Friday, December 30, 2011

The Tricky Wicket of Gift Giving

Birthdays are significant in our home.  We're not big on decorations or even presents, but the hope is that the birthday person feels celebrated and enjoyed.  When possible, we spend the day together enjoying some combination of favorite homemade meals, restaurants, and activities.  It's a veritable crime for the one being celebrated to do any work.  King or queen for the day is the goal. 

This past summer, I was enjoying a relatively low-key birthday day.  My husband had made plans for the evening.  My children, who had been well-trained in the way of Silander birthday custom, greeted me in the morning with shiny, anticipating faces.  They sincerely wanted me to enjoy my day.  They wanted me to feel loved.  Their motives were pure.

Shortly after breakfast, my cherubs were quick to relieve me from manual labor, and they started cleaning the kitchen.  But somehow, in an instant, the mood shifted.  Child A began arguing with Child B about who was to do what chore.  Exasperated Child C interrupted and proceeded to boss give direction to the less-than-righteous siblings.  After giving up hope that the situation would resolve itself, I finally stepped in to mediate. My efforts were temporarily successful, but within the hour, a modified version of the same situation transpired.  My frustration was growing.  It was my birthday.  "All I really want for my birthday is for you all to love each other well and for us to enjoy the day together,"  I stated, as if this would be the obvious end of the matter.  And it was.  For awhile.  

My frustration dissolved into sadness as I realized a hard truth.  My children love me.  From the deepest, sweetest, brightest places in their hearts, they wanted me to be blessed on my birthday.  But, an insidious cloud had gathered and was overshadowing their good desires.  They wanted to honor me... but on their terms.  The cost of laying aside their own agendas was too high.

When for a fleeting moment, I attempt to look honestly at my own heart, I'm saddened to acknowledge that I give to others in much the same way.  We had nine under our roof this Christmas, and it didn't take long for my feeble, misguided attempts at caring for others to buckle under the strain.  Too often, I give out of my natural inclinations and tendencies - which does not necessarily result in a gift that is meaningful to the recipient.  Even if my motives are pure.  

Imagine that my talent and interest was in knitting, and that I knitted the same red wool scarf for everyone on my Christmas list.  For some, the scarf would be a treasure.  The time taken to create, the warmth the scarf provides, and the much-desired fashion accent would leave the receiver feeling loved well.  Those are the easy-to-love people in my life.  My natural inclinations fit well with their needs.

But others may be allergic to wool, look terrible in red, or are hot-natured with no need for a scarf.  If I want another to feel loved, I have to pause and consider what would be best for them.  And all too often, the time and energy required to stretch beyond my natural inclinations, comfort, and agenda...  well, the order is just too tall.  So I knit my red scarf and convince myself that it will be enough.  Or I cook a meal rather than spend time with a sick friend.  Or I clean up the house rather than offer kind words to my husband. Eventually, we both feel missed and hurt.

I've never been one to make new year's resolutions, but I do have some hopes as we launch into 2012.  I want to pause and consider those folks in my life who are difficult to love with new eyes.  Rather than taking offense that my "red scarf" doesn't succeed in making another feel loved, I long to lay down my pride, comfort, agenda, and expectations in order to grow in grace.   I want to be willing and teachable to love in new ways - for the benefit of another. 

I also plan  to be more intentional in my reading, consistent in healthy cooking, and possibly train for a race. And by the way... I'm actually taking my first knitting class with my daughter this month. Perhaps I'll make a red scarf for myself.

Happy New Year to you and yours!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Micah 6:8

"May I bring a new friend over with me when I come for coffee?"

A simple question that changed a family.  My family.  Forever.


We live in South Charlotte.  Some have referred to our dear city as an "Atlanta wannabe."  I'm not offended by that description.  It's actually not too far from accurate.  We like to think that we have the best of both worlds - small town feel while still having access to great art galleries, Broadway shows, professional sports, and the ripples from Wall Street's economic power generators radiating throughout uptown.  Yes, for those of you unfamiliar with Charlotte, it is uptown, not downtown.  I've enjoyed the benefits of this energetic town, including a fulfilling career housed in its tallest building.  We've birthed three and raised five children here.  We have a church we love and amazing friends. It is home.

Yet with all that Charlotte has to offer, its strength is also one of its great weaknesses.  I've worried about my children's perspective on life while growing up among such affluence. Given this soccer-mom, banking-hub, Bible-on-every-corner culture, how could we possible raise children who see beyond their comfortable bubble?  Children who are other-centered, compassionate, and have a healthy humility and curiosity with which they approach other cultures - and other people.  Particularly while their parents struggle with the same issues.

Then one hot summer morning seven years ago, a dear friend called.  She and I had planned on catching up at my house over coffee while the children played.  A few hours prior to her coming, she gave me a quick call to ask if she could bring a little boy along with her. "Of course", I responded.  The more the merrier.  She arrived later that afternoon with her new friend - our new friend - Yusuf, who just happened to be from Somalia.  Yusuf was 6 years old, and had arrived in America just weeks prior to our meeting.  Three little bodies darted around the backyard, two with blond hair and blue eyes, and one as dark as coal.  The boys ran and played in the water from our  hose while my friend recounted their unfathomable story.  They had fled Somalia through the dark of night, lived in a Cambodian refugee camp, and had finally been transported, compliments of the UN, to Charlotte.  More on their remarkable journey another time...

Later that afternoon, we embarked on our weekly pilgrimage to the library.  Like a good homeschool-mom-to-be, I searched out as many age-appropriate books on Africa as I could find.  When I showed them to the boys, I instructed, "This is the country where Yusuf used to live.  The people there speak the same languages as he does."  Will, my inquisitive, observant, detail-oriented 5 year old who had just spent several hours playing with his new buddy responded, "Do you mean that Yusuf doesn't speak English?"  

My earnest hope had been that my children would engage with someone who was different than their friends.  That they would develop compassion for other cultures, and that they would choose to build bridges over differences.  But to my surprise, they taught me a greater lesson.   The commonalities of little boys playing in the water instantly bridged the 10,000 mile divide between them.  They enjoyed what they had in common, rather than trying to overcome the ways in which they were different.  They hadn't met a refugee whose family had fled the dangers of Somalia.  They had met a new friend.

Seven years ago on a humid July morning, the seed of love for our refugee friends was planted in the heart of our family.  The great Gardener has continued to provide fertile soil of opportunity, drench us in the water of the Word, and supply power through the Son.  As a result of His tender care and pruning, that small seed has grown.  We've come to love the refugee community in Charlotte, and opportunities to serve them continues to be a significant gift to our family.

I'm consistently humbled by my shallow attempts to give, arrogantly believing that I have something to offer.  Yet each time we show up, our family becomes richer for the time spent with these beautiful people.  People who have fled great danger and had the courage to build new lives from scratch.  People who have farmed for generations, yet now consider fresh fruit and vegetables an occasional delicacy. People who are now strangers in a strange land.

As we were pulling out of the apartment complex last week, I was surprised to note that a small yet significant shift had taken place in my heart.  Walking down the sidewalk was a young man from Nepal.  I had been introduced to him the prior week while he was shopping at the "Clothing Closet." Shortly after our meeting,  he had labored to help me understand what he was trying to say.  The scene resembled a somewhat comical game of charades, and I wasn't doing very well interpreting his animated gestures.  Eventually, we finally deciphered that he was asking for a baby swing for his little one.  When I saw him weeks later this second time, my perspective had changed.  He was no longer one of the many faces who visited the Clothing Closet each month.  He has a name.  He has a baby.  His story has become a part of my story.

In the chronic business of life, I wonder how many remarkable stories I pass and dismiss - from the checkout clerk at the grocery store to the neighbor walking her dog.  Everyday, we're given opportunities to discover a bit more about the Creator through those he has created, and we're given the great honor of sneaking a glimpse of another human soul. Too oftenwe miss out on the miracle and settle for the mundane.

  People who laugh like we do, who cry like we do, who pray for their children's safety... just like we do.  And along the way, I've gotten a taste of what it means to be fully human.
“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously - no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.” C.S. Lewis

For the past few years, a highlight, perhaps the highlight, of the Christmas season for us has been spending a Saturday celebrating Christmas with the folks from Project 658 (check them out here - you can join us!) and our refugee friends.  The objections raised by my selfish nature (we don't have time... too much to do... we're already tired) quickly dissipate when we drive into the apartment complex across town.  I love the beautiful faces representing the farthest corners of the map.  The content children who are generous with their smiles and hugs.  The adults who delight at the rare opportunity for their children to be photographed with Santa.  And I was lucky enough to catch him under the mistletoe.

That is one cute elf

Project 658.  Yes, they are rock stars.

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas from our family to yours!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Twin Towers and a Manger

Out of the wreckage...

Where were you?

I was sitting on the floor of my bedroom holding my beautiful  one-week-old son.  We had only been home from the hospital for a few days, and I was fully intoxicated with the sweet smells of newly-bathed baby, the feel of his slow, steady breathing on my neck, and the slight, warm pressure of eight pounds of perfection curled up and sleeping on my chest.  My two year old was playing contentedly in the corner with his plastic pet shop, a left-over rediscovered toy, compliments of his big sister.  Having been up most of the night, I had traded in my feeble attempt at reading a book for watching Regis and Kelly on the TV.  The air drifting through my cracked window carried with it the hint of the last days of summer.   Life was sweet.  Simple.  Full.

Then it happened.  Within moments, life as we had known it would be changed forever.  It was September 11, 2001, and my dependable, soothing slice of broadcasted Americana was suddenly interrupted with footage of the first plane hitting the tower.  I couldn't believe what I had seen, and I certainly had no idea the lasting impact that the events of that balmy September morning would have on our nation.  On our family.  On the lives of generations to come.  Literally out of the blue, we had all been affected at the most visceral level.

According to a ten-year anniversary article "How 9/11 Changed our Culture" (US News),  our lives were changed in a number of ways including:

~How we speak
~What we fear
~How we keep safe
~What entertains us
~What we read
~Who we admire

We would never look at the world in the same way, and the choices we made going forward would reflect our shift in perspective.

Over 2,000 years ago, the Roman Empire was enjoying a relatively peaceful political climate compliments of the Pax Romana.  The Empire protected and governed its provinces, and the Jewish religion was generally tolerated.  Although there were divisions within the Jewish schools of thought, most had learned to live peacefully under Roman control.  Life was manageable.  They knew what to expect.

Then, one very normal night, the course of history changed forever.  There had been no word from God in over 400 years.  But suddenly, that changed.  At a given point in time, in an unimpressive town, to two ordinary people, the Creator of the world transcended space and time to pierce through the veil between heaven and earth and become one of us.  Literally out of the dark, we would all be affected at the most visceral level.

For those who were present that night and witnessed the divine becoming human, for those who would follow the carpenter's son and listen to his teaching, and for those who would choose to exchange control of their lives in order to serve the unlikely king, the world as they had known it would forever be different.

They would never look at the world the same way, and the choices they would make going forward would reflect their shift in perspective.

A few months ago, we commemorated the tenth anniversary of 9/11.  Footage of the planes was dusted off and replayed across the airwaves, memorial services were held, and we all paused to remember.  As I was recounting that pivotal day's events to my sweet baby boy, now 10 years old, I found that a curious phenomenon had transpired.  On the spectrum that ranges from intense experience all the way to detached, my emotion had shifted a few notches.  I'm sure that if I'd lost a loved one during the tragedy, my reaction would have been different.  But for me, the events that had once singed my soul had been quenched through the last ten years, and they were incrementally closer to becoming memorable dates in an American history book.

Time had lessened the emotional impact.  I had become more detached.  The full impact of 9/11 had been diminished.

Unfortunately, the same can often be said of Christmas.

We mark the calendar, attend the performances, religiously decorate our homes, and pause to remember. 

But I long for more.

~I want to feel deeply... not just remember
~I want to look at the world from His perspective... not my limited viewpoint
~I want to believe that the God of the universe is present, relevant, revolutionary in every aspect of my life

Ten years ago, darkness penetrated and impacted the soul of our country.

Two thousand years ago, Light penetrated our dark world and changed it forever.

Yes, we remind one another that he came as a baby in the manger.  The shepherds followed the star.  The wise men came later, bearing gifts.  

But this Christmas, let us not be satisfied to "just remember."  Rather than settling for an annual observation filled with the good things of sentiment, warm tidings, advent readings and tradition, let them serve to magnify the ultimate things.  Perhaps it would help to remember...

Where were you?  

When the story became real.  When you first believed.  When the Maker of the moon and the Author of the faith penetrated your independent, self-reliant heart and changed it forever.  I was on a stone bench overlooking a small lake.  It was late at night, but I could strain my eyes just enough to see white swans gliding through the water - beacons of light in the midst of the dark.  Because of the baby born so long ago, my life was forever changed. And I never want to forget.


I first heard Jill Phillips sing this three years ago on The Behold the Lamb of God tour, and I still get chills every time I hear it.  Take a few minutes to listen...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Visit from the Tooth Fairy

Twas the month before Christmas
And all through the house
Not a creature was stirring...

...unless you count the faintest sound of delicate wings fluttering through the air, down the hall, and under the door into my daughter's room.  The tiny sprite hovered over a stuffed Tooth Fairy Bear, which had gotten quite comfortable in a doll's chair.  His work had been sparse as of late, but the little girl with a mouth full of teeth finally called upon his service a few nights ago.  Caroline's baby tooth, which had managed to evade being pushed out by its replacement,  had snuggled tightly out of sight behind her new gleaming white grown-up tooth.  I'd begun to worry that her dental fate would be the same as that of a Yorkie puppy, with 2 complete sets of teeth, row behind row. 

Alas, the baby tooth had released its grip, the Tooth Fairy Bear was summoned from the back of the cluttered closet, and my plucky little seven year old set out on a mission.  In her best handwriting, she carefully crafted a note to the Tooth Fairy.  She wanted to know if the Tooth Fairy was real, and what she (or he) did with the collected teeth.

Just as Santa's gift creation, selection, and distribution habits differ from family to family, the same is true of the Tooth Fairy.  For some children she leaves notes, for others, small presents, coins, or other tokens of great value.  She knows our family well, and as a result, leaves behind carefully selected and signed books in exchange for outgrown teeth.  In addition to inscribing Caroline's new book, she noted a few of the most common fairy uses for children's teeth.  

Rather than satisfying her inquiring mind, the correspondence fueled the fire of Caroline's curiosity.  She spent the better part of the next morning using her very best penmanship to compose the following:

Dear Tooth Fary- 
 Are you small or larg?

 What do you eat?

 Wher do you live?
 What do you do with your dust?

 What are your magic pours?

 Are you a boy or girl or wimon or man?

 Do you have randbow bridge?

 What is your name?

 Do you have pets?

 Do you have a house?
                                             Love, Caroline

The following day, she awoke to find the following letter penned on lilac fairy stationary leaning against her Tooth Fairy Bear:

Dear Caroline,  
Thank you for my note. Again, you’ve done a lovely job with your handwriting. 
You asked me several good questions. Sometimes in the Land of Fairies, we answer good questions by asking good questions back. For example: “Is Narnia real?” Let me know what you think, after you decide. 
Someday, Caroline, you may grow too big for me. You’ll have your big girl teeth and you won’t think of me too often. But, you will never grow too big for Jesus. No matter how old you get, He will become more wonderful and more real to you as each year passes. You can never outgrow Him. Ever. 
If I fade, Jesus will become brighter to you. And if I become smaller, He will become larger. His adventures are exciting, His gifts are beautiful, and the friendship that you have with Him will last your whole life… even beyond. His is the best story of all, and I am happy for mine to help you to find it. 
In fact, that’s why I’m here, and why Santa and the Easter Bunny exist. Our job, you see, is a lot like the job of Mr. Beaver in Narnia—we point you to the King. 
I can’t answer all of your very good questions, but I’m happy to answer a few.  Indeed, I do love to eat spiffiny drumkies, but not too many or it’s hard for me to fly.  I live wherever I am.  I don’t have pets, but there are many creatures that are my friends, like snicket jumpers and peffiny lumkets.  But, they are too small and too fast for little girls to see. 
Now, if you wouldn’t mind answering a question for me, I could also use some help. Someone once told me that little girls are made of sugar, and spice, and everything nice—and that little boys were made of snakes, and snails, and puppy dog tails. Is that for real? 
                                                           Love, The Tooth Fairy

It should be noted that the above-mentioned letter looks suspiciously like the letter from Santa written to Rebecca Reynold's daughter years ago.  Although I was initially shocked at this discovery, I eventually realized that of course Santa is far better with words than the Tooth Fairy.  His work is quite seasonal, so he has ample time in which to read books and refine his writing.   The Tooth Fairy, on the other hand, is in constant demand throughout the year.  Given Santa's generous nature, he had given his permission for the original letter to be tweaked accordingly. 

With that in mind, if you have any children (young or old) who doubt the reality of the Tooth Fairy, or Santa, or any of their friends, perhaps his letter can be of use.

Wishing a Merry Christmas to all
And to all a good night!