Sunday, December 26, 2004

Christmas is all in the heart...

the "Girl Scout" ornament Posted by Hello

No philosophy or theology today...simply images of our Christmas, past and present...the ornament that one of my sisters made in Girl Scouts probably 3 decades ago (Sue and Sandy both think the other one made it!)...the wafer-thin slice of Corelle, with the words "Home Sweet Home" laser-cut in the center with incredible precision, back from when Sue & Sandy visited the Corning glass works...ornaments of glass and wood and Hallmarkian characters...they adorn our Christmas tree, and the memories of our Christmases past.

the Corning ornamentPosted by Hello

Christmas has gotten a little complicated, as we have gotten older. Sandy and Sue both have in-laws that require time and energy, which means that "our family" (the three of us) sometimes have to work around (or share time with) those folks. This Christmas Eve, Sue's mother-in-law came to visit their new condo for the first time, but she had to be back at the nursing home by 8:30; Sandy's husband Dave was working in Findlay (an hour away) until dinner-time. So we ate with Sue's husband Jeff's family at 5, Sandy and Dave got there later...and the food and conversations just continued on. As we talked, and watched Christmas movies, and ate our traditional pulled-pork sandwiches and jumbo shrimp (and way too many sugar cookies), the ornaments looked over our shoulders from the tree - reminding us both from whence we have come and the history that we share.

Today, Christmas Day, sister Sue had to work (she's a pharmacy tech at a local hospital) and Sandy was with her husband's family. So we had dinner with Sue's in-laws (sister-in-law Chris makes a killer batch of kielbasa and cheesy-potatoes), and their family opened presents from each other. Then Sue had to go back to work at 11 PM, so Jeff and I came home, and here I am at the very end of Christmas day, reflecting on the day.

Tomorrow, we will let Sue sleep for a few brief hours, and then drive down for brunch to Findlay, just to be together as a family. With the exception of a couple aunts (each several hundred miles away) we're all that remains of our family...Dad died in 1978, and Mom in 1992. So we will gather, and spend time together, even if only for a little bit. And for the second year in a row, we will have a Christmas celebration unlike almost any others in our community...

...because this year, there will be no gifts exchanged between my sisters and me.

I know, I know - it's un-American, isn't it? How will the world's greatest economy survive if we don't do our share to make sure Wal-Mart, Target, Kohl's and Best Buy have a banner year? Nope...sorry. We've opted out of society this year. Sandy is still a little nervous about her job situation; Sue and Jeff are struggling to recover from the expenses of moving and a new condo; and I'm an under-employed former seminary student who's still without health insurance. So when one of the sisters proposed it (I don't remember which one) it was easy to agree. No shopping. No packages to wrap. No immense amounts of money spent on just the right kind of wrapping paper and coordinating ribbons and bows (another long-standing family tradition). Just two sisters, their two husbands and one brother, and a very untraditional brunch in Findlay and some time together as family.

Several people have asked..."How did you manage to DO that?"

Well, to be honest, like so many things, I didn't "see the light" - I "felt the heat." I think if I'd still been employed, I probably would have kept on trying to spend my/our way to a happy holiday....even if I'd had to do it myself. I am not nearly as virtuous (or as un-materialistic) as I would like you to believe I am. But I'm grateful it's happened, nonetheless... because it has forced me to look hard at the gifts I already have.

Earlier today, I heard from a dear friend of mine from Kansas who said to me, "I made out like a bandit yesterday." I was happy for her, but I also had to admit to myself (AND to my friend) that I have been making out like a bandit for years!

Take family, for instance. For 12-1/2 of the last 14 years, I lived 750 miles from my sisters, and would only visited them twice (maybe three times) each year in that decade-plus. [If they had been potted plants, they would have died of neglect!]

But for some reason, they still love me - and still eagerly welcome me into their homes, and anticipate the times when I can come back to Toledo. They are concerned when I travel (Sue and I talked a couple different times as I drove through the winter storm Wednesday night), and they are glad when I am "home" safe (wherever "home" seems to be at the time). I have met all kinds of people (through church, Alpha groups and through the recovering community) who would consider my two sisters and their husbands and extended families to be "jewels of great price." My gift, this year, is to be able to agree publicly and wholeheartedly about what a blessing they are, and how much I love them. And my prayer for the year-to-come is this: to commit to becoming the man that my sisters seem to believe that I am.

I'm also grateful for my sister Sue's inlaws, who have welcomed me into their home (and to their holiday table) for a number of years. Ernie, Chris and Aaron: what a gift you have given me, to be welcomed and greeted as family. Your hospitality hasn't done much for my waist-line - but it's been a true gift from God for my soul.

My Aunt Roma, in upstate New York, prays for me daily and writes me wonderful notes and emails, to which I am usually *lousy* in responding. I think that over the years, if I had not been one of her prayer assignments, that I would have been dead - or would have lost faith entirely - a number of times over. Roma can't get out all that much, and has endured more challenges than a space-shuttle launch - and yet her faith endures. When I finally can become the relative (or family member), or the prayer warrior, or the student of the Bible that my aunt Roma is, then I'll know I've accomplished something. She is definitely a gift (and an example) to me!

If a person's measure can be found in their friendships, then I am rich beyond Midas...beyond the Medicis... beyond Donald Trump or any Wall Street guru. If I were to list my friends, you'd be here reading until the time a secure version of Windows comes out. (About 4 hours before the final trumpet, in other words.) With their laughter, tears, emails, phone calls, hugs, and prayers, I have been enriched beyond measure. I would never be able to write enough to thank you, or God, for the blessings each of you have brought to me. What incredibe gifts each of you are to me!

I have been uplifted by both my faith and recovery communities. I am especially thankful to Atonement Lutheran Church, and my friends in several faith communities, who have supported me (spiritually AND financially) as I have journeyed into "the divine madness of ministry" at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC)...and they have carried me through the hard times as I have had to leave that dream, for a time. Thank you for the gift of your trust, your encouragement and your support! You have believed in me a number of times when I was quite willing to stop believing in myself...which is exactly how I understand that my Savior works, too. "Thank you" is way too small a word for folks like you!

A few of the students and faculty at LSTC have remained around me, even after my seminary life has gone "on-hold." To my apartment-mate, Tim (he of long-suffering and enduring tolerance), my spiritual-formation partners Lisa and Barb, and to my recently-engaged friends Mike and Michelle: you each, at some point in this challenging year, have been the hands and feet of Christ in my life. For as long as God allows us to journey together, I will give thanks for the gift of each of you. You each have been much better friends to me than I have been to you.

One of the greatest struggles I've had when I came to Chicago was to move away from the community of recovery which has been my strength and my shield for 12 of the last 14 years. I am ever grateful for the recovering folk in the KC area who have continued to ensure that though I am absent in body, I am not at all absent in the spirit of the fellowship. And I'm very grateful that God has given me the beginnings of a new set of "home groups" and people in the Chicago area who genuinely seem to care. God's gift to me is that wherever I am, I get to "trudge the road of Happy Destiny" together, one day at a time, even when I'm not physically (or mentally) present! I'm also very grateful that the recovering folks in Toledo (who saw me when I was a really desperate case) still can laugh about those days, and remind me from-whence-I-came whenever I visit.

The gift of the blogosphere community - my virtual sisters and brothers in spirit - is one that I continue to open every day. In ways great and small, these talented and Spirit-led people continue to lift me up and kick my butt...which is evidently exactly what I need, and have needed. "I thank my God every time I think of you..."

My greatest gift of all - the gift which makes all this possible - is my faith in God, which (like the Weebles I resemble, wobbled a bit but never entirely fell down). At Christmas, I am reminded again and again that the One who knew of my life as an often-broken, often-failing ragamuffin still sent a Son as Emmanuel - God with us - to redeem me. I know that God (as I misunderstand God, anyway) is one who uses broken tools like me to bring glory to the Kingdom...and trust me, I am aware that just the knowledge of that fact is an incredible gift. What's even better to know is that God's love and calling for me will never change, no matter what people of this world may decide. It seems that I was born broken, in a number of important ways - yet I have God's testimony that I was created and declared "very good." So I'm willing to wear both labels ("broken" and "very good") today. Thank you, God, for this new life and this day. Help me to use them both to Your glory.

It's interesting - if someone were to draw up my financial balance-sheet today, it would be awash in red ink. (I have exactly three signficant assets that are free-and-clear - I'm typing on one, taking pictures with another and driving the third.) Physically, I'd really like to trade this ol' body in on a model that works a greater percentage of the time. And there are still times when I can't help envying the young and the beautiful people in my life, and wishing I were one of foolish as I know that is. Economically, physically, and in appearance, I am not where I'd choose to be, compared with so much of the world.

But in faith, in family, in friends, in community - that is to say, in relationships and in love - I am one of the richest people alive. If I were to shuffle off this mortal coil tonight, I would have 14 years "in the bonus round" - and very, very little of it has been my doing. All of it has been a very undeserved gift...for which I give thanks today.

Oh, yes indeed...this Christmas, I made out like a bandit. No doubt about it.


Peter said...

Don't underestimate yourself as a "fellow traveller", Steve. Certainly on the blogosphere, your words make a daily destination of heart, much character, and not a little wisdom. They reflect quite a person, there.

The best to you in 2005, may it be one of the those "very good" years.


New Life said...

Yes, I would second Peter's sentiments. You bring much to our world here in blogsphere.

I am grateful for you brother.