When December Slips Away

“The season comes but once a year. A gift of precious wonder. For all who hold it dear. But past the sights. And colored lights. Lord, far beyond December. I will remember. ”

Bonnie Keen and Lowell Alexander

“And let us not be weary in well doing:” Galatians 6:9

Last week, a friend stopped by with her toddler to pick up a tray of cookies.  We visited for a few minutes and then I shared with the little girl that we had three “mismas” trees.  Friends, please understand that, despite my excess in Christmas decorations, only one of these trees is a main tree.  Her eyes sparkled with delight as we went on a journey to explore the Christmas trees.  Her eyes lit up as her tiny hand reached out and set the little bells on the silver tree tinkling.  The metallic green tree in the corner sparkled under her touch.  We also had fun looking at the Santa Claus in the bathtub on the big tree, bouncing the rubber ducky.  Then she sat on her mother’s lap, devouring a cookie with pure joy, chocolate smeared on her face and her eyes dancing with delight.

They were only at my house for half an hour, but those thirty minutes were a breath of fresh air.  They reminded me of what was really important for the season.  They also brought back memories of Christmases past when I felt pushed, hurried, hassled and stressed by the season.  These past Christmases were not my “Shiny Bright” moments, when I let the chaos rule me and, in turn, stressed out my husband.  Yet, I’m so thankful for a wise husband who spoke truth into my life and challenged me to keep perspective.

My story is probably one that a lot of us share.  As Christians, we are admonished regularly to keep Jesus at the center of the season.  We are encouraged to not focus on the commercial aspect, but rather on showing appreciation and creating meaningful traditions with our family.  I truly believe in these principles, yet, even in our attempts to do well, we can lose sight of the reason for the season.

I was a young mother trying to take advantage of all the amazing Christmas experiences my Wisconsin hometown had to offer.  Every available moment was packed with experiences, visiting the Festival of Trees, reading the stack of Christmas books from the library, and sipping hot chocolate while decorating gingerbread houses.  In the midst of all of this, I wanted to carry on the tradition of my mother-in-law by making tons of Christmas cookies and candy to share with family and friends.

One Sunday afternoon, while my kids were napping, I was exasperated and tired.  Yet, I had the cookie list and was determined to bake at least one batch of cookies between Sunday services.  My husband was napping on the couch while I was laboring over sugar and flour.  I don’t know what exactly happened.  I can imagine I made a lot of loud noise, slamming cupboard doors and pans on the table while huffing and puffing.  I can imagine that I made some not so subtle remarks under my breath.  At any rate, all the clatter woke my husband and words were exchanged.  The last thing my husband said to me really made me take notice.  “If all this baking is going to cause stress in our lives, then throw out this tradition.  It’s not worth ruining our Christmas!”

That statement startled me and forced me to reevaluate my attitude.  No tradition, no matter how good it may seem, should cause you to be stressed.  Baking the cookies and giving trays away to friends was a good deed, but if it caused my spirit to be bitter and neglectful, my gift was the same as a lump of coal.

Ann Voskmap wrote in The Greatest Gift, “You are most prepared for Christmas when you are done trying to make your performance into the gift and instead revel in His presence as the Gift.”  As a Christian, I need to spend time being in His presence, not neglecting my devotion time.  I need to spend time worshiping God as the shepherds did when they saw the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes.  I need to offer my best gift to Jesus just as the wise men offered gold, frankincense and myrrh!

This year, I happily baked cookies as I have in the past.  I had three days of baking in which I referred as my “cookie-palooza”.  Despite being covered with flour and unwrapping lots of Hershey Kisses, I did the baking with joy.  I spent time listening to some Christmas messages by various ministers and, like Mary, pondering in my heart the meaning of Jesus’ birth.

Christmas should be a time of creating memories, spending time with family, and keeping Jesus at the center.  It has been my intention to keep this focus every year.  I have failed at times, but when I feel like I am getting caught up in the chaos, I remember my husband’s admonishment.  I then take a deep breath and try to keep everything calm.

This year, I spent time with the people I love the most, created memories, laughed and ate the cookies I labored over with love.  Even as December slips away, I hope to keep my priorities straight and focus on what is important.  I hope all of you had a Merry Christmas and are looking to forward to ringing in the New Year!

“Oh Holy Night”

“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” Ephesians 2:10

Thanksgiving is over and the Christmas season is in full swing.  My mind is dancing, not with sugar plums, but with lists of things that need to be done; including presents to wrap, cookies to bake, cards to write, people to visit and traditions to keep.  One of my favorite parts of the season, unlike the Grinch, is the noise, all the Christmas music playing endlessly in my home.  Next to setting up our Nativity scene, I love to gather all the CDs (I know, I’m old school), and place them in the special box under the tree.  Daily, I pick out a few CDs and savor the music as I am going about my daily business.  Even now, I am listening to the Rat Pack croon “Baby, Its Cold Outside” and “It’s a Marshmallow World”.

I love to sing!  I love to belt out tunes and sing to music playing.  I love to sing to children and sing to the radio.  I love show tunes and worship music.  I love to sing in the car and in the shower.  I especially love Christmas music, singing along with Amy Grant’s “Sleigh Ride” and Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”.  Unfortunately, I came to a realization years ago that, despite my love for singing, I have a terrible ear and I am completely tone deaf.  What may sound pleasant to my ears can cause others to cringe, cats to yowl and dogs to howl.

Now, for those of you who have never heard me sing, you might be saying to yourselves, “Sherry, don’t be so hard on yourself, I am sure you are not as bad as you make yourself out to be.”  I will be the first to argue with you and offer anecdotal evidence that will prove to you exactly how awful I am.

The first piece of evidence I want to share is from when I was nine years old in a Sunday school class taught by my Aunt Brenda.  She had put together a beautiful Christmas program climaxing with an incredibly talented group of young girls angelically harmonizing the song “O, Holy Night”.  I can imagine my aunt being inspired by the virtuous voices vocalizing “O, night divine” and then hearing one voice croaking the same words to a totally different tune.  I can imagine that each time we practiced the song she secretly winced because one voice was ruining the ethereal effect.  After a few times, my aunt asked me to maybe sing a little softer.  As hard as I tried to oblige, I kept getting caught up in the lyrics, gradually getting more zealous and sounding more unpleasant with each note.  Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore, and asked if I wouldn’t mind mouthing the words to the song.  This was my first clue I couldn’t sing.  Please don’t think badly of my aunt, she encouraged me in so many other ways.  She just recognized I couldn’t sing.

Amazingly, this didn’t discourage me and I continued my ill-fated vocal journey.  I joined chorus in Junior High School.  I was so excited after my failure to learn the clarinet, and I had such a desire to perform that I thought choir was going to be a place I could shine.  I was assigned to the alto section and often my chorus teacher would stand next to me trying to teach me the alto part, eventually also remarking that I should sing softer.  I sort of recognized that I couldn’t sing, enough to know I shouldn’t try out for Swing Choir, but I still believed I was improving.  Then came the school Christmas program, you know the one that you practice for weeks and invite parents to see.  The chorus teacher approached me and asked if I wouldn’t mind doing the speaking part between the songs.  I felt so honored and I was excited!  I would be acknowledged in the program as the speaker and would wear a special elf hat to distinguish me from the rest of my classmates.  She then told me that since I was speaking, I would just stay in my spot and not sing.  My enthusiasm blinded me to what my teacher was trying not to say.  Years later, I had an epiphany that the real reason she gave me the speaking part was to stop me from singing.  I am sure she winced just as my aunt had years earlier.

By the time I became a mother, I had recognized that I couldn’t sing.  Other evidence I can present includes my talented husband, who happened to be the church choir director, didn’t encourage me to join the choir, but instead asked me to be the choir babysitter.  Probably the strongest evidence was when my five-year-old son admonished me saying, “Mama, I don’t think that’s how the song goes”.

I have presented my case, and now you can agree with me that I can’t carry a tune.  Despite my love for music, I have accepted this fact and it has not harmed my self-image.  I truly believe we all have different gifts and talents.  I might not be able to sing or play an instrument, but I do have other talents.  It is my responsibility to develop my talents and gifts and use them to benefit my family, my church and my community.

At the same time, I also think it’s important to work on developing new talents and skills, even in the middle of your life.  The old adage, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, is just an excuse to be stagnant.  Lately, I have read a lot about brain development and I believe it is important for me to be constantly exploring and developing new skills at my age.  I can still create new neural pathways in my brain by learning and practicing new skills.  This will help me stay sharp as I age and lessen the risk of developing dementia.

A few years ago, I attended the annual Pennsylvania Ladies’ Conference.  After almost nineteen years of being a stay-at-home mother and home educator, I was struggling with what my new role in life should be.  I was incredibly blessed to hear the wise Sis. Janet Trout speak.  If you’ve never heard her speak, I challenge you to find her on YouTube and listen to her.  She is a classy, dynamic woman who is driven to bless the kingdom of God.  She was around eighty years old at the time of the conference and was sharing with us her vision for ministry.  She said as you get older, you need to choose how to use your time more wisely, but still be growing.  She practiced this in her own life by going back to school and earning her PHD in her seventies.  Her message resonated in my life, breathing direction and fresh ideas for me to explore.  Writing this blog was only one idea that was birthed by her message.

As the year 2020 approaches, I want to continue to grow as a person.  I want to continue to improve my writing and I am currently working on a book about restoration from my childhood abuse.  I want to explore sketching and try my hand at embroidery.  I may find that my embroidery skills rank in the same category as my vocal talent, but it doesn’t hurt for me to attempt.

I still cannot sing, and will never be asked to be a praise singer in my church.  Nor should I ever volunteer to sing a solo for a Christmas program.  I will continue to sing Christmas music unabashedly in the privacy of my home, even if my husband secretly winces.  More importantly, I will remember that I am “his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works”, and I will develop the gifts God has ordained in me!