Church-Family Christmas

P1010126Family is so special to us that calling any unrelated group of people family is one of the clearest ways to express the importance of those relationships. My husband, sister, and I do that in our workplace, where our staff and their children become such an important part of our daily lives. It always pleases me to hear a staff member tell someone else “we’re not just co-workers, we’re family”, and I hear that from time to time. More importantly, they act like family as they support each other and help us out in so many ways beyond their job requirements.

Many Christian churches refer to “our church family”, and most of these churches strive to create that sense of family connection. Seeing all other believers as “brothers and sisters in Christ” is a biblical principal. Like most principals, it doesn’t mean much unless it is shown in our actions. It is a glorious thing to see or be that family-love-in-action when rallying around someone in need with prayers, hugs, and gifts of food or service. It is humbling and wonderful to be on the receiving end of such church family love during a tough time in your own life.

Our church is large in a denomination of small churches, large in a small community, but it’s no mega church. We do not know everyone by name on sight, but recognize most regular attenders. It is large enough to come and go without much attention unless you seek connection, so we strive to make that connection happen with greeters and small group opportunities for people to get better acquainted. We want people to feel at home among family, to be loved by the body of Christ, His Church.

I saw a great visual for this idea of church family during the recent Christmas season.

Some talented people work hard to decorate our church each Christmas, and though they mix it up to change the look a little each year, it is always a very polished look. A beautiful, but definitely formal Christmas decor. I stood beside one of the trees, waiting for my husband as we were leaving the Sunday before Christmas. As I admired the red, green, and gold ornaments, I saw a new addition and smiled. A paper angel, probably made in our Children’s Church, had been added to one of the lower branches.

Nothing says family at Christmas time like a child’s homemade ornament. I am so glad the child who shared this angel feels like part of our church family.

Advertisements

Unopened Presents

I thought of them again this Christmas, these two children who would be near fifty now.

More than forty years ago their family of five was returning home from Christmas shopping when they were struck by a drunk driver.  Of the five, only their mother and older sister survived, with great physical and emotional trauma. After years of recovery, healing, moving, building a new life states away, their broken family met ours.  My first child was born the same month that my father remarried, and I gained a step-mother and adult step-sister along with a daughter.  Strong women, all.

My daughter was followed the next year by our son, the first two grandchildren on my side of the family.  My step-mom’s story unfolded slowly as she talked about raising her three children as mine went through similar ages and stages.

Then she brought out the unopened presents.

We were spending our vacation visiting them, my children 4 and 5 years old playing with the few toys they had brought on the 800 mile trip.  The first box was a doll, the second a car.  Toys purchased for the son and daughter she had lost on that last shopping trip before a Christmas they never celebrated.  Boxes kept unopened all those years

Six more grandchildren followed my two, and all enjoyed the same toys when visiting Grandma and Grandpa.  A loving tribute to the children who never got to open them.

I still can’t tell the story of her opening those boxes without crying.  The lives lost at Sandy Hook so near the holidays reawakened this memory. But this is not a story of a personal loss to me, and I hesitated to write it.  Two things happened this week to change my mind.

First, the news has been full of the …celebration? as the children returned to school in Sandy Hook.  They are declaring a return to normalcy, only a few weeks after tragedy.  Tying a bow on the neatly wrapped package of news covering this awful event. That it is a necessary step, I agree.  But I don’t believe we return to normal after any tragedy.  We may create a new normal or come to accept that change is normal life.  And grieving is a long, long process.  We call such events life changing for a reason.

The second event was learning my nephew lost a friend in a car accident the morning of New Year’s eve.  They had a long distance relationship, and the news was delayed in reaching him.  He was wrapping a present to mail to her when he received the news.

These unopened presents, lives ended too soon.  Grief lives on for some throughout their lives.  We can honor their loss by remembering with them, allowing the grief and not putting such importance on returning to normal.

Most of us have never been there, anyway.

Christmas Windows

Two Christmas windows made me smile last night.

The first was a generously lit multicolored tree filling a bow window. Translucent curtains muted the lights adding to a sense that this tree was really for the family inside.  A long drive led to this warmly inviting, Christmas-card-perfect picture.  This was the place worth singing about for Christmas homecomings, if only in our dreams.

The second was a table top tree barely glimpsed through a home’s side window. 15 lights, tops. A child’s bedroom?  We had given our kids similar trees to decorate their own rooms years ago.  A senior citizen avoiding the work of a big tree?

Whatever the story, someone inside was celebrating Christmas.

Amidst more extravagant outdoor displays, a simple tree lighting up a window remains my favorite and reminds me of my dad.

No one ever accused my dad of being a big spender.  It’s not that he lacked generosity, but spending money on temporary things like Christmas trees seemed quite frivolous to him.  So our family hunted the lots for a small tree and Dad haggled for a small price.  Not quite Charlie Brown trees, but definitely not showy.

At home, Dad would arrange our short tree on a table beneath the picture window.  From the outside it appeared as the top of a six foot tree rather than the entire three  footer. Inside, the size didn’t matter.  It was our tree and it was beautiful, drenched in the silver tinsel carefully saved from Christmas’ past.

In a few years our family changed along with our trees.  Dad invested in an artificial green one, safely past the 60’s fad of silver trees.  The tree was not the only artificial part of our family life during these years, but the ritual of celebrating Christmas together continued, however painful.

My happiest childhood Christmas memories lay beneath a puny tree.  It was a time we were joyful to be together celebrating the advent of Jesus’ birth.  A time when all the small gifts exchanged expressed love.

But outside our picture window no one ever saw the difference between our small tree years and the artificial ones.