Lonely in a Crowd

Have you ever found yourself filled with loneliness while you are in a group of people? You look around at those surrounding you, but you don’t connect. You may not have anything in common with others in the room. Or, there may be underlying tensions that keep you separated. This kind of loneliness is difficult at best and isolating at worst.

As I have been thinking about the Christmas story, I began to consider the journey that Mary and Joseph undertook to get to Bethlehem. Usually it is depicted as a solitary and lonely journey: just the two of them traveling on a deserted road. But, this year it occurred to me that they were probably not all alone on that road. The entire Roman Empire was traveling to ancestral hometowns.

About that time Caesar Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Empire. This was the first census when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone had to travel to his own ancestral hometown to be accounted for. So Joseph went from the Galilean town of Nazareth up to Bethlehem in Judah, David’s town, for the census. As a descendant of David, he had to go there. He went with Mary, his fiancée, who was pregnant. Luke 2: 1-5 MSG

It’s quite possible that Mary and Joseph were traveling on a very busy road. There were very likely other relatives making the same trek. But unlike other journey’s that would be made as part of a large family caravan, Mary and Joseph were very alone on this journey. The reason is clear: Mary was Joseph’s pregnant fiancee, not his wife. Her pregnancy was an opportunity for gossip and judgement and maybe some shame and scorn from family members. We don’t really know details, but Joseph’s original reaction to Mary’s news gives us some insight into how this pregnancy was perceived.

The birth of Jesus took place like this. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. Before they came to the marriage bed, Joseph discovered she was pregnant. (It was by the Holy Spirit, but he didn’t know that.) Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced. Matthew 1: 18-19 MSG

As I think about Christmas in 2018, I wonder, how many of us are surrounded by people but still feel totally isolated? There are many things that can contribute to the isolation. The normal tensions that exist within a family unit may result in a feeling of detachment. New family situations that result from death, divorce or a even new marriage may greatly influence the family temperament. A death in the family will make traditions either too precious to forget or too painful to observe. Each family member will react with different expectations or preferences. Melding or ignoring the new needs may create a strong resentment within the family. Divorce always stresses and changes the family dynamic and as a result the holiday season. When anyone within the family gets married, old traditions are stretched and strained. Now there are multiple family traditions and locations to be considered and blended. Seemingly small things like what food will be served, special church service attendance, multiple family gatherings as well the cost of gifts can become contentious. Hurt feelings and blame placing only contribute to feelings of isolation.

As I approached this 2018 holiday season, it was too easy to dread the upcoming holidays. This is just my fourth Christmas as part of a blended family that includes my husband, and our five adult children, two daughters-in-love and a precious grandson. We are still figuring out how to build our own family traditions. Trying to coordinate our blended family plans with their own extended family events can be overwhelming. I love looking for that perfect gift for each person in my family and it gets more and more difficult the older they get. And this year, I determined to enjoy this holiday time. This year, I will give full attention to my family and not be overtaken with self doubt and feelings of failure when I do not meet the expectations of others. I cannot keep everyone happy. That is a choice made by each individual.

This Year, I will focus on the celebration of the birth of my Savior.

“There were sheepherders camping in the neighborhood. They had set night watches over their sheep. Suddenly, God’s angel stood among them and God’s glory blazed around them. They were terrified.

The angel said, “Don’t be afraid. I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: A Savior has just been born in David’s town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master. This is what you’re to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger.”

At once the angel was joined by a huge angelic choir singing God’s praises:Glory to God in the heavenly heights,Peace to all men and women on earth who please him.

As the angel choir withdrew into heaven, the sheepherders talked it over. “Let’s get over to Bethlehem as fast as we can and see for ourselves what God has revealed to us.” They left, running, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. Seeing was believing. They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child. All who heard the sheepherders were impressed.

Mary kept all these things to herself, holding them dear, deep within herself. The sheepherders returned and let loose, glorifying and praising God for everything they had heard and seen. It turned out exactly the way they’d been told!     Luke 2:8-20 MSG


Where Is the Joy?

I admit it, I struggle during the holiday season.  There was at time when I loved getting ready for Thanksgiving.   Planning the perfect meal.  Visiting with family and friends. We even went to the big parade in downtown Houston.   I think I was more excited than my kids about Christmas.   I loved the excitement and the fun of the holidays.  It was a wonderful time.  There are many wonderful memories.

But grief changed all of that.  The idea of planning and cooking became a chore.  So, we started eating out.  It took a few years before I could face putting up a Christmas Tree and even then it was totally different from what had been our “norm”.  Instead of red & green, it was pink, purple and lime green.  We used feather boas instead of tinsel.  It was as far away as I could get from the memories of Christmas’ Past.  I couldn’t seem to entirely enjoy the holidays because I was haunted by what “might have been”.

Three years ago, our holidays changed once again.  We now have a blended family.  We now must consider all five of our kids and their spouses/significant others and their schedules.  They have other interests and families to consider.  It’s easy to get caught up in the frenzy of fighting for time.  And the holiday events become competitions instead of joyful celebrations.  Quality family time is lost in the quest to get to every house and every meal.

Honestly, my response can be much like the toys on the Island of Misfit Toys from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”:  feeling sorry for myself and expecting to miss the fun and excitement again this year.  It’s too easy to  feel that no one cares.  It’s very convenient to focus on “ME” instead of looking at the larger picture.

I’m really trying this year.  I want to be excited about the holidays.  I don’t want family quarrels to overshadow what should be a joyful time.  I don’t need to feel like I’m placing 2nd (or 3rd or 4th) in a competition that doesn’t even exist.  I’m trying to accept that perfection should not be my goal this year.  And, I’m focusing on building special memories wherever  and whenever I am able.  It may be a quiet meal with just my husband on Thanksgiving Day or a bigger, busier meal with most of the crew over the weekend.  Both, are times to create memories.

I know there will still be tender places.  Putting up the holiday village that belonged to my late husband or unwrapping his Santa collection will be bitter-sweet.  I’ve already got a new Santa Ornament to add.   Pulling out the old ornaments from the early days of our children will unlock some emotions, both good and bad.   I’m on the lookout for a 2018 snow globe to add to the collection I began in 2015 on our first Christmas as Mr. & Mrs.  Douglas. And, I’m prepared to accept the critique of “too much purple” on the tress.

This year, the big tree will go up early (at least for me!)  I’m working on handmade angel ornaments for a smaller tree.  I’ve already planned a Holiday dinner for my co-workers and I look forward to sharing our home and hospitality.  Christmas gifts won’t be flashy, but I hope that they meet a need for the recipients.  We will be baking goodies and sharing with the neighbors (and trying not to over indulge in the sweets.)  There will be carols and hot chocolate and I  will try to be present in the moments as they occur.

This year, I will strive to give thanks for the numerous blessing in my life: my family, my job, my home, my church and so many more that I tend to take for granted.  I will try to remember that the excitement of Christmas is not about the gifts we give, but about the love that was gifted to us through the birth of Christ.  I will remember that time spent with our friends and family is precious and not waste it wishing for something different.   This year, I will accept the emotions as they arrive, deal with them and move forward.

This year, I will find the Joy in MY holiday season.

 

So, that was Christmas. . .

It’s December 26th,  the day after Christmas.  Some of us have already gone back to the office.  Others are still enjoying time off.  There are ski trips to take, family to visit, and malls to invade with after Christmas sales and gift cards.  What was the holiday for you?

Because Christmas eve was on Sunday this year, many churches in our area held  Christmas Eve services instead of the normal Sunday morning services.  I was quite happy to attend the service in the morning, but I heard more than a few people grumble about not having an evening service.  I was amazed to hear the grumbling and grousing about it all.  After all, what would it take to do just one little service that evening?  Having been married to a minister for many years and also being an active volunteer for more years than that, let me tell you what that would entail.

For a regular Sunday morning service, the worship team arrives at least an hour earlier than the scheduled service.  And any setup, has to be done even earlier than that.   For the church I attend, the worship team is asked to be on stage by 7:45am and the setup crew starts at arrives begins to unload before 7:00am.  Even in churches that are not “mobile”, the worship leader (or music minister, jack-of-all trades) has to arrive early enough to get the sound system and stage areas setup and to solve any issues that may arise due to damage to said equipment during the previous days.  If there are multiple services, you may have multiple setups to do depending on the location and style of each service.  At my former church, on a normal Sunday, the praise team & band will lead  3 services that cover 2 different styles of music.  By the time you get there at 11:00, they’ve already been going 2 1/2 hours at least.  And there’s always someone ready to complain about the type of music, the speed of the music, the volume of the band or even how involved any of the members seemed to be during the service(s).

So, let’s consider this past Sunday.  There were 3 Christmas Eve services at my church.  Everything was ready to go by 9:00 am.  The videos were ready.  The prelude music was playing.  The donuts and coffee were in place.  All of the lighting was working and every seat in the theater where we meet had a special bracelet that was synced to the music that would be played/sung that morning.  There was a full band, a worship team, a sound & lighting crew.  There was also a kid’s praise team that was choreographed for a Christmas song.  We had a great time and were done by 9:55 am.  The people attending at 10:00 were lined up as we walked out.  There were volunteers busily making last-minute adjustments for the next service and then it began all over again.  And that happened once more at 11:00am.  By the time all three packed services were done and everything put away, the crew and worship team had spent 5 hours preparing and leading.  And that doesn’t count any rehearsal time outside of that Sunday.   They were ready to crash and enjoy their own families after that.

Having been married to a minister for several years and a volunteer for many more years, the holidays add a whole different level of stress.  Families often suffer as Mom and/or Dad are involved in  numerous rehearsals and planning sessions.  Family Christmas celebrations take 2nd place to providing the perfect Christmas Eve  or Christmas Day service(s) for everyone else.   Trying to figure out how to feed grumpy kids on Christmas Eve when you have to be getting everything prepped in the late afternoon and then won’t be done for several hours makes the holidays a bit irksome at times.  And, if you know a minister that has extended family living in another town (or state), you know a minister and family that been forced to drive on Christmas Day to get to celebrate the holidays with family.

I’m not complaining about the years I spent as a volunteer.  Some of the best worship times for me happened during rehearsal and setup before the “real” service.  I just wish people would consider how much work it takes to make it look so easy.  Let your worship team members and leaders know how much you appreciate them.  Maybe you don’t care for the music or the volume, but at least you have the opportunity to worship (and not like it) every week.  Your worship leaders very seldom hear the compliments, but they ALWAYS hear the complaints.

Wishing you a wonderful 2018!  Let’s make it a great year full of joy, laughter and love for our church family.

 

 

Merry What?

It’s December.  Thanksgiving is over and now the countdown to Christmas is ticking away.  I remember the excitement I had as a child as we removed the candy from the Snowman handing my Mother has made.  Everyday, one of us would  untie and remove  whatever sweet was attached and then count how many were left until Christmas.  Of course, I was counting the days until Santa arrived.

When I was older and on my own in Houston for the first time,  I looked forward to the Christmas holidays because I got to go “home” for a few days.  And, I was excited about the gifts I have picked out and purchased for my family with my own money.  There were Christmas parties and decorations all around. I attended my first singing Christmas tree performance.  There was so much to enjoy and  behold.

After I was first married, my husband and I had to figure out our own traditions.  We did Christmas stockings for each other.  And as we had our children, we got to watch their excitement.  My most memorable Christmas was probably when Terry played Santa at on of the local malls.  He so enjoyed visiting with the children and surprising a few of the adults when he called them by name, too.  Our children were excited by the lights and the hoopla, the Christmas programs and the fun.  They took part in searching for the perfect Santa ornament or figure to add to their Dad’s collection.  I watched as they struggled to keep the secret of what was in the package they had picked out just for me.  It was a wonderful time.

Then, death took a huge toll on my holiday excitement.  That Christmas in 2005, I picked out the perfect Santa figure, Santa kneeling at the Manger, and placed it on my husband’s grave site.  There was no headstone.  Just a metal marker and a Christmas wreath my mother had placed there.  I struggled just to make it through the holidays that year.  I wanted my kids to have moments of joy and to forget their sorrow for a bit.  We all tried so hard to just do the normal stuff.  But, there was no more normal for us.

Through the years, we struggled to find our new footing with the holidays.  We put up a tree that was as opposite from traditional as possible:  white with colored lights & purple boas instead of tinsel; orange, pink, lime green and purple ornaments with a large selection of flamingos included.  I would search out the best place to eat out and that would be our Christmas meal.  We spend time with family in Houston and also with my parents in Crowell.   We fell into a rhythm.

I still struggle with the holidays.  Emotionally, it’s still hard.  Now, thankfully, we are part of a blended family.  And while I love it, trying to blend family traditions can be daunting.  Our kids have their own families and in-laws to see over the holidays.  There are grand-parents  that would love a visit.  The sweets and goodies that are expected for holidays are different.  Gift giving is a big area of stress in any family.  How much do you spend?  What should you give? Should we just draw names to make it easier?  Do we open gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day?

Materialism can and does get in the way of so much during the holidays.  I’ve been told over and over that if I keep the reason for Christmas in focus, the other stuff won’t matter so much.  And while I agree with the reasoning, I don’t always see that it works to remove all of the stresses that come with the holidays.  I really try to focus on the gift of Jesus Christ during the Christmas season.  And I have real peace and joy about that gift.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t remove family tension or sorrow completely.  There are people all around us that need to FEEL the loving embrace that represents the Christmas season.

So, I continue to wrestle with my emotions during this holiday season.   I wrestle because I want “Peace on Earth” to be a reality, yet even our own family struggles to keep peace at times.  I struggle to make each person feel special and loved and content throughout the holidays.  I tussle  with my personal desire to be the perfect wife, mom, step-mom, daughter and grandmother and failing at it over and over.  I strive to provide a safe and inviting haven for the Holidays to anyone that would need a place.  I grapple with my inclination to shut myself off from everything and everyone until after the first of the new year.

This is a time of year that can be extremely difficult for many.  Take the time to look around and notice those around you, not just the business of the season.  Notice the widow that is without a spouse to share the joys and who wants to participate in the festivities but just doesn’t know how to do it alone.   Notice the single parent struggling to provide just the bare necessities for the family during the holidays.  Notice that single person that has no family around and sees another lonely holiday as just another day.  The first Christmas I spent as a widow, there was always a place saved at church functions for me at a table with some other widowed ladies. They were older than me, but they “got it.”  They understood and reached out to me in a way that I so desperately needed.  Now is the time to reach out and show the love of Christmas to others.

nativity

Little Baby in the manger, I love you,
Lying there, to earth a stranger, I love you;
Wise men saw the star and answered, I love you,
Shepherds heard the angels saying, I love you.