I've been thinking lately about how Christmas gifts have changed over the years for me. The quantity of gifts has greatly reduced from my younger days (I am an only child, remember - my former years were good to me) yet the quality has surely increased. In addition, I seem to count the non-material gifts I receive more and more significant every year. This year is no exception. I am truly truly grateful for the abundance of blessing in my life, though it rarely be packaged as I would have thought best, it leaves very little room for want. This year I am particularly grateful for the following:
LIFE OUTSIDE THE SHADOW
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Hebrews 10:1
As I ponder the great gift of Christ's arrival on Earth, I am increasingly grateful to live on this side of the most momentous event in all of history, to experience the 'good things to come' - the out pouring of God's grace and the lifting of the heavy burden of stringent law upon his people. I must confess my increasing gratefulness might be rooted in some recent literary indulgence. I have been reading a series of novels by Beverly Lewis about a family of young Amish girls and the deeply tragic drama of their overly-simplistic lives. The contrast here is striking and reminds me that no matter how much you strip away from life in the realm of the material, the complexity and intensity of the human emotional experience is never any less. I am also struck by the tremendous weight of lawfulness that is carried throughout their insulated culture. Their love and passion for the Lord is admirable but their rationale for such devout adherence to strict conduct is amiss. Very sad. Yet this vivid journey to the inner workings and resulting emotional turmoil of this legalistic society has made me so, so glad for the glorious freedom Christ brought with him in his descendent to this world. So glad to be liberated from the need for continual sacrifice to cover my shame.
Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. Hebrews 10:2
Isn't it so true that when we seek our own penance we are only more and more aware of our sin? Consciousness remains.
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
"Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body have you prepared for me. Hebrews 10:5
These dear scriptures bring such weightlessness to my soul. God is not the least bit impressed with my feeble and futile attempts to reconcile myself to Him, to make up for my own weaknesses or rid myself of my shame. For He prepared a body, a Gift, and I will gladly receive.
I may as well have coined the phrase 'familiarity breeds contempt'. I am always into change, moving on, trying something new. So naturally, I have never been big into tradition. No two Christmases have ever looked the same for our little family. I think it's to be expected that in the early years of family life holiday traditions remain a work in progress. However, now that my kids have approached the age where they form solid lasting memories, I feel its high time to nail down some meaningful traditions we can keep for years and years to come. Cutting down a tree in the forest, baking copious amounts of cookies, caroling, tree lighting ceremonies, candy cane lane - these are fun and great but I can not commit to doing them every year. Whatever it is we decide to make a lasting tradition needs to have more significance, promote togetherness rather than the potential for strife (as in many of the afore mentioned events - if you saw my recent Facebook post you'll know what I mean) and not require much money or busyness.
So, after a discussion amongst friends and a few hours of research online, I am happy to say that we have made some progress. I stumbled across an ancient tradition that seems to be lost among contemporary church today called the Jesse Tree. It is a part the traditional Advent celebration in the Reformed Church of America. Though I don't know from where the tradition originated exactly, it seems that it was common for English churches to bear either an engraving of a Jesse Tree or a stained glass version. The Puritan movement nearly brought an end to this tradition, at least in our country, with its efforts to purge the church of any and all 'graven images'. Now it seems to be making a comeback, if not in churches, then in homes, at least, as it serves as a great Christmas family devotion. The tree acts as a kind of family tree for Jesus. Though not a precise genealogy, it bears a variety of symbols each representing a person on the storyline of God's rescue plan for the world. It begins with creation, includes many other significant Biblical characters and then picks up Christ's line of descent starting with Jesse, the father of David. Its puts the Christmas story into perspective of the bigger picture of the Bible as a whole, something I am eager for my children to know and understand.
Our Jesse tree is made from some broken branches off a tree in our backyard and some felt ornaments I threw together sloppily in a creative flurry (very, very) late one night. I also bought a great book called the Jesse Tree by Geraldine McCaughrean to read each night (there are 25 stories, one for each day of Dec) as we adorn the tree with its rich symbols, one by one. I can't say we did it every night. In fact, we have landed ourselves quite a ways behind as this past week has been extra full, but it is a start, a beginning and I am grateful to have learned about this and been able to incorporate it into our celebratory festivities this year and for many years to come.
So, tradition and I are making amends. I think we have a strong future together.
This is an odd one, I know. And before you go thinking that I am about to rattle off a list of my special abilities to make myself look good, let me explain.
This year has been one of tremendous introspection for me. I have spent more time than in any other of my 30 short years hashing over the underlying roots of my tendencies, thoughts, and behaviors. Naturally, I am almost always focused the negative - that which I want to change. It wasn't until I began reading the Strengths Finders book that I realized how intensely focused on I had been on all the billions of things I do wrong and ways I need to improve. The book states that something like 97% of the time we spend seeking to improve ourselves, be it in the workplace or in relationships, is devoted to weakness rather than strength. I found that statistic quite enlightening as well as the notion that there is equally great value in better understanding our strengths, how to use them more often and more efficiently and that doing so may even yield greater success from our efforts towards self discovery and growth.
StrengthsFinders, which is based on a large body of research conducted by Gallup, set up a classification system for our many different personality traits that includes a variety of different 'talents', as they call them. These 'talents' are temperamental, innate, intuitive as opposed to skills and abilities we acquire throughout our lives, and we all have them despite our tendency to live at least somewhat unaware of them and their full potential in our lives. Similarly, I have been reading another book on parenting that deals with re-focusing' our attention from the negative aspects of our children's emerging personalities and trying to better understand how the different parts of their temperament, though they may make for more challenging days as a parent, can actually be positive characteristics that help lead them to success. The shift that has taken place in my own mind from negative to positive, weakness to strength, with regard to both myself and my kids, has been so encouraging. I am glad to know that despite my various character flaws, I might actually have some underlying talent that might end up doing me some good someday. Maybe it has already. I am grateful for even the notion of it after a long year of true-self exposure and the endless struggle to improve my many weaknesses.
More than ever before I am so grateful for the time I am present in my home with the company of my children. Yes, being at home with little kids can make you crazy, and it does, but on days like today when I have to be gone all day long, my grief over the harried house, endless noise and occasional fighting are really put into perspective. I am happy to spend all the time with them that I can in this terribly short little season of life.
Also, some fruit of my aforementioned introspections has been realizing (remembering) just how much I need to be with people, friends, community. I have renewed appreciation for the many opportunities I have in my life to connect with people. I sometimes neglect them as I am so easily distracted by other busyness and ambitions but the presence of Christ here on earth reminds me of the great gift of presence - other's in my life and mine in theirs. Thanks, to those of you who I do life with, for being faithfully present friends.
That does it for now. This post in now and entire week late - let's just say I was too busy savoring the freedom Christ brings, cherishing sweet moments with my children, building lasting memories of traditions rich in significance and relishing sweet time with family and friends - and not scurrying around from store to store for last minute gifts, wrapping presents until the we hours of the morning, or trying to make the house look somewhat decent for when family arrives......
Until next time...........