Thursday, December 22, 2005

making room

This morning, while finishing a book edit, I moved my favorite Christmas decoration aside to make room for my cup of coffee. As I do often, I picked up the jar and shook the straw inside. Then I decided to tell you about it.

Here's an article I wrote for HomeLife magazine about eight years ago.

* * *

I remember–distinctly–how overwhelmed I felt the first time someone suggested an Advent celebration to me.

Four nights. I’d have to set aside four nights during the busiest four weeks of the year. Lighting the candles sounded nice. I liked candles. Prayer was fine. I liked prayer. Sitting around a table asking questions and singing songs–that part I could do without.

“You’d be blessed,” my friend promised.

I didn’t believe her. It sounded like one more activity, one more “have to” in a month already crammed with have to’s. I accepted the paper she handed me, glanced at the suggestions, and thanked her. When she left, I filed the paper in the very back of my filing cabinet.

It probably would have stayed there forever except for a half-hearted prayer I tossed toward God one day soon afterwards.

I’d been out shopping with the masses. Armed with four pounds of toy catalogs and flyers, I elbowed my way through crowds, hissed over parking spaces, stood in lines twenty people deep, and heard enough musical bells and animated Santas to drive a person insane. I spent too much money on things I was certain no one would like or appreciate. Worst of all, on a whim I picked up the newest book by Martha What’s-Her-Name on “How to craft the world’s most memorable Christmas ever using only a glue gun and fresh bay leaves from your own bay tree.” Despite the fact that I didn’t have a bay tree and couldn’t remember when I’d last seen the glue gun, I plopped the book in my cart.

Driving home, I realized that something was way out of whack. My month was as full as it could possibly be. I’d loaded our schedule with every festive event I could find: concerts, parties, cookie exchanges, pageants, tree lighting ceremonies. There wasn’t room for a single thing more. And still I wasn’t happy, or satisfied, or contented. I didn’t feel close to God. I didn’t even like Christmas anymore. In fact, if I could have my way, I would have ripped December right out of my calendar.

I couldn’t pinpoint how it had happened, but somehow Christmas had taken on a life of its own. It drove me, in an endless cycle of haves and wants and musts. I was on the Christmas roller coaster and feeling sick.

“Something has to change,” I said out loud. Not much of a prayer. But God, I’ve learned, can read between the lines and find a prayer hidden in our little outbursts.

I lugged my purchases up to the house and hid them in the bedroom closet. With a cup of tea in hand, I curled up in my favorite chair and opened Martha’s new book. I turned the pages, slowly at first, then more rapidly. One by one I vetoed the projects and recipes. Too big. Too expensive. Too weird. Gold leaf on cookies? Who puts gold leaf on cookies? Who eats gold leaf on cookies?? Most of the projects called for things I’d never owned and probably couldn’t track down if my life depended on it.

Dejected, I tossed the book on the coffee table and wandered outside. Voices drew me to the sheep barn, where I found Dave and Zac, then four, spreading fresh straw.

Dave used the pitchfork, but hands-on Zac was down on his knee scattering straw with his hands.

“How was shopping?” Dave asked.

“Oh, you know. Plastic Santas. Angry people. No parking. Same as always.”

I wasn’t good company. My two men wisely kept working and said nothing. Until Zac, finally, made an announcement.

“That doesn’t feel good,” he said, pulling straw out of his sleeve. “It’s not comfortable on your skin.”

From my perch on a bale of straw, I watched but said nothing.

“Mom?” he pressed.


“It doesn’t feel good.”

“Well, then, don’t put it up your sleeve.” Cranky mother.

“Well, it’s just . . . I was thinking. Was Jesus really born in a barn?”

A cave, I thought. It was probably a cave. But I just nodded.

“Why did that happen?”

“They tried to find another place for him to be born, but there just wasn’t room.”

“That’s not good.” Zac shook his head.

He’d heard the Christmas story every Christmas of his young life. I couldn’t understand why this was bothering him now. “It’s just the way it happened,” I said.

“But, Mom,” he said, walking toward me, “feel this.” He laid a handful of straw on my arm and stepped back. “It feels bad.”

I looked at Zac. I looked at the small pile of straw on my arm and felt it prickling my skin. He was right.

His eyes were troubled. “They laid Him in a manger. I know what that is. That’s a thing full of straw. That’s not a place to put a baby.”

No, I thought. That’s no place for a baby.

“They should have made room for Him some place better,” he continued.

They should have made room, my thoughts echoed.

“It was God. He should have been born in the nicest hotel.”

The straw was still sitting on my arm. I collected it in my hand and let myself feel its scratchiness. And I tried to imagine my Savior lying in a bed full of plain, rough, scratchy straw.

Something clicked for me in that moment. Zac’s words pierced my mind and burrowed into my heart. No room. No room for Jesus. The Innkeeper was me, and I had left no room for the Savior.

I saw what was wrong, suddenly. I had pushed the Baby out and let unimportant things take the place that was His. I had banished Him to the far corners of our holiday. Church on Christmas Eve, maybe a prayer or two. A quick read of the Christmas story. Nothing more. All the rest had been reserved for talking Santas and toy catalogs and parties and such. A whole lot of fancy nothing.

In my quest for the perfect Christmas I had lost the meaning of the manger. I had forgotten the simplicity of the straw.

Our Christmas changed after that. I started by bringing that handful of straw up to the house and stuffing it in an old canning jar of my grandmother’s. Then I set it in a place of prominence, where it would remind me, with each glance, of the miracle that happened in a long-ago cave.

Next, I pulled out the Advent paper from the recesses of my filing cabinet. Studying the suggestions, I decided they were a bit too formal for our free-spirited family, so we started from scratch and formed our own Advent celebration. That first year Zac and I fashioned a simple wreath from evergreen branches we found lying in the yard and molded five little balls of clay into candle holders, which we tucked around the wreath. Nothing fancy. And on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, not knowing what to expect, we gathered around our table, dimmed the lights, and lit the first of the five candles. Dave opened with prayer.

“Lord, we ask Your forgiveness for our neglect. We want to honor You. We want You to be the center of all we do this month. More than anything else, Lord, we want Your presence.”

“Dad,” Zac whispered, “it’s not polite to ask for presents.”

* * *

This year, I pray you find your own way to make room for the Baby--the Baby the whole world is desperate to dismiss. May the miracle of the manger become a reality to you again ... or for the very first time.

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8 Comment:

At 12/22/2005 9:18 AM, Blogger Hillary had this to say ...

Thank you, Shannon. I needed to hear that today. It amazes me how God works - senses our need and responds to it. It's time for me to go make some room for Jesus.

At 12/22/2005 9:28 AM, Blogger Jimmy had this to say ...

What a wonderful reminder of what our priority should be during this season. Actually, it is a second reminder because I remember that article in Home Life and now I feel like I actually know you and your family. God is so cool!

My best wishes for your family during this Holy season and may God continue to bless you and your church. I'm so grateful for all you've done for me and many other of your readers.

At 12/22/2005 4:39 PM, Blogger Gina Burgess had this to say ...

Shannon, I love this post! We do have a tendency to get caught up in all the THINGS we must do when the thing we should remember is what this is all about. The fact it, if it weren't for us, Jesus would never have needed to set aside His great riches and come to this earth to grow and live and teach and die for us. While Jesus is what the season is about, we are the reason for the season. I pray you and yours have a wonderful Christmas.

At 12/22/2005 9:09 PM, Blogger Fran had this to say ...

I was all caught up in the moment until that last little comment of Zach's! I wish I could have known him when he was a little imp.

I had never even heard of advent until a few years ago (unless you count those calendars that have chocolate behind every door!) It wasn't until I heard you tell this story at our Christmas Retreat that I really knew what Advent was. I think you even passed out copies of how to do it (which I promptly lost!)

We tried to do it last year but with home fellowship on Sunday night we got all off track and gave up. This year we just did it on whatever night we had time to spend on it. (I guess we're a little free spirited too.) We've really enjoyed it. The first time Jess looked a little bored so we put her in charge of reading the scriptures for us and that seemed to draw her in. The only other snag we ran into was that Josh's night to light the candle happened to be the pink candle night and that just wasn't going to fly with my little manly man! So we traded and all was right with the world again.

Thanks for posting the story. I liked reading it again. Perhaps you could bring me some hay now? :)

At 12/23/2005 12:33 PM, Anonymous Kari had this to say ...

I guess I should have read your blog first instead of your email. I wouldn't have been so quick to say I'm ready to bag this whole Christmas thing altogether. LOL We've done advent in years past but it seems to have a way of getting lost in the frenzy. I hate that.......because it happened again this year.

I'm very excited that Christmas Day falls on Sunday so we can truly put Christ at the forefront of our day and be with family and friends who share the love for Our Savior.

Move over Santa~ Jesus lives!

At 12/23/2005 12:33 PM, Blogger Bill and Glory had this to say ...

I normally consider myself to be untraditional in regards to how one worships and honors the Lord. It all comes down to the purpose of what I do and where I focus my attention. However, it has grieved me to know that there are many churches throughout this country that are closing their doors this Christmas Sunday. As though there isn't room for Jesus at church, this year.

Thank you for your beautiful and gentle reality check!


At 12/26/2005 2:50 PM, Blogger ddddddddddddddddddddd had this to say ...

What a beautiful post. I'll never look at straw the same way. And truly out of the mouths of babes comes this lovely reminder.

Merry Christmas Shannon and may the joy of His birth be with you throughout the coming year.

At 12/27/2005 12:43 PM, Blogger shannon had this to say ...

Thanks so much, Hillary, for letting me know that. I hope you did find a way to make some room. :)

Jimmy! That amazes me. The world certainly is tiny. :) Thanks so much for your Christmas blessings. I wish the same for you.

And thank you, too, Gina. I so agree. I've often thought with amazement about all that Jesus left behind to come rescue us. Thanks for reminding me of that.

Fran, I wish you'd known Zac back then, too. He really did say the most thought-provoking things. And yes, you can have all the hay you want! In fact, there's still a bunch of it on stage at the school. :)

Hi Kari! I know what you mean. It's so easy to let the important things fall between the cracks. I passed on your comment about church on Sunday to Dave. It seemed unbelievable to us that some churches had cancelled their Christmas morning services. I'm so glad you shared our perspective. :)

And I see that you agree, Glory. It really grieved me too.

Hi there, Joe! Thanks for the comment. I hope you had a wonderful Christmas.


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