Christmas on the kitchen floor

Trio
The trio of us, now separated by a six hour plane ride with a layover probably somewhere terrible like Dulles airport.

“We should play Christmas music – put on something cheerful,” Aubrey joked. It was the kind of joke that means to be sincere but comes out sounding sad despite itself.

“I have a Christmas station on my Pandora,” I offered up, putting the kettle on as Aubrey started dropping dumplings into a sizzling pan. 

“Put it on,” she said.

“Really?” I asked, surprised that she jumped on my offer. “You know it’s August, right?”

I said it as a formality. I have literally zero problems playing Christmas music during the year – a conviction by which the Mary of three years ago would have been scandalized. 

“Yes, really,” said Aubrey.

The kettle grumbled in its corner and I fetched my laptop. That’s right – not only do I still use Pandora, I only use it on my computer. 

Aubrey put a lid on the dumplings and I started lining up our bowls of instant ramen noodles as sweet tendrils of holiday music filled the air. 

Our ramen collection was quite a haul. Aubrey had never been in a 99 Ranch, which was a serious failing on my part as her older sister and guide to the real world. 

Nathan had just left that morning for a college located on the opposite side of the country, and so the two youngest siblings in our family’s tree, who have been attached at the hip these last seventeen years, were parted indefinitely (or until the holidays, at least). I was doing my best to help Aubrey emotionally through this transition. 

(If you’re laughing at the picture of me being anyone’s emotional guide, I’m going to need you to understand that she had no one else at this point.) 

Winter Wonderland trickled into our steamy kitchen and Aubrey and I distracted ourselves with whether or not to add the seasoning packets before or after the water and why something smelled like fish food (that turned out to be the flakes for the Udon). 

It’s true that I get a lot of flack (in good humor, I’m sure) from friends who hear that I’ve been blasting Dean Martin’s “Marshmallow World” or singing Presley’s “Blue Christmas” at the top of my lungs in July because I will have a blue Christmas without you, thanks very much. And it’s also true that a few years ago, I would have hung a weighted nutcracker around the neck of anyone decking the halls before Thanksgiving and thrown them into a bottomless vat of eggnog. Like, let Turkey Day have it’s moment, please.

Sorry… Give me a second… I distracted myself with the thought of bottomless eggnog… 

Okay, back

I think we can also agree that 2020 has made most of us a little more lenient on the Christmas music front right now because we’re all just trying to survive this year. Let the people find joy. Is it a pumpkin spice latte? Drink it up! Is it new pajamas for the home office? Rock it! Is it the complete Mannheim Steamroller collection? Just let me enjoy this, okay? 

The kettle began to boil and we began the arduous process of not making a mess. Success was elusive. 

Eventually, we both had bowls of spicy ramen and crispy pork and leek dumplings. Aubrey slid to the kitchen floor with a sigh, her bowl nestled between her knees. Her bright eyes grew soft and her bubbly spirit stilled. For a moment, absorbed in noodles, we were both quiet. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” lilted over the countertop from my computer.

I remember the first time I heard “Hark the Herald” – I mean the first time I really heard it. A Christmas classic both in Christian circles and in the secular world, it’s a hymn that’s hard not to hear growing up in the United States of America. 

To be honest, I never really liked it. 

But one year, having drifted through months of religious apathy and a slew of personal heartbreaks and disappointments, I found myself on the verge of dropping out of school, with nothing but pennies in the bank, and wrestling with overwhelming depression. And I walked away from my faith.

More appropriately, I lost it. I woke up one day and found it was not there. But I think it hadn’t really been there for a while. I think I walked away for a long time in small steps, not realizing that one day it would be out of view completely.

I don’t think that’s the saddest I’ve ever been, or the most desperate I’ve ever been, but it was certainly the most hopeless. 

It’s a long story, most of which I have already written about, but God eventually brought me back. He opened my eyes. He softened my heart. He returned to me my faith. He restored my soul. 

And the Christmas that followed, I heard “Hark! The Herald” with new ears. 

/Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings/

Healing. How I needed it. How I still do. It’s hard to live in this fallen world without being pierced and broken by its fragmented pieces.

I had spent most of that year rediscovering what it meant to be a Child of God. Things I had known in my head since childhood, I was beginning to understand in the deepest crevices of my heart. Scripture I memorized as a kid suddenly took on a whole new life. Truths I had believed about God’s grace and peace and mercy were made new and I could feel them – for the first time – in the very marrow of my soul. 

Forgiven? Redeemed? Restored? It is one thing to know these academically, but to feel them, to be the recipient of such incalculable grace is enough to make one want to sing joy to the world at any time of year.

And I have found that returning again and again to the Christmas season with this new experiential understanding of the grace of an Almighty God has been like arriving at fresh water after wandering in a dry place. When the disappointments of the year begin to mount, I find myself longing for the Christmas season – not for the trimmings and lights and holiday festivities, but for the focused reminder that the Son of God was born a human into this broken world to save us – to save me, to save you. 

/No more let sins and sorrows grow
Nor thorns infest the ground
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found/
(“Joy to the World”)

The idea that the world is cursed is a strange one. We don’t often speak about curses. Perhaps it feels too quaint and medieval, too detached from this modern scientific world. Not even Christians who believe in the fall of man and the shackles of sin talk about the curse

Maybe 2020 was meant to remind us that this world we live in is indeed accursed. Our world is plagued with illness and death, catastrophe both churned up from the depths of an aching earth and boiling over in the hearts of sinful men. 

DumplingsAnd looking at my sister, slurping up our conquest from her place on the kitchen floor, I remembered that while this year has been generally hard on everyone, it has been personally hard on many of us too. We have been separated from friends and loved ones, cut off from family by distances necessarily great and small. Some have been unable to say last goodbyes. Others have experienced their first goodbyes. All reminders of how much we need Emmanuel – God with us – the God who is with us always, to the very end of the age, with whom goodbyes are not needed. 

This year has been wearying. Friends, I am weary. And I know I am not alone. How I long to sing the words of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” 

/O ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low
Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow
Look now for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing
O rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing./

“I forget sometimes what this promise is about,” Aubrey said as “Hark! The Herald” wrapped up. She looked at me, which we had been trying not to do because something in the noodles or maybe the music – but definitely not how much we were missing Nathan – was making us cry. “I forget what a big deal it is that the Son of God was born like us, to die for us. We should play Christmas music all year long.” 

Finally, someone other than me has said it (does it still count if we’re related?). 

The ache in my heart – over Nathan, the pandemic, the civil unrest and injustice, and the secret pangs of loss that have speckled my own life this year, still unhealed – nearly exploded into my ramen. Grief and sorrow are not to be ignored, my friends. And they do not pair well with dumplings. 

The world is telling me to wait for Christmas and I am saying no

I watch people struggle in isolation, grappling with the fear of contagion and facing the reality of death that has previously been so easy to ignore. I see my nation writhe beneath the pain of injustice and unhealed wounds. I listen to my brothers and sisters in the Church as they bear the heavy weight of disrupted fellowship, an unknown future and the friction of living out this high calling to be ambassadors of the Lord to a dark world.

And what a Lord he is. I want to sing of this Lord. I want the world to know him. I want his hope to be shed like light in dark streets, like we sing in “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.”

/Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight/

Keep the holly and the snowflakes. Save your inflatable snowmen and the Christmas lights you have to untangle for an hour before pinning them over your garage door. I don’t need the Christmas season. I need Christ. 

It is a blessing to be able to sing his promises put to beautiful music. Music! – a common grace we do not deserve. Christmas hymns feel like a manifestation of Psalm 84:

“Blessed are those whose strength is in you,

    whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.

As they pass through the Valley of Baka,

    they make it a place of springs;

    the autumn rains also cover it with pools.

They go from strength to strength,

    till each appears before God in Zion.”

Christmas is a place of springs, the hymns are autumn rains that cool, they point to the promises that bring us from strength to strength: God and sinners reconciled.

/Hail! the heaven-born
Prince of peace!
Hail! the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die:
Born to raise the son of earth,
Born to give them second birth./

I know it’s barely September, but my weary, sinful heart needs Christmas right now. The angels are probably still singing glory to the newborn King, and so shall I. 

Aubrey and I finished the ramen and turned on a movie, not sure what to do with all the space in the living room without Nathan in it. We ate some mochi. We snuggled some pillows. We tried to pretend like losing people, even for a short time, isn’t hard. But we both know that one day our true brother and king, our friend and Savior, Jesus Christ, will return and wipe away every tear. Change and decay will be no more, and our burdened hearts will find rest.

That’s the kind of jolly I need stored up in my heart.

It’s trite, but it’s true. ‘Tis the season all year long. 

 

Caught between two glories

backpacking5

I felt Esther roll over and then sit up. After a few more deep breaths, I heard the tent unzip and a flush of cool air enveloped our already chilly sanctuary of mosquito-free space. 

I am not a morning person. 

We were four days into a backpacking trip through the Sierras and it was my day to run KP. The evening before, as the embers burned down on our little campfire, I had told my dutiful team to be up and ready early, but I was wondering now if I’d be able to drag myself out of my sleeping bag to meet them. 

It is important that you understand two things about this trip. Firstly, know that I hadn’t been sleeping well because I grabbed the wrong sleeping bag from my dad’s cabinet on my way to meet the team in Fountain Valley – a mistake I regretted every night of the trip as I felt my body stiffen like a frost-covered log until each dawn began to finally thaw me out again. 

We tried everything. The team lent me spare shirts and jackets. I bundled up in so many layers, and in so many variations of layers, I might as well have given out laundry tickets. Someone lent me their silk cocoon and someone else suggested overlapping my outdoor mats below my sleeping bag for insulation. Esther suggested I wrap my feet in a sweater and Eli – the team’s leader – helped me fill a hot water bottle one night (that method was met with surprising success, but we made such a mess in the process that it was never again attempted). 

The second thing you should know is that I actually haven’t been sleeping well all summer. There’s been a lot on my mind, and like the mountain air that creeps in and steals the warmth from the body, my thoughts have stolen the warmth from my heart. 

After sitting in a fetal position for several moments, I mustered the will to untangle myself from the previous night’s concoction of wrappings and flopped out of the tent. Soft pines rose above me like guardians keeping watch on little beings and the sky was pale with early morning. Yesterday, Eli had led some of the team in a polar plunge into the lake at the literal-crack-of-dawn, but today everyone seemed to be sleeping late. 

Only Esther and a few others had risen early enough to fish. Trout was on the menu for breakfast. I shuddered at the thought. 

I have a few traumatic memories of cooking fish and something told me I was about to add a few more. 

It seems unlike myself to withdraw from the specter of a challenge. I’ve spent a lot of this year trying to bring awareness to the community I grew up in about how we talk about singleness and marriage, and the emphasis we often place on our identity in relationships, rather than rooting that identity in Christ. In general, the suggestion that our churches have room for improvement in this area has been met with significant hesitation. Have I retreated from the criticism leveled against my crusade for a greater understanding of truth? Have I backed down when others have said I’m chasing a minority issue, that I’m off-base or overcritical in my analysis of the Christian community, that I’m misrepresenting the situation, that I’m sitting on a toy rodeo ride outside a grocery parking lot and acting like it’s a war horse?

Until recently, I would have said no.

There is always room for improving means of communication, but thus far I have not been deterred from the message, despite the growing uncomfortableness of being seen as a contrarian. 

Not just in this, of course. Anyone who knows me knows I will gut an improperly constructed sentence in the name of good grammar. I don’t hesitate to point out imperfect measures or failures of protocol in everything from parking to the lunch line to casual banter. 

I find joy in process and the pursuit of perfection, but I am learning that not everyone else does – just like many find joy in eating fish before nine o’clock in the morning, whereas I find such an endeavor both repulsive and unsanctimonious. 

And yet, here I stood, with my two helpers flanking my sides as we stared down a griddle, a set of pots and gas stove tops and a plastic baggy bearing the label “fish flour,” the ominous foreshadower of our morning’s responsibility. 

“You guys filter water for hot drinks and oatmeal,” I said. “I’ll find the fish.” 

They sat down on rocks and began the laborious process of filtering the silt, sediment and possible giardia from our drinking water (because the only thing worse than a day that begins with an early fish fry is one that ends with six months of diarrhea). 

I clambered down the bank in my socks and scanned the lake edge for our fishermen. The surface was still and glassy, and the peak we had been sleeping under rose up into the crown of dawn only to be reflected down again on the silky waters below it. No breeze rippled the face of the water, no bubbles ruptured its tranquility. It was a picture of uninterrupted calm, much like the woman I was looking for. 

Esther was nowhere I could see, though the circumference of the lake must have been nearly a mile, with divots and peninsulas variegating its shoreline and offering a multitude of hiding places for persons with bait and line. 

Tucked an arm’s length below the water in front of me beneath a sturdy sunken log, a plastic bag with several fish glinted in the clear lake, caught the night before. I cringed. 

Their open eyes and open bellies looked equally unappetizing to me and I felt a surge of relatability with these creatures, living their lives as fish one minute and then cut open and exposed the next. 

My friend Lanie would say both the fish and I need to practice being antifragile. She accompanied us on this trip under the official title of “Mama Bear” for her ability to fix just about any problem with an air of unflappability that I can only aspire to, and antifragile by her definition means being able to take the wounds of others and use them to build yourself up rather than letting yourself be torn down. 

Looking at these fish, immobile in a bag of lakewater, I wondered if it was possible to build oneself back up after such a gutting. 

By the time I drained the fish juice from the bag and returned to camp, my helpers had filtered enough water to get us going and had begun boiling it for our freeze-dried eggs. Our pastor looked up at me from a rock next to a stack of coffee filters and asked if I wanted a cup.

“Yes,” I said emphatically, still holding the fish with an outstretched arm. 

“The cook eats last,” he said with a wink, “but always drinks first.” 

I chuckled, but only because I knew how much caffeine I would need emotionally to do what the morning called for. 

Lanie was up and about and gave me a pleasant smirk as she watched me fumble with the fish. 

Quietly, in her supportive way, she helped me line up the skillet and pie tin and flour on another rock. Our assembly line was ready. Now for the fish.

“Would you mind doing this?” I asked her in a hush. I had barely had the strength of will to dissect my crayfish in tenth grade biology class, and I paid a kid a week’s worth of Snickers to skin my rat the same year. I am not above handing off responsibilities such as these. 

Lanie can (and has) deliver a goat with her bare hands and then eat a warm cookie right afterward. I figured she’d be up for the task. 

“Sure,” she whispered, taking the plastic spatula from me and reaching into the bag of dead trout. 

Esther and another camper returned with their own catches and began the arduous process of cleaning them out. I found something else to do. 

I’ve been cleaned out enough this year. I don’t think I’m a fragile person, and being antifragile seems like a very good goal. In fact, I’ve welcomed the cleanings – invited them, even. I’ve tasted rejection in several forms this year (it’s been… a long year) so I took stock at the beginning of the summer to figure out if the problem is me. That’s always a possibility, you know? I think we forget that sometimes. 

So I’ve asked my friends and family, “Am I who I should be? Can I be better than this?” 

I don’t ask these things to make myself a more compatible future spouse (despite how strongly some of the advice given to me might imply that future spousing is the ultimate goal in self-improvement). I ask these things because I want to be a better friend and sister. I want to be a better messenger for God’s truth, because the only thing that should be offensive should be the gospel itself – not the messenger nor the means. 

It’s been a painful process, much like being gutted at someone else’s hands, to be told you’re not enough – or more often in my case, that I’m too much. The critique, coupled with the initial waves of rejection and criticism, has left me feeling smaller and more exposed than I have felt in a long time. 

Maybe you, too, have asked yourself these questions – the nagging ‘why’s of our existence and our persons that create some inward, unreachable ache.

“Why can’t I be more agreeable?” I ask myself. “Why can’t I let things go? Why do I have to push for perfection and process the way that I do? Why can’t I stay quiet?”

It is not even a matter of building myself back up, or of being antifragile. I wonder if I should build myself back at all. Through the critique, levied at me in love, I see myself as difficult, pestersome, pot-stirring – the things about myself I was once proud of I now see as the reasons why, in many ways, I feel so alone. It is a great contradiction to me, that the things I am most inclined toward – using my process-oriented mind and this loud mouth of mine to help identify areas of needed change in my community – might actually be the thing that makes me so distasteful to some. And as I feel others become weary beneath the efforts of my crusade, I become weary with myself as well. And I long to be any other fish than the one I am.

I am empty. I am lifeless on a rock in the cold morning with an open belly and open eyes, and no spirit left in my bones. 

Slowly, campers crawled out of sleeping bags and tents, rubbing sleep from their eyes and dressing their faces with smiles that none of us could get rid of, despite the cold and uncomfortableness of our circumstances. Thankfully, the mosquitoes weren’t up yet.

With the rest of breakfast carrying on smoothly, I approached Lanie.

“I can take over the fish,” I said. She looked at me over her long, elegant nose with eyes that pierce and said in a teacher-like tone that could have inspired a petrified log to life, “Okay, this one’s yours.”

The pastor turned on his rock to watch me, an amused grin on his face. He had done most of the gutting and cooking of fish this week. 

I put my bronze Sierra mug down next to me, the coffee half-consumed, and reached for the next fish. It was already in the tin, powdered with salted flour. So much hesitancy arrested my hand that it took nearly thirty full seconds for me to actually make contact with the little dead trout. 

The pastor smiled gleefully as I squealed, lifting the fish by its thick spine and flopping it into a pile of flour. 

“Let’s cover your eyes,” I said to it, dusting its gaping expression with more flour. “And let’s give you a name.”

“You can’t name it,” one of my helpers said. “That’ll just make it harder to cook.”

“Never stopped me,” the pastor muttered under his breath with a grin.

“I have to name it,” I said resolutely. “It’s a sign of respect. It gave its life for our breakfast; the least we can do is give it a name.” 

I floured that fish – Zephaniah – and the four others brought by Esther and the other fishermen. Those fishies had been alive and swimming when I woke up that morning, a thought I tried not to think about as I doused them in flour and butter. They were each given the names of major or minor prophets in the Bible. It took effort, but I was able to muscle down my urge to flee, or worse, vomit. 

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This time a week ago, I was cooking freshly caught fish over an open fire for breakfast. I know, thank goodness for Cheerios.

The griddle went onto our campfire and flames licked the sides until those little fish arched their backs, begging to be flipped over.

“I know, I know,” I said, pressing them back down onto the pan, not at all phased to be talking to dead trout in front of my fellow campers. “I’m not any happier about this situation than you are, but there’s no getting around it now – Haggai’s ready, who wants him?” 

Eli sauntered over, looking far too awake for this hour of morning, and claimed both Haggai and his eyeball, which had popped out and seared itself onto the grill. 

“Disgusting,” I said with a smile, tipping the sizzling trout into his Sierra cup. But I was proud of myself for doing what needed to be done. In a small way, it felt like being my old self again.

The KP crew cleaned up from breakfast and Eli helped us burn down and bury the fire before we packed out down the mountain. Someone came around and asked for a balm for mosquito bites. We were all getting eaten alive this trip, and the question, “Why did God make mosquitoes?” had appeared in more than one of our conversations.

At some point, I snuck away to roll up my sleeping bag and brush my teeth. With the fuss of the fish behind us, I let my spirit sink low again, as it has been much of this summer. 

Why am I the fish that I am? Why this lake to swim in? And why so often alone? 

Suddenly, the warbling sound of show tunes burst through the forest. Eli stood on a boulder cap a hundred yards away. (The guys had claimed the top of the boulder and the ladies had taken the forest floor for setting up tents). He stood with toothbrush in hand, bellowing out old timey songs in his 1930s radio voice for all the woods to hear. I smiled and kept brushing my own teeth.

Eventually, he switched to yodeling. 

Between brushes, he would exchange deeply felt, hearty yodels with other campers, each trying to mimic his bravado from the trees below his rock. 

As I squatted in the dirt, clutching my toothbrush and water bottle, I thought for a moment that this friend of mine must be such a rare glimpse inside the mind of our Creator, for what kind of God but ours would delight to make such a human? Who but the Almighty would be glorified in the creation of a person who yodels while brushing his teeth in the white rays of early morning on cold mountaintops, after eating fish, no less. 

To my left, Lanie was packing her bags – always one step ahead of the rest of us, always with one hand on the job that needs doing before anyone else sees that it needs to be done. She can walk into a room and pick up the faintest hints of whiskey or clover. She is the kind of friend who checks the air in my tires and brings me slabs of dark chocolate – one as much an act of service as the other. 

God made Lanie too. How he delighted to make this woman who sees the world and desires to save it. 

If he made Eli’s heart of joy and Lanie’s soul of purpose, did he not also make my mind? 

Is he not a God of perfection? Is order not a hallmark of his handiwork? Am I not following in his footsteps in my pursuit of these things? 

And though there may be sanctification ahead of me, this person God made me to be is good. For me to wish to be someone else – another, less particular fish in the lake, maybe one who makes fewer ripples – would be to reject God’s design in making me. And I don’t need to put myself back together – nor can I when I am gutted and dead – because God will do that for me. Nothing in my own efforts, not my guilt or despair or self-consciousness, can redeem me or give this little fish value. It is only God’s purposes in my life, unfolding as they are through the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit, that will fill the emptiness in my belly. 

I sat in the dirt, back toward God’s yodeler, and cried. 

Mountains and valleys rolled out before us, each painted down to the smallest flower by the mindful eye of our Maker. Sunburns and blisters and mosquitoes awaited us on the trail and fellowship around each night’s campfire. And the thought of being intentionally designed by God stayed with me, slowly lifting a weight off my heavy spirit until, on the last night, I lay under a canopy of crystal stars and breathed freely. 

Lanie, Esther and I had agreed to layer our ground mats outside, snuggle together (for warmth) in our respective sleeping bags, and then lay the flat tent and fly over top of us. 

I was already buried in the middle of our set up when they came back from bear bagging our food. Their flashlights cast shadows in the woods and the moon illuminated the soft white flowers growing around our mats. Above me, the stars blazed – a work of perfection and process, millions of miles away, declaring the glory of God.

How I would like for my life to be like a star, or a fish, or even one of these mosquitoes we couldn’t seem to rid ourselves of. Just to exist, and by existing to proclaim the great glory of the God who made me – what an honor. 

Of course, it is more than just existing – it is being made into the image of God’s son, Jesus Christ, through struggle and sanctification. So then I am caught between two glories – being made in the image of God and bearing pieces of that image as they are reflected in my love of process, order and perfection, and being continually transformed into the image of my Savior as all those aspects of reflection are themselves being perfected. 

“Are you warm enough?” Lanie whispered as the three of us huddled close together on midnight’s softest grass. 

“Yes,” I whispered.

And I slept till dawn.