The Hundred-and-Fifth Letter: Christmas, Birth Narratives, & Being a Rockstar

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Dear Daughters,

“Why is their nativity empty?” you ask about a neighbor’s creche today as we walk around the block to stretch our legs. Their stable is still on display in their yard but the three-foot tall plastic figurines of Mary, Joseph, and the whole kit and caboodle have been put away for the year.

“Because most people take down their Christmas decorations by New Years Day,” I tell you. And you stop in your tracks.

Literally, you stop, and look at me like I have just said the craziest thing you’ve heard all day.

Today is the ninth day of Christmas, girls. Nine ladies dancing.

This year, we stayed home for Christmas and had family in and out at various times. It was good to see folks, and good to have so much down time, especially because we have all been passing around a virus and not always feeling our best. We got some house projects and organization done. We opened little presents each day of Christmas (and will for three more). We’ve read So Many Books and played So Many Games of Guess Who? and Spot It! and Uno. Also, Legos. We’ve had a great Christmas.

And still it drags at times, girls, I’m not gonna lie.

On Sunday, I told your dad that I wasn’t feeling very Christmasy. That I was kind of frustrated because we did so many special things for Advent and I had such a rich Advent season but then here was Christmas and I felt blah. Why wasn’t I more celebratory? And how do you make it feelmore celebratory, apart from more presents and pizzazz. How do you celebrate quietly and still feel celebratory? I didn’t know, but I just wasn’t feeling it.

Just after that confession, I picked up an Advent devotional we’ve had for awhile but I haven’t read in a few years. It is meditative and thoughtful and, I noticed as I grabbed it, has readings through Epiphany (January 6). I thought I’d start there to reinvigorate Christmas.

The introduction to the book considered the deep theological implications of birth and its connection to our creation theology. I’ve always found the connection between birth and creativity fascinating, so I wanted to read more. Among other things, the introduction talked about how significant the “begats” are to the Gospel story—the generations of births—that happen long before Jesus was born, but then, of course, the culmination of his birth, the significance of the incarnation and what that means for us today.

Girls, birth itself is significant—at once significantly risky, significantly profound—but that’s true for anything we birth, not just biological birth.

Still, putting the book down, I thought I would try to shift my less-than-Christmasy attitude by focusing on the obvious births in my lives: your births.

I guess maybe it’s strange but I turned to the pages in an Advent book to try to “feel” more Christmasy, and I came away from them contemplating birth narratives.

About a year after each of you were born, I tried to record your birth narratives as honestly as I could. Both narratives—in Word documents—are long and rambly, like much of my writing, and both reveal me to have felt quite traumatized by the experiences.

Girls, hear me out: I could hardly get through them. Tears were streaming down my face as I relived the births through my own words and memories.

I think it’s important for you to know that I do not sentimentalize childbirth in the least. I do not say it is the most beautiful experience. Not at all. It was easily the hardest thing I have had to endure, and maybe precisely because of that, I felt like an absolute rockstar for having survived it. (I mean, an absolute rockstar combined with postpartum hormonal mess, but still: rockstar.)

And here’s what I wanted to say today, girls: I had forgotten that I was a rockstar.

As the years have gone by, childbirth has seemed like a normal kind of thing.

I had forgotten that I had done this really, really hard thing because quite honestly the difficulty of those particular moments has over time faded into the background with a lot of other difficult circumstances connected to life in a broken and wounded world.

But as I reread those birth narratives this weekend, I let myself cry, and then I closed my laptop and said to myself: Self, you are a Rockstar.

Actually, what I said to myself was more along these lines:

Self, why are you so bogged down by the tasks you have in front of you? Why are you finding the finishing of your first novel so difficult? Why does that feel like it is looming? If you can survive unmedicated labor with trauma—twice—and make it through with fistbumps, you sure as heck can draft some more words. Nothing else you have on your to-do list can even come close to what you have already survived—and survived with grace.

You have birthed human beings.

You have birthed an intentional, sacramental life.

You have birthed creative projects.

You have birthed community.

But of course, I haven’t really birthed anything.

Not on my own.

Which is how we get back to Christmas and creation.

It’s God’s work that we are privileged to birth into the world. We partner with God, every time we create, whether we are creating human beings, or books, or cookies, or love.

Which is a miracle, right?

That we get to partner with God?

That God chose to come down as a baby and live as a human being and partner with us?

Yes.

It really is a miracle.

And in your birth narratives, there’s a miracle, too.

Not just that your dad and I survived them, but that we have you.

(I know, I know, it’s a little sappy to say so, but it’s Christmas for a few more days.)

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

 

The Hundred-and-Fourth Letter: Christmas Rolls Gently In

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Dear Daughters,

Yesterday was the fourth Sunday of Advent, and today already is Christmas Eve. Tonight you will play Silent Night on the piano at church and dress up like an angel in the children’s nativity. Tomorrow you will find your stockings full.

But today, it is not yet Christmas.

Yesterday we got out the last of our Christmas decorations. I unpacked our full ceramic nativity set that was painted by your Grandpa Troutman’s mom, my special grandma Ginny, who passed away when I was in high school. I set out all the pieces—even baby Jesus, even the Magi. Because I want the set to be complete, and I want to remember Ginny, and I want you to be mesmerized by the beauty of the angel, which you tell me is your favorite piece of the set.

Yesterday I moved our journeying Mary and Joseph and their donkey over to our empty creche, to prepare for their son’s arrival. This evening the shepherds will arrive.

Yesterday we lit another candle in the yule log. We read a story from our Jesse Tree book. You made special cards for each of us during quiet time.

We have one ornament left to color today.

This morning, your grandma and grandpa left after a visit for the weekend. The day after Christmas, another set of grandparents will arrive.

But right now, we are in the in-between.

There is so much fullness in the in-between, girls, and so much broken-heartedness in the in-between.

I mean “in-between” in the larger sense, of course.

Advent is about the already/not-yet. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. But the truth is, all of life is the already/not-yet. Our life of faith that we share together and practice together is just an expression of the deeper truth at the core of all that is: God created the world, God broke through into time in the most humble and surprising of ways, God offers us hope and salvation, and God wins at the end of the story.

But we live before the end of the story.

Which is why we keep telling the story and living the story.

The liturgical year is one way of remembering the most important things, of telling the story of our faith over and over again, of helping us live the story even when we don’t feel like it because everything we see around us seems to contradict it.

Notice I said “seems” to contradict it—I sure don’t believe it actually contradicts it. I believe that if we have God’s eyes, we see grace and hope breaking through all around us in miraculous ways every single day. But it doesn’t feel like that a lot of the time.

On Christmas Eve, I think of my Pappy Lehman, who passed away in 2015 on Christmas Eve while gathered with family in Pennsylvania. I was states away, here in our house with you, when I got the call. That loss will always be wrapped up in Christmas Eve for me.

And so will the loss of Ginny every time I unwrap the ceramic nativity she painted or place on the tree the angel ornaments she gifted me.

But there is also so much joy and wonder on this day as Christmas rolls in gently, on candle light, on the notes of the piano I can hear coming through the floor as you practice your carols again and again just for the fun of it.

It is Advent and it is Christmas and it is beautiful and difficult.

It is joy and it is loss.

It is beauty and it is chaos.

It is light and it is dark.

Because that will always be life in the already/not-yet.

Always.

Merry Christmas, girls.

Love,

Your Momma

The Fifty-Third Letter: It’s Not “Almost” Christmas

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Dear Daughters,

My family didn’t have a lot of Christmas traditions when we were growing up. Is it because my parents were divorced and we had to be flexible about shared holidays? Maybe so. I don’t remember ever minding, and the lack of tradition has led to some funny stories.

One year, at my dad’s house, we didn’t even have a tree, just presents piled in the living room. Your Uncle Stephen and I decided this was unacceptable, so we snuck down on Christmas Eve and built a Christmas tree out of cardboard. We strung it with lights and everything. I think we were mostly amusing ourselves.

Even now, your Grandpa and Grandma Sands have a “kerplunk” tree–a small artificial tree they keep fully decorated in their attic, covered with a garbage bag, that they can pull out during the holidays, remove the bag, and just “kerplunk” it down in the living room.

I tell you all of that to say, I am not someone who, generally, has tradition flowing through my veins.

Okay, so we did have a few traditions with my mom–we often picked out a real, live tree, and we usually decorated it the Friday after Thanksgiving, the same day we would celebrate Stephen’s birthday. Stephen usually wanted shoo-fly cake as his birthday cake. Your Grandpa Troutman’s mom, my grandma Ginny, would buy us each an ornament. After she died, my mom took up that tradition.

So there was some tradition, to be fair to my mom. And I appreciate that.

But I also like to chuckle about the cardboard tree. It makes a good story. Maybe it’ll make it into a novel someday.

No, I was not raised to particularly cling to tradition, which might surprise you, and might surprise most everyone who knows me now as an adult. Because I care a lot about the way our little family observes the liturgical calendar. Your dad and I spend a lot of time thinking about it, talking about it, working toward living into this crazy thing called the church year. We think it can shape the way we live out our faith. And we think it can shape the way we do family together.

That’s the background I needed to give before I got to this part:

This week is Thanksgiving. Today was the Thanksgiving feast at the preschool.

Last week, as I tucked the eldest into bed one night, you whispered to me excitedly, “Momma! It’s almost Christmas!”

Oh, girl, it is not almost Christmas.

But I understand why you might be confused.

Some of your friends’ parents have fully decorated homes already. On the drive home from church last night, we noticed a lot of Christmas lights out in the neighborhood, complete with lit-up candy canes lining the road. You’ve started practicing songs for your Christmas program. People are starting to ask you what you want for Christmas.

Let me say it again: this week is Thanksgiving. Sunday marks the first week of Advent.

Advent is four weeks long.

Then it will be Christmas.

In our house, we spend a lot of time talking about Advent, as we head towards Christmas. We decorate our Jesse Tree, reading the messianic stories every night as we approach Christ’s birth. We light candles. On the first Sunday of Advent, we set up our Christmas tree, but we leave it undecorated for a week, and then each Sunday in Advent, we add a little more. Our nativity stays empty until Christmas Eve.

You love this as we do it.

Every year, you get so excited.

And this year, you’re old enough to know that other people are already excited about Christmas.

So that’s where the problem comes. In this season before the season before Christmas, I don’t want you to rush to the end of the story.

And it’s hard to wait. I’ll be the first to admit it.

I myself love Christmas carols. It may be true that I bug your dad about singing them before our agreed-upon time each year. It may  be true that I occasionally agree to read one of the Christmas books you bring to me throughout the year. (Your dad does not.)

But–and this is important to point out–we don’t skip the nativity story in your children’s Bible when it crops up every few weeks with nightly reading. I love those stories. The earth waiting for the Messiah. The magi. The shepherds and angels. Mary’s journey. No, we don’t skip those stories the rest of the year. We read through them because they are part of the grand narrative of Scripture, but they are not the whole story.

We don’t get to skip ahead to whatever story we want because some stories are more fun than others. We can’t skip over the creation story, Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Isaac, Leah, David and Goliath. We can’t skip over Isaiah and Ezekiel.

Just like we can’t skip from the birth of Jesus straight to his death and resurrection. We don’t get the complete story if we don’t talk about the feeding of the five thousand, the calming of the storm, the healing of the bleeding woman who was brave enough to reach out and touch the hem of Jesus’ garment.

I really think we miss out on something significant when we rush to what seem like the most important parts of Scripture.

The same is true with the liturgical calendar, girls.

This last Sunday was Christ the King Sunday. 

I was thinking that in this political season, it might be the most important Sunday we could be celebrating, reminding ourselves who we serve, who “has got the whole world in his hands.” (You came home from church practicing that for your Christmas program. For the record, I’m okay with this as a “Christmas” song.)

Most Christians I know didn’t even know about Christ the King Sunday. Most wouldn’t care even if I did point out it is always the last Sunday of the liturgical calendar, and that Advent is the first Sunday of the church year. Every year.

Most of my friends are already talking about Christmas trees, about hanging up their outdoor decorations before the cold front came through.

And that’s okay.

But that’s not our family’s tradition.

Our tradition is to wait.

And waiting is hard.

I love your excitement about Christmas, and it was hard for me to tell you the other night, “Actually, sweet girl, no, it is not ‘almost’ Christmas. We’ve got a lot of waiting before Christmas. We’ve got the Jesse Tree, remember?”

And you were okay with it.

But I’m thinking that someday maybe you’ll be writing a letter to your own daughters about your holiday traditions growing up, and maybe you’ll say something like, Dear daughters, my mom was kind of crazy about a couple of things, especially with the liturgical calendar, let me tell you…

Love,

Your Momma