Advent: The Best Gift

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“For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6 

This morning we were surprised by rain yet again. I heard it as I huddled in the candlelight of my increasingly cramped closet. Bags of unwrapped presents are stuffed in corners here and there, but I was snug there in the light of my little tabletop tree. I marveled at the wonderful gift I have had, the past three days off work have been peaceful and stress free. I still have two more left.

Outside, there is a world full of war and by the look of the people in the mall yesterday and the day before, a world full of stress, and expectation, and some debt to go along with it. There is strife and rushing to meet a deadline…..deadlines for decisions, deadlines at work, deadlines to meet Christmas.

But here in this quiet place, I cup my coffee in my hands and I thank Jesus for always bringing me joy in the morning, whatever doubts and worry might visit me in the wee hours of the dark. He always brings me fresh hope. The same hope that was born in that stable so long ago.

He came quietly into the night and settled into our world almost unnoticed, kind of like this little snowflake. There are so many, you see. It’s easy to plow through them when they are all stuck together, but when they separate you notice the hand of the grand Artist at work. The brushstrokes of His genius are everywhere.

But they came embodied all in one little human that night in the stable.

He’s all grown up and back at Home now.

But still giving me all the Hope I need still my time on this earth is finished and He calls me home.

Outside there is a lot going on.

Here not much, just a little hollowed out place He can call His own. Just for a little while longer, I will watch my candle flicker and wait.

A few of my favorite things......

Advent: Who or what is overshadowing you this Christmas?

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Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.…Luke 1:34,35

So the question remains: Who or what is overshadowing you this Christmas? Have you made way for the Holy Spirit, believing like Mary that God can overshadow your circumstances whatever they are? Are you willing to partner up with God and create a miracle, even in the midst of an ordinary life?

This Advent as in all others, I go back to those supernatural events that happened, and I marvel and wonder right along with Mary. When you think about it, what happened to Mary is what happens to all of us when we become believers. We step out in faith even though we aren’t sure how it’s all gonna work, we know somehow that God will pull it off.

And that is the hope and reality of what Christmas is, that against the dark backdrop of our lives God came in the flesh to flip the switch on the light that no man or circumstance has the power to snuff out.

Too much of my year has been spent in doubt and uncertainty and fear. Too many times I have failed to remember what a Big God I serve. I have forgotten that God has taken up residence in my own temple of this body. In light of that, what event in life could ever eclipse that Light? Thankfully, He knows how weak I am and loves me anyway. Each day I am bowled over by His incredible mercy.

Yesterday morning, the events of the past few weeks finally caught up with me and I had a bit of an insane moment. My Mom falling while I was there and then having Elaine’s Mom die while I was away and knowing she had to deal with that alone, and then being afraid my Mom would fall again or further injure that arm culminated in me attempting to sing all four parts of Handel’s Messiah on my morning commute.

If I had a video of it, it would have gone viral, I am sure. I proceeded to butcher all four parts and screech my way through the Christmas portion. And it was done in love because I have had a passion for that piece of music ever since I can remember.

By the Hallelujah chorus (when the audience traditionally and appropriately stands to its feet) I was in tears.

I was thinking about how the night before I had watched 20/20 and they showed footage of how Isis had gone into these Christian towns and torn down the crosses. I saw the statues topple and the churches desecrated and the Bibles blackened and it sickened me, but then as I listened to the music, I got another vision. That of Christ coming in the clouds.

The first time He came in the weakest, most vulnerable form possible. He died the same way, but He arose victorious and with power. He will come back the same way. And though Mary had to deal with the sorrow of losing her son, she also saw His victory in the end.

And the victory belongs to us all…….and nothing and no one in this life has the power to dim that great hope. Not even death or taxes.

Death has been swallowed up in victory for one more year……….

 

The Elusive Elf

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Usually it’s the red and green sprinkles I can no longer find on the shelves. Of course, I could buy them early when I actually see them everywhere but that would be too easy. Instead I ransack my shelves at the last-minute and usually turned up every pastel color in the universe, but nary a red or green in sight. It’s my own fault.

This year it was that pesky “Elf on the Shelf.” A few weeks before Christmas he peered at me from every shelf in every store, peeking down mischievously from the box he was nestled in. Wal-Mart, Walgreen’s, Costco, Kohl’s. And I saw him on other people’s Facebook walls. He was everywhere. Of course, I wasn’t looking for him……then.

Then, the other night, Elaine said she wished she would have got one for the kids on her bus. “Well,” I said, up for the adventure, “We’ll just pop into Walgreen’s on the way to the gym and pick one up.” No problem. We made a sweep through the store in our workout wear expecting to pick one up and dash out the door. But nary an elf did we find.

“Let’s try Wal-Mart,” she said. “Surely they couldn’t be out.”

A few sweeps through that store took a while longer. Earlier in the week she had made the mistake of mentioning it to the kids on her bus and each day since they had boarded the bus with their eyes peeled in eager anticipation of finding it. How could she disappoint them now?

The closest thing we found at Wal-Mart was a hard plastic version which was not satisfactory. At this point we were almost ready to find a knockoff version that looked similar. Or maybe a red sock with a face drawn on it. I did however, find some red and green sprinkles which I picked up and put back on the shelf. I wasn’t looking for those, after all.

By this time, going to the gym was out of the question. We were on a quest to find the Elf. Earlier that day we had been to Costco and they had the whole Elf kit, the one that came with the book and the puzzle. But we didn’t want the whole kit, we just wanted that wee little stuffed figurine. After we struck out at Wal-Mart, we decided to cast our net a bit wider and go next door to Kohl’s.

But nary an Elf could be found. He remained absent. I began to feel like he was laughing at us from the top of whatever shelf he might be hiding on. He was now known to us as the “elusive Elf not found on any shelf.” I was beginning to hear a rhyme in my head that ran like a Dr. Seuss book.

We ran here and we ran there, but so far he wasn’t anywhere. Not on the shelf not on the chair. Not anywhere.

As we drove out of the parking lot I said, “We are going to Costco aren’t we?”

“You bet.” She said.

We bought the whole kit and caboodle, the book, puzzle, game and of course the Elf himself. And I got some walnuts which I was too cheap to buy earlier in the day.

And I am happy to say it was well worth it. The first little girl on the bus shrieked as she saw him in his hiding place where he rode part of the route strapped to the top of the first aid kit. It was all great fun. Anytime you make a child happy it’s a good day.

Sometimes it really is the little things to them that mean the most. Knowing someone cares enough to have a little fun along with them makes all the difference in their world. Make a kid smile today, you’ll be glad you did.

For such is the Kingdom of Heaven.

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Elaine

I’ve never thought about how it would feel to have a Birthday on Memorial Day but she takes it in stride, happy for a day to celebrate both. Last night as we were watching the Memorial Day concert hearing about all those tearful testimonials, she looked over as I grabbed yet another tissue and said, “They died, you know…..so we could be here, doing this, enjoying life, being free.” Yes…..they did. So today as we celebrate them, I will also celebrate my best friend whose Birthday it is today.

She hasn’t had an easy week. The school schedule was crazy and she stayed late helping another lady with her bus at the end of the shift. By the time the day was over she was fatigued and ready for it to end, but then the care home called and she went by to check in on her Mom and ended up staying there for 3 hours, and taking she and one of the aides out to dinner. A long story goes with it but suffice it to say, by the time she got home she was spent.

My friend, Elaine spends a lot of time sacrificing for others. She may not be in the military, but she gets up each day with her boots laced and polished, as ready as any person in combat has to do. The fight or flight instinct kicks in early when you grow up with an abusive older brother and that never really goes away.

Even so, somehow she remained ever joyful, ever hopeful for things to change. She was the kid who got to know all the neighbors and did their lawns in the summer.

Much was expected and not much was returned and yet she is one of the most positive people I know and the most fun to be around. She’s one of those people who bring a party wherever she goes. If she’s in a room, you know it by the laughter that erupts soon after. She truly is a people person, and they know it.

Strangers tell her things and old people and kids gravitate towards her. Every Thanksgiving she ends up helping some older lady pick a Turkey out of the bin.

This kind of thing happens all the time. I will ask her about someone she talked to for 15 minutes and she will tell me all these incredible details about their life, in addition to what kind, make, color of car they drive, how many kids they have and what illness or heartache they are currently dealing with. And she doesn’t even pry, they just tell her voluntarily. She has one of those faces you trust.

She is a truly unique individual and I mean that in the best possible way. She is a fixer of people and things and she never likes to throw anything away if it can possibly be salvaged. She is always saying, “I can fix that.”

And usually always, she can.

So today, it’s a privilege for me to celebrate her life and her Birthday. She may not have ever been in the military, but she has fought many battles and won. And my wish for her today is that she would see herself how God sees her and know just how much He loves her and celebrates her too!

Happy Birthday, Elaine. You are a blessing to all who know you.

Another slice please……..don’t mind if I do.

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Trip continued from yesterday……..

The next morning I was like a little kid, hyper and chomping at the bit to get down to the ocean because, well….the water was so close! I have never lost my excitement at getting that first glimpse of the water, it’s tied to so many good memories I have as a kid, and each time is magic, but breakfast was included in our stay and more importantly, I was in dire need of coffee.

As you can see, I fell in love with how the light was streaming in the morning windows…….and the coffee was much to my satisfaction. I had a feeling, since the night before, Nashua had shared with us that she enjoys a good cup of Turkish coffee. Somehow I knew it would be strong enough to stand up to my specifications and I was not disappointed.

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We were ushered to a table and given fresh orange juice, and a wonderful frittata filled with cheese and potatoes with a side of sausage and fresh fruit. It was all excellent and it tempered my anxiety about getting on the beach enough that I could sit and enjoy it, as well as take a couple of pictures.

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After that, a long walk on the beach was in order. We watched dogs play and collected some interesting rocks along the shore. The weather couldn’t have been better and that added to the almost surreal atmosphere. It was like God’s stamp of approval on the day. Having spent many cold and foggy days at the shore, I was ready for anything.

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When we came back we headed up to the rooftop again, since we had only seen it at night before. The view from the rooftop was stunning……….It is definitely yet another selling point to this Hotel. Unfortunately, the only photo I got was with my iPhone and it wasn’t very good, however you can check out the Hotel website, where you may be able to see it.

Another benefit of staying in the smaller Hotels is the people you meet. I have already told you about Nashua, but we also met a very charming young gentleman named Lance who also is employed by the Hotel. He was very well spoken, with an unbridled enthusiasm for life that was catching. He poured us each a glass of wine and the four of us talked together in the lobby for a very enjoyable hour or so and I never got the feeling they were merely being polite, they were really interested.

We also met a couple from Brisbane, Australia, both very friendly, celebrating their anniversary. They asked for a recommendation for dinner and we gave them the name of the place we were going to right down the Pier, the Sandbar Grill, a local hangout which was excellent. We ended up seeing them come in as we were finishing up. As we left they were getting on very well with the couple beside them.

Unfortunately I never knew quite what he said because his accent was so thick and he talked so fast, we never understood a thing he said. He sounded a lot like “Gimli” from Lord of the Rings. We nodded back and forth a lot. Fortunately, we understood his wife quite well so that helped.

We also met a very interesting lady named Rika, who is a film set designer in LA. She talked to Elaine quite a bit, being interested in just about everything. She wanted to know how long she had been driving her motor home.

She had an elegant, yet understated and humble way about her. Graceful in the way that always makes me feel somehow lumberous and awkward, while not meaning to. She is also part owner of two restaurants and I love the name they chose: Can’t Fail Cafe.

We were thinking of heading out after only one night but we were so captivated by Hotel 1110 that we had to stay another night and I am so glad we did. It was a great send-off to the rest of our trip along the coast. We ended up meeting up with Rika again at Phil’s for lunch before we all went our separate ways. Phil is famous for winning a throw-down against Celebrity Chef Bobby Flay for his Cioppino.

Hotel 1110 was a delightful surprise and I think I can speak for both of us when I say that we will be back this way again someday. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

A Perfect Slice of Time

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E. drove furiously into the night as we mapped our way to the exact address of Hotel 1110 on the Pacific coast. We were under the gun. The ad on the internet said the Hotel doors would be locked at 10 and it was fast approaching 9:15 when we finally called to make sure someone would be there to let us in by 9:30. The accented voice on the other line assured us she would be.

I made a couple of mistakes navigating, which made for a few stressful moments, and the first time we drove right past it. We had to drive up quite a few blocks before we were presented with an opportunity for a U turn.

“Is that it?” I said.

“I’m not sure, do you see a place to park?” She asked.

We drove back into a narrow little alley that opened into a few spaces, but we weren’t sure it was the right place so we went back out and found a place on the street. We were beyond ready to settle for the night. Past ready to start a much-needed overdue vacation. Ready to feel once again the healing properties of the ocean.

Despite our initial trepidation at the parking situation, once we entered the foyer of this captivating place, any misgivings we might have had were laid to rest. And when we met the charming innkeeper, who made us feel at home and instantly welcomed we both breathed an inward sigh of relief.

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She checked us in and with a charming Lebanese accent introduced herself as Nashua. Gazing around, already eager to run upstairs and let my camera out of its case, I felt like I had stepped into another era. It was part Victorian, part Bohemian with a splash of old west Bordello thrown in, but very tastefully so. We gratefully accepted our keys and stepped up wonderfully creaky stairs to a hallway that I imagined held hidden passageways and doors that led to secret rooms.

We abandoned the elevator after the first time because it was so slow, but to me that only added to the charm. Our room opened with a real key and once inside, we were greeted by Audrey Hepburn who seemed to approve and who could ever argue with her?

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“This is awesome,” I said, “Just like one of the places in my dreams!” I often dream of old buildings and long passageways and doors that lead to stairs and narrow alleyways. I instantly yielded to the adventure this was turning into.

The windows cranked out revealing a neighboring view you might see in an old Alfred Hitchcock movie. Amidst the late night traffic noise, we heard the unmistakable sigh of the sea and the barking of seals.

Vacation had truly begun.

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Join me tomorrow as I continue our adventure, won’t you?

Hot Chocolate and “Morrie”

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 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 2 Corinthians 4:7-9

I awoke early this morning, my usual time……3:00 AM. Lately, that’s my hour. Most of the time I can go back to sleep, many times I just pray until I can. There was no sound, I was once again settled back in my own bed after spending some much-needed time with my family. My mind felt like a clenched fist, tight and unyielding. Refusing to let go and release the thoughts that were zooming around, bouncing off the sides and back of my head resulting in a dull ache.

I breathed the first lines of the 23rd Psalm. Life really begins and ends with this one line:

The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want……..

A cup of hot chocolate sounded unbelievably good which surprised me. I am not a hot chocolate drinker, but I got up and made myself some. And it was just what I needed. I also opened “Tuesdays with Morrie,” which I had started before I left. It seems everyone in the world had read it except for me. It was the book that catapulted Mitch Albom to the top of the bestseller lists years ago and I heartily recommend it if you are one of the few like me who read all his other books except that one.

The chapter I read, Morrie was talking about family and what it means to have someone always watching out for you. He talked about people who stay, that family is not only about love, but about “letting others know there’s someone who is watching out for them.” Morrie knows the importance of this because he doesn’t have long to live. At the time of the interviews by his former student, Mitch Albom, he was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease.

I was thinking about all this in light of my trip home.

How blessed we are if we have someone in our life who will not leave. Knowing for better or worse they have our back and our best interests at heart. To be willing to say even the hard words that need to be said. To be willing to be disliked, even, in the name of love. That’s what real love is. Speaking the truth in love even when it hurts you more to say it.

As we got in the car to leave for the airport yesterday, I gripped the hands of Mom and Dad to say a prayer and found that tears had taken all my words. The moments that twist you inside out are when your Mom says that she has loved you more in the last year than at any other time, and you didn’t even know that. Finally, I squeaked out….”Sometimes the best prayers are the ones without words.” We all nodded as we wiped tears.

And even though they want me more than anything to be there always, Dad says he’s glad that “I can go back to my life, away from this chaos.” He knows how I love order, structure. And he knows the value of having a good job. He respects me for that, even though it means I leave and can’t be there more to help.

Even though it’s their loss, they are happy for me.

It pierced my heart when he came out limping when I drove him to Flame Market on the corner to get gas. I thought, “Someone else should be doing this for him.” It’s hard when Superheroes show signs of mortality, when they can’t do the things they used to. When you know how hard it is but you know they are going to do it anyway.

As I laid the book down and drowsed off again, I prayed the same prayer I pray every New Year. That the Lord will hold them all in the Palm of His hand until I can go back again.

How blessed I am to come home to a freshly washed car and a clean house, the decorations just like they were when I left. It took my breath away all over again. It’s good to be there, but it’s good to be here.

Thank you Elaine for doing all you do.

Thank you God, for what you will do in the coming year. Every New Year holds promise because of You.