Saturday, December 30, 2006

Challenges of Christmas

Christmas ~ the most wonderful time of the year? Certainly, in some ways, that statement is absolutely true. The celebration of God in flesh ~ come to live among us. No matter that Christ was probably born in June rather than December ~ no matter that the commercialism of our culture has all but blotted out the real meaning of Christmas ~ as Christians we celebrate a God who would take on our form in order to show us the way of justice, peace and love.

Christmas is also a wonderful time to reconnect with family and friends. Christmas cards and phone calls and visits from those who live far away remind us of what is truly important in life. Gary and I are certainly lucky to spend Christmas with Ben each year. Since we don’t have the chance to see him on a daily basis, we treasure the chance to share this time of year with him. Seeing our parents and visiting with family is a great part of the season.

But there is also a lot of pressure associated with Christmas. The pressure to create the perfect Christmas experience. The pressure to buy the perfect Christmas presents. And, as a pastor, the pressure to write the perfect Christmas sermon! Admittedly the pressure comes mostly from within. If I were honest, I would admit that most people aren’t even listening to the sermon on Christmas Eve. They are thinking about their Christmas plans and presents and meals! But there is the hope that maybe just one person will be touched by the true magic of Christmas…. will experience the mystery of God come into the world.

As a pastor, I struggle with the holidays. I want a wonderful Christmas for my family while serving my church faithfully, and I find there isn’t enough of me to go around. One way I deal with this is by shopping and decorating and doing my Christmas cards early. I plan meals ahead and make out shopping lists so everything will go as smoothly as possible. I bake mini-breads and put them in the freezer. But still, my attention is divided…. at least until the last person is greeted at the end of the Candlelight Christmas Eve service. While decorating Christmas cookies, I am thinking about a certain transition in my sermon that is not going smoothly. While shopping for that last minute necessity, I am thinking about the woman who is spending Christmas in the hospital. I suppose this is a tension I need to accept, to live within, since I imagine I will have the same basic holiday schedule for the next 30 years!

Yet, as one pastor has said, “In this midst of our mess, Christ comes.” In the midst of our stress and tension and feelings of inadequacy, Christ comes. I imagine that this truth is the best news of the season. Is Christmas the most wonderful time of the year? Probably not for the reasons we usually think, but I would say yes… it is.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Christmas Part One and Two

Living in a step-family situation, Christmas tends to have multiple stages, both for Ben and for us. One time, a couple of years ago, I commented to Ben how lucky he was to get so many presents. He had opened gifts from us, Grammy and Grampy, Grammy Liz and Grampa Larry, and Grampa Howard and Debbie, not to mention his family and extended family from his mother's side. Ben did not hesitate to set me straight. He said, "I am lucky because so many people love me."

As I write this entry we are on Christmas part two. Christmas part one started a week ago when my mother arrived from Nebraska. Mum and I grocery shopped and got everything ready for Ben's arrival a couple days later. The weekend was filled with church services ~ and preparation for church services ~ although we did squeeze in a trip to Ikea. Gary, Ben and Mum hung out while I finished sermons and visited people in the hospital. On Saturday we went Christmas Caroling at a local nursing home. Here's a picture of me wearing my red scarf.

The Christmas Eve services were certainly a blessing. It was a joy to preach at the 11:00pm Candlelight Service. I must, say, though, that it was a relief to wrap-up the services and head home. I managed to get about four hours of sleep on Christmas Eve night!

Christmas morning was great fun! Since we have decided not to post any pictures of Ben on this blog, I can't show you him with all his 'loot.' However, I can show you the Christmas cookies he decorated....

As for gifts, he particularly enjoyed his giant flying bison (something from the Avatar series) and his voice changer. Gary and I made out pretty well too! 'Grammy Liz' provided the favorite pet gift again this year ~ a squeaky raccoon that Nicky just loves! After breakfast was done and presents were unwrapped, Ben and Gary settled down to a game of 'Life' and I went upstairs to take a 2 hour nap, which did me a world of good. Christmas dinner was lasagna, bread, salad and Nebraska wine!

The next morning, after shipping Nicky off to the kennel and putting two huge bowls of crunchies down for Zeke, we set off for Christmas part two in Maine. We stopped at Genie and Tom's to drop Mum off and they treated us to lunch. We arrived at Grammy and Grampy's house (Gary's parents) where we were greeted by Grammy, Auntie Sue and a very grown-up little Garret. We opened presents and had dinner of pork pie, chicken casserole and pretzel dessert! (Thanks Nadine!) Ben is looking forward to spending the day today playing with his cousin Andrew.

Christmas part three will take place on Friday when we meet my Dad and Debbie for lunch on our way home. After visiting and opening presents with them, we will head off again, pick up Mum and arrive back home sometime Friday evening. Mum returns to Nebraska and to Larry on Sunday. Ben goes back to his family in Michigan on Monday and will likely be treated to Christmas part four. Christmas part four for Gary and I will take place on a Cruise boat somewhere in the Caribbean in about a week and a half!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Alzheimers Unit

Every other month it is my responsibility to lead worship services in three residential facilities. One of the places I go would be considered a 'regular' nursing home. Another is a mental health facility for adults and elderly people. The third place is an Alzheimers Unit. I would have to say that the place I most enjoy going is the Alzheimers Unit. It may be because my grandfather was in a similar facility for several years and I visited him regularly with my parents. Watching my grandfather's gradual decline with Alzheimers was certainly a painful experience. However, strange as it may sound, there was a certain joy in the Alzheimers Unit.

I can feel that same joy among the staff and the residents where I led worship last week. Month to month the residents certainly do not remember me, but are always happy to see me and joyful at my arrival. This month they sang their Christmas Carols with un-self-conscious joy. When I was about to leave one woman pulled me aside and said that I was a 'gift from heaven.' Well, I think that may be a BIT of an overstatement, but it certainly felt like a gift to be there at that moment! It was truly a reminder that wherever we find ourselves this Christmas season ~ healthy, overburdened, joyful, afflicted by physical or mental disease ~ God is in our midst. Jesus is our Emmanuel ~ God with us.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Outdoor Lights

As promised, here is my post about our outdoor Christmas lights. This was a big year for us, adding both a lighted deer and spiral Christmas tree to our outdoor light display. We had a chance to do things a little differently since the church removed the over-grown bushes from the front of the house and re-landscaped. I think the white lights look particularly good on our new little bushes. What do you think? Some of our neighbors have much more elaborate displays, including Santa and the Grinch hanging-out with the Holy Family. I don't know about you, but I prefer our understated look.

We tried several different settings on our digital camera, but I think this was the best picture. Can you find Nicky, Gary and I in the photo? We are the three shadows on the front step!

Apparently Nicky has decided that he enjoys unwrapping presents. While we were out yesterday he snuck into the "wrapping-room" (an unfinished room in our basement) and tore some more presents to bits. He didn't do any actual damage to the gifts, but the paper was strewn all about. What message do you think he is trying to get across? Anyway, he got a stern talking to ~ and the "wrapping-room" and Christmas tree are off limits for him for the foreseeable future!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Neighborhood News

Our normally quiet neighborhood has been a buzz with activity over the past few days, and not in a good way. Last Friday Gary, Nicky and I bundled up (coldest day yet) and headed out the door for a walk. Much to our surprise, we found two fire trucks right in front of our house The firefighters were at our neighbor Virginia's house doing something that involved a long extension cord and a fan. We stood gawking for a few minutes until I suggested, "Let's go for our walk and then, if the fire truck is still here, we'll see what's going on."

Yes! I know. That was not my most sensitive remark ever. Gary was much more in tune with being the helpful neighbor and went over to the firefighters to see what we might do. Apparently Virginia's furnace malfunctioned and the house filled with smoke. Luckily she had just changed the batteries in her smoke detectors. The fire deputy asked if we could take her over to our house until the smoke cleared and the furnace repair tech came. No walk for Nicky, but we did our good deed for the day! And Nicky did too~ sitting next to Virginia and comforting her while she patted his head. There was no damage at Virginia's house and she was able to return home after joining us for a cup of tea.

Then, on Saturday night as Gary and I were returning from our Dining Out Club, we saw two police cruisers parked in front of another neighbor's house. Again we gawked until a police officer came over to ask us some questions. Our neighbor's house had been broken into and the officer wanted to know if we had seen anything. Of course, we hadn't ~ apparently no one had. The thieves got into the house through a window that was unlocked and stole money, among other things. This is rather disconcerting on our nice, quiet, and supposedly safe street. Thank God no one was hurt. The officer told us not to be unduly alarmed, but to keep our windows and doors locked ~ No problem!

Since this incident we heard of another house nearby being burglarized. Kind of makes you wonder about this "peace on earth, goodwill to all" thing. Then again, circumstances such as these point to the very reason we need Advent and the hope that springs from the 'root of Jesse.' Peace on earth! Goodwill to all! (And just for good measure, pray for our neighborhood.)

Monday, December 11, 2006

Cat in a Basket

A certain camera-shy member of the family has been feeling somewhat neglected blog-wise. While his photogenic brother has been featured in any number of different poses, he has not made an appearance since the earlier "Meet the Gang" post. His only consolation is that he appears in my member profile photo, so at least he is seen regularly.

So here is Zeke's latest photo. Surprisingly he didn't run when I pulled out the camera. I suspect he may have been stuck in the basket, as it did take a while for him to extricate himself from it!

I may have mentioned before that Zeke does not have the best reputation among our friends and family members. Overnight guests insist on locking the guest room door for fear he will sneak in and perform some sinister act while they sleep. He has developed a particular aversion to my friend Stephanie, hissing and growling whenever he catches sight of her... and she's the one that feeds him while we are away!

In other family pet news, I was glad to hear today that my Aunt Diana's little girl-dog Bissy has not had anymore kidney stones. Yeah! Thanks for the e-mail, Aunt Diana... and thanks to everyone who reads my blog!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Mood Snow

Our first snow came to Southern New England last Tuesday. In true New England fashion, it was a day later than the forecasters predicted! Stephanie said that the TV weathermen were calling it 'mood snow.' While I had never heard that term before (I think that weathermen lay awake at night thinking this stuff up) it does rather capture the effect of the snow on that chilly early December morning. There was just enough snow to accumulate slightly before the sun got to it. Gary and I stood at the window for a few minutes to watch the snowflakes float down. It did rather get me in the 'mood' for winter!

In other news: As I write this e-mail Nicky has been caught getting into the Christmas presents. A wrapped gift for a co-worker's dog apparently smelled too good to pass up. Wrapping paper has been torn and spread around the room. I guess there is more wrapping to do after all. Bad Dog!

And finally, to end the suspense from the Advent word game of two posts previous.... (oddly enough, no one offered possible solutions!) .... "Please be patient, God isn't finished with me yet." Amen? Amen!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Splish Splash

The signs of Christmas have arrived at our cozy abode. As I shared last week, the decorations are up. As of today, most of the presents are wrapped! Christmas cards and packages are mailed. Christmas bread is baking! Christmas services and sermons are being written. Christmas, here we come!

And meanwhile, in the midst of all this extra activity, Nicky has developed a skin condition which requires us to give him a bath with special medicated shampoo twice a week. Bahumbug! Could it be a result of the Christmas related stress he is feeling?

Now, giving Nicky a bath is no small feat. Until a week ago, we had never even attempted to give him a bath in the house. In the summer we bring him out back with the hose.... the rest of the year it is off to the groomer for him. This picture is from his third indoor bath so far.... He does seem rather resigned to it, though, doesn't he? (Humiliated might be the better word.) What this picture doesn't show is the coaxing and prodding we had to do to get him in the tub, which did no good anyway. We (Gary) ultimately had to lift him in!

How do you like his little soap-suds mohawk? That was my handywork. We have to entertain ourselves somehow while we wait the prescribed 10 minutes for the soap to soak in and do its magic.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good bath! Ho Ho Ho!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Tree Trimming

Advent has officially begun, so I share with you our adventures in decorating for Christmas! I do admit, though, that we decorated slightly before Advent ~ just a week early! But Advent began later than usual this year.... that's my excuse.

First, I had to do the yearly 'wrestle-with-the-lights.' Why does it seem that the lights get extra tangled every year. They were just placed in a box! They weren't stirred, or tossed, or shaken. What could have happened in there since last year?!?

While I would prefer to have a 'real' tree, Gary and I have settled upon a nice looking faux tree. We decided that it is better than the dog-drinking-out-of-the-tree-water, worrying-about-it-burning-down, needles-shedding-all-over-the-place hassles. Here is the finished product, as Gary places the tree-topper as the final touch. I think it looks pretty darn good!

Along with the tree we have a creche given to us by Gary's mom, Nadine. We also have a few lighted churches and a glass lighted Christmas tree that sits on top of the piano. Stockings are hung by the chimney with care, waiting for Ben's visit from Santa Claus. We also have outdoor decorations up, but I will save those for another post.

Our holiday decorating would not be complete, though, without supivisor 'Nicky' making sure everything is in place. He oversaw the whole process from his comfy chair. He did let us put his "Ho Ho Ho" bandana on for the picture, but not the reindeer ears. (But really, can you blame him?)

As I mentioned before, today is the first Sunday of Advent.... the season in the Christian year when we prepare for Christ's coming. This preparation is not just for the coming of the baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas Day, but also preparation for Jesus' future coming into the world. The theme for the day was "Hope." I gave out stickers to the congregation that had the letters PBPGIFWMY printed on them. Each letter is the first letter of a word that spells out a sentence that expresses our Advent hope. Any guesses?