The Power of the Christmas Tree

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Yesterday we did it, we got our whole family in the house at the same time and decorated the Christmas tree. While this may not be special occasion to you, it was for us for two reasons. First, last year our house was “under construction” which meant, among other things, no Christmas tree and no Christmas decorations. Second, yesterday afternoon was the only time when all four of us could be present to do the honors in a two week period.

Tonight, soaking in the glow that only a Christmas tree offers, I’m taken by the power a Christmas tree has in our home.

As crazy as it sounds, with girls are in their twenties, picking out and decorating the Christmas tree is still an event you have to do together! Maybe it is just a habit that became a family tradition, maybe it is because the tree is the penultimate symbol of the season for two girls who love Christmas (don’t get theological on me yet), or maybe it is because in the midst of all the laughter and storytelling we are reminded of how we love being part of this crazy, mixed family. I’m not sure why, but I do know that trimming the Christmas tree has the power to draw us all together, if even only for an afternoon, to pause our busy lives and be together.

As I have given over my vision for decorating and let others exercise their creative imagination, I’m take by the reality that the decorations in the box are more than ornaments, ribbons, and tree toppers. Ornaments have special meaning and decorations bring back memories of earlier years. Hanging them on the tree recognizes their importance and the past, present, and future come alive in our living room. Values become visible, stories get retold, memories are made, and hopes direct our eyes to the days ahead. Trimming the Christmas tree with our decorations has the power to transform a Blue Spruce into an Elton storyboard.

As the days become shorter and the winter air colder, it amazes me how the power of a few strains of Target lights change the atmosphere in our home. Coming home from a busy day to the warmth of our house illuminated by this sign of Christmas invites me to slow down and sit for awhile. For those of us with hurried lives, being still is a gift we do not often afford ourselves, and somehow the tree has the power to get all of us to slow down. And this energy cannot be contained in the house. Shining through the picture window, the lights of the Christmas tree have the power to make a dent in the vast darkness outside as well. Even in my fifties, I have not lost my love for driving through neighborhoods where the lights of Christmas interrupt the night sky. In its own little way, our Christmas tree is a sign of hope in a dark world.

I have been working on an Advent practice this year – sitting quiet for a time each day. It is not much, I know, but it is enough to calm my soul and ground my life in a season when the world is pushing me in all directions. Tonight, with the light of the Christmas tree filling the room and the memory of yet another “Elton decorating party” fresh at hand, I am grateful for this simple, but powerful tradition.

In this season where we prepare for God’s coming to live among us, how might your traditions prepare you?

Passing on Blessings

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What does it take to bless future generations?

I have been pondering this question quite a bit lately. And there are many reasons, I suppose. One reason could be because of the conversations my husband and I now have with our parents. They are healthy and active “senior adults” – still very active in their communities and present in our life. But they, and consequently we, are aware of the gift these years are and don’t want to take them for granted. So much can change quickly, as we have witnessed with their friends and other family members. So we find ourselves appreciating the moments and savoring this chapter of our lives together. What will life be without them? A question we don’t want to delve into too deeply, but one that could be over the horizon sooner than we’d like. They have been such blessings to us in our lifetime, in profound and ordinary ways. How do we tell them of our gratitude? How do we thank them for their love and support? How do we let the blessings they have bestowed on us flow to others?

Another reason could be the frequent reminders that I am not as young as I use to me. In fact, I’m getting old. If I am average (something I’ve never been accused of) I have more years behind me than ahead of me. I don’t remember if it was the trifocals or the AARP application that first tipped me off to this reality, but I do know my visits to the gym and 5K running times have let me know I’m in a new age bracket. Mostly I don’t mind being in my 5th decade of life. I’m certainly more comfortable with who, and whose, I am. I’m glad for a family to ground me and for work that is meaningful. But I also live with a greater sense of urgency and desire to make an impact. I have less patience for the mundane and more interest in the meaningful. And sometimes it is hard to tell the difference. I want to make good choices, for me and for the people I love around me. What does that look like? Does that change any of my priorities? What do I need to step back from? What do I need to step into more deeply?

The final reason, and the reason that most often captures my attention, is parenting young adult children. How do I treasure these years without over, or under, parenting? What does that look like? When do I listen and when do I speak? How do I grow to love what and whom they love? What can I learn from them, as I also remind them of what’s important to me? I am appreciating the days we have together, sharing living space, talking about the daily, helping each other navigate the twists and turns of adult life. And I see their confidence in who, and whose, they are grow. But I also know there will be hard times ahead, times I can’t be there or protect them from or even experience for them. I’m hopeful these “good days” provide the soil from which abundant living will grow – in good seasons and difficult ones.

So today, I wonder…how do I pass on gratitude, values, leadership, and the blessing of family? And how do I open myself to new ideas, accept help, move aside, and accompany? On a journey…learning as I go.

Safe Containers

I have been working on a book project studying congregations and nonprofits innovating and experimenting. What a great project in these changing times. I love hearing the stories of leaders and congregations/nonprofits leading with faith and hope.

One of our findings was these communities gave a lot of attention to cultivating community and attending relationships. It sounds so simple, and perhaps obvious, but this finding highlights both the importance of relationships in our lives and how we hunger and thirst for such spaces in our lives.

Brene Brown and her work on vulnerability lifts up the importance of not only relationships, but also spaces, or as she calls them safe containers, for us to be our selves. Be it our home spaces, work spaces, or schools, we need safe spaces to discover who we are, our ability to lead, and for us to learn.

I invite you to watch this great video on safe containers and then commit to cultivating some safe container in your life.

My Eyes Look to the Mountains

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I don’t often wake in the morning with a Psalm in my head. But today the familiar words of Psalm 121 where my first thoughts…

‘I lift up me eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.

God will not let your feet slip – God who watches over you will not slumber. Indeed God who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord watches over you – the Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all harm – and will watch over your life. The Lord will watch your coming and going, both now and forevermore.”

At 12:33 am (CST) I got this text: ‘we have arrived at the top of Africa. All 6 in our group made it.” Followed with…’Overwhelming.’

And at 8:14 am, as they got closer to their evening camp, ‘Heading to our final camp. Very ready for a shower!’

Climbing Mt Kilimanjaro has been on Eric’s bucket list for some time. Not many get to accomplish such feats. Today marks an adventure for him like no other. I’m excited for the stories and the pictures he will share when he gets home. But on this day, I know where my faith comes from, and I know who has made the heavens and earth…and I will rejoice and be glad.

February 27th

IMG_2862 It was 22 years ago. I had just finished watching the news and the contractions started. After a long night and morning, she was born. We named her Jordan Michelle Elton. And yes, our lives have not been the same since. Last weekend I moved said child into her first apartment. Now a college graduate, she is gainfully employed. (And not living in my house!) And more important than that, she’s becoming an amazing and capable adult. And all of this is happening right before my eyes. Last night on my walk with the dog I remembered back 22 years, to my life pre-Jordan. Newly married and feeling as big as a house, I remembered thinking that once she was born it would be spring. (Or at least I was declaring it spring.) Why not? Spring equals new life and sunshine. And that certainly would describe life inside our house, but it describe life outside as well. No more winter coats or snow boots. More hours of daylight. Waiting for snow to melt and for tulips to bloom. Is there any greater season? In many ways, this season, watching Jordan become an adult, parallel’s the anticipation of spring I felt when Jordan was born. And like waiting for spring, there is little I, as her mom, can do to help usher in this coming season in her life, in our life. No, I simply get to keep my eyes open for signs of this new season, small as they may be, and celebrate the moments when they arrive.  But Jordan was also born into another season – the season of Lent. Lent is that season which invites us, people of faith, to remember Jesus’ walk to the cross. Sure, the promise of the resurrection is along the edges, but this season meanders through the wilderness, names the brokenness, and encourages us, individually and as a community, to not move too quickly through the somber moments. I don’t know about you, but I need space and permission to attend to these times, as much as I need to mark the good. Truth be told, becoming an adult and navigating the dozens of transitions young adulthood requires is hard, it’s like the season of Lent in many ways. Applying for jobs (and receiving rejections) is exhausting. Finding, and living with, roommates requires emotional and physical energy. Learning about budgeting, living on limited income, and understanding the “real cost of life” is more challenging then college level calculus. (And the grading system is very different.) Use to living in a community of peers, now everywhere you turn there are old people living their own patterns with their own friends. Will they get me and my situation? Do I want to be friends with them? Yes, there are promises on the horizon, but they are so far off many days. And just like no one can do this journey for you, no one can speed up the journey either. Today, I wish my “baby” a happy 22nd birthday. Every year is different, but this year is her first year as an adult, not a student. It is truly a new adventure. Jordan, I believe in you, always have and always will. I am proud of you. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, for they will happen. Use them for good, for learning. Find community, it makes the journey easier. Have fun, even when it’s impractical. And love life, and life is not the destination, it is the journey. Toasting to your day and your journey!

New

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Some times new is obvious … like the smell of a new car, moving into a new house, or starting a new job.

Some time new is subtle … like one month rolling into another, getting a new pair of sneakers, or opening a new bank account.

Whether obvious, subtle or somewhere in between, celebrating the new is a good practice, and a spiritual one at that.

This past week I’ve lived through many new moments.         Maybe you have to.

Only a few days ago I dropped our youngest daughter off for her first year of college. New for her; new for me.

Today marked the first day of a new academic year, and the launching of a new day at our school. New presidential leadership and a new curriculum. New students starting; returning students entering a new world. New staff and faculty welcomed; all staff and faculty living in a new reality.

I have a new office, in a new building. This week brings a new routine and new set of “hallway conversations.”

Today I drove to work the same way, but in a new car. The same, but not the same.

And this evening I returned home where there was no “how was your first day of school” conversation at the dinner table. In fact, I ate dinner alone.

 

New is all around us: new jobs, new homes, new schools, new family members, new driver’s license, new calls, new chapter in your life, and new routines.

Newness is often accompanied with hope, but can also be connected to anxiety and uncertainty. Newness can be welcomed and smooth, it can be scheduled and planned, but it can also be disruptive, sudden, unsettling and “rock your confidence.”

Our new may be shared with a community or evident only to you. It may be private or public. There may be words to talk about how new impacts life, or it may be beyond words and only experienced in our gut.

Why celebrate the new? Because it matters! Just like I noted the importance of marking endings in a recent post, I think it is equally as important to celebrate the new. Why?

  1. Marking endings has an eye to the past. Celebrating new has an eye to the future. With an eye to the future new reminds us we are more than our past. Yes the past does shapes us, but we are not held captive to our past. This is both good news and bad news. As a great athlete knows, continuing to be “in the game” means showing up everyday. And showing up everyday is not only doing the basics, but includes trying new things and imagining new possibilities. In the moments of new we have a choice – to hold on to the past or to see a future on the other side. How does the new in your life provide the opportunity for you to see into the future? How does the new provide an opportunity for a bit of the future to come into your present?
  2. We celebrate the new because it reminds us we are “becoming” people. Think about it. Starting middle school or junior high is a moment of new. As scary as it might have been to start 7th grade it was just one in many steps from childhood to becoming an adult. Staying a kid isn’t an option, but how we move into the new is. Starting piano lessons or learning to ski are awkward at first, but stick with it and if we embrace the learning it can be fruitful. Over time, and with practice, we learn and move into our own way of becoming. We may or may not every become an elite skier or professional piano player, but learning, in and of itself, stretches and teaches us a variety of lessons. How does the new in your life remind you you are still a “becoming” person? How might you embrace those “becoming” moments?
  3. Celebrating new recognizes we have a God who makes all things new. Be it creating new or redeeming into new, God is all about making things new. So celebrating new is an opportunity to make room for God in our life, remembering and marking God’s activity among us in real time. Today, in a quick phone call with my new college daughter, she interrupted our conversation to share something with a someone in the room. I asked her who was there and your response, “a new friend. You wanted me to make friends, right?” What a welcome statement for this college mom to hear. How is God present in your new moments? How is God creating and/or redeeming in your life in the midst of new? Mark those moments with prayer.

Yes it is a season of new.

And yes we have a God who makes all things new.

Thank God for the new!

It’s been a Run!

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Last Sunday, our family loaded up the car with the essential cooler, sweatshirt and lawn chairs and headed to the ball diamond for the annual “end of the season” tournament. As best as we could recall, this was our family’s 16th year participating. Some years it went well, and other years we were okay with losing our two games and ending the season.

This year with the sun shining and no forecast for rain, the tone was set for a good day. Entering the tournament in first place was a bonus, but none of that mattered now. What mattered now was playing each game to the best of our ability. The girls were ready and the parents, grandparents, siblings and friends were gathered on the sidelines prepared to do their part. It wasn’t long before the first pitch was thrown, the first out called, and the first run in the books. We were off and running.

Four games, and seven hours later, the last strike was called, the last run scored, and the last inning complete. The day was intense, the games close, the girls tired, the play top notch, and the fans engaged. Soon the trophies were awarded, hugs exchanged, chairs packed up, and we were on our way to our cars. Another season of community softball was complete.

Sometimes that stroll back to the car is filled with relief; sometimes it is filled with disappointment. Today it was filled with celebration, gratitude, and disbelief.

Celebration – It was a day of celebration because it had been a good season. All the girls had grown – in skill, teamwork and confidence. Winning the league, and the tournament, were simply external signs of the many things the team had been working on week after week. It was a day of celebration because it had been a season where the girls enjoyed being together and contributing to the whole. Community had been created, not only among the players, but also among the fans. It was a celebration of what the “best” of community softball can be. But this year was so much more.

Gratitude – It was a day of gratitude because of the overall experience and people involved. Seeing players hug other players and coaches was fulfilling. I found myself needing to thank other fans for supporting the kids and team. The grandparents who cheered for “all the kids” by name! You wanted the best for each player, and that was contagious. And to the siblings, young and old, who weren’t too cool, or busy, to bring their own lawn chair and join the crowd. Thanks. Even when the games weren’t close or were boring, your presence made a statement. So many people shared their Monday and Wednesday nights, and pieces of their life. How can I not be grateful?

Disbelief – It was a day of disbelief because it was the end. Once the last out was made and the game called, the reality began to set in. As the awards were handed out and the pictures taken, the lump in my throat began to form. This was the last season of playing community softball. Too many hours to count, too many bad calls to remember, too many coaches to recognize, too many positions played, and too many teammates to thank. My mind suddenly flashed back to both girls playing T-ball as Kindergartners and then I looked up and saw them grown – 18 and 21. Where has the time gone?

Disbelief. Gratitude. Celebration.

So many ministry leaders want to bash young people’s participation in sports – at least the excess of it. I’d like to offer another look. This week I’m resting in the richness it can also provide. Today I’m grieving and celebrating its place in our lives. More than the skills gained, I’m most moved by the number of adults who have accompanied my daughters, cared about their lives, and simply “been there” for them. And in particular, I’m thankful for the coaches. The coaches who saw my kids as more than “pitchers” or “second basemen”; coaches who challenged, and gave space for error; coaches who encouraged, and listened, and coaches who made mistakes, and let others do the same. Thank you! Lisa, Tony, Julie, Andrea, Brad, Eric, Jeff…etc….this one is for you!

Living in the suburbs, I’m often unsure of where I’ll find community. And while this may not be a stated goal of VAA (Valley Athletic Association), I’m grateful for its place in our life, because sitting on the third base sideline has been one place I found community.

Making Memories, and then some

Growing up many of my family adventures, planned and unplanned, were marked by the phrase, ‘making memories.’ Sometimes the phrase was used to mark the ordinary, but fulfilling times in life – such as the first summer night we roasted marshmallows around the campfire. Other times it described unforeseen challenges – such as when we survived camping in the midst of a huge thunderstorm. It was used to put a positive spin on negative experiences – like the time we wandered lost in an unfamiliar city for hours and didn’t stop for directions. And it was used to mark important occasions, putting words to moments we knew would be treasured long into the future – such as graduations and weddings.

The past ten days our family has been making memories; memories now stashed away, but ones which will live into the future as (various versions of) stories will be told and retold for years to come. You see this was a big year for the Elton’s – two graduations to be exact. And to mark these moments, we thought we had to celebrate. So we headed to Barcelona, Spain for 10 days of visiting places we had never been before. Ten days and seven different Mediterranean cities. Each day we explored places we had only studied in classes or heard about in the news. Each day we experienced amazing cities and saw another part of a beautiful region of the world. One day…Pompeii and the ruins of a city destroyed by a volcano. Another day…Rome and Vatican City. One day…pizza in Naples and yes…we were in Cannes, France during the final days of the international film festival. (Seriously? I still don’t know if I believe it.) Every day was interesting, filled with ancient history, glorious landscape, and many stories.

But the cities visited only provided some of the memories. Many more came from the ordinary, less glamorous, moments. There was the billiard challenge and the night bowling. There were card games of Rummy and daily work-outs together. There was ordering drinks by the pool, sitting in the hot tub, and waiting as they prepared to leave port. Ordinary things, yes, but these small events grounded each day and gave us opportunities to BE with each other. No schedules, no external demands. And woven into each day were the conversations, mostly at the meals, when we gathered each day, taking about life. We had the gift of time…time to simply have another cup of coffee (or glass of wine in my case) and wonder about today, the future, and what matters.

Tomorrow we board the plane for the flight home. The flight will be long, but it too is part of the journey. A saying our family has is, ‘sometimes you have to go far to come near.’ We have often used it referring to mission work, but today I believe it is fitting for this trip. We did travel far – our bodies reminded us of that the day we landed in Spain. But we also grew close – something being without internet and having only each other can often do. But ten days in tight quarters does not always equate to growing closer. And for that I am deeply grateful. We, four very different individuals, not only love each other, but we also like each other. We laugh, we give space, we explore the world together, and we have learned how to be family. Sure it’s taken time, and many days it’s been hard. But somewhere along the way, we did it. We figured it out – that pushing through the tough times and celebrating the good times is worth it. Sisters aren’t friends, they are family. And moms and dads do really have your back, even when it doesn’t seem like it. And having adventures, and making a few memories, just might be an important part of making it happen.

So, here’s to another chapter in making memories. Until next time…

A very grateful mom.

Dec. 24 – in those days

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Luke 2:1 NIV
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world…

And so the story begins. Christmas Eve in my family means a fancy dinner, church and opening gifts. Each year has it’s own version. Sometimes church is early so the kids can go to bed at a ‘decent hour.’ Sometimes worship is in communities we are familiar with and other times we worship as visitors. The gift giving changes from year to year. In my younger years, the gifts were central to Christmas. As our family grows our gift giving has morphed from more to less. Today just being together, sharing stories and traditions, takes center stage.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.

And our lives are interrupted. Most every year something interrupts our life during the holiday season. Sometimes it’s coming down with the flu on Christmas; other times it is weather delays. Often we travel from our homes and rearrange our schedules. Friends visit, we gather, we take time off of work. Some of the interruptions are minor; others are major. Our family knows both. There was the year our family was in California and had a Jewish guest. (A memorable year in our family!) There are the Christmases of firsts – engagements, marriages, grandchildren…and so on. The year my brother Scott died ranks highest in interruptions. This year my daughter had ankle reconstruction surgery this morning. Not the ‘normal’ Christmas at our house. Christmas is filled with interruptions.

and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

And the good news breaks in. No matter how the tradition plays out, or what interruptions happen, Jesus comes. In those days and today, the the message of Jesus coming reaches into our lives. And the message, familiar as it is, is always new.

So tonight, missing worship as I sit by the fire with our patient, I once again welcome the baby morning in a manger and say,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Merry Christmas

Working with or Living with a 20something?

If you are engaged in ministry with, supervising an intern, or hiring a 20something adult, what should you know? If you have a 20something person living in your home or are trying to parent them, what’s similar and different to being in your 20s from years ago?

This TedTalk, by Dr. Meg Jay, is eye-opening. And could foster great conversation. Watch it. And then if you are in your 20s or work with or live with someone in their 20s, offer your thoughts.