gift). All I wanted to do was tuck my sweet boy in bed that night. To rock him to sleep to sweet dreams and kiss his forehead and stroke his soft cheek. To spend time with those people that mattered the most and had traveled just to be with me. To share stories, a moment with them. My parents, my siblings, my husband's family. Close family friends. The ones that mattered.

Time passed. I swore never again it would happen. My boss assured me it was a mistake, it wouldn't happen again.

The following year it was November. My husband's grandma was dying and we knew her time was close. As she was the last living grandparent, his family wanted to gather with her one last time. We wanted to be together for one last moment. Thanksgiving weekend was that time. Being a part time manager in retail I found myself unable to leave because of Black Friday. I fought with my company to be there with our family. One of the compromises they offered to me was that I could work in a store where I was going out of state instead. I ended up leaving the company over it. It was the single biggest factor in my leaving my job. The only regret I have is that I didn't leave sooner.

Today, my holidays look different. I have made a choice to spend my holidays with family. We gather every Turkey Day to be together. My husband's family are all Detroit Lions fans. That pretty much guarantees we will be watching football together. I come from a family of Green Bay Packers fans. This year we play each other on Thanksgiving Day. Lord have mercy on us all! In all seriousness though this is what we gather around and do. We play cards and board games. We get caught up in good conversation. We catch up with relatives over good food and drinks. We love on the kids and babies. We laugh at grandpa's goofy jokes and devour grandma's delicious pie. Oh how I love my grandma's banana cream pie and raspberry pie. Her cheesecake isn't too bad either.

Christmas is when we vacation with family. We retreat to the family condo in Colorado. It is our getaway. A place we escape to. We have snowball fights. We go sledding. We go skiing. We spend hours chatting at the hot tub with people from all over the globe. We have moonlit walks through the mountains and we admire how the lights sparkle and dance on the reflection of ice and snow. The smell of pine needles. The smell of fresh baked cookies. The mess of frosting and sprinkles everywhere. We attend the candlelit Christmas service up at the chapel. We sing Silent Night outside the church doors with strangers we have never met before. We eat pizza for dinner. We share laughs and drink hot spiced wine. More laughter. Someone decides it is great idea to sing Christmas songs. We laugh some more. The ice sculptures delight and the ice skaters dance round and round. The kids break out the nerf guns and the living room is transformed into a war zone of sofa cushions as cover and plush pillows as our shield. We build forts. We take long naps after a late big breakfast.

These are the memories I cherish. It is these experiences with my loved ones that bring me joy. This is what is important! The time that I share with people I love.

I don't expect everyone to have a holiday that looks like mine. I know everyone has their own traditions. But there is one thing I am thankful that working in retail taught me. I cannot share it enough. Family matter. People matter. When our lives get so bent and stretched thin that what matters is no longer in focus, people suffer. Our relationships suffer when we choose to not put people first.

Last year it hit me hard seeing these banners placed up high in the sanctuary of our church. The holidays are a time to share love, peace, and hope with others. These are the things that show people that they matter. This is what all relationships need. What all people need.

Sometimes our lives get so tangled up in the busyness of the holidays that we forget this. We forget what is important. Time blurs and it becomes a holidaze. It is really easy in this world. I saw it before working in retail. People chasing after things. Thanksgiving overshadowed by Christmas. Maybe it is the buy buy buy attitude surrounding Christmas. Maybe it is the pressure to prepare everything perfectly. Maybe it is the chase to give the perfect gift. Maybe it is the rush to get the best deal at midnight on Black Friday. Maybe we think we can buy our happiness with a credit card. Maybe going into debt for Christmas presents makes us feel like we can have it all.

Buying things. Buying items. Having stuff. A full shopping cart at Target or Wal-mart or anywhere else. Those things will never leave us fulfilled. Paychecks even will not make us happy.

It makes me wonder. Are we really buying gifts? Or are we buying into the idea that these gifts are what matter?

Are we consumers are we the ones being consumed?

These are questions that changed me.

Something changed in me when I started making an effort to put people first. I stopped looking at Christmas as something to give and receive. It changed how we celebrate Thanksgiving. It changed how we celebrate Christmas. It changed how we live. There are seven things that I do different.
  1. I don't shop on Thanksgiving or on Black Friday. My conscience won't let me do it. I can't do it. Not knowing that there are other people out there who want to be with family. No matter what the deal is it is not worth the time away from family. I don't want to be a part of that.
  2. When I do shop during the holidays I make a special effort to be extra kind. I smile. I say please and thank you. I wish them well, I make conversation. I tip extra. I forgive mistakes. I go out of my way to be polite not just to staff but even other shoppers. I always show this kind of respect but during the holidays when things get busy I feel it is even more important to remember that people matter.
  3. I try to be very conscientious about my gift giving, especially with my kids. I don't want for them to grow up thinking that Christmas is about presents. It is about presence. My kids do receive gifts from us but we plan out their gifts so it is simple and it doesn't take away from the real meaning of Christmas. We want for them understand that Christmas is about God's love and Christ in our lives. We want for them to cherish time with family. Not just during the holidays. All year long.
  4. We give to charities locally. Our favorite thing is to support a child through an Angel Tree. I actually get more excited shopping for a child in our community than my own kids! This year I also helped give through Operation Christmas Child and my children will be giving used toys to Families Helping Families. We give at offerings in our church to help with missions around the world that we believe in.
  5. We countdown the days to Christmas with several family activities. We donate hats and gloves. We go caroling. We set up our nativity. We read Christmas stories together. We make hot cocoa and have a Christmas movie party. We make ornaments and homemade gifts. We want to experience things with our kids.
  6. We try to shop locally and support people in our hometown whenever possible. I started my Christmas shopping this year by shopping at a craft fair. I bought the cutest handmade gifts from people that attend my church and live in my community. When the boys had a book fair at school I picked some books they really wanted. It is the little things like these that I feel are important.
The 7th and single biggest change is just spending time together. Life has taught me to value, to celebrate, this time with others. I choose to spend my holidays in this way because it shows people that they matter. This is how I share love, hope, and peace with others. This is the message we all need. We all deserve these blessings. Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Agnostic or Athiest. Whatever you are. We all need to to share love, peace, and hope a little bit more.

We have been so blessed these last years. I can't explain why these changes are so rewarding. When you show people that they matter, you realize it all matters. Every day. Every kind act. Every person is important. The holidays are not about gifts. They are about something more.

"What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.” -Dr. Seuss

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Life is a gift

I remember the first time I found a gray hair. It was a few years ago. It was a big surprise and I wasn't ready to admit I was you know...older. It made me panic.

Call it vanity but I fought with that hair. I wrestled with it. I was not ready to admit that I wouldn't always be young. I didn't accept it as beautiful. I was not ready to face the idea that I would one day grow old and face death. That gray hair was ugly because it was stealing time. Each day that passed was one less day I had to live.

I ended up chasing more days and seeking more time. My life became a rush. One constant blur of me trying to squeeze out whatever I could. I had to get the most out of life. What I had was not enough. I was fighting time. Any obstacles I would conquer no matter the cost. I wanted to do it all.

I’m late, I’m late for  A very important date. No time to say hello, good-bye,  I’m late, I’m late, I’m late I’m late and when I wave,  I lose the time I save. My fuzzy ears and whiskers  Took me too much time to shave. I run and then I hop, hop, hop,  I wish that I could fly. There’s danger if I dare to  Stop and here’s a reason why: I’m over-due, I’m in a rabbit stew.  Can’t even say good-bye, hello, I’m late, I’m late, I’m late.
~ The White Rabbit, Alice in Wonderland

Everywhere I went I was like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. I was late. Rush rush rush. Always somewhere to be. Something to do. Never did I think to slow down.

This way of life started to pour into my relationships. Into my marriage. Into my parenting. My friendships. Our schedule was overloaded, I was tired. Trying to do it all. We would rush out the door, irritated with each other. Never really appreciating each other.

The thing about fighting time is you can't win. Chasing time makes it escape faster. Time slips away, you are older and you haven't learned anything. Nothing changes. You end up out of breath. Overwhelmed. Our society encourages this, tells us it is normal. All part of life. Being busy is encouraged. People would ask me how I was and what I had been up to. I would reply, "Busy, just been busy."

I was attempting to seize the day. Carpe Diem!

The thing is, living life so busy sometimes makes you forget the important things. In the rush for more time you lose time. You could say aging forced me to face the idea of death. This challenged me. What ended up happening was something I can't really explain.

Somewhere along the way my idea of life changed. Each day is a gift. Each wrinkle and each stray little gray hair is beautiful. Each stretch mark on my belly. They represent so much of my life. They represent so many blessings. The stretch marks are love scars of my three children. The wrinkles tell the seasons of my life. My changing hair mark the change in me.

"I watch the hands move grace on the clock face. I'm growing older. These children growing up. But time is not running out. This day is not a sieve, losing time. With each passing minute, each passing year, there's the deepening awareness that I am filling, gaining time. We stand on the brink of eternity."  --Ann Voskamp

Every day that I grow older is sacred. Aging marks the passing of time in my life. Days are blessings that count out all of my life. They sing out my life song. They are beauty. They are wisdom. They are understanding.

Every day is a gift waiting to be unwrapped. I unwrap it slowly and enjoy time. Every day is a step towards more time. Each day fills my life with joy. I am not chasing time. There is fullness in this moment, in the time that I have been blessed with.

“The clock is running. Make the most of today. Time waits for no man. Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That's why it is called the present.” --Alice Morse Earle

I don't fight time anymore. I embrace it. I cherish it. I don't feel the need to capture as much time as possible. Time is a gift. Time is a blessing when I am fully present. When I slow down I have more than enough time.

When I slow down life is different. Time almost stops. A conversation with a friend becomes life changing. Playtime with my kids becomes revolutionary. A sunset on fall leaves is awe inspiring. Joys big and small become priceless. Trials have perspective that make their burden lighter. My soul feels different. Full.

All is well. All is good.

It changes me. Transforms me.

Today I have a few more gray hairs. I have a few more wrinkles. When I look in the mirror they make me smile. They are beautiful. When I see my reflection I am reminded. I am reminded to slow down. To actually live life instead of chasing it. When I remember to live this way everything about life is different.

Life is a gift.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Enough with the Excuses

 Today I want to talk about something I think we have all got to stop. Excuses.

Enough with the excuses I say.

I do it all time. I'm sorry, I was late because <insert a random stunt child 1 2 or 3 pulled>. I'm sorry, I forgot because I got distracted by a phone call. I'm sorry, I got stuck in traffic.

I read a funny blog post about a mom explaining why she is running late. I laughed because it is so true. It is something I am all too familiar with.

If I wrote down every single excuse for why we're late or where something went wrong I would have a very lengthy book. Every day.

I think we do enough explaining. It is kind of exhausting. I'm tired of having to explain myself everywhere I go. It is such a burden. It is like carrying around heavy rocks wherever I go. I don't want people to think the wrong things or get the wrong impression of us as a family. You know, because that thing called life sometimes gets in the way of our lives.

I say enough. Can we stop expecting excuses from each other? Can we stop feeling like we have to explain ourselves? Can I?

I have been very blessed in my life with awesome friends and family. The ones that really get me, they don't expect me to explain myself every time I mess up. If I show up late, they are just excited to see me. If I lose a birthday invitation, they don't think twice about my habit of being unorganized. If my child acts up, they don't make me recite my parenting strategies to explain why my child isn't perfect. These people don't judge me when I make mistakes. If I mess up, they laugh with me.

When I am with people like this, I feel safe. They don't expect me to explain myself. They don't expect me to have it all together. They know I am not perfect. They know I am human and I am figuring out this life thing one lesson at a time. Bad habits and all they love me. How uplifting it is to have people like this in our lives! It is a real treasure to have friends like this in my life. I just breathe a little easier in their presence.

Isn't that a lot like grace? Before I even ask for it. Before I try to explain myself. They offer me grace.

God offers me that kind of grace. Here I am. Here I stand not perfect. I mess up. More than I should. Yet I am still forgiven. No hoops to jump through. I don't have to earn it. It is just there. For me. For you. For everyone. Freely given in love. Unconditional.

God knows my trials. He knows my story, my excuses. Jesus knew what he was dying for on the cross. People really are not all that different from 2000 years ago. Sure we have our smart phones, cars, and fancy running water now. Despite these changes, what I struggle with today is not all that different from people in the bible.

John 8:7 NIV “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

In the temple when the woman adulterer was brought forward to Jesus he taught us two things. The first was it is not our place to judge another person's sins because we all are sinners. The second was that he lived and died for us to save us. He could have condemned this woman right there in front of all. Instead he offered her grace.

I have joked with friends on more than one occasion that in a different time or place I would be stoned to death. There is just no way I can be quiet & submissive. Ever. I would cause trouble. I break rules. Not even on purpose most of the time. Crazy little rebel that I am. A Christian rebel even. I will wear that label.

Being a Christian--believing in real grace--drops all of those stones. Truly it does. If I choose to believe in a Jesus that offers grace, I need to offer that grace to those around me as well. To everyone.

I literally mean everyone. It is going to be like Oprah giving away cars. And you get grace, and you get grace, and you get grace! We all get grace!!!

So I am telling you right now. If you are tired of having to explain yourself. If you need a safe place. I want to be that safe place. No more stones. No more excuses. No more explanations. No expectations.

Just friendship. Just love. Just understanding. Just grace.

I'm not perfect. My grace will look kind of messy compared to what God has to offer. I'm probably going to mess up. I mean, of course I will. But I'm going to try. Try to offer grace.

No excuses. I promise. I'm leaving the stones behind.