Christmas came early this year

I have never peeked at my gifts. Ever. Growing up, I knew where my mom hid them, but dared not look. As a wife, my husband and I have our own hiding spots in the house for each other. I stay far away from his.

Why? I’ll answer that question with a short story…

Once upon a time I had a conversation with my mother-in-law I’ll never forget. We were on this very topic, and she unashamedly confided in me that she always peeked at her gifts. She said she was a master at taking a pair of scissors and slicing the Scotch tape, carefully unwrapping the gifts, then taping them back up. No one was the wiser.

By the time she was finished telling me, my jaw hung agape with eyes wide and mind perplexed. I responded, “How could you do that? All the effort someone went to! Haven’t you ever felt guilty?”

Oh boy. There’s the g-word – and my reason why I don’t peek.

As curious as I might be as to what is hidden under colored paper, bows and ribbons, I can’t bear to ruin the surprise factor for the giver. Even though, of course, I know where my husband stashes my gifts, I would never ever peek. I still wonder who is more right – the one who peeks and fakes acting surprised, or the one who doesn’t peek out of sheer guilt.

For the first time, my husband suggested yesterday that we get separate Amazon accounts. Ha! I had to look up an order history for something I ordered recently and all of a sudden an item appeared that looked exactly like what I had hinted to needing (not just wanting). As fast as I could, I closed the window tab and got back to my work. We laughed about it later, but I think he has a point about separate accounts.

This year, however, some Christmas gifts came early. They weren’t delivered by USPS, UPS, FedEx or drone. They weren’t wrapped, hidden or accidentally sent to my email to download and redeem.

Like opening advent calendar windows, a gift here and there has surprised me amid this bustling Christmas season. I’d like to share them in hopes other people have received something similar. I have to admit, in a season of giving (which we love) I have abundantly enjoyed receiving these personal presents –

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This soup starter was made by a 2nd grader named Katy. It was given to our widow friend, Ms. Betty. My husband and I took Ms. Betty to our church’s annual widow’s Christmas luncheon. It’s always a great time. I get a real kick out of these ladies. This year, I came with a heavy heart. I feel like my heart has been turned inside out, stepped on and wrung dry these last months. As I sat at a table adorned with a crisp white tablecloth, evergreen and candles, I looked around the room at women whose silver hair complimented the gold glow of the candles. I thought about all they’ve endured. I thought about their loss and legacy. I asked one woman if her friend sitting with us had any children or grandchildren nearby. Her response surprised me, “I’m not sure. We ladies mostly rely on each other. For most of us, each other is all we have.”

I love our seniors and believe they have rich experience and wisdom to share – if we’re listening. Usually they keep me laughing, but on this widow’s annual Christmas luncheon, I sat teary-eyed and speechless. I thought to myself that if they can get up every morning so can I. I’m sure many of these women know this familiar pain in my heart. I’m sure they’ve seen more than me. Yet, they continue to find purpose and meaning in each day. They match their shoes to their purse, smell of sweet perfume, and wear a smile that seems to say, “Yes, but I keep on going.” I admire these ladies so much. They are my inspiration. They gave me the gift of hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11) that day. A hope I cling to.

On our way home, our lovely Ms. Betty insisted we take the soup starter home. She said, “You have a family to feed. Me? It’s just me. Take it. I insist.” The gift that keeps on giving. A precious 2nd grader named Katy gifted Ms. Betty and Ms. Betty gifted us. I almost don’t want to use it. Every day, I see it in our pantry and thank God for both ladies, who may be at opposite ends of life’s spectrum, but share the same generous, loving heart.

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Another early Christmas gift was from two different people, and neither of them knew. We were having an extraordinary week of demands and I was trying unsuccessfully to keep the threads of life from unraveling. My mother-in-law was visiting. She’s gluten free. Typically, I like to take on new culinary challenges and treat her to what she may not make for herself. Salmon and broccoli always make the list, but this time I couldn’t even think about meal preparation.

Out of the blue, I received a text from one of my dearest friends saying she had made too much lasagna and would like to bring us the other half. I was so thankful for her random act of kindness to feed 3 teenagers, I quickly accepted. However, my mother-in-law couldn’t eat it. I didn’t know what I was going to do.

As I perused the freezer hoping something would magically appear…something did! We had been at my brother-in-law’s home for Thanksgiving and my sister-in-law packed our cooler with some of the Feast’s leftovers for us to take. Among the turkey, Watergate salad and mashed potatoes was an aluminum pan that didn’t look familiar. The label read, “Pasta.” I texted my sister-in-law to ask her about it, thinking she’d made a mistake and gave me something that should’ve stay at their home. She replied that she meant to because she made it gluten free and thought we could use it.

We went from whatever-you-can-find-to-eat-for-dinner (again) to homemade pasta for everyone from two women whose hearts are richer than their recipes. What a gift!

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Attending our youngest’s band concerts is always fun. I love seeing everyone all dressed up holding their shiny instruments. I feel their nervousness and study their faces of deep concentration reading sheet music, with constant, frantic glances at the band teacher, their maestro, for direction.

In addition to seeing our boy bond with his band friends, we love to watch him play with all his might. One particular piece had his bow tie in a knot. It was a difficult piece in which he led the rest of the band in rhythm. Not only did he play fabulously, my favorite part of the song was when all the music stopped. The song ended and our boy broke out into a huge smile! He was beaming! He is often hard on himself, perfectionist that he is, but even he knew he did a great job on that song. He smiled and smiled and smiled. It was contagious to his mama. My eyes were fixed on our young man who struggles to see what he does right. This was a win for him and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. So thankful God urged me to put down my camera and just enjoy the concert. That was a gift in and of itself.

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Every year our family hosts a charity bake sale (more on that in another post). The sale was over and it was time to count the money. I glanced over at the moneybox and suddenly, as if I were given eyes to see for the first time, I noticed it sat right next to my Bible. Immediately, Matthew 6:24 came to mind, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

I sat and gazed at the two. I thought about the past 10 years we’ve held this bake sale, and how faithful God has been in it. It was a sweet moment of reflection to know that after all these years, the purpose of the sale hasn’t changed. It’s all for His Kingdom work.

It was also a good reminder going into the Christmas season that what we buy for others isn’t nearly as important as Who paid for our ransom from our sin.

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In the middle of an extremely busy day, I whizzed by the doorway to our music room (which in a normal house would be a dining room, but we’re not normal 😉 ). I stopped in my tracks and noticed our little dog. This is the pic I silently snapped. Every day she waits in this chair for the kids to come home from school. How does she know when they are coming? It’s like she can read the sun (or a clock, which is less likely). This is her routine about 15 minutes before they arrive… every day. It’s just so tender to watch. She teaches me patience and that good things are indeed worth the wait. I am thankful God tapped me on the shoulder mid-stride and gave me eyes to see. I need this message at this point in life. Good things are worth the wait.

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Speaking of patience and waiting, as I mentioned before, this has been a heart-testing season. Brutal. Raw. Most days I feel this season will never end. A random Friday had a unique gift in store for me. My girl and I went for pizza and on the counter were free Our Daily Bread devotionals. I took one, and sitting down at our table I flipped it open to try to find that day’s date.

The booklet opened to January 16th.  Is there something special about that day? Nope. However, again with eyes to see, it was like God sent me a message saying, “This season you’re in won’t last forever. Each day feels like an eternity, but it’s not. There will be days past this. There will be January 16th’s, March 29ths, and July 12ths.” Even if not literally, as we are not promised tomorrow, (James 4:13-15) it still speaks to my heart that there is an after, after this season. The ominousness of heartache is all-enveloping. Like a gloomy sky of gray clouds hiding the sun. But, there is still a sun shining above those clouds. It’s still there. Keep looking toward the future. Look past the gray todays. Look for the sun. There is always hope for a better day.

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On a cool Sunday night, we stopped everything, jumped into jammies, snuggled under a blanket and watched the first colorized version of I Love Lucy. Fire crackling. Fuzzy socks. Awesome night. This was the gift of family time. It warms the soul.

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Every Christmas we enjoy baking for neighbors and friends. And just as much as this is a tradition, so is the inevitable question from my family, “Do we get to keep anything?” Many years the answer is no, I guess because I feel like I can make treats anytime – but seldom do thanks to watching our waistlines. This year, I surprised my crew and made a batch of buckeyes just for us. To keep things fair, and to avoid bloodshed, I bagged and labeled an even number of each so everyone can do with their 5 confections as they wish. They were beyond excited and their faces were worth every effort. I wanted to gift them, but they wound up gifting me with their gratitude.

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I’ve coined a phrase for my job every Christmas…I am the Christmas Keeper. Always have been. As a child, I did much of the decorating in our home. I never understood why this was often a solo job. It was very sad, but also very special. From the ceramic Christmas tree that held little plastic bulbs, to fake spray snow (a mess to clean!), to the small brass candle holder with angels and a fan so when the candles were lit the fan spun the angels in a circle, to angel hair (which was basically strands of thin glass and gave me paper cuts every time) used as snow, to our nativity, my favorite. I absolutely loved setting up the nativity every year. It is a mystery as to how I wound up with ours. Once Mom died when I was 16, everything in our home was sold. I can count on one hand what I have left from my childhood, literally. This nativity is a such a gift even though the supporting cast has dwindled over the years. Breaks, chips and missing pieces have left us with just a few figurines. I can’t bear to buy replacements. It wouldn’t be the same.

Each morning/night I turn on/off the nativity. It’s my quiet moment to reflect on the true meaning of Christmas. Perhaps if I had company setting everything up when I was little I wouldn’t appreciate the richness of the task. I am our family’s Christmas Keeper. However, it has been such a joy to see our youngest embrace the special purpose of this task, as he has become the one to set up the nativity. He loves this job. I could help him (not that he’d need it, just for the company), but somewhere down in my heart I am hoping he’ll make his own memories of experiencing the richness of what Christmas is all about on his own, just like I did.

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Friends are a gift anytime of year, and I do NOT take my wonderful girlfriends for granted for a second. They are my heroes, the sprinkles on life’s cake. I have no idea what I’d do without these amazing women who are strong, fearless, tender and compassionate. I count myself exceedingly wealthy in this life because I have the best girlfriends anyone could ask for. We laugh, we cry, we talk, we sit, we walk, we celebrate, we help, we push when needed, we back off when we should, we pray, we endure, we play and we serve together. I love love love them. They are priceless treasures in my heart. Irreplaceable. Incredible. Beautiful inside and out. They have been my lifeline, my prayer line, my patience, my encouragement, and my comic relief. Only with real, true friends can we laugh and cry at the same time. Only with real, true friends can we be ourselves – the good, the bad and the ugly. Their texts, calls, emails, drop-ins and ventures out with me have been my saving grace through the most difficult season of my life. I thank God a million times for them. They are a gift all year round, but especially remembered at Christmas – the season for hope and giving. They are one of my biggest joys and I. Am. Grateful.

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Eight minutes. This was a gift I gave myself. I came to a point one afternoon where I just needed to take a deep breath. Plates were spinning, but in that moment I had nothing more to give the day. So I found a quiet spot, alone, and sat. I sat for eight minutes and did nothing. Absolutely nothing. It was marvelous and gave my body the feeling as though I had taken a restful nap. Too many times everything else takes center stage in my days. Many people can relate. We’re left physically exhausted, mentally frustrated and emotionally spent. I may not get it right often, but for that day those eight minutes were divine.

This is a gift I hope to not only learn for myself, but to pass on to my children. Following the airplane oxygen mask metaphor, I want to teach our children that in the middle of considering others more highly than themselves (Philippians 2:3-4), they are no less important than anyone else.

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This may sound silly to some, but another early gift was breakfast the other day. I am always grateful to have a meal, and am constantly cognizant of those who regularly go without nourishment. This meal was a gift because of what it was. Our daughter made chili the night before for dinner. Pared with sourdough bread and it was a savory meal for a cold night. Sourdough happens to be my favorite type of bread. The next morning, I found myself passing on the fruit and egg whites and staring at the leftover bread. An idea came to me! We had everything needed to make my favorite breakfast. Call me crazy, but a perfect breakfast is: sourdough toast with strawberry jam and chocolate milk. Chocolate milk is the one thing I hope is in heaven. 🙂 But for now in this life, I don’t afford myself these pleasures because this isn’t exactly a breakfast of champions. In fact, I only splurge twice a year with this meal – my birthday and Mother’s Day (when it’s brought to me in bed!).

Throwing caution and calories to the wind, I made my favorite breakfast and enjoyed it all by myself. This wouldn’t count as an early Christmas gift to some, but to rule-followers, and “C’s” like myself (on the DISC scale) breaking my own rules isn’t easy. But, it’s something I’m actually working on in many areas of life. More and more, God is showing me that many of the things that drag me down are self-imposed. I’m not at all saying there shouldn’t be boundaries and a strong moral compass set by the Bible. I’m talking about rules and regulations that I unknowingly adapted and adopted over the years which has only led me into a self-made prison of sorts. A box that tempts me with guilt and shame if I push on its sides. So in the name of calories I limit myself to this meal to two times per year. Doing this for myself this time was indeed a real treat – not solely because of what it was, but because of the freedom I allowed myself, guilt-free.

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Definitely a real treat this month has been baking with our teenage daughter. One day, we spent 12 hours in the kitchen concocting confections for our neighbors and friends. She is an excellent baker and cook. We work well in the kitchen together. We scoured our family cookbook, trying out a few newer recipes as well as sticking with some old favorites. We shopped together – she had her list and I had mine. The best gift in this day was spending the day with my girl. The second best gift was that she offered to cook dinner! So while I was mixing and stirring and measuring she did all of that in addition to cooking dinner from scratch. It was SO wonderful to sit at the table, with aching back and feet, and be served a hot meal. Oh wait! There was a third best part of the day – she also cleaned up the entire disastrous mess we had made that day. A triple blessing!

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I’ll admit, this one is a favorite gift to me throughout the school year, not just in December. Before school, our middle schooler and I often take time to read Jesus Calling over breakfast. Well, I read while he eats. It’s only a couple of minutes, but that is precious time spent with my boy that connects our hearts for the day. We read. We chat. We ponder. Then we bolt out the door! But, for those few minutes life stops. Hearts connect. A prayer is offered. And I can send our boy off to middle school knowing God is with him. I love this gift.

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I had a precious moment recently…our oldest came home from work for a lunch break on Saturday. I was alone doing many household chores. I immediately saw this as a lunch date opportunity with me and my firstborn. Stopping everything, I heated him up some chili and we sat at the kitchen counter and chatted about the day. When we went to leave, he said, “Man, what a great day! It’s grey and drizzly, which I love. I had a hot meal and got to spend it with one of my favorite people in the world.” (she blushes) I will never forget that my 18 yr old son said I am one of his favorites and that he values spending time with me. There is no greater gift he could give me.

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Hands down, one of my very favorite early Christmas presents was a date at Starbucks with my man. On a Friday night, thick in December when many people attend parties, there we were slunk in Starbucks’ comfy chairs talking. Other than us, there was a man at the counter nursing his coffee with briefcase in tow; another man tucked deep in the corner in his sweats working on his laptop; and one other couple with chairs turned for privacy. There we all were. No Friday plans or holiday parties. My man and I loved it. We were able to cover more topics of discussion that had been on hold all week in that evening that would normally take the entire week to dig through.

It reminded me of a time years ago when we had rsvp’d to a Christmas party. The kids were little and sitters broke our bank, thus we didn’t go out much -at all. We left our home that night for the party, but somewhere along the road we got talking about how seldom we actually went on a date. The next thing we know we’re at the movie theater! We totally ditched the party (a large, corproate event) and went to the movies. Our thought was, if we’re going to get all dressed up and pay a sitter, we would rather spend time with each other – coveted time that was badly needed – than attend a party, though we were flattered to be invited (no offense).

Funny part is, on our way out of the theater, we ran into friends who knew we were supposed to be at the party! Embarrassing!! We did what any couple would do – we dodged that bullet with a quick hello and kept walking. We may have been caught, but we weren’t going to confess. Looking back on that stressful time of life with three small children, demanding work and endless other factors of life, I still don’t regret that decision. That spontaneous date night was cool water to a thirsty marriage. And, no one ever even asked us why we didn’t make it to the party so I’m pretty sure we weren’t missed. Ha!

None of these gifts could have been wrapped. They are intangible gifts birthed from an overflowing heart from our Heavenly Father. Moments and experiences that money can’t buy. They are little things that make a big difference, and big things that make a big difference. This gift list could also be called a grateful list. Either way, I am thankful that God made sure I haven’t missed one single blessing that these December days have brought me.

Timeless treasures. Priceless presents. Glorious gifts of love and care.

Never underestimate the power of an unlikely gift, or the purpose for which it is given. It reminds me of a certain child born among livestock who exchanged His crown for flesh, which He voluntarily sacrificed for you and me, so that one day we will share in His glory.

Merry Christmas!

 

 

 

 

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