2013: The Happy, the Hard & the Ridiculous

Someone recently said to me, “The most bizarre things seem to always happen to you.” That made me laugh heartily. 

I’m thankful for this past year, but I am also worn out when I think about it. I feel like I’m crashing into the recliner of 2014 with a huge sigh saying, “Whew. 2013. Let’s never do that again!”

This year held some really high highs… Isaac’s amazingly joyful birth, Billy’s long-awaited citizenship and Billy coming back home with a job after moving to California to work. Yay!

We also experienced some really grown-up challenges, like saying good-bye to multiple friends who moved away, crying out as a friend said good-bye to her husband after his fierce battle with cancer, and watching the year close with immigration reform unresolved.

It’s been a wild year, adjusting to the reality of a newborn (sleepless nights, anyone?) and the chaos that is having two lovely kiddos and two working parents.

As the year wraps up, here is the list of the Top 5 posts:

And I’m adding a couple that didn’t get the top traffic, but were my personal favs... because apparently, I have a special place in my heart for the tomfoolery!

What did you love most about 2013? What are you looking forward to most this year? And if you’re a blogger, please share your “wrap-up” list or favorite posts in the comments. I’d love to check ‘em out!

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Crowded Christmas: A Nativity Different Than We Imagine?

How do you imagine that Christmas scene in the barn? Could it have been different?

This year, my mental image of the Christmas story has been revolutionized. And it's so beautiful I can hardly stand it.

It all started when I read a blog post about the understanding cultural context of the Bible. Blogger Yo Steve writes:

A Western individualistic perspective assumes that Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem alone, gave birth to Jesus alone, and marveled alone as shepherds and wise men came to pay homage. 

But the Bible doesn't say they were alone. That's an assumption. What if they traveled with family, the way they traveled to the Temple later in the same chapter of the Bible? It doesn't dramatically change our theology, but it shifts our reading of the passage.

Woah. Mind blown. And now I have so. many. questions.

I’ve always envisioned harsh innkeepers shooing away a pregnant teenager. Is it possible she was one - perhaps unnoticed - person in a crowd of family members searching for lodging?

If her family were there, how did they feel about her pregnancy? We once saw a Christmas film that interviews modern day residents of Bethlehem, and they discussed “honor killings.” According to their understanding, Mary’s family would have been expected to kill her for the shame of an unmarried pregnancy. So… how did that go down?

Was she surrounded by women - aunts and cousins and maybe her mother - at the birth? Did they believe her story? Did they not care? Did they hold her hand as the Christ child was born? Were they supportive or suspicious? Did they coo at the baby and help Mary learn the ropes as a new mom?

This new perspective has also given me new eyes for the nativity scene in our home. We purchased the set shown above in Guatemala, an admittedly more collective culture.

Every year, when I set it up, I can’t tell who Joseph is. There are four male figurines, and they all look the same! And they’re all carrying gifts.

Also, there’s a second woman. She is holding what appears to be bread, while the other is clearly “treasuring these things in her heart.” So I make a confident judgment call about Mary. Bu still, I’ve always been like, who is this second woman and where is the shepherd with the lamb around his neck?

This year, I’ve simply wondered if this set was created with a different perspective. With a cultural context that assumes family was present. Maybe not. But maybe.

So I set it up a little differently this year. Kept those guys a little closer to Joseph rather than clustering them as my symbolic “wise men” off to the side. And I inched the second woman in closer to the action.

Like the quote above, this shifts don't dramatically affect my theology. But they do change the way I imagine the Christmas story. And I find myself discovering it anew this Christmas. 
I'd love to hear your thoughts. How have you imagined the setting of Jesus' birth? Where and how does culture influence your understanding of the Bible? What questions do you have about the nativity? 
P.S. I bought and read the book Yo Steve referenced: Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. It made a huge impact on me as I seek to better understand the context of my Jesus's birth, life, and ministry. You might like it, too!

5 Signs You May Have Underestimated Christmas

Yep. All these photos came directly from my house. Merry Christmas!

SIGN #1: The walk of shame into preschool on the last day before break, thinking “I hope all the other mothers decided to phone this one in as well.”

SIGN #2: On December 21, your advent calendar looks like this. Let’s just assume I did participate in the first 12 days and didn’t just remember to pull them out each day.

SIGN #3: Here lie your Christmas lights four days before Christmas. Better luck next year!

SIGN #4: You finally decide to just turn off the Christmas tree. Because as more and more lights gave out… it was the humane thing to do.

SIGN #5: While pondering if you’ll have time to wrap gifts before traveling, you think the following: “I wonder if my mom has paper I can use. If not, I’ll just cover the kid’s gift with a blanket and ‘unveil it’…”

Good thing all these things aren't what the season is about, right? I'm certainly counting on it! Have a very merry Christmas, friends!

How are your best-laid plans going this holiday season?

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Image credit: Hades2k

Coming Home with Tamales in Tow

Standing in the grocery store, we’re trying to remember if we really have everything we need to get through this week before our Christmas travels. Breakfasts… lunch supplies… dinner… snacks for the car… I’m running through the lists in my head.

Anything we need for our trip? For Christmas? “Hey,” I tell my husband. “We should call the Mexican restaurant in my parents’ town and see if they can tell us where to get tamales this year.”

Our last Christmas in Kentucky, we searched fruitlessly, basically just driving around the Latino community of the nearest city and popping into convenient stores with Spanish names. No luck.

There’s really no such thing as “coming home” for the multicultural family. I feel most aware of this at Christmas.

We’re constantly merging celebratory traditions from our own backgrounds. But in reality, we’ve created our own third culture, unique to our family. This process is quite common for those who transition cultures. (You can read a great, pictorial description here.)

Fireworks at midnight are a big part of Billy’s experience, but not so much here. So every Christmas Eve, we bust out sparklers about 7pm and call it a night.

I love stockings, so those are hung each year by the fake fireplace with care. (In fact, one year they were about the only decorations that made it out of the storage bins because I like them so much.)

And as we celebrate more and more Christmases together, I’m realizing tamales are now part of my expectation and our family’s tradition. When I think of coming home for Christmas, I am in a constant state of not-quite-fitting-in, but also fitting into several cultures in my own, little way.

I am thankful that cross-cultural experiences draw me closer to Jesus. Because I feel like Jesus probably understands this awkward state fitting in, but not fitting in.

As he arrived in this world, he was fully man, but totally not. He engaged in the traditions of his Jewish surroundings, but also turned them on end with the reality of his being fully God as well.

There’s something comforting as I reflect on the arrival of the culture-jumping Christ child. (Although when I write it like that, the image in my head is a little more “Beam me up, Scotty” than “May I see your passport?”)

I feel relief at welcoming a God who says, “I’ll see your global Christmas and raise you one ‘this world is not my home.’” The experience of God is big enough. His arrival in a manger can encompass all the backgrounds we carry and welcome us in beloved community to experience the supernatural together.

I just love that.

Image credit: Vito Galgano

I'm linking up with Synchroblog this month on the theme of "Coming Home." Click here to read other posts in this series.

The Gift of Dignity: Guest Post on SheLoves

Image credit: Hades2k

If you've never browsed around SheLoves Magazine, I highly recommend it. They have a wide variety of global contributors, so there's always an eye-opening perspective to read. And they cover so many wonderful topics of faith and social justice and community. Love it!

I'm super excited to be joining these ladies today, writing about Christmas and gift giving practices to the poor. It's a topic that important to me, and I appreciate the opportunity to share. Let's get this party started:

I sat on their bed, the one shared by other and her pre-teen son.

It was the primary seating in the one-room apartment.

Together we had spent the morning standing in line in the biting cold, waiting outside a local ministry organization.

It was Christmas toy pick-up day. Mothers lined the sidewalk, gripping paperwork, eager to pick up gifts a stranger had purchased for their child that year.

We had hauled our bag through the streets and back alleys and were now gathered on the bed. The boy sifted through his gifts and within seconds disappointment, frustration and embarrassment swelled together as he tossed the aside.

These presents were for a girl. 

When You Don't Know How Long You'll Be Waiting

This Advent I've been thinking a great deal on immigration reform. It's the first thing that comes to my mind when I'm reflecting on "waiting." (Well, that and trying to prepare breakfast for a hungry two-year old.)

I'm honored to be sharing some Advent thoughts today over on the G92 blog, one of my favorite resources for an evangelical perspective on immigration. Here's a sneak peek:

In 2007, I paced in my apartment, phone pressed to my ear as my undocumented fiance mourned the immigration reform bill dying on the Senate floor. Momentum had been building all summer, and against his better judgment, Billy's hopes had risen.

He was working on a construction crew in Los Angeles, so as he called me from work, he wasn't experiencing this crushing disappointment alone. "All the guys are sad," he told me. "Nobody wants to work."

If you're visiting this site from G92, welcome! Here's a couple other posts you may enjoy:

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Advent Rest

She is lying on her back, completely still while I rub her hair. This never happens.

An energetic two-year old, she is always on the move, dancing, running or falling to the floor in a tantrum. But in this moment she is still.

I never lay next to her in bed, terrified for some reason that if I do it once, it will be a new requirement for putting her to sleep.

But tonight I’m too tired. I crawl in next to her for our nightly prayer and song. I stroke her hair and she doesn’t move. I keep singing.

I adore my daughter, but she can drain me. Our personalities are too similar. Always busy, always on to the next thing, always needing.

Through my eyelashes, I see her looking at me. I’m careful not to break the moment, enjoying so deeply the feel of her close to me.

I realize my singing turned mumbling has stopped. Maybe I fell asleep. My eyes flutter open, and she is still staring.

“Mommy?” she whispers.

I wonder what she will say. How does she experience this precious moment of us cuddled close in her bed? In the storybooks, she will tell me how much she loves me right about now.

“Yes, love?”

“Mommy. I want some water.”

I almost laugh and try not to be disappointed. Yes, this sounds about right. The moment has passed. I get up to find a cup.

It’s weeks later and I am struggling in my relationship with God when I remember this night with my daughter. It’s one of my fondest memories.

But I hear a still, small voice whisper, “Do you see me?”

“So often I want to be with you, to share the moments. But too frequently the only way you know to interact with me, dear child, is to ask me for water.

Take a break from always being awake, staring and asking questions. Your needs are valid, and I will provide for those. But come, let us rest together. Just enjoy this moment… with me.”

This Advent I want to find those little spaces to just rest with my Lord. Not to rattle off my requests or to unload what weighs on my heart, but to just experience the affection and rest offered to me.

Easier said than done, I know. What are the ways you rest during this Advent season?

Photo: Creative Commons
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Why We Broke Into Our Neighbor’s House

There was a knock at the door late one evening.

A woman we’d never seen before was asking about our next door neighbor, an independent senior I’ll call Ms. Terry. The woman was there to pick her up for church, but the gate was locked and Ms. Terry wasn’t answering her phone.

“She always told me if there was a problem to come here and ask y’all,” she told us. “I’m worried because her car is in the driveway but she’s not answering the phone.”

I joined in the phone-a-thon, calling her cell and then her home again. After several rings at her house, I heard what I was certain was the distinct sound of someone answering in a raspy voice before the answering machine took over.

I knew something was wrong.

So we did what any good neighbor would do: Billy jumped her fence to peer in her windows.

And what did he find? Too many curtains, but a distinct view of a television turned to fuzz. I should note that once at a haunted house, a static TV a la The Ring scared Billy more than anything else in the whole deal.

We were in full freak-out mode.

At this point, the kind woman from church called the police. They arrived and subsequently broke down her door. But after searching the house, she was nowhere to be found.

They pulled away. Plot thickening, people!

I was convinced they hadn’t searched well. After all, I felt certain she’d weakly answered the phone from inside the house. I tried to persuade Billy go back in for our own search. He declined.

Our new partner in crime, the church lady, mentioned we should check her yard and… gulp… her shed! 

Not to miss out on the excitement, I was literally outside in the dark with three-week old Isaac, traipsing through her yard.

The shed lock was open, which was shocking enough because she always talks about keeping it locked after several break-ins. Billy eased open the door, furiously shining the flashlight in all corners.

At this point, we were actually thankful we didn’t find her.

We peeked into her car, listened at the trunk. But truthfully, we were out of ideas.

We felt a responsibility to keep an eye out because, as it turns out, the police don’t repair a door after they knock it down. So now her house was standing open for the world to join us in entering without permission.

Sure enough, an hour or so later, Ms Terry returned after having taken the bus to an appointment. She had forgotten about her church commitment.


Naturally, she was convinced she’d been robbed. Before we saw her, a neighbor had already thrown us under the proverbial bus, so she wasn’t too pleased with the Q family. But Billy explained the situation and by the end of the conversation, she was thanking us for breaking into her house. (He’s got magical relationship skills like that.)

When we moved into our neighborhood with a community ministry focus, we never really envisioned sneaking through our neighbors’ yards and peering in their windows. But sometimes breaking in someone’s door is what it means to be a good neighbor.

We care about Ms Terry, and we do for her what we would do for any neighbor anywhere we would live. (Don’t you want us to move in next door now?) It’s this being present in the neighborhood that offers us opportunities to care for people in ways organizations and ministries simply cannot.

It’s why we value living in the neighborhood. When you need us, we will kick your door down.

What are some unexpected ways you've been able to care for your neighbors?

Photo credit: Michael Kuhn

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November Favorites

November was a fun month, storming the Guatemalan embassy and the start of the holidays. Lots of good stuff going on!

‘Tis crockpot season! (Note: my spell check wanted me to change that to "crackpot." To clarify, it is NOT crackpot season...)

So here’s my obsession: crockpot liners. Necessary? Nope. Game changing? Yes.

Our life runs at a pace that crockpot dinners can be life-savers. But then there’s the awkward kitchen dance of cleaning up everything but the crockpot, hopefully waiting for the elves to tackle the slow baked crusted sides.

No more! One week I was able to do multiple crock pot dinners and a potluck. Thank you, liners. I don’t know how they work. They seem like they should melt. But they don’t. Best. Idea. Ever.

So I didn’t have time to clean cookware, but I may have spent uncounted hours on a website called PicMonkey. I don’t know how to use any design software, so I can’t compare it. But it’s the perfect program for those of us who don’t know how to use design software.

I reveled in child-like delight, creating masterpieces like the one below. I now plan to decorate my daughter’s bedroom with bizarre, Spanglish sayings so that one day she can be like, “Mom, what were you thinking?”

Of course, I cannot talk about November without a nod to the Hunger Games. We’d been planning our premier night outing since approximately spring of 2012 when we saw the first one.

That plan was cemented when I devoured Book Two in approximately two days later that summer and started sending wild, bleary-eyed text messages like “I need Book 3 like Haymitch needs some white liquor!”

It’s been many moons since Billy and I attended a 10:30 pm movie. Let’s just say we were thrilled when Isaac didn’t wake up to eat during our few hours of early morning sleep!

Lastly, I thought I’d share a few links I tweeted during November. It’s one of my favorite practices that I’ve seen in these monthly link-ups and I always find some insightful or amusing online reading that other bloggers have shared. Here’s my contribution for November:

This Is My Brain on Hugs - Jamie the Very Worst Missionary 

Crossing Border in the Church: On Embracing Undocumented Immigrants - Matthew Soerens on Christena Cleveland's blog

31 Things No One Tells You About Becoming A Parent - Buzzfeed
33 Reasons Moms Are Late - Jenny from the Blog on Scary Mommy

Letter to a Woman Called to Leadership - Esther Emery
The Princess Machine - GoldieBlox video ad that Ella can't get enough of!

I already said "lastly," but now for real, I'm going to close with a shameless, unnecessary photo. If you missed it on Facebook (by the way, do you know that now have "a page"? - you can like it here), Isaac got his first haircut this November. I think you'll agree it was totally needed.

What were you into this November?

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Giving Tuesday: 3 Awesome Orgs

It’s Giving Tuesday, a day focused on sharing with others during the holiday season. I wanted to share some ministries I care about deeply if you are looking for some awesome organizations to support this December (or all the year-round).

Urban Perform

I’m starting locally with this nonprofit gym in Atlanta. My dear friend Laura started Urban Perform, almost accidentally, as the neighborhood began asking her to lead the project and God just kept opening doors. It was incredible to watch.

They focus on providing safe, affordable opportunities for exercise. They know positive physical health can have a huge impact on individuals, families and communities.

Mission Year

Full disclosure: I work for Mission Year and totally love the work we do!

Mission Year is a national organization that places Christian young adults in urban neighborhoods in the US. Team members volunteer with local agencies, partner with community churches and invest in the neighborhood.

Lemonade International

Earlier this year, Billy and I had a discussion about our desire to support a ministry serving in Guatemala. We were particularly drawn to Lemonade International because they work in the capital city.

They are doing some incredible work, and we are excited about their micro-finance program. They also address housing and education needs.

I’d love to know other folks doing good work across the globe. Feel free to share your favorite ministries in the comments. 

And if you are looking for some fantastic organizations to support, I hope you’ll consider these three.

Photo Credits: Len Matthews

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Black Friday: Not as Outraged as I was Supposed to Be

Every year at Thanksgiving, my Facebook newsfeed blows up with prophetic cries against the materialism and commercialism around Black Friday. These are my peeps – the counter-cultural, those trying to change the world, to go against the flow. I love you so dearly.

And if there was ever a time that the path against the flow is clear, it’s Black Friday. Buy nothing! Boycott! Take down the greedy corporations!

This year, status updates were fuming at the announcement many stores would be open Thanksgiving Day. All I kept thinking was “Why doesn’t this upset me more?”

I feel there is a tendency to paint a stark contrast: we are either cozy by the fire in Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving or we are angrily trampling strangers for a plastic toy. Neither one resonates with my experience.

We didn’t spend Thanksgiving with family. And I was bummed about it. But it had nothing to do with a 6 pm shift at Old Navy.

It was a five month old whose eyes said, “Yes, I will scream for a six-hour road trip,” the fact that my husband did have to work Friday and a genuine desire to celebrate with friends and neighbors.

And we still darted out of the festivities before dessert was finished. The reason? Melt downs and bedtime.

I realize it’s not the same as frustrations of holiday disruptions attributed to retail jobs. But I find myself recognizing that life doesn’t always fit our ideal mold. It might but a bummer, but it’s true.

Those Facebook rants also fell on my deadened heart because our family was unemployed too long. After four years of Billy searching for a job, I am simply so thankful for it.

Combine that with his general Guatemalan perspective from a country where people can’t find work, and you will never hear him complain about working. Ever. No matter the day, no matter the shift.   

I have also discovered I have a fondness for Black Friday that surprises even me. But the shopping extravaganza has always been less about stuff for us and more about memory making.

Three years ago, my husband and I had a fabulous, ridiculous evening together. Last year, we joined friends for a raucous night remembered fondly many times over the last year.

This stuff is inconsequential. Last year, we waited outside Kohl’s at midnight in the bitter cold. All I bought was a tub of Lego’s. I think I saved $10.

This year, we sauntered into Target. (I wish I could say we waited to midnight, but at 10 pm, I was tired and realized I’d simply be killing time.)

I don’t think I bought one sale item. Literally, I was in the men’s section helping Billy pick out dress pants. Do you know how long it’s been since we were in a store together without kids?

At one point, the store employees gathered in a dance circle at the front of the store. We gathered around the shouting and the clapping. 

Black Friday, in our family, has never been about the deals. It’s about the drama, about something to look forward to, about being with friends, about traditions and memories.

So there you have it. My reasons for participating in Black Friday even though on the surface it appears to go against everything I believe in.

You may disagree with me, and I’m totally okay with that. But I wanted to add a few words since I felt I was unfairly being included in phrases like “mindless masses.”  I actually do give some thought to it. 

We wrestle with the tension. Desire and contentment. Stuff and family. In reality, we all wrestle with these questions all year long, not just one day.

We keep trying to figure out the best way to live our values. I know you do, too.

Did you shop on Black Friday (or Thanksgiving)? How do you decide whether or not to participate?

Photo Credits: Death to Stock Photo and Mahat Tattva

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A Life with Subtitles. All rights reserved. © Maira Gall.