This is an excerpt from my book, Simple Mercies, that I wanted to share in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s Feast Day this past Sunday.
During one Christmas season, I was reminded of the power of prayer when I became one of the prayer warriors trying to get a forty-nine-year-old man named Joe out of prison. I know that doesn’t conjure the same feelings of drinking hot cocoa in footed pajamas by the fire like your typical Christmas story does. Still, it’s a powerful reminder of what can happen when we believe – not only in God but in one another.
As one of six boys, Joe grew up next door to my friend, Cecy. Despite having three young kids at home, she worked for years trying to get her childhood friend out of prison. Joe had been arrested for buying cocaine for personal use and was charged and sentenced as a trafficker. His punishment was twenty years with no chance of parole. He had already served thirteen.
Joe had made appeals all the way to the Florida Supreme Court — each one denied. The only hope he had was clemency from the governor to commute his sentence. That’s when the ordinary became extraordinary. Joe was finally granted a clemency hearing. Sadly, his mom passed away less than a month before his hearing. Joe learned of her death from a prison guard and was unable to attend her funeral. The tragedy of it hardly made me think of the word, believe. Yet when his hearing was finally held, I was visiting New York City where over the Macy’s store on 34th Street, a huge sign in brilliant white lights said only one word: Believe. While I wasn’t sure whether I believed our prayers would be answered in the way that we wanted, I was inspired by the people who believed Joe deserved another chance and did something about it. I had faith that no matter what, God would use the situation for good. I had already seen how many people it had united in prayer and I felt the shared hope that a miracle was possible. I very much wanted to believe.Read more →
While most people fret over not knowing what to buy someone for Christmas, I have a different sort of problem. I love what I buy for others so much, I inevitably want to keep it.
I recognize that my propensity to want to hoard other people’s Christmas presents makes me like Dr. Seuss’s mean-spirited character, the Grinch. In fact, I’m afraid if I took one of those mail-in DNA tests, I might discover that my ancestry doesn’t descend from royalty like one hopes but from a tribe of hairy, pot-bellied, avocado-colored men whose hearts are two sizes too small.
Besides worrying about this fundamental flaw in my genetics, it’s a terrible nuisance to realize you still have more Christmas shopping to do because you kept many of the things you bought for others. My husband, who is a gifted enabler, lovingly wraps the gifts I hoard and puts them under the tree for me. I think it’s a relief for him because he doesn’t have to work as hard at trying to figure out what to give me for Christmas. So, maybe on some level what I’m doing is altruistic.
I know this behavior hardly conjures scenes from the nativity. I suppose I wouldn’t have made a very good wise woman anyhow. I would meet sweet baby Jesus with the gold I bought for him forged into a stylish bracelet around my wrist while explaining to him that his gift would arrive on the next camel.
It was Christmas Eve and I couldn’t wait for Santa to come. I am not even sure I believed in Santa at this point in my childhood, but I believed in presents and that was good enough. I had trouble sleeping, and hearing the rustle of last-minute gift-wrapping upstairs only heightened my anticipation. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, I prowled the attic, my mom’s closet, and any other place I could think to snoop. The idea of being surprised was overrated. Practically speaking, I could just as easily be surprised by looking inside a plastic bag while standing barefoot on the attic’s plywood floor. I felt certain that I had watched enough television to feign astonishment on Christmas morning. I even fantasized about my Emmy-award winning performance. It would be as bright and colorful as the lights on the tree that would spotlight me.
I wasn’t sure what I was looking for during all that prowling but that’s part of the journey of discovery, right? It’s the thrill of seeking, of what could be, — maybe even of finding something better than we imagined. In my case, what I found didn’t compare to the curated wares hawked in the Spiegel catalog I carefully perused as a pastime. There was a Tootsie Roll piggy bank filled with chewy chocolate jerky. Meh. Fun socks — as if those two words could possibly go together. Toys that were obviously for my brother. I certainly had no use for G.I. Joe. He was too short to use as a suitable partner for Barbie. Then there were a few miscellaneous clothes that I hoped were for my sister because they weren’t quite cute enough for me.
I wanted a fur coat like the one I lovingly pet in the department store inspiring a lecture from my mom on animal cruelty. What seemed crueler was her begrudging me this accessory that I was certain would make me look as glamorous as Sue Ellen on the Friday-night soap-opera, Dallas. (If they didn’t want children to watch such smut, they should not have run it after an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard). I would have settled for a rabbit’s foot keychain like some of the other girls at my school had. They were supposed to bring good luck. Who wouldn’t carry around two inches of a dead animal foot in exchange for a little luck?
Like many parents, I introduced the Elf on the Shelf to my family years ago. Every year, he flew in on December first and brought treats to my boys. Sometimes he did silly things and sometimes he was too tired to bother and would just perch himself on a nearby object trying to look peppy. I envied him because, even in his stillness, he brought joy. Meanwhile, spinning like a rogue top from the Island of Misfit Toys, I was doing everything possible to make each moment merry. Yet, no one thought I was cute or clever or fun. Still, moving the elf each night made me feel purposeful about making the season joyful.
This year, the elf is laying face down in my dresser drawer between my camisoles and fuzzy socks.
Like the tape when I sit down to wrap presents, my Christmas spirit is lost. Besides the missing elf, I have maintained the same traditions, attended the same parties, and surrounded myself with the same fa-la-la-la-la that suddenly feels more flat than festive. It bothers me because I know the reason for the season. I have even been mindful about spending more time with God, doing something every day to reflect on the joy of our savior. I figured eventually the Christmas spirit would find me. I would even pull that abandoned elf out of my drawer and spin an elaborate story for my teenage boys, explaining how the elf had been injured in a sledding accident and could no longer fly to the North Pole every night. As such, he became a truck driver who sleeps in highway rest stations leaving treats for weary travelers. My kids would roll their eyes. I would roll out the Christmas cheer, and all would be right with the world.
Yet, each day felt like the one before. Busy, but no genuine excitement for all the bustling.
Then I realized that maybe things don’t need to feel different. After all, we are encouraged to keep Christmas in our hearts year-round. More than anything, what embodies that for me are the people in my life. They are my gifts. Despite all the minutia that fills my day, they fill me with gratitude, laughter, and hope. It’s the simple moments of mercy they offer through kind words, concern, and unconditional love that keeps the contentment of a newborn king in my heart. Their presence is a preeminent present I unwrap on ordinary days, moments that don’t typically have the pomp of the season that shines. Yet they light my way with a steady glow that glimmers with the love of a baby born with a singular purpose, to save.
The Christmas spirit isn’t going to be found under the tree or from my semi-truck driving elf. It is going to be where it has always been, in the light and love of my neighbor. May you realize the power of your own light, because when the glittery garland is put away the world will still need your shine.
The frenzy of the holiday season is in full gear and while I have been overwhelmed with to-do lists and to buy-lists and to-bring-me-closer-to-Jesus lists, it occurs to me that as scattered as I feel and as hectic as it all seems – how absolutely beautiful it is that we all stretch and strive so hard to celebrate the birth of Christ. And, I know all of the items on the to-do and to-buy lists are unnecessary and I know the meaning of the season is grossly commercialized.
Still, what a season of evangelization it is for all of us. To know and celebrate the joy of a newborn King and to want to share the joy with others is truly the most beautiful gift we have and the most beautiful gift we can share. So, do all of the things you think you need to do, and do all of the things you want to do, just through it all, try to remember HIS joy. It makes everything worthwhile. ~ love, Lara and her truck-driving elf
P.S. – Signed copies of Simple Mercies are still available for purchase for $15 each if you buy two or more and are local. Shipped copies are $20. Please email me if you are interested at firstname.lastname@example.org
I was picking up throw pillows off my living room floor last week. (I don’t have toddlers but I have teenagers and there is a multitude of similarities). Anyway, I turned around from my pillow-pick-up and looked out the window to see a pink sky. To my surprise, there was a rose-colored glow on everything: the grass, trees, pavers – all of it. Pink. It was beautiful and eerie and made me feel as if the world had stopped and Jesus had come. Not long after that, the pink had faded into gray and torrential rain followed. Still, I kept thinking about the way the sky’s color palette changed from ordinary to awesome in what seemed like an instant. It reminded me of our faith journey.
Sometimes in our faith walk, it feels like we travel alone. Others may know our troubles but they don’t understand every notch and groove of the crosses we carry, nor do we theirs. As such, it is important to always practice compassion and take comfort in the mercy we are offered along the way. Our walks look different. Sometimes it’s the longing for a child, the reconciliation of a marriage, a better job, the healing of a loved one, unbearable grief, or addiction. Regardless of what it looks like, it requires the perseverance of faith.
For years, I wanted to publish a book about mercy. I wanted to write the book I needed to read but could not find. I pursued it. I experienced painful rejections, the almost but not quite, the close doesn’t count, and the dogged doubt that told me to quit. For some time now, that has been a part of my faith walk. Alone, in the dark, unsure, but trying to trust, I practiced patience and surrender, and above all, mercy. I persevered. Without mercy, I never could have kept going. It told me that it was okay to try. It taught me to love myself, not what others thought of me or my work. It reminded me that something far greater than earthy desires await. So, I trudged on, trusting that I would know when it was time to quit. I waited, sometimes even hoped, to get that message to move on. Yet, through Gods strength, I always managed another day.
Then, on an ordinary Wednesday, a publisher offered me a book deal. Just like that.
The walk that for so long felt cumbersome, lonely, and uncertain was over. The longing was no more. The wait ended. The sound ceased to be an echo. The darkness receded. I had my pink sky. There aren’t really words to describe what this meant to me, all the countless ways that I looked back and saw how God had intricately thread the tapestry of my journey. Every stitch was intentional. Every time I held on by a thread, he held me up. I could finally see his pattern that once seemed so haphazard. I think of all the people he sent at just the right time to keep me going, to encourage, to embody hope, and I am overwhelmed by the goodness of it all. Yet more than anything what strikes me is how in one instant everything can change. We walk in faith. We trudge along. We believe. We doubt. We fall down. We get up. Sometimes it’s awful. Sometimes it’s hopeful. And then, in the instant of his perfect timing, one walk ends and another begins. It’s like Christmas day on an ordinary Wednesday.
During the third week of Advent, we celebrate Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is the Latin word for rejoice. While Advent is a penitential season of expectant waiting and preparation for the coming of Christmas and the second coming of Christ, on Gaudete Sunday, we celebrate the joy of God’s redemption. With only a week of Advent to go, we pause and rejoice all that awaits. “Rejoice in the Lord, always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand,” (Philippians 4:4-5). As such, we switch from lighting purple candles on our advent wreath to lighting pink.
Pink is the color of joy. It is the fulfillment of the promise of our faith. Sometimes it’s the color of the sky reminding us of the miracles in nature. Sometimes it’s the color of our cheeks when we are flush with joy. Sometimes it’s the color we have longed to see for far too long. The color that shows up one day as the embodiment of a dream. Right now, it is my favorite color of all.
Just days ago, I spent the day giving thanks. It wasn’t a restful day, but it was full of food, family, and a dance party with my nieces where I got to be the star Rockette.
Then, in a flick of a leg, it ended — the spirited kicks, the gratitude, and that content feeling that I had everything I need. I know that’s not why they call it Black Friday but it seems apt that all the products they try to sell can make us feel as dark and empty as a turkey with no stuffing.
How strange it is to go from counted blessings to conspicuous consumption in just a day. Stranger still, that it’s done in the name of Christ. After all, he never owned much during his time on earth. Jesus was concerned with miracles, not the material. He shared compassion not coupons. He wasn’t about making the deal. He was the real deal. That’s why we celebrate the gift of his birth.
But popping out of a day of thanks like a rogue jack-in-the-box, we are bombarded with glossy ads, lowest prices of the season, rebates, cyber sales, steals and deals, and all the promising thrills the hustle and bustle buys.
It’s exhausting and expensive and it’s what I do. The season of Advent hasn’t even started and I already feel more harried than merry. Even when I am not looking for anything in particular to buy, I am afraid not to look, because what if I miss out on something? As such, I have diagnosed myself with FOMO (fear of missing out). I’m thinking this is a legitimate diagnosis since there is an acronym for it.
As it goes, I fear that if I don’t click on the link or the email or the buy button, then I am going to miss out on some “deal of a lifetime.” My life will spiral out of control if I spend two more measly dollars than necessary to buy something. My children won’t go to college. We will be financially ruined. The Elf on the Shelf will mock me. My nieces will find another star Rockette. Read more →
A friend of mine confessed on a recent girls’ night that her Christmas tree was still up. It was past mid-March. New Year’s resolutions had already been forgotten, Cupid already shot his arrow, leprechauns already spent their pots of gold, and cumulus clouds were already forming April showers in the skies, so I didn’t really know what to say.
She seemed relatively nonchalant about it, and I told her I didn’t know whether she had become fully liberated or if she had simply gone over the edge. There seems to be a fine line between those things. Read more →