Think On These Things Week Three ~ Joy

The Ransomed Shall Return

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad;
the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus;

it shall blossom abundantly
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the LORD,
the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.

Say to those who have an anxious heart,
“Be strong; fear not!
Behold, your God
will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
For waters break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;

the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

And a highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Way of Holiness;
the unclean shall not pass over it.
It shall belong to those who walk on the way;
even if they are fools, they shall not go astray.

No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.

And the ransomed of the LORD shall return
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain gladness and joy,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. 

~Isaiah 35

advent

A Child No More

So our last child has officially  entered her teen years. It was so odd to realize that the chapter of “childhood” has come to a close for us. We are a houseful of adults and teenagers now with all that accompanies such a season.

On Claire’s actual birthday I shared a post about growing up and I stand by each word but man, looking through the lens and seeing the last visage of girlhood round on her cheeks knowing that over the next few months and years it will completely fade as she becomes a young woman squeezed my heart a bit.

Certain angles and expressions reveal the face of the woman she is on her way to becoming.

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Like most girls her age she gets a bit self conscious in front of the camera but I still managed to catch a couple of smiles.

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I told Rob how funny it was to see glimpses of her sisters in her but also a certain expression of mine that is so familiar on her face. It’s something to do with the lift of her eyebrow.

IMG_0207 (1) There is something so beautiful about this moment in the life of a girl I think. All of the innocence of childhood still present at the same time womanhood is beginning to bloom and hints of it peek through.

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It’s an interesting intersection of past and present and future.  The next image is one of my favorites from our day out and let me tell you it was quite a little adventure to get to this spot. We had gotten off the boardwalk because I could see another photographer doing a family session and wanted to stay out of their way but the spot I wanted to get too was a little further down.

To get to my spot we had to hoist ourselves back onto the boardwalk without the aid of stairs…me with my camera and $900 rented lens and Claire in her gown holding onto all four rocks she had picked up on our walk by the railroad tracks and beach. We managed it but I am really glad no one was around to see our little circus sideshow.

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Claire has been a collector of rocks since she was a little bitty girl. Her tastes are finally becoming more discriminant thankfully but she still wants all the rocks so limits have to be in place. I had to laugh as we headed to the parking lot to see her juggling her treasures.

It was a relief to this mama’s heart to still see the little girl fascinated with bits and pieces of earth even as I had been seeing so clearly all the changes that show she is growing up.

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This woman child living in my home is so full of energy and life! It’s work to restrain it and direct it to an appropriate direction sometimes but I wait full of expectation and anticipation to see where God takes this bright soul to reveal Himself through her.

“I have one desire now ~ to live a life of reckless abandon for the Lord, putting all my energy and strength into it.” ~Elisabeth Elliot

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Our 12 Days of Christmas

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Celebrating Christmas for twelve whole days can seem a bit daunting at first and people are usually quite curious when they hear it’s what we do in our family. Hopefully, this post will clear up some of the mystery and answer the “What does it look like?” question we usually get.

But let me take a minute and answer the second most asked question we get.

“Isn’t it expensive?”

Well, yes and no. In the long run we probably do spend a little bit more than we used to. Honestly, I prefer the deliberate and meaningful generosity in this way of gift giving though. And to be clear we are a single income family. A single pastoral income…we’re not talking big bucks here so I work at planning in order to be as frugal as possible. Also, since it is spread out over time that means the cost is spread out too. And hello after Christmas sales! I have found that I am bound more by my creativity than I am by money constraints. Some days are more expensive than others but none of them have to be a huge expense. For us there are just some things we do not do often during the year because it’s expensive for a family of our size to do them and they become the perfect gift for one of our 12 days.

For example two family outings that we do not typically do during the year are going to the movies or eating out as a family. Just about everywhere has gift certificates or cards these days so I can purchas them well ahead of time and tuck them away until our movie day or dinner out.

How this looks seven or eight years in is different from how it looked when we first started. And this year will look different because Sarah, our oldest, works all but three or four of the days. Plus she has her own apartment. (It was really sweet back in June when she moved out…three of her siblings voiced their concern over how we would handle Christmas this year.)

But the great thing is that we have a basic framework in place so it’s not a complete overhaul each season. I basically just add a few things in the empty spots around what I call our anchor days. These are the days that are non-negotiable and happen every year.

Christmas Morning ~  They always get that one thing they have really been wanting. They also open their presents from the grandparents but it’s one gift from their father and myself.

Giving Days ~ This didn’t come into being until several years after we started but honestly it’s one of my favorite things about our celebration. Each one of the kids has their giving day when the do not receive anything but they give gifts to each of their siblings. They also get to pick out and prepare a meal of their choice for the family. Sarah’s meal has evolved to include another family and she and Mary will plan a delicious and fancy dinner that usually takes them all day to prepare. Sam usually chooses tacos. Obviously the personalities of the kids make these days what they are.

Favorite Things Basket ~ This is something the kids look forward to every year and cannot be left out. I get a large basket and buy all the fun stuff that I always or nearly always say no to. Giant jars of nutella and Biscoff cookie spread. Lemon curd. Yoohoo drinks. Pop Tarts. V8 Fusion. Certain cereals. Particular chips or snacks. All the things that either don’t fit our everyday grocery budget or are so awfully bad for you that I can’t do it on a regular basis. No off brands either, the real deal name brand. Something everyone will enjoy but some things are put in because of a specific child. Like the lemon curd. Anyone can enjoy some but it is in there because Claire loves it. Sometimes if I find a cheap dvd of a childhood favorite movie or game I will add that into the basket as well.

Ice Cream ~ This activity originally started out as a trip to our local frozen yogurt shop with another family that does not mark the 12 days as we do but it has become as much a tradition for them as it is for us. We’ve got some hilarious stories to come out of this yearly adventure and the telling of them is all part of the process. Although this year we have options because a Baskin Robbins opened and a place called Tastes Buds. My money is leaning toward Taste Buds because they have these amazing freak shakes. (This is where planning ahead helps. The money for this outing has already been tucked away in a sock drawer.)

Day Twelve ~ We always end our celebration with their Christmas stocking and this is where those after holiday sales really shine. Apparently I put tooth brushes and such in them last year and I have been informed that is a no-no. I also forgot the Mementos and apparently those must come back.

So for our family, five kids plus the other four anchor days, means nine of the days require nominal planning to happen. The remaining three days can be an individual gift for each of them, an activity, or an outing of some sort.

Here are some ideas that we’ve done.

A book day. Sometimes we pick the books out and gift wrap them and a few times we’ve planned a jaunt to Barnes and Noble and everyone got to pick out their book.

We have also done a music day and everyone either received sheet music, records or cds. A shoe day (with four girls someone is always seeing cute shoes they want or need.)

We’ve had a game day and everyone got some kind of card or board game. Some friends of ours do their own version of this and spend the day playing games.

Doing things with another family adds to the festivities and fun. We’ve done gingerbread house contests with friends when our kids were younger. It got so big one year we had to do it at the church. One year we packed a picnic dinner and went to see Christmas lights with another family. One of the first families to join us in the 12 days knows a lot of stuff about hockey and they began the yearly tradition of a hockey game. We usually  go to dinner (Sonny’s Bar B Que) and an Ice Flyers game and sometimes the kids ice skate afterwards. There was utter shock expressed when I mentioned it might not happen this year due to work schedules conflicting with the game schedule. I’ve no idea why it is so or why my normally peace loving non-violent children become blood thirsty hooligans but that’s just the way it is.

The ideas and possibilities are really endless. Have a gift card day! Pick up random gift cards throughout the year and spend a day using them. You can choose to do a service project as a family, visit a nursing home, have a baking day and then deliver the goodies to the local fire or police department. Invite people to join you. No matter how small the activity or actual gift may be celebrate big.

Because really what we are celebrating is the most extravagant gift that has ever been given. We are echoing the generosity of our Father who sent His Son to not just rescue us from death and hell but to give abundant life. We celebrate robustly and fully because that is the life we have been granted in Christ.

Think On These Things Week Two ~ Peace

Comfort for God’s People

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins.

A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.

And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

~Isaiah 40:1–5

Advent

The 12 Days of Christmas

Our family has been celebrating the 12 days of Christmas for quite a few years. Every year I get asked about it and rather than writing a new post saying the same things I am re-sharing a post I did a few years ago. Later this week I will talk about the practical aspect to celebrating this way.

Repairing the ruins.
That’s a phrase commonly heard in our reformed classical circles as it relates to taking back the way we educate our children. As I’ve been thinking through writing this blog post in response to some questions I’ve gotten about how our family celebrates Christmas I realized it’s a rather fitting phrase for more than just classical education.
The truth is that our job as Christians is to be continually at work repairing the ruins. Now obviously we cannot ignore the truth that through the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ God has put all things back to rights. But neither can we ignore that we live in the now and not yet-ness of what God has done, is doing, and will do. Or that we have been giving the joyful task of joining Him in that work.
One of the smallest but biggest changes our family has made in recent years is aligning our lives more closely with the Church calendar which functions along the life of Christ. So in one sense we are currently marking the start of the new year as we celebrate Advent even as we recognize the close of the traditional calendar.
Practicing Advent each year was the starting point for us and then we also started looking for ways to change how we celebrate the birth of Christ. I was familiar with the “12 days of Christmas” but always as a time leading up to Christmas, not marking time from His birth to the time traditionally celebrating Epiphany, the arrival of the wise men.
This is important because for most of the western mainstream church the 25th of December is the climax of weeks long anticipation but December 26th doesn’t mean much. Or the 27th, the 28th, and so on. Of course January 1st is marked but then life collapses back into normal until months later when Easter Sunday is celebrated. But there is so much more.
Marking the 12 days leading up to Epiphany means we are celebrating and marking the glorious Truth that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. It’s not just about spiritualizing the holiday as a way of rejecting the commercializing of the one real Holy day most of us agree is actually holy. It’s twelve days of commemorating the greatest gift ever given…God Himself taking on human form and becoming one of us.
There is no Biblical command to celebrate the 12 days of Christmas so not doing so is certainly no sin. And that also means that each family is free to set up their 12 days as they see fit. Our days have evolved and changed over the years with some days becoming set in stone staples and other days being flexible and changing from year to year. The important thing is that we are working to restore the glory of a world changing event that the enemy has sought to tear down and bury under a pile of cheap spit and shine made up thrill meant to distract from the thrill of hope that causes a weary world to rejoice.

Tomorrow I will share some of the ways we celebrate the 12 days but let me give a few highlights we’ve found in this process. First, the fact that it is spread out means that although there is significant planning (I mean we have five children so I have to kind of have my act together) it doesn’t all happen on one day. Less pressure. Less stress.

Which brings me to point number two and one that we really like…hello after Christmas sales! You can take advantage of some major deals.

And third I think our children, and us adults for that matter, can enjoy and savor the time more because it isn’t hitting us in the face at a breakneck pace. It’s lost the overwhelmingness that sometimes comes with major events that leaves us feeling limp, exhausted and slightly underwhelmed because of the momentous days and days of lead up.

An added benefit that we have enjoyed more and more as the years have gone by and others have joined us in marking the 12 days is the sense of community it brings. There are certain activities that we enjoy during this time that are enriched because we share them with friends.

The important thing to remember whether you celebrate one day or twelve is well summed up by Jeff Smith, the Frugal gourmet guy:

“…on our own, Christmas does not work. It is not the tree, or the dinner or the planning, or the weather, or the relatives that make the Mass of Christ. It is the Child. Come to the manager and be amazed…”

Think On These Things Week One ~ Hope

During Advent the TOTT Tuesday posts will be connected to the theme for each of the four weeks.
For to Us a Child Is Born

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.

You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.

For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.

For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. 

~Isaiah 9:1–7

The Way We Do It

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Sometimes things become a thing that ought not be a thing. And sometimes there are things that ought to be a thing that aren’t a thing. I think Halloween falls into the becoming a thing when it ought not be a thing category.

 

Our family has been all over the spectrum about this day. Seriously, I don’t think you could choose a position and we haven’t, at one point or other in time, held it. But several years ago we finally found our spot and planted a flag so to speak. Before I tell you about our particular way of dealing with this day let me share two things that I think are important to remember.

Firstly, there is no day that does not belong to the Creator of days. They all belong to Him and we are told to rejoice in the day that He has made so rejoice!

Secondly, we are told to do all that we do, everything, to the glory of God. Now some will shake their head and declare that you cannot glorify God by dressing up and pandhandling for candy. Maybe, maybe not?

But I do believe there is a way to rejoice on the day of October 31st and glorify God in it that does not involve turning off all of your lights and pretending to not be home.

We choose to practice hospitality. Big hospitality. We open our home up to family and friends and bid them feast on mac & cheese and hot dogs. And we open our yard up to the neighborhood. We pass out candy obviously, but we also have a tasty treat of chocolate dipped marshmallows and either hot chocolate or lemonade (because Florida) and water available for thirsty visitors. It is not unusual to have 25 or 30 people gathered on the street in front of our house at a time. And a lot of them comment about how they were hoping we’d be back at it again this year.

Has anyone ever become a Christ follower because they stopped at our house for a marshmallow and cup of hot cocoa? No. But that does not change the fact that they have been given refreshment in His name. That hospitality has been given with sincere hearts because we have tasted the goodness of His table and been offered eternal hospitality.

I think to celebrate or not is a matter of conscience and not of faith so my thought about this day is mark it or not as you feel comfortable doing and whichever position you take do so with a song of rejoicing on your lips displaying the glory of our King.

And you are always welcome to stop by our house for a marshmallow and a cup of hot cocoa.

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What It Looks Like

So what does it look like to celebrate the 12 days of Christmas? We get asked this a lot when people find out our holiday season is a wee bit longer than the norm. Most people are curious but also seem leery of how much work might be involved. But honestly, once you get the hang of it it’s not difficult at all. The important thing to remember is that it doesn’t have to be perfect down to the last detail.

As a matter of fact how it looks today for our family varies quite a bit from how it looked when we started however many years ago it was when we started. I imagine as our children grow and marry and grand children come along that it will look even more different then than now. Essentially the framework is in place but every year you have the opportunity to flesh it out differently depending on circumstances, ages and interest of the kids, etc. You are only limited by how creative you want to be. Things can be as big and special as you wish or as simple and uncomplicated. As a family of seven there are some activities that we rarely do because of how expensive it can be. We don’t eat out as a family often and a trip to the movie theater is practically right out. These are the kinds of things we add into the 12 days mix and I think it makes them a bit more special because they don’t happen often.

Like I mentioned in yesterday’s post we have a few days that repeat every single year so let’s start there. These are the events or activities that we did once and the children begged, pleaded, and possibly mutinied over not having until we made them an annual part of our celebration. 

A hockey game. I know absolutely zero about hockey and my children know even less. My love may know a little bit more than all of us since he has lived up north before. What we all know is that one of the first families to join us in the 12 days knows a lot of stuff about hockey and we go to dinner (Sonny’s Bar B Que) and an Ice Flyers game with them each year. Nothing about this can vary. Not who goes with us and not where we eat. I’ve no idea why it is so or why my normally peace loving non-violent children become blood thirsty hooligans but that’s just the way it is.
Sweet Frog. Yep, a trip to the yogurt shop. This is also an activity that we do with friends although they don’t mark the 12 days as we do. But frozen yogurt with our family is as much a tradition for them as it is for us. We’ve got some hilarious stories to come out of this yearly adventure and the telling of them is all part of the process.

Gingerbread house contest.  We do this with several other families and is a sweet messy day and also usually involves a meal. This year there are so many of us participating that we’ve moved it to the church. Each family brings supplies and we put everything out for people to use. And snack on. We’ve loved how these days have sprung up and it adds so much to the sense of community we share.
Favorite things basket. I get a large basket and buy all the fun stuff that I always or nearly always say no to. Giant jars of nutella and or Biscoff cookie spread. Lemon curd. Yoohoo drinks. Pop Tarts. V8 Fusion. Certain cereals. Particular chips or snacks. All the things that either don’t fit our everyday grocery budget or are so awfully bad for you that I can’t do it on a regular basis. No off brands either, the real deal name brand. Something everyone will enjoy but some things are put in because of a specific child. Like the lemon curd. Anyone can enjoy some but it is in there because Claire loves it.
Giving Days. This is hands down my favorite part of the 12 days. We didn’t start with these days but once we added them I wish we had come up with idea sooner. Each child has a giving day assigned to them. On that day they don’t receive any gifts but give the gifts to their siblings. (As our oldest daughter became an adult she added her father and me in to her giving day which is really special.) The giver also gets to choose a menu and do the cooking for that meal.  
Christmas stockings. This is the last gift given on the last day every year. It’s a fun way to wrap up the whole thing.
For those who are are a little intimidated by what seems to be such a large undertaking let’s break things down a bit.
There are 12 days. The first day (Christmas morning) they each get a gift. Usually that one thing that they’ve been asking for. 
Subtracting the five giving days from the remaining eleven days brings us to only six more days.
Take away five days for each of the days mentioned above and there is only one more day to buy an individual gift for each of the kids.
Ideas for individual gift days have been random choices suited to whatever each child is interested in.  We’ve also chosen to do themed days…shoe, game, music, etc.

You can choose to do a service project as a family, visit a nursing home, have a baking day and then deliver the goodies to the local fire or police department. Have a craft day.

One idea that I literally thought of this morning and will implement next year is a gift card day. Through the year I plan to randomly buy $10 gift cards to places that strike my fancy and suit my kiddos likes. That way I can give them a variety of cards and the cost is spread out over time thus protecting my budget and relationship with my beloved.

I’m sure that you probably have ideas all your own that I have never even thought of. I’d love to hear them and also if you have any questions feel free to ask!

PS Someone mentioned it might be helpful to see how we lay it out. So here is look at how I write things out.

Day 1    Christmas Day (one gift from us all the stuff from grandparents)
Day 2    Hockey Game Night
Day 3    Giving Day for one child
Day 4    Gingerbread House Contest
Day 5    Favorite Things Basket
Day 6    Giving Day
Day 7    Individual Gifts
Day 8    Giving Day
Day 9    Sweet Frog
Day 10  Giving Day
Day 11  Giving Day
Day 12  Stockings

Normally, I try not to do back to back giving days but with the date of our hockey game it couldn’t be helped. And the only reason I try to not do it is strictly for the sake of variety. They don’t mind either way.

PPS Another question that came up…our children are ages 22, 17, 16, 15, and 11. We’ve been doing the 12 Days for the last five or so years.

Home Sweet Home

The best thing about this Christmas season so far has been our success at surprising the kids.

And having them all home without homework needing to be done or places to go.

The fourth day of Christmas was book day and each one was met with much happiness.

Claire really loved a series that her teacher started reading to her class last year. I think I want to read them too.

Each year we try to get Emily some kind of sheet music. Last year I think it was music inspired by Pride and Prejudice. This year it’s music from the Harry Potter movie series.

Abigail also received a piano book this year as a way of us telling her that she will begin lessons next Wednesday. She is so excited and I think she will do well with our friend who will be teaching her. We got Sam a really big book about tips and tricks for building Lego’s. He’s a little skeptical since he prefers going “off book” as he puts it, when he is creating. But it must have some interesting and helpful information because I keep seeing him looking through it and studying it.

Sarah had actually mentioned her book to me a while back and was thrilled to get a copy. If you know her at all you know she is a huge fan of Audrey Hepburn so this book was perfect for her. Written by her children, it’s a cross between a cook book and a biography.

Sarah made the from scratch chocolate cake recipe for us last night. It was tasty and she learned that there is a significant difference between baking chocolate and a candy bar.

She was pretty excited when it flipped out beautifully. We were also pretty happy when we realized the recipe doesn’t call for flour so Sam could enjoy it with us.

She topped it with homemade whipped topping and it was delicious.

And such was our fourth day of Christmas.