“Where are you, Christmas?”

christmas market
The Christmas Market near Ku’damm in Berlin.

My dearest friends, acquaintances, and random people on the internet, I have some terrible news: Christmas is over. Today is December 29th, which means that we are now 361 days from our next Christmas. Thanks, Leap Year, for adding another day to our already-long Christmas wait.

We did our best to stretch it out and make it last. There were months of preparation, afternoons of shopping and crafting, hours of decorating and baking, miles put on the car or the Frequent Flyer miles compiled to visit relatives. Starting with Thanksgiving September, we listened to Christmas music, planned the decorations for our apartments and houses, and began plotting what gifts to buy our loved ones. And yet despite all of these attempts to extend our holiday season, Christmas cruelly reminded yet again us that it’s only 24 hours long, just like every other day of the year. And now here on Tuesday the 29th, the gifts have been unwrapped, the radio stations have ceased their Yuletide serenading, and many of us are already back at work, reminding us that soon—yes, very soon—life will return to its normal, everyday, often cheerless routine.

Now, I’m not trying to undersell Christmas or poo-poo it with a post-holiday depressed attitude. I actually had probably one of the most memorable and enjoyable Christmas seasons to date. After several weeks of enjoying Germany’s Christmas markets, I came home to Kansas and had a truly wonderful time with my family. We went to my Omi’s house and decorated Christmas cookies, we drove through our favorite neighborhoods to look at Christmas lights, and we even squeezed in a trip to Silver Dollar City, our favorite 1880s-themed amusement park in Branson, Missouri. Simple though it may seem, this Christmas with my family was truly lovely. And having been away from my parents since July—and from my sisters since far longer than that—I appreciated our time together this year even more than usual.

But now, whether I want to admit it or not, Christmas is over. In a little over a week, I’ll be flying back to Berlin, where the Christmas markets will have disappeared, the glühwein will be gone, and everyone will have settled back into their natural state of light-deprived semi-hibernation.

And now as I think about it, I can’t help but wonder: am I the only one who finds this a bit dissatisfying, if not anti-climactic? I mean, Christmas has the longest build-up of all the holidays. Can you name another holiday that has inspired so many songs (or so many covers of the same songs)? So many movies (and unnecessary sequels to those movies)? Can you think of another day of the year that is greeted with such anticipation by young and old, rich and poor, religious and agnostic alike? We go crazy for Christmas—some of us for months on end—and then before we know it, it’s over, and we’re left looking forward to this time next year, holding out the hope that maybe next Christmas will somehow last longer and be different.

I love Christmas. I truly do. But every year I experience this same discontented feeling. December 26th rolls around—talk about the most underappreciated day of the year—and I find myself wondering yet again, “Was that it?” Somehow it’s just never seemed fair to me that, after such a dramatic entrance, Christmas would just vanish so quickly without a trace. And I find this even more disappointing in light of so many of our favorite seasonal songs and movies, which remind us to have “the spirit of Christmas” and “keep Christmas in our hearts” all year long. Yes, I realize that these quotes come from cheesy, childish sources, and holiday movie specials are a poor choice for your life motto. But still for some reason, these phrases have always bothered me this year, and even more so this year. And now as I sit in my annual post-Christmas slump, I can’t seem to get them out of my head. Because it’s not just Disney who tells me these things; the Church does too, encouraging me to “live in light of Christmas” all year long. But what does that actually mean? And more importantly, how do we do it?

I’ve been wrestling with these questions for the last several days (getting a head start by thinking about them before Christmas Day. #efficiency). And while I don’t have a perfect, 5-step formula or a catchy slogan, I think I’m at least starting to arrive at an answer: Christmas leaves us, but Jesus never does. Let me explain.

In one sense, the post-Christmas funk is natural. Experiencing an emotional low after such a significant and highly-anticipated day makes complete sense. I bet Mary and Joseph even their own version of this after the very first Christmas. After all, if your labor pains result in a sky full of angels and a room full of worshipping shepherds, the reality of late-night feedings and diaper changings must have seemed a bit anti-climactic—and they were caring for the Son of God! But you see, for them Christmas wasn’t the end of a story; Christmas was the beginning of their lifetime being Jesus’ earthly parents.

I think the same principle applies to us today 2,000-some-odd years later. Christmas reminds us that Jesus has come to us, but, just like for Mary and Joseph, His presence didn’t end when the manger had been filled with feed again and the shepherds had returned to their sheep. And it doesn’t end for us either, even when the decorations and lights have been taken down and packed away for next year. It’s no accident that Matthew’s Gospel refers to Jesus as “Immanuel” or “God with us”. John puts it so beautifully, saying that Jesus “became flesh and made His dwelling among us.

You see, Jesus’ story with us began on Christmas and continues today. And I think it’s only by remembering and believing this truth—that He came to us, He loves us, and He is present with us now—that we can keep “the Christmas spirit” and its accompanying joy, anticipation, wonder, and awe alive with us every day of the year.

So even though Cindy Lou Who was right in asking, “Where are you, Christmas? Why can’t I find you?”, her natural feeling of confusion and loss was only part of the story. Because although Christmas has already come and gone, the One whom we celebrate hasn’t left us and never will.

Well, that’s enough for one day. I’m feeling hungry. Christmas cookies, anyone? 😉

 

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My Kansas Comfort Zone

Kansas :)

Kansas. My home, sweet home on the range. Although I’ve never actually seen “the deer and the antelope” play (probably because I grew up in the suburbs), I am a Kansas girl through and through. I love wide open spaces, sunsets that take up the whole sky, and—gluten intolerance aside—waves and waves of amber-colored grain.

Having lived elsewhere for the last 7 years, I like to shamelessly exploit my Kansas-ness as often as possible. For instance, whenever I meet someone new and they ask me, “Where are you from?”, I always reply, “Kansas…. But I’m not in Kansas anymore.” For my birthday, my mom surprised me with a real, true, honest-to-goodness Dorothy costume, complete with ruby-red slippers, and I’ve been brainstorming places to where it ever since. Kansas-isms even pop up in my daily vocabulary. Without thinking, I frequently find myself saying things like…

-“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” (No sense worrying about that yet.)

-“This is slower than molasses in January.” (Molasses is thick. January is cold. Enough said.)

-“Let’s not circle the wagons here.” (Don’t freak out and become unnecessarily defensive.)

-“The pioneers get the arrows; the settlers get the land.” (The more morbid human version of “the early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.”)

In case all y’all (the plural form of “y’all”) couldn’t tell, I am truly a Kansas girl at heart. Sure, I may make the occasional disparaging comment about its being a “flyover state” or literally the middle of nowhere (to those of you who can’t find Kansas on a map, here’s a hint: it’s in the exact center of the continental U.S.), but deep down inside I really do love my home state. I’m proud of our Civil War heritage, I love that KU invented basketball (and has been dominating it ever since), and I will defend KC barbeque as the best until the day I die. I can’t imagine being from anywhere else.

But as much as I love the land of Dorothy and Clark Kent, I’ve discovered some downsides to growing up in Kansas. Because I am from Kansas, I have a natural aversion to the following things:

Hiking: In general, hiking requires hills, and in Kansas, we don’t have many of those. In fact, I’ve showed pictures of the Flint Hills–in my opinion, the hilliest and most beautiful part of Kansas–to my Georgia friends, and they respond with, “That’s nice. But where are the hills?” And unfortunately, they are right. Compared to Georgia, Kansas is flatter than the backside of a cow pie. As a result of spending most of my life in Kansas, I had never been hiking.

Rock Climbing: No, one doesn’t need actual mountains in order to rock climb, but as sources of inspiration they sure come in handy. Because Kansas is severely lacking in mountainous regions, rock climbing for fun never really crossed my mind.

Heights in general: In case you haven’t picked up on it yet, Kansas doesn’t have many high places or large drop-offs. I first realized how deeply this flatness had infiltrated my psyche when my family visited the Grand Canyon before my junior year of high school. We stayed at a hotel about half a mile from the edge—and I felt perpetually on edge. Don’t get me wrong; it was beautiful. It just wasn’t my cup of unsweetened tea.

Needless to say, moving to a state full of mountains and hills and trees (so many trees! Oh my!) came as a bit of a shock. And then when my new friends asked me to do things like go hiking, rock climbing and other heights-related things, I didn’t know what to do. Part of me wanted to join them—after all, I love a good adventure—but the other part of me was scared. So for my first year here, I didn’t join them. I stayed home as they camped and hiked and climbed parts of the Appalachian Trail. Pulling the “I’m from Kansas so I don’t like _____ activities” card, I missed out on a lot of fun.

But though Kansas was a convenient scapegoat (states don’t usually argue back), in my heart I knew that it wasn’t really to blame. Because as much as I wanted to pin my apparent disinterest on my upbringing or origins, deep down I knew the truth:

I was scared.

Scared of failure, scared of embarrassment, scared of trying something new and being utterly, terribly and hopelessly bad at it. Imagining all the possible worst-case scenarios and the humiliation that would inevitably come with it, I concluded that it would be better not to try. After all, if you don’t take the risk, you have no chance to fail, right? That felt safer. And safer felt better.

But is it?

Over Christmas break, I sat with that question, looked myself hard in the eye, and finally gave an honest answer. No, safer is not better when “safer” is the product of unfounded fear. Better to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all. And try I would. I made it my New Year’s resolution to try hiking and camping and rock climbing and all the other non-Kansasy things that had scared me for so long. I’m only a month into this heights-filled journey and it’s come with some bumps and bruises (both emotional and literal), but it’s been so rewarding and liberating thus far.

So here’s to stepping out of comfort zones (Kansas or otherwise) and to the life—real, true life—that is waiting on the other side.

… Hopefully, we don’t just end up in Missouri. 😉

Braid pic atop a peak during my first 11-mile hike. :)
Braid pic atop a Georgia peak during my first 11-mile hike. 🙂

For the Birds… and Squirrels

3 Mourning Doves enjoying our Bird Spa... er, Birdbath :)
3 Mourning Doves enjoying our BirdSpa… er, Birdbath 🙂

My family is a bit nutty… which might explain our long-standing obsession with squirrels.

When I was growing up, we lived in a veritable squirrel sanctuary. Our yard had sizable trees, lots of acorns, and plenty of space for squirrels, or “eichs” (short for the German word “Eichhörnchen”) as we call them, to frolic and play. In the space outside our kitchen window, we set up a bird feeder, but we could honestly care less about the birds. Our main goal was to attract as many “eichs” as possible. Like hungry college students, if you feed squirrels, they will come.

But in 2003, my family moved. Our new location was better in all kinds of ways: it was bigger, I had my own bathroom (Yay! No more sharing with the twins!), my dad could work from home, and it was less than a mile from my high school. Our new place was perfect in almost every way. The main problem: it didn’t have squirrels.

You see, squirrels like trees. Big ones. And brand new subdivisions almost never have big trees. Our neighborhood was no exception. Before becoming home to dozens of middle-class houses, it had been a cow pasture, just like most of Kansas. And in case you’ve never been to Kansas, let me point out that cow pastures almost never have trees. Like good citizens and landscapers, my family planted several trees in our yard. But they were just saplings; it would be a long time before they grew into squirrel havens.

Needing to fill our “small-animal void,” my family did the next best thing: we became obsessed with birds too. The vanguard of our original squirrel fetish, my dad has also taken the lead in our bird craze. His office window overlooks a landscaped patch in our front yard (see above photo). This squirrel-less space has become home to not one, not two, but three bird feeders and a bird bath. Whenever my dad has a break between clients or needs a moment to get away, he can be found perched at the window (pardon the pun) watching his birds.

This pastime was enjoyable, especially in the spring, summer, and fall when hungry birds would flock (pun again, sorry) to the little patch in our front yard. But in the winter, the numbers would taper off a bit. We would still get a few sparrows, mourning doves, and the occasional cardinal, but the overall population would dwindle significantly. Until last winter, that is.

With the help of a fellow bird-loving friend, my dad discovered the reason for our lack of fine feathered friends: our birdbath was frozen solid. You see, not only does Kansas have a natural squirrel-tree deficiency, but it also gets very, very cold in the winter. Because birdbaths are outside (with the birds, of course), they are exposed to this cold and, due to the properties of water, they freeze. But all is not lost! Thanks to modern technology and the advice of his bird-loving friend, my dad found the perfect solution: a birdbath heater. As his friend explained, birds get really thirsty in the winter, and they fly all over looking for water. But if you water them, they will come. Now our birdbath never freezes over, and our yard is frequented by some of the most spoiled and hydrated birds in the state of Kansas.

So why am I telling you this story? The answer is simple: I think God calls us to be birdbaths.

Yes, I realize that sounds kind of crazy (I do come from a squirrel-obsessed family, after all), but please hear me out.

I’ve been a Christian for a very long time, and as a result, I’ve heard a lot of sermons about evangelism and witnessing and sharing my faith. Most of the time, these messages make me feel guilty and depressed. I’m not a missionary, and God hasn’t called me to far-off places like Africa. How can He possibly use me for His Kingdom? If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, then chances are good that you’ve experienced the discouragement I’m talking about. You’ve heard Jesus’ last instruction to “go and make disciples of all nations,” and you can’t help but wondering how you’re supposed to “go” when you feel stuck in one place. Kind of like a concrete birdbath.

Some scholars translate the words of “Great Commission” not just as “go and make disciples” but instead “as you go, make disciples.” In essence, as you go to church, to work, to school, to the grocery store–as you go about your everyday, ordinary life, make disciples. But what does this look like? Let’s return briefly to the birdbath.

What made my dad’s birdbath successful? I see three key reasons:

-Its design: As a birdbath, it was built to hold water so birds could come drink. In the same way, each of us has been uniquely gifted with talents, skills, and traits to be a blessing to others.

-Its location: My dad placed the birdbath next to three bird feeders and, consequently, a lot of birds. Similarly, God has planted each of us in specific situations at home, at work, on the bus, or wherever we happen to be on a daily basis to reach others with His love.

-Its connection to a heat source. This is extremely important especially during a freezing Kansas winter when water is scarce. Likewise, we need to stay connected constantly with Jesus. He is our Source of life, joy, and strength. If we faithfully maintain this relationship, He will bless others through  us.

Because the birdbath met all of these qualifications, birds came from everywhere to be near it. Even when other birdbaths were frozen over and out of commission, my dad’s birdbath was up and running.

The same goes for us. If we embrace the way God has made us, if we are faithful and available where He has planted us, and if we remain closely connected to Christ, our Source of life, we will be effective for His Kingdom. So whatever you do– as a butcher, a baker, or a candle-stick-making birdwatcher–be about His business. People will notice, word will get out, and the seeking and thirsty “birds” of the world will come. It may take awhile, and you might have to wait for winter, but I promise they will. And when they do, they’ll “see your good deeds and praise your Father who is in heaven.” So in the meantime, be the best “birdbath” you can be, in whichever “yard” God has placed you. He will use you.

Who knows? You might even meet a few squirrels too. 😉

Baby Squirrel