Monday, December 23, 2013

What you might be missing if you are having a white Christmas

I’ve been tracking with all of the Christmas preparations back in America via facebook and various websites and blogs. I don’t know if it’s just the people I’m following or if the country as a whole is really as high-strung as it seems. If I had to choose one word to describe the general vibe I’m getting about the holidays right now, it would be “survival.” Ten tips for surviving Christmas this year. How to save money these holidays and (maybe) save your mind. Christmas for those who are just making it through. Brimming not with joy and cheer so much as armor and strategy and steel wool.

I do understand. I’ve shed a few tears in the last week myself. Not because of “holiday stress” or anything remotely related to the self-induced frenzie that so many people endure for the sake of cookies and presents and what have you. Instead, I’ve been crying over being sick, over the fever and the barf bucket and the incessant buzzing of mosquitoes threatening again and again. I’ve been pining for an escape – a warm bath, clean toes and carpet and a mommy to tuck me in and bring me sprite. I’ve been mourning the forced end of my nursing relationship with Bronwyn and this new identity crisis as our mother-daughter relationship has suddenly changed.

Sitting, typing, slowly eating a pear and sipping tart juice, devising a strategy against this bush that’s trying to kill me, trying to decide if we can still pull off our Christmas programs with truncated preparation… I too feel like I’m more or less just surviving.  

If I take my cues from the internet, my life-strategy would be to fake my way through, perform my way to perceived perfection, fix my eyes on the deadlines and make it happen, dag nabbit. But something about that just doesn’t feel right. In New York, we always used to comment that Christmas day needed just enough snow to cover the mucky mud and make things look pretty. A blanket of white to give the appearance of pristine and flawless, helping us forget that the ground underneath is an unsightly mess. Given the status updates about pulling Christmas off, it would almost seem that the desire for a winter-wonderland is little more than a projection of many a heart’s desire to appear perfect; the dreaming of a white Christmas is a way of longing for the muck in our own lives to be covered over.

Considering that Jesus will not likely get a birthday cake in our house this year, and I will be coming out of my mosquito net only in between showings of The Nativity at the LRC, and I’m blinking tears every time I look at my baby, I’d have to confess that yes, I wish it would just snow and cover over my own muck. But as I look outside, the lush green grass whispers to me, “it aint gonna happen.”

Trying to put some strength back in my legs the other day, I hauled myself up to the upper field to see the maize. Having just been planted, it’s yet tiny and vulnerable and only the beginning of something productive. I looked at my feet, mud slicked as is inevitable this time of year. My life is a metaphorical mud pit, I whispered, not complaining so much as stating the obvious. And in one of those grace moments where the Spirit prays for us, looking out across the maize, I uttered again. Out of that mud comes new life. A persistent theme for me of late, trying to remember that it’s the yucky, the uncomfortable, the unpleasant, the down and dirty hard stuff of life that provides the hearty soil for life transformation. Frozen and white are beautiful really only to gaze upon, a romantic sham that is actually infertile, waiting for the melting and mud and yuck to return so fruit can sprout once more.  

There is no better time than at Christmas to remember to remember that Jesus came to join us in the muck, not covering over it with a temporary blanket of white, but by burying himself as seed in the dirt, only to push out again and display for us newness of life.

For the maize growers of Zambia, Christmas time is teeming with the promise Christ. Emmanuel, God with us is written on every stalk, every rain drop – every heap of mud. Here we can see it, and smell it, and somehow? Somehow it makes the malaria and the slapped together programs and the forced weaning… hopeful. It’s not pretty, and I drop tears even as I type and remember. But the maize flutters gently and the still small voice whispers Merry Christmas once more.

Merry Christmas from Choshen Farm.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

toys toys everywhere!!!

Back when we were getting ready to leave America with Bronwyn, we were of the opinion that our daughter needed to be like every other child in the village. She didn’t need store-bought toys, things found in nature and fashioned from scraps would do her just fine and probably stimulate her mind even more than Fisher Price ever could. 

But as pregnant parents and later as newborn parents, we underestimated just how easy it would be to acquire toys for our daughter. We found ourselves wanting to buy her things, so fun has it been to express our love for her in this way. We also came to realize how important it is to let the Grandparents do their share of spoiling as well. We all take joy in giving gifts, and when the recipient is a squealy, bright eyed, joyful and bouncy little girl, its even funner. And so needless to say, we’ve lightened up from the days of “She shall play with sticks!” and have carved out space in our home for her plastic, noise making, items of entertainment.

Even though we are far less grinchy in our toy attitude, there are still two concerns that remain with us.

The first is that we really do have a space limitation issue. Unless we want Bronwyn’s stuff taking over our entire lives, the toy collection needs to fit within the natural boundaries of our living areas. Therefore she has two shelves in our house and a similar space at the farm, with allowance for a few toys to float back and forth to the bedroom. Thankfully Grandma has been a big advocate of books and reading – lots of presents to unwrap with very little real estate sacrificed! Perfect! 

Bronwyn gets the bottom two shelves.
Plus some overflow for the popper.

Leading up to St. Nick's day, the gifts lived here. 

The second concern is that our house is truly becoming toy central. This is good in the one sense that we LOVE having neighbor kids at our house all the time. Bronwyn loves having her friends around and it gives us a chance to interact with these little ones on a consistent basis. The potential down side is that we are sending a wrong message to these young and impressionable playmates. You see, the kids who come and play here have ZERO toys at their house. No books. No dolls, and certainly no singing picnic baskets with shapes and colors and a setting for Spanish. I never want any of the kids to be jealous of Bronwyn, but even more, I don’t want them to think, “if only I had all these toys, then I’d be really happy!” We’ve seen signs of great discontentment in the village as more and more media outlets reach this place. People are getting glimpses of the homes and clothing and food in Lusaka and elsewhere and deciding, for the first time, that what they have is not enough. We hear it from the adults, “If only I can get a tv, then I’ll be satisfied.” The comparison game sets in and a new standard for “the good life” gets set and satisfaction in what God has provided ceases to be enough. And our greatest fear with the Bronwyn toy stash is that we are planting seeds of dissatisfaction in the hearts of our most impressionable friends. 

This would have been a thousand times
better with a video, but its a doorway
dance party with the singing orange cat

With every holiday and birthday (yes all whopping two years worth – why does it feel like so much more?) we think about this. The question is always there: Are we creating a stumbling block to joy by communicating that the good life is found in Christ PLUS toys?

We pray not, but fear so. And so as is the case with many things in our lives, we search for that balance and moderation. We don’t want our own daughter to grow up in a legalistic home. Likewise, we shouldn’t take ultimate responsibility for someone else’s idolatry.

Our gut reaction (a well prayed over gut reaction) is to say that our limits have already been defined by the space we have and as we start to exceed that space, items can be shifted out to the LRC where all kids can access them at any time. We’re coming close to that max capacity already in our 256 square foot house, which means by next Christmas, every item unwrapped will probably be matched with an old item shifting out.

The peace of our conscience depends on this moderation; our testimony to the kids of the village and to our own daughter as well matters too much for us to hoard Toys R Us in our living room. We want each of these kids to be free from the love of stuff, and we pray that we always live in such a way that compels people to seek satisfaction in Christ alone.

innocent squeaking barnyard animals? or stumbling block?

What about you? What does your family do about toy accumulation?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Happy St. Nick's day!

We decided to do something a little different this holiday season by celebrating St. Nicholas Day on December 6th! If you google St. Nick’s day, you’ll quickly find all kinds of information about celebrations around the world during which families commemorate the historical figure of St. Nick. As we learned about the kind man who gave anonymous gifts to those who needed it the most, we started to understand the background behind Santa and why he's associated with presents. Also, we watched the Veggie Tales “Story of St. Nick” dvd. Those vegetables should be given the task of explaining all of life’s mysteries to me because I just get them. And in case we needed final convincing that St. Nick’s day deserved our attention, two of the most influential families in our world, the Taylors and the Huddles told us about their St. Nick’s traditions. Both families are awesome. Both celebrate St. Nick’s day. Coincidence? We think not. (I realize I’ve done a horrible job myself of selling St. Nick’s day in this short paragraph. I suppose I’ll have to let google and Larry the cucumber make up for where I am lacking.)

We’ve long felt the tension between proclaiming Jesus as the reason for the season, and yet still following the culture in terms of the presentspresentspresents focus on Christmas day. We have been impressed by the historicity of the story of St. Nick and have appreciated being able to redeem “Santa” and answer the pressing question, “WHY DO WE PUT PRESENTS IN OVERSIZED SOCKS!?!” (Knowing the answer to that question right there made the search for St. Nick totally worth it.)

We have also watched our siblings and friends struggle with wanting to preserve holiday time for their nuclear family and still be a part of extended family gatherings. Shifting the “family time” off of Christmas day and onto St. Nick’s day seems to alleviate a lot of that pressure.

But most importantly for us right now, Christmas day is still about community outreach! We had a full day planned last year and are looking to do the same this year. It was nice to be able to give presents to each other and decorate the house without having to hurry up and go start a program in the village.

And that’s exactly what we did! First of all, can I just share the comparison pics right here – last year vs. this year. Look. At. This. Baby. I can’t even process the metamorphosis that is clearly happing in my child on a daily basis. I practically had to super glue that bow to her head last year. And now? She looks 20. I am not emotionally handling this well. 

1st Christmas

not yet 2 going on 20

Grandma sent presents with the last team that came over. (TSA, bless their hearts, made it possible for Jeremy and I to advance peek into every one before Bronwyn ripped them open.) These are grandma and grandpa’s presents to Bronwyn and one present from mom and dad. I’ll let you guess which ones came from America and which one was wrapped in the bush.

You guessed right. Very clever.

I know I said this last year, but I’ll say it again that IT IS SO MUCH FUN WATCHING KIDS OPEN PRESENTS! Bronwyn was so animated as she read every book individually and chased that crazy orange cat and scribbled on the magnadoodle and beat her drum. And Jeremy and I loved it as much as she did.  We talked about what gifts we’ve received this year and who we should give gifts to, helping them out the same way St. Nick did.

We then took some time to decorate the farm house for Jesus' birthday, which included sifting through a small box of totally random Christmas decorations and haphazardly stringing garland around Melvin the giraffe’s neck. Also, this decorating time started running into nap time which was signaled to us my the incessant gnawing on the Christmas tree and eventual meltdown.  No worries though, because it was still a fun day and we look forward too doing our family present swap this way every year. 

Thats the x-mass tree in her mouth. No need to
comment on my garland draping expertise.
This artful pic is clearly pinable.  

We found out a little too late that our Congolese friends have had wonderful experiences with St. Nicholas’ day. In Lubumbashi, DRC, where these friends are from, the people of the city go all out in terms of giving anonymous gifts to people including chucking small presents at people from around corners and hurling candy out of cars with blacked out windows. I heard about this and immediately said, “JEREMY, we are doing this next year!” And then he reminded me that blacking out the windows on the land rover doesn’t really provide anonymity considering we have the most recognizable vehicle in a 50 kilometer radius. Oh well. I still want to throw candy at kids out of a moving vehicle, even if they know its me. Anyway, now that we have some partners in festive crime, we are gathering all kinds of ideas as to how to make St. Nick’s day even more fun next year!

What about you? Any other St. Nick celebrants out there? What St. Nick traditions do you enjoy? How do your families tackle the “presents” obsession surrounding Jesus’ birthday?