A friend posted the question on Instagram over a picture of gold wrapped Reese’s peanut butter cups.
The light in this new house hits differently. And so, I have found myself struck by ordinary things lit up by Pennsylvania sunbeams and made beautiful.
A feather that went through the wash.
LEGO figures battling on the worn tabletop.
Mushrooms and rainbows and the dog.
For me, in this moment, abundance looks messy.
Muddy boot smudges on the bathroom door.
Abundance should be “poured into your lap, a portion overflowing,” and yet I’ve found that abundance doesn’t always feel like enough. In fact, a lot of times abundance feels like too much.
An abundance of worry. An abundance of stress. An abundance of chirping babies to feed.
A sink full of dishes, a dryer full of clothes, a overflowing life of abundance. To he who is given much, much is expected, and I am often left feeling like things are too much and I am not enough.
Abundance is depth and breadth. It is everywhere, emptiness echoing through the spaces where I used to feel fulfilled, opportunities so abundant they scare me.
It’s easy to see abundance as too much and then the gift becomes a burden. I wonder how much abundance I view this way, how many gifts I resent.
In truth, abundance is too much. Of course it is. All is gift, after all. All is grace.
In our catechism lesson yesterday we defined grace as, “a supernatural gift of God bestowed on us, through Jesus, for our salvation.”
All the abundance, the gifts light as feathers and the heavy hard ones, all of it is grace meant to draw me to salvation. All of it exists for my good and, while I don’t particularly enjoy the struggle of scrubbing mud from doors, or spilled detergent from floors, or sin from my heart, I know that the abundance is an invitation to draw closer to the giver of all good things.
One look at my phone shows me abundance, friends I haven’t seen for years reaching out, sharing life across the chasm of the internet, huddling together in text threads to celebrate and mourn abundance.
Babies born, divorces, new jobs, good hair days, funny memes, pep talks and ass kickings. Abundance.
Perhaps I have found myself drowning in abundance over the last years, months, weeks, but I haven’t carried it alone. The grace upon grace is that my abundance might bury me, but I’m given an abundance of friends to shoulder it with me.
I can’t say for sure, but I think I’m feeling my heart shifting, settling into the newness of life after a move, viewing the overwhelming abundance of change through the lens of gift and not burden, or at least seeing it as good medicine that will make me better even though it’s hard to swallow.
What does abundance look like for you these days? Does it feel more like gift or burden? Both are valid, both are allowed. Mister Rogers said you can feel your feelings, after all. Perhaps the bigger takeaway for me is that, as with most things, abundance is both/and. The beautiful is sometimes wounding and the hard is often holy and a willingness to be broken and grow is the best way forward.
Here’s to a life of abundance and the grace to take none of it for granted.
A dear friend sent me a note in a Christmas card and I can’t get it out of my head.
May Christmas be extra special as we celebrate our nomad Savior who was always beginning again.
Maybe it’s just my little corner of the internet, but it seems like many of us are struggling. We’re weary, wounded, numbed, and needing. We’ve been through a hell of a lot in the last couple of years and the shreds of hope many have clung to have revealed themselves to be just that: shreds, not solutions.
Progress these days might feel like one step forward, two steps back. Many of us are lonely, lying in the leftovers of relationships that didn’t ride out challenges the way we expected them to. Or maybe we’re finding ourselves in new beginnings, drowning in imposter syndrome and wondering if everything we’ve done is a big mistake. If we’re a big mistake.
Christmas brings birth. It’s not the birth of the New Year with sequins and confetti and sparkling promises. It’s the birth of sacrifice. It’s the blood, the doubt, the sweaty brow, the smells of humanity and straw. Birth is not shiny and perfect. There are fluids and animal-like noises, effort, and pain. There is an immaculate form drawn open, widening to the point of breaking, through which newness enters, the fragile newness of a slippery baby sent here just to die.
The birth offered by Christmas is raw and ridiculous. After all, who ever heard of a king being born in a barn, much less God Himself? It’s so absurd that the Creator would want us so badly, desire us so deeply that He’d take the form of a wrinkly baby with a face (most likely) like that of Winston Churchill. And yet He did.
This refugee King, working with His hands, humbly knocked the world on its ear and continues to this day.
Guys, I know things seem dark. I know that we’re all exhausted from the arguing and the anxiety. We’re worried for our countries, for our families, for our freedoms, for our faiths. We feel so deeply and struggle to understand our neighbors and to even want to love them.
But I keep coming back to the Christmas card. We celebrate a nomad Savior who was always beginning again.
If, this Christmas, you feel homeless, so was He.
If you feel misunderstood by the people who are supposed to love you most, so was He.
If you’re navigating a road that requires bone deep sacrifice, so was He.
If you’re wandering in the desert, wrestling temptation, so was He.
If you are unsettled by the way things are and the systems of power, so was He.
If you are misjudged and misrepresented, so was He.
Our nomad Savior, the wandering healer who found belonging nowhere miraculously belongs to us all.
And so we begin again.
Our circumstances may be less than ideal this Christmas. Our world is broken now just as it was at the very moment of Our Lady’s final push which thrust Divinity into our wounded world. We cannot fix our situations. We cannot wish our worries away or secure an easier path for ourselves or our families.
But we can begin again.
Every misstep, every sin, every failing is an opportunity to return to him. Every sharp word or resentful sigh is an invitation to cradle the Baby to our chests, to breathe Him in and let the soft Newborn held against our broken hearts teach us how to submit ourselves to the Father.
We begin again and again and again as many times as it takes to get us to holiness, daily chipping away at the things that rebel against Him.
We begin again and take comfort in a nomad Savior who knows all about new beginnings.
We begin again taking comfort that we already know the ending.
Today my oldest son turns 8. It is also the 25th anniversary of the death of Henri Nouwen, hands down my favorite spiritual writer of our time.
As I contemplate the birth of my son and the death of my hero, I circle back to a truth that rarely escapes me: birth and death are inextricably connected. There’s so much more death to birth than I think we realize.
Death is part of a much greater and much deeper event, the fullness of which we cannot comprehend, but of which we know that it is a life-bringing event….What seemed to be the end proved to be the beginning; what seemed to be a cause for fear proved to be a cause for courage; what seemed to be defeat proved to be a victory; and what seemed to be the basis for despair proved to be the basis for hope. Suddenly a wall becomes a gate, and although we are not able to say with much clarity or precision what lies beyond the gate, the tone of all that we do and say on our way to the gate changes drastically.
Every birth I attend as a doula cements this truth in my mind. As I prepare my clients for their labors, they confide their worries, their fears, their anxieties to me.
“What if I can’t handle it?”
“What if the pain is too much?”
“What if I’m unpleasant/too loud/too demanding/not able to speak up?”
Each prenatal visit finds me steadying them, reminding them of what is true, reinforcing their purpose in this event, reminding them that this is sacred work that they do not have to do alone.
And every birth finds my clients face to face with those worries. Looking those anxieties straight in the eyes, nose to nose with the very things they fear will overcome them…and every time, they conquer.
What seemed to be the end proved to be the beginning.
What seemed to be the cause for fear proved to be a cause for courage.
What seemed to be the basis for despair proved to be the basis for hope.
I have seen so many walls become gates, so many women die to themselves, their very identities cracking open to let in new life. I have experienced the despair of transition that signals the imminence of breakthrough, of birth.
Women and men do not walk away from their births unchanged. The person they were before that baby enters the world is not who they are when the midwives finish up and the lights go back down. Birth requires death. Death requires transformation. Transformation becomes a gate to higher levels of holiness and a new understanding of the human experience.
Today I’m pondering all this as I celebrate my newly minted 8 year old, my biggest baby and most peaceful birth. I’m pondering his birth as I think of all the ways we’ve cumulatively died over the last couple of years: so much suffering, so many disappointments, and looming monsters that have forced us all to face fears we never even verbalized.
Our labor is long and hard, fraught with complications, progress alternatively piercing us to the core and seemingly stalling out. If we only view our life experience as hardship and pain, it’s certainly tempting to medicate ourselves with whatever will numb us out. There’s plenty to try: shopping, porn, hidden stashes of cookies, crime dramas that drown out reality. endless hours of scrolling. Of course epidurals and medications aren’t inherently bad. In fact they’re a very effective tool. However, if our motivation in using them is total avoidance of the experience, they’re less of a help and ultimately disappoint. A good epidural takes the edge off while allowing the patient to actively participate in her labor. I fear that many of us would rather feel nothing at all than engage in the dirty work of living. I fear that of myself, most especially.
If we neglect to view our labor through the lens of eternity, we hug up against the wall without ever allowing it to become a gate. The temptation is always there to focus on the hard stuff without letting it transform us. Yes it feels unrelenting, but each contraction brings change, each pain brings progress, each ache is an opportunity to allow ourselves to gradually open up and birth new life into the world.
I don’t know what God is calling you to bring into being. I’m not sure if you’re living in the expectancy of a growing baby, a growing dream, or a growing desire to commit yourself to hard work worth doing. Perhaps you’re living in the static of just honestly not knowing. I don’t know what your fears are, but I’d guess they have something to do with not being good enough for this thing you’re being asked to do. Maybe you’re afraid you’ll fail. I hope you do. I hope you fail and fail well. Maybe you’re afraid of change. Transition is definitely the hardest part of life and of labor. It’s that point of no return when we find ourselves just done with the job at hand, but too far in to turn back now. I’m sure there are nagging doubts and imposter syndrome and feelings of inadequacy. There are for me. That’s why I write as infrequently as I do, even though I know this is the hard holy work I’ve been tasked to do.
There’s no way for me to know where the gate leads for any of us. I can’t predict what horizons lie on the other side. But in all the haziness, I can remind us of what I know is true. I can remind you of what I know without a doubt. You were chosen for this purpose. You are the only one who can birth this child, this idea, this dream, this product into the world. You are necessary to this specific labor. This will be incredibly hard, but it will not overcome you because it comes from you, from a place deep inside you that is fed by the Holy Spirit and sustained by the communion of Saints. If you approach this birth through the eyes of eternity, you’ll see that you will never labor in vain. If you allow yourself to be transformed, the Lord will use you as co-creator, you will be a channel through which newness enters the earth.
Birth is death is birth. One requires the other. One begets the next. Each is heartbreaking, good, and beautiful. Both will wreck and ruin us in all the best ways.
So my prayer today is one of humility and obedience.
Lord, let me do this work not for what I will gain from it, but because it is what you have called me to. Help me to be faithful when strength is failing and humble in my pursuit of holiness. Let me submit myself to suffering, use it all to transform me into the person you created me to be. Use me as an instrument of your grace and help me to truly desire all these things I pray for. Let each and every death bear forth a birth more spectacular than the last. Grant me eyes to see it and the courage to run tirelessly towards every dead end that leads to you. Amen.
The coffee’s cold, the fish is dead, and little brothers don’t appreciate the cruel irony of their snack choices.
The truth sinking into my bones and settling into my soul is this: learning is not separated from life. This school we’re creating is a boots on the ground, dirty fingernails kind of institution that takes us through every subject and every emotion every day.
The fish died and we learned how saying, “At least…” to a grieving person is never an acceptable platitude, how “at least” never takes away the hurt like we wish it would. The fish died and we learned how to rally around someone suffering while also giving them space to feel and to process at their own pace.
We’ve learned that phonics rules don’t make sense, they’re never absolute. “Biye” follows all the rules of silent e making the vowel say its name, and yet the word is correctly spelled, “buy.”
Sometimes even when we do all the right things, even when we memorize the rules, there are times we still end up on the wrong side of things. Even though we do everything right, we somehow end up wrong. It’s phonics. And it’s Breonna Taylor and Sarah Everard and our Asian brothers and our Black sisters and our LGBTQ loved ones and I don’t understand it. It’s life and it’s hard.
We’re working it all out with fear and with trembling, learning how to be humans together in the midst of suffering and loss and intense frustration. Just being people together is hard, especially in this boiled down concentrate of humanity that is our pandemic experience.
But the things distilled reveal so much about human nature, about resilience and sin, about me. It’s uncomfortable and beautiful. The Refiner’s fire always is. Pain mingling with fury mixing with grace, as the coarseness is stripped away and we learn how to be with one another. Learn to be and stop pretending.
This education I’m getting is owl pellets and copy work, repetition of days over and over and over, days so ghastly and gorgeous I ache for them to end while simultaneously mourning their loss.
And that’s life. Life is the education, which I suppose is the point. I just desire to be a better student, to shake off my procrastination and grumbling, to look at challenge with curious eyes instead of cross resentment. I’m not there yet. I’m still learning.
I’m learning to write and trust my words to Jesus, not to worry if you understand or misconstrue my meaning. I’m learning accept the humility that comes from releasing words into the world and letting that vulnerability stand under the scrutiny of strangers and the more worrisome eyes of those who love me, those I might disappoint. I’m learning to release and let my words dissolve like bread thrown into a pond, chewed up, swallowed, and spit out by fishes pleasing to some and to none at all.
I’m learning to be more accepting of “close your eyes and hold out your hands,” learning to trust that I’ll be handed a blessing and not a snake. Why is it so frightening to trust? All is grace, after all.
I’m learning is all. I hope you are, too. I hope your studies lead to the eternal conclusion that you are loved, you are loved, you are loved.
Let’s recite it and memorize it and copy it down in cursive until we know it as a truth more absolute than 2+2 = 4, more dependable than “I before E,” more real and pure than we could ever really fathom.
I’ve been thinking a lot about pruning. About vines and branches, about dry and brittle undergrowth, about the coming harvest. I’ve been drawn into a season of pruning myself. The perfect storm of past hurt and present pain are intermingling in my heart and demanding to be dealt with. It’s hard, to be honest, but I keep trying to remember that hard doesn’t necessarily mean bad.
I am the true vine and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every brand in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you. Remain in me as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me.
I am the vine and you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned.
John 15: 1-6
How often do I separate myself from Christ, put myself at the mercy of others, allow myself to be gathered up by whomever and whatever version of “good” and “successful” comes along only to be burned again and again and again?
It seems to me that either way there is pain. Both pruning and leaving the vine guarantee a certain amount of suffering, but only one requires suffering in order to bear fruit.
The question remains, will I put myself at the service of the pain? Will I submit myself to pruning in order that I might grow? Will I trust Him?
We’re inching closer to the feast day of St. Joseph, probably my favorite saint. St. Joseph was presented with a situation which he certainly didn’t plan for, a set of circumstances that stripped him of the future he had imagined for himself and set him on a path of hardship. (It was also a path of immeasurable beauty, to be sure, but we can’t say it was easy being the protector and provider of the Holy Family.) I think we can all agree that St. Joseph could be granted a meltdown or two. One can imagine the temptation to fall into self pity or anger, especially at the outset of this journey. I mean, that’s what I usually do when things don’t work out the way I expect them to.
And yet, when given a situation that was confusing, when dealt a change that was challenging to his belief system, that required great sacrifice to his reputation as well as his physical safety, Joseph didn’t have a pity party. He didn’t lament and moan and look for sympathy. He waited. He made a plan to act out of charity. He prayed. Most importantly, he stayed open and receptive to the voice of God. St. Joseph was sensitive to the working of the Holy Spirit and he trusted that the words spoken to him from God were true. So, when the angel advised him to take Mary into his home, Joseph partnered with the problem, offered himself in service to the pain, and humbly submitted himself to God’s will, putting aside both his plans for a “normal” marriage and his plans to divorce her quietly.
Mercy, how I long for a faith like that.
So much about enduring suffering and darkness has to do with perspective. In an often isolated post-Covid world, where there’s still so much doubt and uncertainty, I find it particularly difficult to see the glass as half full. I struggle a lot with partnering with the problems in my life. I find it difficult to view the dead ends as anything but just that: closed doors and locked gates. In a season when I’ve endured more loneliness than ever before, when I’ve seen the carnage of fractured relationships and been disappointed by so many things, large and small, I’m just done. I don’t want to endure any more. I don’t want to partner with anything, I just want to be done and for things to be easy.
But that’s where my need for pruning is shown. That’s precisely why I need a Gardener to rein me in, redirect my growth, train the tendrils of my heart to wrap around Him instead of growing out and away, grasping for whatever the world tells me is sturdy.
My friend Henri Nouwen says,
…what seems a hindrance becomes a way; what seems an obstacle becomes a door; what seems a misfit becomes a cornerstone.
Jesus changes our history from a random series of sad incidents and accidents into a constant opportunity for a change of heart. To wait patiently, therefore, means to allow our weeping and wailing to become the purifying preparation by which we are made ready to receive the joy that is promised us.
And so prayers of lament and complaint being uttered, I’m left with the choice: do I look to the Lord with trust, submit myself to His hand and His pruning, or do I go my own way offering myself to whomever wants to gather me up knowing full well I’ll get burned again?
Either way there is pain. Either way there is suffering. But only one way contains the promise of joy, a joy I have seen lived out in the lives of the saints and proven again and again in the scriptures. So my prayer must become one of trust, one of offering, one of partnering.
Jesus, change my heart. Take this anxiety and anger, this frustration, loneliness, and grief and change it all into something beautiful. I cannot do it on my own. Help me, Lord, I need You. Show me how to be held in your arms, to be loved by You in the pruning. Heal my heart and reorient it toward Yours. Help me to endure the suffering, endure the pain, endure the not knowing, to stay steady and to bear it all for love of You. Help me to be your partner, to submit myself to your pierced hands. O Sacred Heart of Jesus, I put my trust in You.
You are loved, my friends. Eternally adored by a Creator who thinks that you’re worth pruning, worth guiding, worth redeeming. It doesn’t matter how far we’ve wandered or how tightly our hearts are wound around the world, He’s waiting to prune and to train those tender vines so that we might bear more and more fruit for his Holy and Sacred Name. Even the wildest, most overgrown, driest, and thorniest of hearts can be redeemed. That’s where the hope lies, in the truth that the places in our lives that look like dead ends and closed doors are just odd looking ways back to Him.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff comfort me.
Psalm 23: 1-4
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
through the valley of apathy,
the valley of contempt,
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of doubt,
the shadow of distance,
the shadow of disappointment.
Even then, do I trust.
I will fear no evil, no rejection, no humiliation, no loneliness, for you are with me . Your rod and your staff comfort me. Even when they block my way, when your rod hems me in and your staff forces me on a path I would not choose, even then they comfort me. For my thoughts are not your thoughts and my ways are not your ways.
Though I wander through the valleys confused, unsure, worried, overcome by my own smallness amidst so large a flock, I trust that what you say is true.
I trust that your word will not return to you empty, that if I find myself despairing in a low place, it is because you are not done with me yet. I trust that our journey is ongoing, that you are calling, leading, prodding me forward toward your promise of cool water, verdant pastures, and rest.
I choose to believe that promise.
On a bumpy trail, a monotonous track of irritation when I am tempted to make my own way or out of weariness to rail against what is asked of me, I submit myself to your rod and staff. I submit myself to your guidance and your care. I will allow myself to be loved.
I will fear no evil and I will take the next step in faith, for I believe that you are who you say you are.
One thing I’ve felt called to this Lent is to write more and to share more of what God is stirring up in my heart. I’ll be sharing reflections taken from my daily scripture readings and personal journaling. I’m not going to focus on sharing at times that will suit the algorithm or gain the most likes/follows/comments. I’m just planning to share when the spirit moves me and trust that the folks who need these words will come to them. I’m excited to share with you all and see where this goes. As always, thank you for taking time to read and for being here. You are such a gift to me and so eternally loved, my friends. -Mary Susan
They seek me day after day, and desire to know my ways, like a nation that has done what is just and not abandoned the judgement of their God; they ask of me just judgements, they desire to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see it? Afflict ourselves, but you take no note?”
See, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits, and drive all your laborers. See you fast only to quarrel and fight and to strike with a wicked fist!
I’ve been spending time in Isaiah 58, pondering these words in ways I haven’t before, realizing that like most other things in life, I am guilty of making things about me. As we ease into the second week of Lent, many of us are refining our sacrifices, realizing the extent to which we’ll be challenged, reevaluating the offerings we’ve chosen, or maybe even still trying to finalize our “plan” for Lent. That’s all fine. It’s normal for Lent to begin with discomfort, frustration, doubt.
What I’m realizing is that, like many other unhealthy enneagram two’s/recovering codependents before me, my Lenten observances are often tainted by misguided motivations. And I think that’s what Isaiah is getting at here in chapter 58. Israel is seeking God, they genuinely want to know Him, to feel heard by Him, to have their sacrifice recognized by the Father…but they’re going about all of that on their terms alone. They’re checking off boxes, their fasting fueled by self-righteousness and judgement and God calls them out. It’s as if God says, “Okay, but why are you fasting? Is it to control others, to place judgement through your actions, to elevate yourself? Do you fast purely so your voice can be heard above your brother’s?”
And I have to ask myself the same questions. As I lean into this season of fasting, penance, and almsgiving, what are my motivations?
Do I sacrifice, offer myself, allow myself to be tread upon, take on the cloak of the martyr or victim as a way of making a point, drawing attention to how “good” I am while punishing everyone in my path with a bad attitude and critical demeanor? Am I loudly suffering, taking on guilt that is not my own so that I might publicly complain or lord it over others?
Is my sacrifice and fasting merely an outlet for my resentment or do I act in true humility and obedience to the Lord? Am I using my penance as a passive aggressive way to make a statement to someone in my life about behavior I don’t approve of or do I fast to achieve a specific “level” of holiness?
I must be careful that I am not using my sacrifice as a weapon, a measuring stick, a blinder that enables my pride and judgement. It’s a normal aspect of human nature to want to see where we measure up to the rest of the pack. But in that measurement, it’s easy to drift into the dangerous waters of comparison, to elevate ourselves above our brothers, to use our “holiness” as a way to make a statement about who we are rather than what God is doing in us.
So, what’s the answer here? Where can I find true communion with the Lord during this complicated season of Lent? What do I do if I realize that my motives are less than ideal?
It’s important to remember that Lent is not a contest. There is no Lent Police roaming about looking for people who aren’t “doing it right.” Each person’s Lenten observance is intimate and personal. We shouldn’t approach Lent like the Pharisees in the Bible, eager to look the part but stinted in our actual observance of God’s law. What we should do is offer grace to others. In my experience, the surest way to reorient myself to God is through service to others.
If you remove the yoke from among you, the accusing finger and malicious speech; If you lavish food on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; Then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom shall become like midday; Then the Lord will guide you always and satisfy your thirst in parched places, will give strength to your bones and you shall be like a watered garden, like a flowing spring whose waters never fail.”
Oh, my heart longs for that satisfaction from the Lord. When all of life feels like perpetual Lent and I’m asked to give more, offer more, sacrifice even more, I desperately desire my thirst to be satisfied, my bones strengthened. A watered garden sounds like paradise right now and that satisfaction only comes from a pure offering of myself to the other.
What am I yoked by? By comparison, by competition, by quick judgement, dehumanization of others. The media to which I am addicted is peppered with accusing fingers and malicious speech. Scrolling leaves me dissatisfied and disgruntled, horrified by “those” people and stuck deep in my own judgmental mire.
Who are the hungry I am called to lavishly feed? Who are these afflicted I am asked to satisfy? The poor, the lonely, the imprisoned, the children in my midst who just long to be listened to; the people in my life hungry for acceptance, not conditional on certain beliefs or behaviors, but acceptance just as they are.
I am not Christ. I cannot satisfy these needs on my own, but I can speak love to the widowed and the orphans of the Church. I can offer the lonely a seat at my table and set aside my own version of what’s best to allow the people in my life to be who God created them to be. I can sacrifice voicing my opinions and make space for the words of others. I can lay down my expectations and receive both complicated people and challenging circumstances as gift. I can give monetarily to people in need, regardless of whether or not they align perfectly with my worldview. So many are starving for affection. I can lavish love on them. I can.
It is only in that lavishing love that I will be able to see the light break through the gloom. It is only through making sacrifices that are not about me, but about loving Christ in others that I will have my own thirst quenched. It is only in recognizing the belovedness of my brother that I will gain eyes to see my own belovedness. I am strengthened by carrying the cross of Christ, a weight which nourishes my soul rather than weighing me down like so many yokes I habitually strap myself to.
Father, heal my wounded heart, reorient all of my being to your most holy Sacred Heart. Nestle me there, that my sacrifice might not be motivated by a sick attempt at administering my own form of justice, but by a desire to be healed of my own disordered affections. Help me to remember that I am responsible for myself, that before I seek to judge my brother I am called to reorient myself to You. Lord, help me to submit myself to your most holy and perfect will, that I might offer sacrifice not on my terms, but on Yours. Break down the things in me that rebel agains You. Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make my heart like unto Thine. Amen.
We’re almost there, gang. It’s Christmas Eve Eve (historically noted as the longest day ever in the history of long days, especially if you are a child or the parent of small children). We’re *this* close to the culmination of all of our Advent waiting and there’s much hustle and bustle to finish up last-minute preparations.
All of that looks different this year, of course. Added to the anticipation of the holiday is some extra heartache and anxiety…you know, just to keep things spicy. It’s always easy to get caught up and swept away by this time of year and to lose focus of the bigger picture but this year has added stress in places most of us haven’t previously navigated. The shadow of the pandemic has created an environment of panicked searching of tracking numbers and shipping notifications. Many of us won’t be seeing our family and friends this holiday, so more emphasis is placed on exchanging gifts in a different way, more stress is put on the fear that things won’t make it in time, or there are too many gifts for one kid and not enough for the other one so now we have to take our lives into our hands and go back to Target, and why are we even doing a secret Santa this year anyway, and what’s even the point, and on and on and on.
To which I say, “Woah Nelly.”
Be still. Take a breath.
Let’s take a minute to break it down together and consider our relationship to giving and receiving in general.
Here’s what my pal, Henri, has to say.
A lot of giving and receiving has a violent quality, because the givers and receivers act more out of need than out of trust. What looks like generosity is actually manipulation, and what looks like love is really a cry for affection or support. When you know yourself as fully loved, you will be able to give according to the other’s capacity to receive, and you will be able to receive according to the other’s capacity to give. You will be grateful for what is given to you without clinging to it, and joyful for what you can give without bragging about it. You will be a free person, free to love.
Okay, so why are we giving gifts? The obvious answer is that gift giving is a way to communicate love to one another. Taking the time to curate and research a lovely gift for someone is tangible proof of our thoughtfulness and consideration for them. Gosh that’s beautiful. It is such a good and valuable thing.
As with many good and valuable things in our world, giving and receiving can so easily be twisted. Somehow what was initially a physical act of love toward our father-in-law becomes a competition with our spouse’s siblings. What was a way to show our boss how much we appreciate her becomes an opportunity to advance our career. What was meant to be a helpful gift becomes a physical manifestation of the way we think someone ought to be living their life. Worse, we often give out of obligation not real generosity, a motive that is easily communicated to the recipient.
The same goes with receiving. What was meant as a helpful gift from our parents is received as commentary on our lifestyle. That gift that is not equivalent to the one we offered is a physical manifestation of our value in the eyes of the giver. Perhaps we receive an extravagant gift and feel somehow less than, unworthy, or worse exploited. Did they really want to give me that huge present or are they using me to show off?
What was meant to be a good and beautiful thing for the other becomes about us: If he likes this gift enough, I’ll know that he’s really into me. If their gift is better than mine, my gift was not enough. I am not enough. If I give them this cleaning system, maybe they’ll actually take care of their home the right way. If the kids love these toys, they’ll love me. If they gave me this huge giftit means I will owe them something. I can’t accept that expensive thing because I don’t deserve it.
Remember what’s true.
No amount of gifts or any signs of generosity can define us the way Christ does. Gifts do not serve to be trophies or monuments that prove our belovedness. They are, rather, tools to communicate that we see and love others right where they are.
Receiving an extravagant gift has nothing to do with our inherent value. It is not a commentary on our financial or social status. It shouldn’t challenge our view of our own worthiness. It is, perhaps, an opportunity to receive and by receiving, bless the giver. Allowing others to love us in the way that they are able is a gift in and of itself.
When we don’t feel worthy to receive a gift or don’t feel deserving of extravagance from loved ones, we must consider what “deserving” even means. None of us is getting what we deserve…at least I pray that we aren’t! We are all sinners, all fall short of the glory of God. Christ never gives us what we actually deserve, praise God. The entire point of Christmas is that we are given exactly what we do not deserve, the ultimate extravagant gift: salvation. So “deserving” shouldn’t really play into receiving gifts. It can be a humbling thing to receive a gift that we don’t feel worthy of. Let’s use it as an opportunity to embrace humility, remembering our Savior who offers us His precious body and blood specifically because we are not deserving.
The reaction of the recipient to our gift is not about us. We should give, not out of an expectation of approval from the person to whom we are giving, but purely to bless them and love them no strings attached. It sounds silly, but we need to give to one another with open hands. We need to give without expectation. Generosity doesn’t follow up two months later to see if they’re using that new Roomba properly or scan their social media posts to see if they’re sporting that new scarf. Generosity is giving with open hands, trusting that our identity and value does not rest in whether or not someone appreciates what we have to offer.
Whatever the next few days look like for you, I pray that you will take Truth deep into your core and settle into it. Giving and receiving are not about you. No pile of presents, no number of lost packages, late arrivals, or any offering that doesn’t quite hit the mark can touch the truth of who you are in the eyes of the Creator. You are good. Full stop. You are lovely and loved. Period. You are valuable and worthy just as you are, just where you are. So are the people you’re giving to this Christmas. The gift of yourself in all your imperfect humanity is the most beautiful offering you can give. Receiving the ugly, imperfect, confusing, frustrating humans in your life and loving them despite all that is receiving Christ’s call to us all.
I pray that we’ll all be able to give and receive with open hands this Christmas. My prayer as we round out this year is that we’ll find Him. In the absences at the table and the disappointments and the anxious fears about being good enough or making the right choice to travel or anger over how that uncle voted or worry that these people we’re related to don’t actually really know us, I pray that we will feel His presence.
He’s there. He really is. In the piles of wrapping paper and the beat up boxes that arrive three days late. In the sibling arguments and the absolutely awful presents, He’s there. He’s waiting for us. The baby will be born and laid in a manger and He’s waiting. He will grow up to be beaten, bruised, mangled, and murdered for us. He’s here in the midst of the hurt and the mess, in the giving and receiving of gifts, deeply present in these presents we’ve chosen that try to hijack our worthiness. He’s there quietly repeating the foundational truth of our belovedness: He came specifically for us. He chose this. He chose us.
Merriest Christmas, my beautiful friends. You are so, incredibly loved.
My daughter has been begging for a mood ring. An introvert caught between a social director of an older sister and a baby brother/class clown beloved by all, she holds space sixteen months apart from the other family introvert. They huddle together like two sensitive little peas in the middle of the pod of four.
She’s highly perceptive. She takes in so much about her surroundings, is an empath consistently tuned in to the needs of those around her. She feels deeply and she believes deeply. She’s always struggled to communicate her emotions, finding it difficult to articulate what’s going on in that beautifully complex heart of hers. Some days she’s prickly and reminds me of a cat. The more you want her to love you the more she makes you work for it and I kind of love that about her. Every day she is tender-hearted and quick to defend the underdog. She frequently defers to others, doing her best to keep the peace which is a pretty monumental task around here.
Simply put, the girl is magic.
So, she wanted a mood ring. Had her heart set on the glory that would come when she didn’t have to verbalize her mood, but could simply flash a ring, and the people around her would just know.
She had it all planned out, already counting on the convenience, the time saved, the anxiety relieved from having the magical ability to just show a ring instead of having to grapple with her feelings and express them to the people around her. She was counting on the power of the mood ring, so when she got not one, but five, shiny new rings in her boot for St. Nicholas day, she was thrilled.
She tried them on, reveled in the truth that it was blue proving that she was happy! She looked up all of the colors’ meanings, working hard to decipher the intricacies of the ring and plumb the depths it would reveal.
And then her helpful older sister told her how mood rings work.
The spell was broken. She was crushed. She was angry and annoyed, but didn’t let it ruin her day. However the disappointment was still there, simmering under the surface, lying in wait until the tenderness of bedtime broke the dam.
Gracious, it’s hard to be 8. It’s hard to believe in magic when the world is out to prove you wrong. It’s harsh and humiliating to have believed and to have the rug ripped right out from under you, to have put all your eggs in a basket of hope only to have them dashed by reality.
First mood rings go and then fairies. Before you know it, it’s Santa Claus and humanity as a whole.
We’ve been studying the catechism together, this sweetheart girl and I. We go over the questions and ponder the mysteries of our faith on the most fundamental levels.
As I work to teach her about our faith, I can’t help but see all the ways we humans long for easy. We’ve evolved to look for ways to expedite, to simplify, to cut corners, to avoid the work. But what we can do for assembly lines and long distance dissemination of information, we can’t do with our hearts. There’s no escape from the messiness of the human condition, no magic ring to make it easier to be a human being with a broken heart living in a broken world. Sometimes we just have to do the work.
But still we cling to the hope that there’ll be a quick fix. And the world is only too happy to offer any number of potential solutions for us. And just like gullible children, we believe the promises the world offers every single time. We buy the magic pill because it’s so alluring. It seems easier to cover our pain with a better body, with new shoes, with the right fill-in-the-blank. If we eat these Oreos or drink this cocktail, if we purchase this workout system, or watch the porn we’ll feel better quick and then things will be fine. It’s easier to patch our pain up with a bandaid than to do the hard work of actually finding healing. We’ll be comfortable without having to delve into the ick of our humanity. Easy peasy.
But God doesn’t want fine for us. He doesn’t want easy because he created us for more. And the mind boggling paradox is that while there’s no easy fix, there is magic. I don’t mean the cheap version of magic that the world tries to pass off in mood rings and quick fixes, or even the magic ball, cast-a-spell, witchy kind of magic that seems fun on the screen. I mean that deep kind of C.S. Lewis eternal magic that I believe pulses through the world: the magic of light and goodness and beauty and truth. Truth that outshines mood rings and empty promises. Truth that offers eternity.
There is no simple way to be a human, but there’s magic to believe in if you want it, magic to hang your hopes on. Perhaps it’s not the glitzy magic the world promises but it’s magic nonetheless. It’s supernatural magic of the little when they’re chosen, of the Virgin when she delivers, of the baby come save us. It’s the bizarre ability to believe in a power that doesn’t operate on our timeline or within our understanding, but Who chooses to be Incarnate on our plane because.
If you’ve been burned by the treasonous nature of mood rings and betrayed by belief, I’ll tell you what I told my girl:
You are too intricate a creation to be summed up by rings or jobs or things or even your own body.
You were created by Love, for love, to love.
You were created to be loved. You were.
You in all your messy, inconvenient, uncommunicative glory, you are worthy and good and lovely.
Remember who you are.
Remember Whose you are.
After a good cry, and a pep talk, and a good night’s sleep, she slipped the mood ring on again. I can’t be certain, because I certainly have no power to decipher the mind of the 8 year old, but I’d venture a guess that she was able to see the truth that the magic doesn’t come from the ring or the emotional ease it offers, but from a deeper power within. The belief isn’t in the ring, but in the confidence that comes from knowing and trusting the one who made her, who gifted her with eyes to see his love for her and eyes to see the magic in the world, ring or no ring.
Hey, gang! It’s the most wonderful time of the year, when we get to dig into the excitement and anticipation, slap some glitter on the world, and snuggle close to twinkly lights while we watch movies with impossible plots that get tied up too neatly with bows. Gracious, we need this time now more than ever, am I right?
DISCLAIMER: If you’re not boobs deep in garland right now, you can just excuse yourself. As for me and my blog, we holiday hard, mmmkay? Kthanxbyeeee.
I recently posted about our Kindness Elves on Instagram and have gotten some questions about our Advent traditions, so I figured I’d do a quick round up of what we’ve got going on around here this season in case you’d like some ideas to make the season special!
Did I sound like a real life influencer there? I hope so because that’s the vibe I’m going for. The truth is I posted *a* post about our elves and exactly *one* person mentioned it to me, sooooo now I’mma do a whole post about it like Buddy the Elf and no one can stop me! The real real truth is that I’m getting lonely in this one room locked down schoolhouse and I thrive on words of affirmation, which I strangely do not receive from the pupils here at the Delagrange School of Witchcraft and Other Crafts But Please Don’t Make Us Do Math.
What I’m saying is, I’ve had two good days of homeschooling in a row and I need to brag about it.
Also our traditions make me happy and I’m very opinionated about Advent and Christmas and that’s what the internet is for: sharing unsolicited advice and opinions.
Read on if you enjoy casually looking at the goings on in other people’s homes but don’t plan to execute any of their plans in your own abode.
Read on if you’re looking for some ideas that make you look like you’ve got your shit together, when in reality your laundry mountain is less and mountain now and more of a clean clothes version of a gelatinous cube that’s taking over your living room. It’s legit kind of cube shaped over here because it’s been in the baskets for so long…rectangular prism shaped I guess if you want to get picky, but like I said, I don’t do math.
Please do not read on if you’re already feeling vulnerable or less than and watching me blather on about my stuff will make you feel like you’re not doing enough. I swear to you, you’re doing more than enough and also you’re a majestic man or woman beast with great legs and gorgeous hair, some of which is maybe on your legs. We are here to celebrate that and not compare ourselves because I guarantee you that you’re nailing a bunch of stuff I’m not. Like math. (Though this seems like the right moment to humble brag that Facebook alerted me the other day that thirteen years ago I scored a 97 on a math test, so booyah!)
General Advent/Christmas Manifesto:
In this house we believe in Santa and magic and Santa Magic. I have a firm belief that if you stop believing in magic, then magical things stop happening to you. I will stand by that until my dying day. So, yes, we believe in Santa Claus, fairies, elves, Mickey Mouse, Dolly Parton, and all glorious magical beings. The end.
In this house we believe even more deeply in Jesus. So, while Santa brings us gifts, we do not subscribe to any belief or threat (however tempting it may be) that children who misbehave will not receive gifts. That’s bullslaw and we all know it.
Any time it comes up I remind my kids that we exchange gifts as a way to celebrate the gift of Christ…you know, the innocent baby who was God actively choosing to be born into poverty and who eventually grew up and died a horrible death for our sins because he wanted to be with us in eternity even though we most decidedly do not deserve that grace? Yeah, that’s the one. So yes children, you’ll still get a gift if you’re a punk, but please for the love of Baby Jesus stop being a punk.
We reinforce this by focusing on scripture, advent readings, celebrating St. Nicholas, San Juan Diego, Our Lady of Guadalupe and all of the other awesome feast days in December, etc. Read below for specific activities we do during Advent.
(No comparison, though, you cotton headed ninny muggins!)
Kindness Elves: Because of my stance on Santa, I obv have a great snobbery against Ye Olde Elf on the Shelf. He’s a nark and snitches get stitches. I do, however, love elves who are not tattletales, so we have Kindness Elves who engage in general tomfoolery and also leave us little kindness challenges. They might bring us fun new holiday scented soaps and ask us to pray for those fighting Covid every time we wash our hands. Or the elves might ask us to memorize a scripture or read a particular book about the nativity story. They challenge us to offer a rosary, bake for our neighbors, and all sorts of other good things. Sometimes they call us out for not speaking respectfully to one another (I’m not above using magic to further my own agenda, duh) but other times they just do silly things because silly things are good and necessary.
Preparing a Place for the Christ Child: We have an empty manger (basket) that we prepare for the coming Baby with straw (yarn). You get to put in a piece of straw every time you make a sacrifice, do a good deed or an act of service. It’s a really great visual for kids to see us preparing a space for Christ…and it’s oddly motivating to kids of all ages. And also their mothers. It also gives parents a good reason to call out good behavior and praise kids. I don’t know about you guys, but I praise and encourage a lot less than I correct and criticize. I’m working on it and the manger helps.
Letters to Jesus: We got this tradition from Bobbi Rol and I just love it. You can use Bobbi’s form letter or tweak your own, but the basic premise is that the kids are writing to Jesus and taking time to thoughtfully consider how they’ll prepare their hearts for him during Advent. There’s space to specifically lay out what they’re taking on or abstaining from (remember, Advent is technically a mini-lent but don’t shoot the messenger), who they’re praying for, and what gifts they hope to receive Christmas morning. It’s a really fun activity that hits the sweet spot between emphasizing faith and embracing the fun of presents.
Jesse Tree: This is our first year to do a Jesse Tree and I can’t decide if it’ll be great or stressful. I’m totally fine dropping it if it doesn’t work out. I snagged the Ann Voskamp book Unwrapping the Greatest Gift: A Family Celebration of Christmas from the library. So far I really like it. But, I mean…it’s Ann, so prepare ye the way for lots of words. (I said it. She’s verbose. Wordy. Long-winded. I know, I know, I am the epitome of the pot calling the kettle black. It cannot be denied. How many more words will I write before I’ve sufficiently beat this horse? Three more words. Exactly three.)
Recent Homeschool Fun: Here’s the section of this post where I tell you all about how much fun we’ve been having at our homeschool…please read that as: how much fun we’ve been having in the last two days because the days before that were decidedly un-fun. Because things had been so un-fun and because it’s Advent, I wanted to shake things up a bit and try something different. For the next few weeks, we’re stepping back from individual lessons in our textbooks and mainly doing group work with a few individual things thrown in. This has already changed my life and it’s only been two days. Praise the Lord and bless His Holy Name is what I say.
For example, today we read aloud two books (The Twenty-four Days Before Christmas by Madeleine L’Engle and The Snowman by Raymond Briggs). One is chapter book length and the other is a wordless book. The kids took turns narrating the wordless book, trying to use the most descriptive words they could think of. We covered parts of speech, figurative language, critical thinking, and then took a foray into art because they noticed that a painting within the book looked an awful lot like Van Gogh’s sunflowers.
Then we took a foray into crying under the table because someone got interrupted by someone else who allegedly gave up interrupting people for Advent.
After that, we created our own wordless story, practiced some poems we’re memorizing, and worked on some spelling words. Over tacos for dinner, we discussed which type of book we preferred and why (wordless picture book, or chapter book with few pictures). Throw in lots of playing in the snow, math games on the computer, prayers, Jesse Tree readings, and a viewing of The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats on Amazon Prime (and a discussion of his art and influence) and I think it was a pretty stellar day in the ‘ole homeschool.
Also there were lots of video games played and we watched Frozen after dinner and I’m not sorry. Holla atcha mother.
Anyway, here’s the fun Advent-y homeschool-y activity that I think everyone should do regardless of whether or not you formally celebrate Advent or homeschool. It’s just real fun.
Stuffed Animal Census: Okay, gang. Buckle up because I am about to blow your minds. We did a math activity that took the entire day and I, the person who hates math, got so into it I was manipulating data like my life depended on it and then ended my night trying to learn Boolean algebra. I genuinely don’t know who I am any more, but I kind of love it and now I want everyone to do this project because it was such a joy!
We started by learning about what a census is since that’s the main reason Mary and Joseph were traveling at Christmas, you know? It was such a fun conversation about taxation and the Romans and tax collectors and then also about equal representation in government…I’m sure they soaked it all up like the little sponges they are.
Then we rounded up every single stuffed animal in the house and counted them. They were also sorted according to species, original owner, and current owner. Yes, some were classified as “disputed ownership.” It was so much fun to play with the data and make graphs to see how many of which type of toy we have most of and which kid has stolen inherited more toys than anyone else (spoiler: it’s the youngest). The kids all loved this activity and it was such a fun real-life connection to the nativity story.
So, that’s the Advent Round Up. I’m sure I’ll have hundreds of other thrilling ideas for you, but this is already longer than Ann Voskamp’s daily emails, so I must be stopped. If you’re one of the two people who made it this far then I say to you, “Hi, Mom and Dad! Yes, it’s still snowy, but we’re safe. At time of publication, we still have power despite the snow storm. Talk to you soon!”