When Noel is oddly, eerily quiet.

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I look for a station wagon at every Christmas tree farm I pass.

You know, that station wagon with a tree tied to its roof. The one that’s pinned on Pinterest, embroidered on coffee mug sleeves, sewn on shirts, and colored with paint. Sometimes there’s plaid added to it. Sometimes the car is red.

But, I’ve never seen it. In all my driving around Nashville, I’ve never seen it.

Honestly, I don’t think it’s idea of paying for a tree that will die in weeks or being the proud owner of a station wagon that has given that little image so much popularity. I think it’s what comes after that leaves us dreaming.

It’s the picture of a couple bundled in goats and scarves, standing and gazing at the tall, green spruce trees stand waiting to be claimed as bright bulbs sway above the mini-forest. They clear space from their living room window and leave enough room to stand their tree in the place of the things that were there. They choose their best strand of lights to weave through the green, green branches and hang their ornaments dated in shades of silver and gold. They dance with tinsel as the crackling record plays. And when it’s all decorated and picture-perfect, they turn off the overhead lights, flip on the tree’s lights, and sip their coffee as they smile to themselves, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

It’s a feeling of being home. Of giving. Of keeping traditions your granny taught you before you could even afford your own gifts. Of making something lovely. Of turning the ordinary into something elaborate. Of setting everything aside to make this one season different than all the rest—

It’s beautiful. And I think this is why that image of a station wagon heading somewhere with that tree on top is so popular. It’s not that tree that’s precious, or that plaid that warms our hearts. It’s that anticipation that truly, truly the most wonderful time of year is here.

As I drive past those plots of green spruces, I still look for that person who handpicks their tree, ties it up, and drives it home to that empty space in front of the window. The difference between me and those station-wagon drivers is they stopped to walk the tree-lined path under the swaying lights, and I never have. Instead, I’ve kept my foot steady on the gas and keep passing, watching them in my mirror as they move farther way.

:: :: ::

It’s been a quiet season.

I’m used to buying too many Christmas cards, spending more than I can really afford, and staying up later than is good all in the name of attempting some Pinterest recipe spreading Christmas spirit. I’m the girl who has multiple Christmas sweaters, and specifically chose matching prints of red and brown wrapping paper last year that coordinated and made for great pictures. I’ve seen the lights at Opryland every year of my life, and yet, I still stand amazed by the thousands of lights strung each year.

But this year is not the same– and it took me until December 18th to admit that. I haven’t written one Christmas card, written more than a few names down on my gift-list, or even looked at my “Merry” board on Pinterest. I’ve only worn a Christmas sweater once, and the only wrapping paper I’ve touched has been borrowed. There’s been no trip or plans for Opryland. Honestly, the lights’ shining don’t have the same dazzle to them that they used to—

things are quiet. Oddly, eerily quiet.

I love Christmas and all the superfluous (that’s a Cindy Lou-Who word, y’all) traditions that come with it. And I don’t want you to hear “Bah-humbug!” as your eyes skim these words. I love Christmas. Even in all its Americanized, excessive quirks, I love it.

But I have to be honest with you: this year has been sobering. I’ve lived in excess. I’ve seen excess. I’ve wanted even more excess. And I’ve loved it— even to the point that these days have become all about the things I’m doing with my own hands, time, and money. This pursuit is exhausting right now, because all of these things satisfy me only for a second, and then just allow me to dry just minutes later.

It’s restless work, chasing things that I either find and drain me completely, or that I don’t find and worry endlessly about. And I think that’s been the conflict in my heart: in all its excess, these days can still miss something.

:: :: ::

My first Christmas as a Christian was precious. It came at the onset of a tough season for my family, that would eventually be followed by healing and renewal. Although I met Jesus the first days of June, the love He gave me intrigued me to continue  to know Him for the months and months— and now years— to come. Especially during that first year, everything was filled with a new, curious desire to know what every part of life would feel like as a daughter of a King—

What is it like to be at church now? What about school? Will I sing the same songs I used to? Will I hear His voice as I drive late at night? What are all of these beautiful, beautiful words filling my mind and being put to paper? Why do all I all of a sudden want to put my last dollar in a heavy, golden-colored plate? How come no one ever told me that the Bible said this? Do tacos taste better now too?

It was new. Every little piece. In every song I heard, every word I read, every person I met, it was met with a new way of thinking, a new purpose, a new way to see the hand of God crafting away. Even reading my Bible for the first time was different, and I honestly don’t think my words could speak those moments justice; it was nothing short of amazing.

Abounding possibility I had never known before broke through and it shed light in every corner of my life. And when those days neared that first December, I was telling it on the mountain as loud as my little voice could carry.

I was absolutely ecstatic to finally feel Christmas for what it truly was– without lies, without obligation, without faking it as beautiful lights twinkled around me. After 17 years, I finally knew what all the songs were about and why everyone rallied together during those days. The emptiness in my wondering, “What’s the point?” was filled and ran over with some of my first tastes of hope, joy, love, and peace came. In late 2012 as I gifted and shared meals with loved ones, I learned how Christmas felt know that I knew Jesus.

That was the year I used all my McDonald’s paycheck one week to fill shoeboxes with candy for acquaintances, just because the Christmas aisles were pretty and I wanted those people to feel loved and given for.  I’d finish the days by coming back to my room to thank that once-baby Jesus who had met me with fullness of Life that year.

It was magnificent. Even the way I gave and gazed at the twinkle lights was new. It was my first authentic Christmas, and I’ll never forget waking up on that early morning and thanking Him for it.

:: :: ::

This is my 5th real Christmas and this one is different.

As the question “what do you want?” has undoubtedly come, I haven’t found an honest answer– to the point I keep forgetting what I’ve said I “want.” A printer? A new flat iron? A new Mac case? Something like that, I think. Things that could be useful, but I don’t have a deep, lingering desire to have. They’re all just plastic and pieces. They’ll be new tomorrow and old next week. Come and gone before we’ve even dug the receipt out of the bottom of the wallet.

As I folded stacks of toddler sized pants and shirts while meandering shoppers walked slowly around me, it hit me: the things I want for Christmas can’t be found under a tree. They don’t fit in boxes and bags. They aren’t covered in beautiful foil paper with ribbons tied. Honestly, they probably didn’t even make it to Santa’s desk this year—

I want all that hope, love, peace, and joy promised me just over 5 years ago. Whatever it looks like, I want it.

I want it to make me a better writer. Lover. Friend. Daughter. Servant. Teacher. Artist. Dreamer. Encourager. Church member. Courageous fighter pursuing the next battle to win in His name. Anything and everything that I’ve been called to— I want it all.

Honestly though, “want” is probably too small a word for it. My soul longs for these things to be so tangled in my life that I cannot be known without them.

It has nothing to do with cookies. No lights. No cards. No foil wrapping paper, no matter how well it folds. Call me cheesy— I honestly don’t care— but more than anything, I want to see the precious, perfect, baby face of my Savior in the manger–

as the star dances above us, I want to feel the hay and dirt beneath my knees as I fall to hear the angel voices. As we make room among the livestock, I want to feel the tears in my eyes blur my vision as my heart resounds, “My King has come, my King has come.”

:: :: ::

It’s somber to think about the raw reality of the Christmas story. You know, that a King stepped from His throne to meet us in our darkness, and His only welcoming was a feeding trough fit for animals. And as the wisemen came to bring gifts fit for a King and God during the coming months, they also carried with them embalming that was only useful for dead-men. They laid it at the bedside of the baby as His parents watched, quietly and mournfully. And as this innocent, precious baby grew, grew, grew, He was followed with hate.

But yet, even as He was mocked and used, He loved. Fiercely, unceasingly, and fervently, He loved us. As we lay in darkness, straining our eyes to see the end and scratching at the chains tied to us, He came to call it no more. He called taught us what it means to live in love and peace, and made us free and completely safe from harm’s way. It sends chills up my spine to even think about the grace that embedded His fingerprints, as He came to do exactly what He promised, unconditionally—

to love us without fear. To break the chains of our slavery. To invite create unwavering joy and peace. To bring us back into safety. To know us. To completely, totally, and absolutely heal us.

He came to change everything. And my heart is completely broken, because it all began in a bed of hay, dirt, and leftover food for animals.

:: :: ::

Just because this year is different and I’m driving past the Christmas tree farms doesn’t mean it isn’t real. This year is no less authentic than those first days. But this year, my joy sounds different. 

It’s peaceful. It’s in a minor key. It’s oddly, eerily quiet. It’s like a song I’ve always hummed, but never remembered the words to. But this year, my joy is resounding with peace and quiet I’ve waited five years for.

I don’t know when Christmas became superfluous. At some point though, the mall hired carolers and ensembles of guitars, clarinets, and saxophones to come play music. Someone turned the water off in the fountain and filled it with vibrant red poinsettias. Others picked up second jobs just to afford their holiday shopping. We stayed up late baking cookies and tying ribbons.

It’s fine. Honestly and truly. This time of year is filled with a sweet busyness, and I love watching as red and green light up our world. But sometimes, it’s okay to take a step back and feel joy in the quiet. It’s okay to take a break and rest.

Wherever your Christmas finds you today, I hope you enjoy it. In all the busy and bustle of Santa’s big scene, I hope you find time time to rest in the simplicity and wonder of it all. I hope you can find a tune to resound in your heart that praises this sweet, sweet noel in quiet.

As for me, I’ll continue on my road just past those Christmas tree farms for just this year. As the days get colder, I’ll watch from afar at the lights and life happening all around. Quietly and solemnly, I’ll be among the livestock and clinging to the love, hope, peace, and joy lying in the dirt. I’ll be far from the things that vie for my attention, and resting in the center of that old story.

And if you’re searching for it, I hope you’ll keep on your walk toward that dusty, dirty inn. I’ll be there too, kneeling cradle side and gazing in wonder at the wonder of such a sweet, holy night, whispering with tears in my eyes—

my King has come, my King has come.

::  :: ::

Photo credits to my future sister-in-law, the ever-so-lovely, paintbrush ballin’, and Instagrammin’ @ash_not_ketchum. 🙂

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Dusting off Quiet Joy on a quiet morning.

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Spring 2013

I was a junior in high school when momma found a drawing at a yard sale and bought it for just a couple of dollars. The frame showcased a photo of a tall girl with dark brown hair carrying a much smaller girl with bright yellow hair. Above it in script read the words, “Quiet Joy,” with a reference to a verse in 1 Chronicles in tiny print at the bottom. I never gave much attention to the words, because I thought the picture was enough. When momma told me she wanted to give it to me because it reminded her girls, I knew it was because the picture looked like me carrying my then 3 year old sister.

At that point, we had lived in a two-bedroom trailer for a few months, which we called our “temporary fix.” I had been told to bring my necessities, so the rest of my stuff could be put out of the way in a storage unit until we moved to our real home. And on the morning of my sixteenth birthday, I woke up in a room that was barely bigger than my bed and a couple of cardboard boxes that lined the wall. I’d be hard-pressed to tell you this was the start to an easy year, because honestly, it was one of the most difficult valleys I have ever been led to walk down, through, and out. And for more reasons than the size of my bedroom.

I don’t remember where I put that framed art when momma gave it to me. But I do remember that I kept it among the necessities in my small room. That small gift was so precious to me because it reminded me that a unique goodness lies in people, even when it feels like everything around us is falling apart and away. 

:: :: ::

Last Thursday

I pulled the framed drawing out of another box just days ago. Long sitting in a cardboard box of other frames, knick-knacks, and a couple of books, I dusted the dead spiders off the glass as I muttered to myself, “How did I forget about this?” And as I remembered where we have come from since that day a few years ago, I knew how I forgot about it: things changed.

Things changed.

Things changed the night I screamed to tell dad I got saved, and immediately, his own yelling stopped. It changed the morning I told my nanny I was getting baptized at the church the next day, and she wrapped me in her arms and she wept as she repeated, “I’m so happy, I’m so happy, oh, I’m so happy.”

Things changed when I came to Nashville for college with the mindset that I was 5,000 miles away from home in Joelton.

Things changed when I landed a jobs in retail and at a summer camp, and heard stories from people that are too big for me to attempt to craft out of my own hands but I still retell with all the courage and grace given me.

Things changed last July when we packed up our boxes one more time and settled in a house nestled on a Cheatham County backroad, and overlooking the tree-lined hills above the creek and the cow pasture below.

Things changed in those moments of staying up too late writing words that didn’t make sense just to release them in the air, missing friends I haven’t seen in years, and talking on the phone so long that my ear was numb and my heart was full. Things changed with every fear I overcame in obedience, and every dream that was planted in my heart out of grace.

Dusting off that old framed drawing reminded me: things changed as my baby sister grew too big to be carried. No longer is the picture of “us” enough, because it’s not true now. I can hold her hand and even carry her on my back, but no longer is the picture of the brown-haired girl carrying the small baby enough.

But, that’s when I finally noticed the cursive: Quiet Joy. It resounded in my head, over and over.

I think it had it wrong when momma told me the drawing was a reminder of her girls. Yeah, obviously it’s an illustration of an older sister and a younger. Greater than that, I think it’s a reminder of the bond that holds them together. Even when their worlds are changing and their feet are growing bigger, the Joy that created them is enough to sustain them down, through, and out of every valley and mountain they travel. It’s quiet, but oh, does it move with such grace and power.

When momma thought of her girls at that yard sale over 4 years ago, she knew what I didn’t know then: things will change. She knew their hair would grow longer and they’d have their heart broken by people they love many times. But, she also knew that in the midst of so many changes that would shape her girls into who they were created to be, they would find a Quiet Joy that would give them a purpose to keep climbing every single day. They’d have each other, they’d have the memories of the passing days, and the anticipation of the days to come. Most of all, they’d have a Joy that holds all things together for good.

It’s amazing how much can happen in such a short, short amount of time. Because of that, I’m hugging my sister extra tight today and displaying my framed art on the shelf across from my bed in a place I hope I can always tell you is home. Thank you, Grace, that so much can happen in such a short, short amount of time.

:: :: ::

Inspiration: my sister’s 8th birthday, a yard-sale gift from my momma, and a morning spent cleaning.