Chasing God's glory through tragedy and triumph

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Behold the Savior: Remembering Heaven as part of Christmas

Posted by | behold, christmas, family life, fear, finishing well, grief, sharing faith, Stories | No Comments

The following is the final piece of a four-part Advent devotional I created in December as a gift for my readers.

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The other night we piled in the car with our jammies on and took the kids on a drive down Christmas Tree Lane. This iconic Christmas light show has been operating for 95 years in our city of Fresno. As we were inching down the two-mile-long lane, my 6-year-old Zayla squealed with delight. “Mama, mama, look!” I heard her say. “It’s the Activity Scene.”

We all giggled when we saw her pointing at this beautiful wooden Nativity Scene lit up in front of one of the houses. It was so cute I didn’t even bother correcting her.

After all, there was a lot activity in that scene. And there’s lots of activity in this season. If we don’t take time to pause and ponder these things in our hearts, we might miss the wonder of it all. We could miss the heart of Christmas, which we have been anticipating and awaiting all month long.

Over the last three weeks of Advent, I have invited you to Behold the Creator, Behold the Good News and Behold the Christ Child with me. My prayer has been that this Behold devotional would provide a fresh lens for us to see Advent. Friends, what we behold reveals our hearts.

This is the fourth week of Advent, but also a unique year because Christmas Eve falls on the final Advent Sunday. Let’s lean in close and remember why there is so much activity to behold in the scene. This baby laying in a rustic, uncomfortable manger was born with one main purpose: to be our Savior.

All of the Bible points to the coming of this Savior. By some estimates, there are more than 300 Old Testament passages that talk about the coming Messiah in great detail. The Jews waited for hundreds of years for this promise to be fulfilled. In Luke 19, Jesus speaks his purpose again: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10). Jesus was a promise fulfilled to all of us.

All the details are right there in the Christmas story, according to Luke, when the angel visited the shepherds in the fields: “And the angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord’” (Luke 2:9-11).

Many of us who have grown up in Christian churches could probably recite these verses from memory. We have heard and read these scriptures dozens of times. We continue to sing the Christmas carols that tell the miraculous story. This passage in Luke is at once a gentle whisper and a loud anthem, reminding us we do not need to fear for the good news is our Savior has come.

The message repeated could become rote or it could serve as the most important daily reminder: Every one of us needs a savior.

Are you battling fear today?

Maybe you are fearful someone will find out about your sin and your shortcomings. Maybe you are fearful you are not good enough. Maybe you are fearful to embrace joy after the death of a loved one. Maybe you are fearful about your future or the future of your children.

I have been there.

Every time I am tempted to succumb to fear, the words of the angel wash over me. Fear not, for behold the good news that God sent His one and only son to be our Savior. I don’t want to have amnesia on this point. I don’t ever want to forget why I desperately need a Savior.

This is the fourth Christmas my husband has spent in Heaven. My mother-in-law and I were having lunch the other day and talking about how amazing Christmas must be in the presence of God. As much as we deeply miss our Ericlee, we do not wish for him to come back to earth. He has a new glorious body free from cancer and the sin of this world. He is relishing eternity with his Savior. We will join him there one day.

And this, my friends, is why we all need a savior. Our citizenship is in heaven. We are to behold Heaven as an integral part of Christmas. When the Savior was born and then died and rose again, we were all given a chance to unwrap the gift of grace.

The Apostle Paul reminds us in Philippians that we are to long for Heaven. He writes, “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” (Philippians 3:20-21, NIV).

Behold, Jesus is our Savior. He came to reveal God and all His glory to us. He came to rescue the exploited, to revive the weary, to restore the brokenhearted, to reclaim the marginalized and redeem all who believe. He will take us to Heaven one day for the grandest Christmas celebration.

Guest post: Grief and the Holidays: How to survive when you don’t feel like celebrating

Posted by | christmas, community, compassion, death, family life, grief, Guest blogger, kids, Stories, struggle, transitions | 2 Comments

The following is a guest post from my friend and grief counselor, Patty Behrens. Her insight and encouragement has carried me these last three years since my husband’s death. I love the way she reaches out to people navigating loss,  especially young widows. She facilitates a young widows group I have been a part of called Gals in Growth (GIG) that meets monthly in Fresno.

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“The ‘Merry’ in Christmas and the ‘Happy’ in New Year just doesn’t seem to fit this year.”

Those words were the first line of my very short Christmas letter to family and friends 5 months after my husband died suddenly on a family vacation. I didn’t feel much like celebrating. I wanted to push the fast forward button to skip over the holidays and wake up in January. That was not going to be possible with three children anxiously awaiting the upcoming festivities of Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Can you relate?

Our family of five loved the holidays with all the festivities and traditions of picking out a Christmas tree at a local tree farm. We’d run through the mass of trees hiding and chasing each other on our search for the “perfect” tree. Of course, my hubby was the one to cut the tree, get it secured on the car and bring it into the house for decorating. How was it possible to get through that tradition, not to mention the multiple others?

There was decorating the tree with each of our bags of special ornaments while Christmas music played in the background or lighting an Advent candle with a special dessert each week, delivering gifts and food to a needy family, having my in-laws over Christmas Eve for traditional homemade German food and my husband reading the Christmas story while the kids played the various parts, and eating our special homemade raspberry almond coffee cake with a candle lit as we sang “Happy Birthday” to Jesus.

It was impossible to replicate any of these traditions because “he” was a vital part of all of them all.

We did survive although we certainly did not thrive that first holiday season. I tried the best I could to make things good for my precious children. But, I had to do some things differently. My sensitive daughter wanted to hang on to every tradition as I simply explained, “This year I can’t.”

We let some of those traditions go and others we tweaked a bit to ease the pain. We invited close family friends over for Christmas Eve along with my in-laws for our traditional German meal. That evening we spent the night at my sister’s home despite protests from my daughter. I could not bare the pain of waking up that Christmas morning without him.

I wish I could say that was a smart move; however, it brought some pain of its own. It was too different as we stepped into their traditions, which were far from our own. Christmas dinner at my mom’s house brought more distress as both my dad (who had died a year earlier) along with my hubby were missing. There was no mention of either of them. It was the classic “elephant in the room” scenario.

Back at our house, we reclaimed the day as each child lit a candle in memory of their dad. We snuggled on the couch to watch home videos of him. The memories came bursting forth with laughter and joyous comments as the videos played. We survived our first Christmas.

Our second Christmas was much better as I intentionally made some changes. We chose as a family which traditions and activities were important while other ones were let go. We still invited a family over for Christmas Eve, which started a new tradition for us.

We decided to stay home for Christmas morning to do our thing. We brought the “elephant” out of the room as we played home videos at my mom’s house which opened the door to laughter and precious stories of our loved ones. They were remembered.

Through this grief journey, God has taught me numerous, valuable lessons and even gave me a ministry of helping other widows in ways I had struggled. Care Connections was birthed in April of 2002 and continues today. We have monthly work days where workers do home projects at widows’ homes, including putting up Christmas lights, decorations and trees if needed, along with other home needs throughout the year.

My favorite work day of the year is December as families, singles and people of all ages gather to deliver over 150 gifts to widows and their children letting them know we care and are thinking about them. It’s a tradition for my family. There are also home projects being completed with several of them being Christmas related.

The work days provide monthly opportunities to connect with other families. Through the years, my children had male role models who taught them how to do various home tasks and operate power tools, (Yes, my son learned how to operate a chain saw!) At Care Connections, we all learn to serve others in need.

This year, why not join us? If you live in Fresno/Clovis, I invite you to come with your children or by yourself to Care Connections on December 2 as we once again deliver gifts to widows for a few hours in the morning. We meet at the back of the Bridge Church parking lot at 3438 E. Ashlan Avenue in Fresno at 8:30 am where you can join a work crew or a team delivering gifts. We all return for a delicious lunch at noon where stories of the morning are shared. It may not make the holidays pain-free but it will be one of those activities you will remember as being “good” and lifting your mood for that day.

There’s no magical way to fast forward through the holidays or remove the pain, but there are ways to have “moments of joy” where the pain is eased and to help make the holidays a little bit better. Click here for a guide to Survive the Holidays. For more tips on surviving and thriving through the holidays, sign up here to receive weekly encouragement during this holiday season.

Patty Behrens is a licensed psychotherapist with a private practice in Fresno, California with specialties in grief, trauma and anxiety with a passion for helping others through their life struggles. She is founder and director of the Care Connections grief ministry, http://www.careconnectionshelp.com. To contact Patty or receive her more tips for surviving the holidays, go to www.counselingfresno.org

Photo Credit: Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Embracing grief as part of Christmas

Posted by | christmas, grief, Stories, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

 

My fingers page through this precious Advent book, my eyes scanning through the readings and my own handwritten reflections from the last three Advent seasons. Each year, has been marked by such grief and such surprising joy. I trace the words of this journal, remembering the days I felt most vulnerable and the days I felt most strengthened. This book marks the journey of my heart to the manger.

This will be my third Christmas missing my beloved – our third Christmas with him missing at the table, his loud voice missing when we sing the carols on Christmas Eve, his laughter missing during the unpacking of stockings and unwrapping of gifts.

I still remember our first Christmas after he died. We tried to hold it together. We tried to stay the course with certain traditions, but it was clear something was off-kilter. We passed the Bible around the circle to read the Christmas story, but his blazing voice was missing. We tried to make conversation at the table, but it felt strained, awkward, empty without his presence.

Looking back, I wish I had been more intentional that year to speak up when things felt wonky. My heart was pained, but I couldn’t push to find the words to articulate it. As a newly-single mama, I was cracking inside for my three girls who were without their gregarious daddy. I saw my family stumbling through the holidays as we lacked his leadership. Now I know it takes time to recalibrate when someone is lost.

I discovered some traditions need to be reimagined. We need to provide space to acknowledge, to be quiet and to remember together. One year we sent out Advent books to all our friends and family in his honor. I love getting the messages from friends as they are reading that book with their families each year and remembering Ericlee’s legacy of faith. Last year I decided to let go of the long-time tradition of going to pick out a real Christmas tree. That was something we did with him, and I wanted to reserve that for our memories. Now our family takes time to share memories of Daddy in Heaven while we hang each ornament on our artificial tree.

I know many of you are stepping into this Christmas feeling raw and vulnerable. That miscarriage you experienced a few months ago, that recent cancer diagnosis, that child estranged from your family, the death of your spouse or grandparent, the unspeakable injustices raging in our world – all these weigh heavy on our hearts. Christmas is the not time to turn away from our grief; it’s time to draw close and offer the present of our presence to each other.

This is not the time to plaster on the cheery face, to try to go through the motions and shut down our emotions. This is the time to muster up the courage to sit together, to weep with each other, to listen to each other’s stories, to rejoice in the new beginnings and the unexpected gifts. Let’s vow to lean in together.

Christ’s birth was always pregnant with a certain bittersweet. Like the birthing process, there is pain always wrapped up with the joy. God knew He was sending His son to earth as a baby born to die so we all might live. This baby wrapped in swaddling clothes has been wrapped in the paradox of death and life from the very beginning of the story.

To fully understand Christmas we have to embrace the grief with the joy.

After my husband died, I wondered if I should be cautious about experiencing joy. I hesitated to laugh because I was never sure when the trigger would come that would make me cry. I worried that people might judge me for finding new happiness and new love. These past few years, I realized that finding joy does not replace the grief of missing, but we still have permission to dance.

This year we count three Christmases missing my beloved, three years he has enjoyed in Glory. And this will be my first Christmas celebrating in a new house with my new husband and girls. This is a dance of joy and pain, a dance of breathtaking redemption only my Heavenly Father could orchestrate. I am starting to believe this dance is the way to embrace Christmas. I could sit on the sidelines and fake it or I can jump into the dance whirling with joy and pain, memories and merriment.

If you’re grieving this Christmas, give yourself space to remember. Be present with those around you. Think about how you might reimagine the traditions to honor the lost. Embrace the pain with the joy. Lean in with me.

I can’t stop singing the words to my favorite carol: “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn…” He continues to show me His glory shines in every dark corner, in every cold stable, in every rough manger.

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Holiday Mint Trifle: Happy Birthday, Jesus!

Posted by | christmas, cooking, family life, food stories, friendship, gifts, kids, Recipes | No Comments

 

Through the years there are some recipes that have become tradition in our home. I have so many memories of baking and cooking with my Italian Mama Maria and Grandma Sara. We would make Italian pizzelle cookies that looked like powdered-sugar-dusted snowflakes. We would wrap them by the dozens and share them with teachers and friends.

Our whole family would gather to make an Italian Christmas pastry called pita piatta. My grandpa John and my dad used to get their muscles into rolling out the dough until it was paper thin. Before long, the house filled with that mmm-I-can-taste-it smell of sugar, cinnamon, nuts and dough. Through the years, my brother and my family have continued some of these traditions and started some of our own. We have added kids and variations to some of the original family recipes.

One year I happened upon a photograph in the newspaper for a beautiful Chocolate Trifle dessert. My all-time fave dessert has always been Italian tiramisu, which I consider the original trifle. People usually dip the ladyfinger cookies in coffee and a dash of rum, brandy or Kahlua for the traditional dessert that literally means “pick-me-up.” I was always searching for a kid-friendly version that could still wow the crowd with decadent layers of cream, chocolate and whipped mascarpone cheese. I decided to try that Chocolate Trifle recipe I found in the newspaper and the rest is history.

I added some of my own variations to that original, including Trader Joe’s Mint Joe-Joe cookies only stocked during the holidays. I actually run over there at the start of December and buy a healthy stash of these amped-up Oreos just so they can last the season (or longer than the season in my freezer.) Can’t get Mint Joe-Joe’s? No worries. Just add a 1/2 teaspoon of peppermint extract to the whipped cream and you can still enjoy that mint-meets-chocolate marriage.

Through the years, the Chocolate Mint Trifle became our “Happy Birthday Jesus cake.” We make it for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day at our house. We put candles in it and all the cousins since “Happy Birthday” to Jesus before we serve it. Now my kids can make this on their own for company and birthday parties.

This year I’ve been teaching cooking classes for my fifth grade daughter’s class. For their class party, I taught them to make this decadent dessert. Everyone had a job – pounding the Joe-Joe cookies into crumbs, whipping the heavy cream, mixing the pudding, layering the ladyfinger cookies, etc. We practiced reading recipes and multiplying ingredients for bigger portions. I also challenged the kids to be creative and think of variations they might make to this dessert. I had added mint, but what would they add? Some of their ideas are shared below.

I hope this season you will take time to gather some of your people in the kitchen and make something yummy together. Sure, it’s messy but this is how some of the fondest holiday memories are made.

Merry Christmas!

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Maycie helps layer ladyfingers on our Holiday Mint Trifle.

 

Ingredients:
-1 pint organic whipping cream
-1 tablespoon raw organic sugar or honey
-2 packages instant chocolate pudding mix (I love the Whole Foods version.)
-4 cups milk, divided
-1 package cream cheese (or 8-ounce container mascarpone)
-2 boxes ladyfingers cookies (Trader Joe’s sells a soft version but you can get these at other Italian specialty stores and grocery stores as well.)
-1 box Mint Joe-Joe’s cookies (or other chocolate sandwich cookies like Oreos)

1. Pour whipping cream into mixing bowl and beat until soft peaks form. Blend in sugar/honey while the cream is beating. Set aside.
2. Place the 2 packages of chocolate pudding and 3 cups of milk in the mixing bowl and blend until pudding thickens. Add cream cheese and blend in. Set aside.
3. Place chocolate cookies in a large ziplock bag and use a mallet to crush. (You could also use a food processor but you want to make sure the cookies stay coarse, not emulsified.) Set aside.
4. Begin assembly of trifle. In the bottom of your trifle bowl, arrange a layer of ladyfinger cookies. Drizzle with 1/4 cup of remaining milk. Spread about 1/4 of the pudding mixture on top of the ladyfingers. Spread about 1/4 of the whipped cream over the pudding. Top with 1/4 of the crushed chocolate cookies.
5. Repeat these layers three more times and finish with the crushed chocolate cookies. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Makes approximately 15 servings.

class-making-trifle

Fun Variations:
-Make this a Garden Party Dessert. Add gummy worms to the layers. Cut out paper flowers and glue them to popsicle sticks to insert in the top.
-Add sliced berries as an extra layer for a Berry-Chocolate Trifle.
-Drizzle caramel sauce on top or add caramel pudding in place of the chocolate pudding.

Do you have a favorite trifle story? When and where do you serve it? Is there another favorite holiday dessert that always makes your family’s menu? Share in the comments!

Be You, Less Busy

Posted by | brave, christmas, family life, inspirational, parenting, Stories | No Comments

What am I really longing for this season? What traditions are just part of the show and which ones really matter to me? I realized that every year I long for two things: quality time to enjoy the story of Christmas and a meaningful way to bless others.

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Birthing a Savior in the Beautiful Mess

Posted by | christmas, Stories | No Comments

This Christmas as you are facing your mile-long to-do list, your family drama, I urge you to press in face-to-face with the Savior. I invite you to unwrap the simple, yet most profound gift of the season. The baby. Hold him close. Rock him in your mama heart.

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