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.

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The Road Oft Travelled

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We usually vacation in Kansas.

The trips started when this Kansan city girl fell in love with a farm boy from Ohio. We made the first 1600 mile round trip drive from my home to his as boyfriend and girlfriend, our second after we were engaged. These were “how fast can we get there” trips, leaving us exhausted and ready to crash on arrival. The same way he had traveled alone, coming and going from college. We added an overnight stop on our first vacation to Ohio as husband and wife, and never chose to drive straight through again! We spent much of this trip discussing future plans. On the drive back to Kansas from that first married trip, we decided to move to Ohio.

A month later we were on the same road again, headed to a new life on a farm in Ohio with our meager possessions, a mother cat, and four two-week-old kittens. It was a long year before we made that first trip back to Kansas to visit family and friends. The importance of the destination to us has always been the people.

But, slowly over the years, it also became about the journey.

Young kids helped slow us down on the road. We made frequent rest stops and memorized the locations of those with playgrounds. In the early 80’s, we looked forward to the only two fast-food stops with indoor play equipment on our route, one in Missouri, one in Kansas. In the car we snacked, blew bubbles, read stories, sang songs, played road bingo, and celebrated every 100 miles with a pack of stickers. The only “tech” equipment to entertain them was a cassette tape player. We bought a new tape for one trip home just to get a break from the one they had favored over and over on the trip out.

As they grew, we extended the trips to see things like the St. Louis arch, Branson, Missouri or Colorado Springs in addition to the great-grandparents, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles and old friends in Kansas. The kids learned to look for landmarks, laughed at things “on a stick” and other advertising ploys. We stopped to try the Mile High Pie in Missouri and learned Jay’s had the best burgers in Vandalia, Illinois. We had a favorite motel in Concordia, Missouri, with a playground and a pool, where Imo’s pizza delivered.

Catsup bottle "on a stick", Collinsville, IL

Catsup bottle “on a stick”, Collinsville, IL

During their high school years, we stopped at outlet stores rather than playgrounds and took the backseat to let our two young drivers “bring us home” on wide Kansas highways, their driving status allowing them to control the radio. Somewhere along the line they became great travel companions, entertaining us more than needing to be entertained.

We travel as a couple again these days, our recent thirty-something-th road trip to Kansas to celebrate a niece’s wedding. We remember the kids with basketballs and jump ropes at the rest stop where we stretch our legs. The Mile High Pie sign now claims to be only Foot High. (It’s five inches, tops. I prefer the obvious hyperbole of the old sign.) We retell the usual stories of being stranded in Missouri as we pass Blackwater and Wentzville. I feel like I am coming home on both ends of our trip.

I love visiting new places. But there is something special about the miles we’ve retraced, etching family memories and traditions into our lives.

View from I70

View from I70

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.

The Waving Window

When I was 12 we made a once-in-a-lifetime trip to visit my mother’s best friend from college, several states away.  We had heard stories about “Punky” and similarly nick-named friends from that time in Mom’s life.  But from Punky we heard stories about our mom “GInger” that she had never told us, such as the fun they had bowling in the dorm hall with oranges and pop bottles. Since I was sure we would get in trouble for trying such a thing, this was hard to envision.

But the most memorable story I heard in the few days our families spent together was Punky describing how she saw her husband off to work each day by walking him out of the house to his car, hugging and kissing him goodbye, then leaning in through the car window for a last kiss as he drove off.  She laughed about what a scene they made each day for the neighbors.

This was amazing to me.

Displays of affection were rarely seen between my parents, and certainly none of our neighbors were putting on a show like she described.  It suggested a possibility of relationship unlike what I had seen in our family or circle of friends.

The thought stuck with me and saying goodby with a hug and a kiss every time one of us leaves is a habit we have stuck with for 35 years of marriage now. Having few neighbors (and both being somewhat introverted) we have practiced this more privately than Punky.

Somewhere along the way this tradition of acknowledging even the little goodbys grew to include waving and blowing a kiss to each other from the window in the kitchen door as the other pulled out of the driveway. This is such a part of us now that it always feels a little empty to drive away from the house without someone at the window seeing me off.

As our children started driving, a last goodby to them from the waving window became part of the routine.  I have smiled and waved as they drove off in a first car, to their first job, and last day of high school.  Then smiled with tears once they were out of sight in a car overloaded with stuff for their dorm room, or with wedding presents headed to a first apartment.

To me being at the waving window says “I love seeing you and will miss you until I see you again,” whether it will be a few hours, days or months until that happens.

I don’t know if my children think of this as a particularly meaningful family tradition.  They at least play along  by turning on their dome lights to wave back when leaving in the dark.

But it still makes my husband smile each time I am there waving and blowing him a kiss.