The Hope of Christmas

Years ago, during our Zurich years, my kids’ international school introduced Swiss customs to the students to help them understand the local culture. One such custom was the arrival of Samichlaus, with his sack full of chocolate and clementines, who roamed the halls and burst into classrooms unannounced just before winter break. Unlike Santa, Samichlaus, the Swiss version of Father Christmas, never arrived alone. He was accompanied by a strange, sinister companion called Schmutzli.

Schmutzli (usually one of the put-upon elementary teachers, hunched over and hidden) concealed his face behind a dark cloak. Rather than a sack filled with treats, he carried an empty sack and a broomstick, with which he terrorized small children with threats of a broom-smacking or being placed in the sack and taken away for bad behavior.

It was one of the strangest customs we encountered there, and my kids came home utterly bewildered, as they watched classmates cry only to be consoled by Samichlaus with a tiny square of chocolate and a smushed orange cutie. Then we learned about the latest Elf on the Shelf fad in the US, and I realized weirdness is relative. Parents will go to great lengths to keep their kids in line at Christmastime.

This year, I’ve read a bit about various Christmas customs around the world, very few related to celebrating Christ, and found a common thread among most of them. There’s often a distinct contrast between dark and light, good and evil. Schmutzli comes from the dark places of the hidden world to threaten and cajole children into obedience, while scarlet-coated Samichlaus brings small favors to reward the good ones.

It is strange and a little cruel and an unfortunate introduction to the ways of the world. The children learn that darkness often accompanies light, and punishment often comes when we most need the kiss of grace.

I’ve been thinking of this custom lately, of the look of confusion on the little kids’ faces and the bemusement of teachers and parents. I’m thinking of the threats and the shaking of the broomstick and the inspiration of fear in the hearts of the most tender and vulnerable. It stands in such stark contrast to everything I believe about Christmas, everything I believe about redemption and light and grace.

What a difference it would make for the kids to enter into the wonder and awe of Christmas through the cradle of Christ rather than Samichlaus and Schmutzli, Santa’s naughty and nice lists, or an ever watchful Elf. These traditions cause the cradle of Christ to stand out in full relief. In the stable there is fear, yes, but a holy fear. The Light of the World entered to scatter darkness, not to soothe it with tokens and promises of a reward for good behavior.

Jesus came to bring light and life to the world. What joy! What celebration! How easily we are consoled and comforted by less.

I love traditions and myth and imaginative mysteries as much as the next person. I confess to laughing when my kids told me about their Shmutzli experience. Heaps of presents dressed in glitter and gold bows wait under the boughs of our tree. And our favorite Christmas films: Elf, Rudolph, The Nutcracker, are old friends we welcome with a bowl of popcorn on the sofa.

But, when I think of the ever-growing holiday preparations, I worry we’re collectively losing our children to a construct of Christmas that has nothing to do with Christ. When I imagine my kids preparing for Christmas in their own homes in the not-to-distant future, I pray they will come to the cradle with hearts wrecked for anything but Jesus.

As I’ve thought about the complexities we’ve created around Christmas, these words by Brennan Manning have helped set things right in my heart this year. He writes,

“The shipwrecked have stood at the still-point of a turning world and discovered the human heart is made for Jesus Christ and cannot really be content with less.”

Let the world parade its Samichlaus and Schmutzli. Its Santa and Elves. We are the shipwrecked, and Mary birthed the anchor that tethers us to grace alone.

O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

How to Live a Listening Life

My husband and I sat across from each other with menus and a white linen tablecloth between us. Soft tones murmured around us as glasses clinked and waiters shuffled by with heavy white dishes. In an attempt to muffle the ambient noise, I tried to cup my hand around my ear without looking obvious. I leaned in close to hear the conversation clearly, and I smiled when the words floated across the table directly to me.

My husband glanced at me and closed his menu with a snap. “Will you please pay attention to me?” he said, and my eyes flickered to his face. My hand fell from my ear as a sheepish smile crossed my face. “Hon,” I reminded him, “you know my spiritual gift is eavesdropping.”

We were a week into our vacation Stateside after spending the previous year living abroad in Switzerland, and I planned to absorb all of the random chit-chat and conversation. My American ears longed for the sound of ambient chatter. I’d spent the last year in a fog of misunderstanding. Small talk, eavesdropping, and snippets of conversation were no longer a part of my everyday experience. My adopted country and I didn’t speak the same language.

I hadn’t exercised my so-called gift in months, but I also hadn’t become aware of the fact that the loss of spoken English had sharpened my other senses. I’ve heard this is true for those who lose their sense of sight or taste or hearing. Suddenly, everything else comes into sharp relief. Our un-compromised senses compensate, and where there is loss, there is also an intense focus.

What remains is everything we’ve been missing.

Eugene Peterson writes, “We live in a culture that knows little or nothing of a life that listens and waits, a life that attends and adores.” This is my version of aspirational living. I want to live a listening life. A life that sees the value in silence, waiting, hope, and adoration. A life wide awake–one that honors this world and the One who created it, with its attention.

In Switzerland, with the loss of understanding, I was able to give the rest of the world my attention. Musical notes as opposed to lyrics. The sound of jackhammers and birdsong and laughter on the street as opposed to a passerby’s conversation. I noticed the way the clerk in the grocery store inclined her head to the customer or how the man behind me in line handled his vegetables–carefully organized by shape and size on the conveyer.

I spent far more time outside, adopting the Swiss motto, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing,” and I noticed what each passerby wore. Red beanie. Checked scarf. Thick treaded boots. Triple-layer down coat with a logo in the shape of a wolf paw print. I drove to the store and bought the same jacket.

I peeked in grocery carts. I absorbed body language. I followed footprints as I ran through the forest. I looked where people looked. I stopped where they stopped. I saw Switzerland–in all of its glory and decay and stunning beauty. I saw and heard and touched and smelled all of it.

I regret nothing.

I regret all of the time I spent inattentive, not listening.

We can’t adore the world if we refuse to wait for it. It unfolds like paper-wrapping and ribbon tied around the gift of ordinary glory. This is counter-cultural work. It is the work of the Spirit whispering this reminder: see, smell, hear, taste, feel. This is how we learn to love our neighbor. This is how we live life more abundantly. This is listening.

How, then, do we wait in the listening? I moved back to America four years ago, and I am just now learning to listen to my life in Switzerland. I sat with it. I turned it over in my pocket. I placed it on my nightstand. I stared and stared and stared at those years, and I am just beginning to make sense of them. How much more so the rest of my life before them? How much more so today? Tomorrow?

The gorgeous, the grotesque, the mediocre– the listening life is one that pays attention to all of it. And someday, after waiting and turning it over, and paying attention, comes understanding.



Start with Kind Words: Giving Ourselves Permission


To celebrate my birthday last week, I gave myself an entire day of permission. I gave myself permission to do whatever pleases me, and to refuse anything that does not. This means I spent the better part of my birthday ignoring the dishes calling me from the sink and the silent washing machine begging to be put to use. Their voices shout, loud and demanding, so I filled the empty space with other people’s voices from the pages of a book.

I gave myself permission to read for an entire day while the kids were at school. In a manner befitting Marie Antoinette, a manner of utter indulgence, I drove to my local library and gave myself browsing rights with no time limit. I gathered an armful (eight, to be exact) of books I want to read and I brought them all home. One is a large, coffee table book of an artist’s rendering of the green pastures and white-capped mountains Switzerland. The thought of browsing through it page by page, allowing it to spark vivid memories of our time living there, gives me pleasure.

More than giving myself permission to enjoy the gift of time on my terms, I promised I would only say good things about myself all day. This played out in the battle field of my own head. I decided to reject every negative thought about my own shortcomings, every ugly thought about how frustrated I am with my meager accomplishments, every bitter word I speak about my own self. Not only did I reject these thoughts, I forced myself to replace them with a kind word, a gentle internal gesture of gratitude for the person I’ve become.

It was nearly impossible.

It felt more indulgent than anything else I experienced that day. Even the Lent-breaking slice of carrot cake, thick with whipped cream cheese icing was easier to place in my mouth than a kind word about my own self. I hadn’t realized how ingrained the negative thought patterns have become. Why is it so hard to simply like one’s self and celebrate her? It feels undeserving somehow, and yet I am made in God’s image. I am known and loved by Him, and by family and friends too. Yet, it’s difficult to extend myself this same love, difficult to say “I am loved. I belong here. I have good and important work to do.”

I gave myself one day of permission to simply be me, to enjoy the things I love, to look in the mirror and call this creation good. It was such a small thing, but it shifted something hard and cold inside of me. Today, I want you to give yourself permission too. It may not look like an armful of books, or Swiss art, or carrot cake. But it should certainly begin with kind words of love for your self. Begin to cut new paths of good, gentle, joy-filled words about the inner person you know yourself to be. Become a raconteur of your life’s story. You’re the only one who can really tell it.


What else might you give yourself permission to do today if there were no consequences like calories or little people wanting clean underwear?



Running feet

lake via

If I left my little gray house and walked straight up, past the other homes built terraced into the hills, across the main road, and around a deep bend, I would find myself standing in the forest within twenty-five minutes. Once there, the noise of the street traffic below faded into the hush of the fir trees. Paths crisscrossed through forest and farms, winding around a central lake. Birdsong and the soft tinkle of cowbells strung around thick bovine necks played like music to the discerning ear. I, of course, heard none of it with my headphones smashed deep into my ears, pumping out the sounds of Pearl Jam and Pink.

In the three and a half years I lived in the gray house, I always drove the five minutes it took to reach my forest destination. I couldn’t imagine…


Today, I’m writing at Shout Outdoor Lifestyle Magazine about stripping things down to the bare essentials, in both running and in life. Runner or not, I think you’ll relate. For the rest of the article, click here.

Grasping at sunshine

rosy via

This time last year, we spent a few weeks in Switzerland saying our goodbyes. We watched the movers pack away nearly four years of our lives into cardboard boxes, and we shut the door on the little gray house for the last time. When I think of all the sweetness and welcome and respite we found within the walls of that home, I want to cry. We had our share of sorrow and chaos and fights there too, but when I think on those years, I see everything held together in a rosy-pink hue.

On our return to the United States, we brought back the boxes stuffed with everything familiar. The bed we’ve slept in for the entire eighteen years of our marriage, a cow bell the size of man’s hand, and a computer filled to overflowing with photographs of our travel adventures. We have the souvenirs tucked into the corners of our home now, but almost everything of note and merit from our Swiss life didn’t sail across the ocean in a cardboard box. The true gems lie hidden away in my memory. When I try to pull these memories out and hold them in the palm of my hand, it’s like trying to grasp a handful of sunshine. I can no longer feel the shape and weight of them, only the residual warmth.

Last night, I cooked the last package of Swiss Rösti from my pantry’s stock. The sound of it popping and spitting in the pan reminded me of all the meals I cooked in my tiny Swiss kitchen, all the times we wished M could join us, all the ways my children grew into themselves sitting across from me at the dining room table. Those years are pink in my mind, handfuls of sunshine I can’t fully grasp. They were unbearably special.

I want to believe I will feel this way about New Jersey too, but when I reflect on this last year of settling in to our new/old life, everything still feels too close, to easy to grasp, to rough and steady and touchable. I don’t know what color these years will be, or what it will feel like to hold them in the future. Perhaps they will always carry a certain weight because these years of parenting older kids, putting down roots, and calling a place my true home, have a destination deeper than my memories. These years take up residence in the very marrow of my bones.


Tell me about your current stage or years. Do they take on a certain shape or color?