Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Slamming the Door

I'm anticipating guests this afternoon. "Anne, Anne, my best friend Anne," as she's been dubbed by Curt because I always described her like this, her husband, and their four kids are coming for a New Year's Eve sleepover, all the way from Canada via Scio. Their youngest two kids match up in age and gender to our oldest three and I've been fielding "when are they going to get here?" questions since early yesterday morning.

Yesterday we cleaned bathrooms, vacuumed, straightened the guest room and organized the toys. This morning will be filled with baking and cooking in preparation for our much anticipated guests. Since the doorbell in our brand-new home doesn't work, we'll have to sit quietly and wait for a loud knock announcing their arrival. The scene will be chaotic. Dusty barking, running feet pelting the floor, kids screaming in excitement and bodies flying everywhere as we swing open the door and the hugs and "welcomes" start flowing.

Can you imagine if instead of welcoming our friends, I rushed to the door, stared at my closest friend since 7th grade who I'd recognize anywhere in the world, then slammed the door in her face? OUCH! Talk about needing years of counseling to recover from such a rejection.

I started the book of John yesterday and even though I've read it several times, God brought it alive. John was writing to Jews and non-Jews alike and his message to both audiences was synonymous. He sums it up in John 20:31 when he writes "These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name." But wait. The Jews had been watching, waiting, anticipating and praying for the safe arrival of their promised Messiah for years. They had read manuscripts, memorized prophesies, drawn up projected time lines for when he'd arrive and from what family he'd come to rescue them. Seems like when their much-anticipated guest knocked on their door, they would come running, tripping over each other in excitement to be the first to open the door, give Him a hug and welcome Him to their home.

But unfortunately that's not what happened. John 1:10 says "He was in the world, and though the world was made through Him, the world did not recognize Him." Talk about a major bummer. Jesus created the world we live in, watched us immediately begin destroying it, and after years of relational separation, decided to fix the mess. The Creator took on human flesh and came to this speck in the universe to redeem us. Jesus gave up everything to save the day and rescue us, and the people He CREATED were so mired in apathy, they didn't even recognize their long-awaited Redeemer.

Verse 11 says that it gets worse. It says, "He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive Him." Jesus came knocking on His loved ones doors and not only did we not recognize Him, we slammed the door in his face. I momentarily patted myself on the back for wecloming Jesus when He knocked on the door of my life, but immediately felt convicted. I may have welcomed Jesus in my front door, but what doors in my life are still closed? Does my bedroom have a "Do Not Enter" sign posted? Is the toy room closed with an "I've got parenting under control" sign half-ripped off the door? The time of personal reflection was impactful as I let the Holy Spirit work His magic and dredge up the crud in my life that needs to be purged and point out what preparations still need to be made for Jesus to intimately live in my life.

Anne, Anne, my best friend Anne, will be arriving in a few hours. The preparations may not be finished when she arrives, but I promise I won't slam the door.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Night to Remember

I haven't celebrated Christmas Eve with my family in years. When the snow started falling on the Portland area and proceeded to sock in the entire city and outlying suburbs, I wondered if my dreams of hosting Christmas Eve in our new home with family, new and old, would materialize or be cancelled along with everything else in the city. Fortunately, my family was willing to brave the roads, cloaked in snow, ice and slush and around 5 p.m., they started arriving.

My Mom is a newlywed and when she married Terry Hadlock we inherited a whole new set of family members. We have been anxious to get to know them and were thrilled that all of his sons and their families were able to join us for Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, his son, Ben, and his family sat in a traffic jam on the Interstate for 3 hours and never made it over. But the rest of the family did: my Mom and Terry; his son Jon; his son Mike,wife Becky and their three kids, Silas, Avi and Isaac, who are new cousins for our kids. Our new next-door neighbors, John and Kathy, joined us on the spur of the moment when their plans got cancelled and within a matter of minutes, our home was bustling with activity.

Adults hovered around the kitchen island, munching on appetizers and sipping wine, Christmas music played in the background, and the sound of the kids running around and playing upstairs drifted from the loft. As we gathered to bless the meal, I looked around at our circle of family and friends, and my heart warmed with love.

We stuffed ourselves with cheese soup, pizza, salads, smoked salmon, and fresh shrimp and then gathered in the family room. Young and old, newly acquainted and family, smooshed together on the couches and on the floor. In anticipation of Christmas Eve, we all had been reading The Greatest Christmas Pageant Ever out loud as families and we saved the last chapter to read together as a group. The little kids fidgeted and squirmed while the big kids (grown ups included) sat enthralled in the conclusion of the funny, poignant and endearing story of the awful Herdman kids who take over the local Christmas pageant and switch it all around to make it REAL. We laughed as the wise men ditched the perfume bottles for their Christmas basket ham and bring it as a gift to the newborn JEWISH king. And we cried as Mary, looking like the fugitive she was, clung to the baby Jesus doll and wept, overcome with emotion, but ready to clobber anyone who got too close to her son.

When the story finished, my Mom explained an old family tradition of capping Christmas Eve with a time of thankfulness. As she passed out candles, Paige, our 2 1/2 year old, broke out into "Happy Birthday" and we all followed along and sang Happy Birthday to our newborn King. We dimmed the lights, and bathed in just the light of the Christmas tree, watched as Curt's candle sputtered to life. He told us one thing he was grateful for and then carefully lit Alli's candle. We went around the room like this and as our thankfulness spread, so did the light. Everyone participated, even the littlest ones, and when the circle was complete we worshipped our Savior by singing Silent Night.

We reluctantly blew out our candles and our guests started the process of bundling up and heading home on the treacherous roads. My Mom and Terry were the last to leave, smothered in hugs and kisses and "Merry Christmases" as they drove away. We gathered our crew and as I closed the door, I knew this was a night to remember.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

11 Years and Deep in Love

Eleven years ago, at this exact time, we were eating lasagna and salad on black plastic dishes at our wedding reception, held in a church gymnasium, and our guests were looking around for anything non-plastic that would make a "clinking"noise to get us to kiss. In retrospect, that extra dollar per plate to get china versus plasticware would have been worth it, but who's to know when you're 22, in love, and dying to get married?

On December 27th, 1997, we stood before our family and friends and exchanged these words: "I Jodi, take you, Curt, to be my wedded husband. To be the father of my children and the companion of my days. I promise before God that I will share my life with you in all love and honor, in all faith and tenderness, through joy and sorrow, in sickness and in health, to love and cherish, till death do us part. According to God's holy ordinance, I hereto pledge you my faithfulness and my love."

In eleven years, we've shared joy in abundance. We've walked through our fair share of sorrow. We've shared sickness and great seasons of health. We've loved. We've laughed. We've cried. We've had seasons of financial struggle and seasons of blessing. We've been stretched to the breaking point and lived through seasons of ease. We've walked deeply and intimately with God. We've seen God from afar, distant and remote. We've grown. We've argued. Loved deeply. Lost deeply. We've shared time as a married couple, blissfully alone and without kids. We became parents, not once, not twice, but four precious times, and have a fifth baby waiting for our embrace in heaven. We've been broken, refined, built up, and encouraged. We've walked through adventure and times of complete boredom. We've done it all together, side by side, hand in hand, for better or worse. Eleven years of doing life together and each day we fall just a little deeper in love. Happy Anniversary my sweet Curt.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Winter Wonderland

Eight days ago, the Portland area, Newberg included, got it's first snowfall for the winter and it measured a mere 2 inches from the deepest spot in our yard. Being born and bred midwesterners, we thought it was comical how just a few inches of the pretty white stuff could shut an entire city down. Our church cancelled services, interstates were closed, and chains were required for driving. We frolicked in the yard and tried to build a snowman, but there just wasn't enough snow. By 6 p.m. on Sunday night, we'd received calls that both school and Curt's work were CANCELLED for Monday and we celebrated our good fortune of an unexpected day free of obligations.

Locals told us that since the Portland area doesn't get much snow, the snow removal equipment is sparse and used primarily on the interstates. There aren't many sand or salt trucks either, so when it snows, the snow stays on the roads until it melts, which is typically the next day. However, this is proving to be an atypical Portland winter.

On Monday, it snowed some more and school was cancelled for Tuesday. Tuesday, it snowed again and school was cancelled for Wednesday. The weather warmed a bit on Wednesday and the snow started to melt. From where I sat, in my cozy kitchen nestled in the foothills of Parrot Mountain, the kids could easily have gone to school, but since the buses couldn't safely run their routes, school was again cancelled for Thursday. And just like that, Christmas break morphed from the typical two weeks to three weeks.

Every morning we'd wake to just enough snow and blowing winds to snarl the morning commute and cancel school and community events. By noon, the snow would melt just enough for people to venture out in relative safety, but by late afternoon, all the moisture on the roads would re-freeze, turning the metro area into a virtual skating rink.

The kids and I started going stir-crazy by Thursday, so we took off in our front-wheel drive van. We had a great time together, but couldn't get back up the steep hill that our cul-de-sac stems from. It was packed with about 6 inches of snow and ice and I couldn't get the traction I needed to get to our turn off. I stuck it reverse and we slipped and slided all the way to the bottom. After a quick prayer, I gunned it and tried to find some fresh snow to get any sort of traction. This time we made it, but I nearly blew up the van engine in my attempt, and it was then I realized we were truly snowed in.

Friday night it started snowing again and it didn't stop. By the time we went to bed on Saturday night, we had over 8 inches in our back yard. Curt's Christmas party for work and church were cancelled, and the snow continued into Sunday. Huge flakes drifted lazily from the sky and continued their accumulation in our unplowed streets and driveways, transforming our street into a virtual snow globe. Just to make it interesting, we had some freezing rain and sleet added to the mix. Sunday night Curt got the call that he had a snow day, not just for today, but for the entire week. "Trying to get to work just isn't worth the effort - Merry Christmas!"

I woke up to more winter wonderland this morning. An extra 4 inches fell during the night and it snowed off and on all day again today. We didn't even bother to try to measure the snow, but when Grant and I trudged up the hill to the communal mailbox, the snow was seeping in over the top of my snow boots and came to the top of Grant's knees. It was the first day that both the mailman and paper man couldn't get up the hill to make their deliveries.

When we realized the mailbox was empty, we decided to go on an adventure and we climbed to the top of the vacant hill next to the mailboxes. At the top we soaked in the beauty and pureness of a world completely covered in white. The woods behind us were cloaked in untouched snow that sparkled and danced in the newly emerging moonlight. Branches bent under the weight of the snow and street lights beckoned warmly in the distance. Newberg lay nestled in the valley, with snow-covered mountains socking it in on every side and a huge cloud of steam from the paper mill mixed with the clouds to create an intriguing blend of whites and grays. Our happy, inviting neighborhood radiated warmth, charm and fun with it's homes, built into the sides of the hills, decked out in Christmas lights and covered in snow.

The weather forecast continues to look "bleak" with more snow and cold tomorrow. The weathermen are hailing this "the worst winter storm to hit Portland in 40 years." Initially it was tempting to be irritated at this unexpected change of pace, but then we realized what a great opportunity this is to give each other the gift of time. We've hunkered down, completed projects, baked, taken naps, played in the snow till our fingers and cheeks are red, built a snow fort, drank at least a gallon each of hot chocolate and hot apple cider, gained at least 10 pounds from inhaling all the Christmas goodies, painted, attempted potty training Paige and then quickly abandoned that idea, watched movies, had family devotions every night, and started reading out loud "The Greatest Christmas Pageant Ever."

We have plans to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with extended family and I REALLY hope the weather clears enough by then to be emerge from our winter den, but until then I'm content to go walking in a winter wonderland.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Oh Not-So-Holy Night

This story happened last Christmas, but I wasn't blogging then, so I just HAD to blog about it this year....

The Chapel has been our church home for the past 8 years. In that time span God morphed our church from a group of about 500 people meeting in a high school gymnasium on the most uncomfortable metal folding chairs imaginable, to one church, meeting on 5 campuses, and numbering in the thousands. Even in the early days, the kids program was amazing. Our kids would beg to go to church and moan when pick-up time came. When The Chapel finally got a building of its own and moved out of the high school, the entire downstairs was designated for the children's ministry and built out as Adventure Avenue, with a train station, a real fire truck, a slide, and store front facades on each classroom. It was better than Disney World!

In the eight years we've attended The Chapel I can't recall even one service where children have played a part in the adult service. I'm guessing the reasoning behind this decision is multi-faceted but hinges primarily on the fact that Chapel kids have such a cool service of their own that runs simultaneously with the adult service, and because the multiple weekend adult services force every second of the program to be accounted for, leaving little wiggle room for unpredictability. Kids, as we know, are unpredictable.

Grant and Katie both participated in their school Christmas program, memorizing Bible verses, singing carols, and dancing. Alli, at age 3 1/2 , was very put off that she was too young to participate with them and was enthralled with the baby Jesus in the manger on the stage. She was just young enough to think that maybe, just maybe, the REAL Jesus was laying in that manger and she waited as patiently as she knew how for the program to finish so she could hold the baby Jesus doll.

Just days after the school Christmas program, I received an email from Corrine, the service programming coordinator at The Chapel, asking Grant and Katie to participate in two of the seven Christmas Eve services that were being planned. She was looking for children, ages 5 to 10, to dress up, sing a carol, and look cute. I knew Alli would be devastated to miss out again, so before I said YES for Grant and Katie, I petitioned to have Alli included as well. Corrine agreed to let Alli join in as long as she "wouldn't feel intimidated," to which I laughed out loud. I don't think I've ever seen Alli intimidated by anything and coupled with the fact that she loves to be the center of attention, I had no reservations about her wimping out or crying in the corner.

The theme for the Christmas Eve program was "O Holy Night." The plan was for the 10 children, dressed in hats, scarves and gloves, to open the service and set the tone of peacefulness by slowly carrying battery-powered candles from the back of the auditorium. Our worship pastor, Mark, would sing and play his acoustic guitar while they journeyed through the auditorium, up the stairs and quietly surrounded the manger. When all the kids were positioned around the manger, they would sing "O holy night, the stars are brightly shining. It is the night of our dear Savior's birth," sweetly say "Welcome to Christmas at The Chapel," then serenely gaze at the manger while Brent, our campus pastor, read the Christmas story from Luke 2. It was a brilliant plan and was executed perfectly, at rehearsal.

The week leading up to the big event, Grant, Katie and Alli sang and sang and sang some more the first verse of O Holy Night. When they launched into "Welcome to Christmas at The Chapel," we'd stop what we were doing and watch Alli. She was so intent on doing it right, and as with everything she does, was overly animated. Her lips seemed to poof way out while she carefully enunciated and announced the arrival of Christmas at "The Shapel." She stole the show at rehearsal, being the youngest and most excited, and demonstrated her singing and memorization skills to anyone who would listen. She even angelically crawled up into Mark's lap and snuggled during the song rehearsal. Any qualms I had about Alli participating dissipated when I saw what a natural she was at performing.

The decorating team went all out to create an illusion of a dark peaceful night. The auditorium was subdued with black lights and white star spotlights. The main stage was also dark with the worship band pushed back and off to the side and a life-size manger placed front and center, with real hay spilling out of it. The 10 kids, divided into three groups, hovered nervously near the back of the auditorium, pulling on their new hats and mittens and playing with their scarves, while parishioners wandered in and filled up all the seats.

Mark walked out on stage, grabbed his guitar and started singing. The big kids went first and it was all I could do to hold Grant, Katie and Alli back and keep them from dashing to the front in their excitement. Finally, we got the cue that it was their turn, and they started their journey to the stage. I followed along behind them, hidden in the shadows, whispering, "SLOWER. Go slower." When they reached the front, I bolted to the back and center of the auditorium so I could watch their performance and not just see their backs.

By the time I got to the sound booth, the kids had just received their cue to start singing, but my heart sank. Grant and Katie were positioned perfectly, front and center, but poor Alli had gotten stuck behind the 10 year olds, who towered over her. Right about the time I was feeling sorry for the audience, who was missing the chance to see the cutest and most animated cast member, Alli emerged from the shadows. She pushed and shoved her way through the big kids and ended up smack dab in the middle, by the manger, where she sweetly and perfectly sang the well-rehearsed words into the microphone buried in the hay. A collective sigh went up from the audience and I'm sure you could see my proud face beaming, even in the darkness. The song ended and the kids, in perfect unison, welcomed everyone to Christmas at "The Shapel."

Brent emerged from the darkness and bathed in soft spotlight began reading the Christmas story in a melodic voice. He read about Mary, Joseph, the census and their journey to Bethlehem. Right about the time Mary was giving birth to a first-born son, I spotted potential for disaster. Alli, who had gotten bored with the story, had begun to explore the manger. She picked at the wood, pulled out some hay, uncovered the microphone buried in it and curiously started tapping on it. Katie, who was standing next to her and is known to always follow the rules and do things correctly, was mortified and began to gently tug on Alli's sleeve. My mind immediately began to play through the "what if" scenarios because Alli does NOT like to be told what to do. Brent, who was oblivious to the scenario unfolding before him, continued to read about angels appearing to shepherds who were tending their flocks by night, while Katie discreetly continued in her efforts to get Alli to toe the line.

Just as the angels were singing "Glory to God in the Highest," IT happened. Straight out of a scene from the Greatest Christmas Pageant Ever, Alli reached her tipping point, and fed up with goody-two-shoes-Katie, turned and shoved her as hard as she could. Poor Katie didn't see it coming and was caught completely off balance. She went flying across the stage and landed unceremoniously on her butt, five feet away from where, seconds before, she had been sweetly standing. A collective gasp rang through the crowd, and I wanted to melt into the floor. I held my breath as I envisioned Katie, our drama queen, either bursting into tears or getting up and initiating a full-on brawl with her sister. Instead, she got up, dusted herself off, and returned to her place by the manger on slightly wobbly legs.

Brent was quick-witted enough to quip,"Hey, hey, hey -take it easy. Oh, it's okay, they're sisters," and continued on with the story. The shepherds in the story visited the baby Jesus and the Chapel kids traipsed off the stage and to the waiting arms of their parents, most of them proud, two of them mortified.

Alli's performance of a not-so-holy-night was so good that she was requested to NOT return for her next scheduled service. Although the punishment fit the crime, I have to admit, I was disappointed. There was something sweet, endearing and certainly memorable about an angelic looking 3 1/2 year old who was willing to chuck her halo and clobber anyone who got in the way of her worshipping the Baby Jesus in the manger.

Snow Day

Our first fall and winter in Oregon have been picture-perfect by Portland standards. Dry, compared to most years, warm, and we've actually had quite a few days where the sun broke through the gray cloud cover and brightened our winter days. The other day Grant inquired, "When is it ever going to be winter?" We laughed and told him that 40 degrees and gray IS winter in Oregon. He wasn't too pleased and started complaining about missing the snow and the super cold weather.

On Sunday morning, we woke up to snow falling in HUGE gorgeous flakes. We were excited to see some familiar winter weather and ignorantly piled into the van for our 30 minute drive to church. We'd been warned that if Portland gets snow, the city shuts down, but it never crossed our minds that with a mere inch of snow on the roads, that this could qualify for shut down mode. We got about 15 minutes into our drive and realized that being a cavalier Chicagoan in Oregon is not always a good thing. We began to gain a new appreciation for the untamed beauty that is Oregon as we slipped and slided up steep hills and around sharp corners coated with sheets of ice. Thankfully we arrived safely at church and entered a near empty lobby that is typically teeming with people. Our senior pastor greeted us with a laugh and told us that there would be no more church services but we'd go ahead and have this one since people had already gathered.

We crawled home on the icy roads, listened to news reports that the interstate and main highway arteries were being completely shut down in places, and cheered when we saw two snowplows total on our 20 mile trek home.

The kids, determined to make a snowman, piled into their Illinois-quality winter gear, but had to settle for a snowball fight since there wasn't enough snow to make a snowman. Dusty, our labradoodle puppy, got her first taste of snow and frolicked and pranced around the back yard while the snow froze on her long hair. By 6 p.m. on Sunday, all public schools were already cancelled for Monday and Curt had received a call from his boss stating that it looked like a snow day for him as well.

We giggled at how differently the winter weather was handled in Portland versus Chicago, put the kids to bed, turned on the fireplace, and snuggled in to watch the 3-hour Survivor finale and stay up late. We slept in this morning, let the kids watch Disney channel in their jammies, and finally ventured out into the "bitter cold" (22 degree) sunny, gorgeous, winter day around 10 a.m. The kids played in the vacant lot next to our house, chased Dusty, and threw snowballs at each other. The girls are thawing out with hot chocolate at the kitchen table, Grant and Curt are outside puttering in the cold, the Christmas music is playing, and the sun is reflecting brightly off the snow cover. Does it get any better than an unexpected snow day?!?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Marry Her

The Christmas season can be crazy - full of activities, parties, endless errands and lists of things to do. It's easy for me to fly through the entire month of December and be putting ornaments away in January before I realize that Christmas has come and gone and I never really thanked Jesus for coming to earth in such a humiliating way. This year, the Christmas story has even more potential to get lost because in addition to the yearly festivities, we''re hanging pictures on the wall, choosing paint colors and unpacking the garage! To combat this, I started re-reading the Christmas stories in the Gospels during my daily quiet time and I asked God to make the story fresh again.

I started today in Matthew 1. After skimming the genealogy, I started reading about Joseph. When Joseph found out about Mary's apparent unfaithfulness, he began weighing his options. He loved Mary and Matthew described Joseph as "a righteous man." The Bible describes Joseph's two options: divorce Mary quietly and condemn her to a life of living on the streets in disgrace, or have her stoned, both which were the social norm at the time given the circumstances. As he mulled these options over, God gave Joseph a plan C. Marry her. It was such a preposterous idea that God had an awe-inspiring angel deliver the news. When Joseph began asking God for direction, Plan C wasn't even a fathomable idea, but he was just crazy enough to believe that God might know what He was doing, and Joseph obeyed. He shunned the social norm and took on incredible scorn and humility by marrying his fiance' and raising her illegitimate son, Jesus, as his own.

My Bible commentary says, "In view of the circumstances, choosing to marry Mary had not occurred to Joseph. But God often shows us that there are more options available than we think. Although Joseph seemed to be doing the right thing by breaking the engagement, only God's guidance helped him make the best decision. When our decisions affect the lives of others, we must always seek God's wisdom."

I have often wondered what the story of Jesus' life would have looked like if Joseph or Mary chose to say NO to God at any point along the way. How would God have redeemed humanity if the plot had been foiled by disobedience? Then I think of my life and wonder about that same domino effect. Where has my disobedience skewed God's plan to use me? What areas has my obedience blessed someone else? And how creative has God had to be to fix all my blunders?

This past year has been a journey of faith for Curt and I with one big decision after the other. Some of them appeared preposterous and a lot of the choices we made were Plan C's that weren't even on our radar screen when we started asking God for guidance. I am so thankful that God promises His wisdom and guidance to those who seek it and that Curt and I were just crazy enough to believe that God knows what He's doing. I can hardly wait for the next angelic announcement...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Learning to Give

I'm a gifts girl. I love to buy gifts. Give gifts. Receive gifts. "Treats," as I like to call them, make me happy. By default, I love the Christmas season. On a typical year, I'll make an Excel workbook with separate sheets for immediate family, extended family, friends, and miscellaneous - you can laugh. I know it's ridiculous. My sheets have gift names, where to buy it, how much it costs and of course, a place to put a big X when I've actually purchased the gift. My niece Sydney was nice enough to have a December 5th birthday AND live in a place that requires package shipping, so her birthday is typically the benchmark of when my shopping needs to be done, wrapped, packaged in boxes and in the mail.

This year is different. We moved Thanksgiving week, our kids switched to new schools and our life has been a blur of projects, work, and unending To-Do lists. I never even considered a spreadsheet, didn't ask anyone what they wanted for Christmas, completely forgot about Sydney's birthday until midnight of her actual birthday, felt totally lame about it, and then drug my two youngest daughters through an exhausting day of shopping because I felt I had to buy Syd's birthday present AND all the gifts on my imaginary "extended family" Christmas list, even though I had no idea what anyone wanted or needed.

As I was standing in line at the post office, taping my packages and addressing them while I waited, I decided that it was time for my kids to learn to give. When we got home, I sat our four kids down and told them I was going to give them each $5 and then take them on a date to the Dollar Tree. Their eyes lit up and they immediately started mentally scanning the aisles for treasures to bring home when I burst their bubble and told them that they needed to pick out a present for each person in our family. Katie quickly did the math and pointed out that we have six people in our family, not five. And that's when I dropped the bomb that they didn't get to choose a gift for themselves. Eyes welled with tears, whining ensued and pouty faces popped out. I explained that God wants us to be a cheerful giver and I emphasized the fun of choosing an individual gift for each person. They started to brighten and I added that if they asked for anything for themselves, they'd have to put their gifts back and wouldn't be able to participate in the gift giving.

Over the next two days, I took the kids on little excursions to the local Dollar Tree. I got such a kick out of watching them shop. They all insisted on carrying their own shopping basket and even pip-squeak Paige wouldn't let me help. She struggled through the store, lugging her basket with treasures in tow, saying, "No Mommy. I do it myself." I gave the kids cash and they each handled their own transaction by themselves, loading their items on the belt, paying the cashier, and gathering their receipts. Their faces beamed and they puffed up their chests with pride as they waltzed out the door with their packages.

Katie and Paige shopped decisively, confidently and quickly. They saw something they liked, threw it in their basket and moved on to the next person on their list. They were in and out in 10 minutes and they both picked the exact same gift for Curt!

Grant and Alli were poky, deliberate, and uncertain. They hemmed and hawed over every display, put stuff in their basket, then changed their minds and put it back. I was just about to set a time limit when they finally both agreed to head to the cashier. As we were walking out of the store, they continued to shop and Grant actually changed his mind, for the 100th time, and switched out his gift for Katie after he'd already bought one!

When we got home, we locked ourselves in the "gift wrapping" room while the other kids hovered around outside the door yelling, "Did you wrap my gift yet? What did you get me? Give me a clue." Each kid helped wrap and label the gifts they chose and it really warmed my heart to see how into the whole experience they got. No one asked for a gift for themselves and Grant even reprimanded me for being "selfish" at the store when I tried to sway Alli from buying me a hideous breakable nativity set. I patted myself on the back for a good learning experience and tweaked it so that next year, they can do chores leading up to the trip and earn the money themselves.

In the same week we did our giving experiment, I met a family in true need. They have 4 kids, similar in age to our kids, and by a series of poor choices, illness and bad luck, have ended up with almost nothing. When we moved, I did a major toy purge and gave away a lot of toys. I looked at what was left, still an abundance, but realized that the kids frequently used it all. I told them about this family and asked if they could go back through their things and come up with some toys for these kids. Grant, who has always been generous to a fault and has given tons of his things away to friends, struggled because he had only real treasures left, but still came up with a few things he was willing to part with. Katie and Paige were pretty stingy and only wanted to give broken toys or toys that belonged to someone else! Alli surprised me. She found a baby doll, dressed it in a super cute outfit and took a "seat cart" (doll car seat) that she bought with her own money, and put the baby in it. She also gave her favorite High School Musical Barbie with the singing microphone. With a huge smile on her face, she said, "This is for the little girls who don't have toys. My baby looks so cute that I think I want to keep it for myself, but I'll still give it."

This time it was my eyes that welled with tears and I realized that my daughter, who I thought I was teaching a lesson to, showed me through her generosity what it really means to give.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas...

Christmas is one of my favorite times of year. My husband and I love it so much, that we got married two days after Christmas so we could take advantage of all the Christmas decorations at the church, soak in all the family love and celebrate or anniversary every year when people are in a festive mood.

We just moved a week ago. The remaining unpacked boxes are in the garage and require Curt's attention, not mine. But there are pictures stacked against the wall, layers deep, in all the rooms, furniture that didn't sell on Craigslist that needs to be shuttled to the garage, a half-finished rocking chair remodel in the living room, and I could go on. My list of projects seems insurmountable at this current moment and I do not feel in the Christmas spirit. To top it all off, it's been beautiful in Oregon, our new home state, and the weather has been in the high 50's and low 60's and sunny -not exactly typical mid-western snowy Christmas weather.

This morning we forced ourselves to take a break from the work, follow tradition, and go as a family to a local tree farm and search the premises for the "PERFECT" Stilp family Christmas tree. In perfect Clark W. Griswald tradition, we had happy and not-so-happy moments along the way, and as he does every year, Curt busted out the quote from Christmas Vacation, "it's all part of the experience Honey."

We traipsed up a huge hill, me carrying Paige who refused to walk and Curt trying to keep up with Grant (who was running with a saw), Katie, Alli and Dusty, our dog, who had run ahead and were out of sight. Dusty kept getting tangled in the blackberry bushes, Paige wanted to be carried the whole way, Katie made some cotton candy out of a rotten wood stick, Alli got bored and started whining about going home, and Grant got busted whipping Dusty with a pine bough and lost all pine branch carrying privileges.

And like every year, by the time the light from heaven beamed on the "IT" tree for Curt, we were all ready to pick any tree in the lot to bring home. Our new home has a big living room with 18 foot ceilings and can accommodate a mammoth tree, so we didn't wimp out. The tree Curt chose was ginormous and it took him 20 minutes to saw through the trunk. By the time we yelled "TIMBER" he was sweating all over, Paige and Alli were sitting in the mud cause their feet hurt, Grant was sulking from getting in trouble, and I was inwardly giggling at how EVERY year our tree-cutting experience ends up being a great mix of terrible and wonderful. It's just enough fun that we HAVE to do it again the next year.

When we got our beast of a tree home, Curt set to work tracking down a tree stand large enough to hold the trunk because our current one didn't cut it. We found a generous neighbor who has "gone artificial" and borrowed their tree stand. We huffed and puffed and lugged that thing into the living room and then Curt got to work decorating it.

I should explain... I am fly by the seat of my pants, get it done quickly, little attention to detail girl. Curt is the opposite. He's calculated, cool, calm, reflective, methodical and very symmetrical. When I decorated our first tree as a married couple, I thought he was going to die at how bad it looked. His dream was to eventually get a home with two living areas, one for his tree and one for mine.

So as Curt set to work methodically hanging white lights in equally spaced distances on his gorgeous fresh tree, the kids and I slapped together the family room tree. We finished before he even got the lights done. Our tree is multi-colored lights (which Curt hung symmetrically for me, bless his heart), bottom heavy with ornaments bunched together in groups because the kids hung them all, none of the ornaments match, and the angel looks like she could spill off the top at any given moment. And I LOVE it!

Curt finished his tree while I was blogging, and it's breath-taking. Perfectly spaced white lights followed by white and red wired-ribbon, and matching ornaments in shades of white and red. All 10 feet of it are stunning and I admire all his hard work and dedication. The finished project is definitely worth oohing and aahing over.

I walked through our house tonight, laughed at our two very different trees, and thought to myself, it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

New Friends

When we were weighing the pros and cons of moving to Oregon vs. staying in Illinois, one of the big pulls to staying was our network of friends. It was wide and deep and multi-tiered with old friends, new friends, and everything in between. When we moved to Newberg five months ago (has it already been that long?) we knew my Mom, her husband, and had a few acquaintances. The rest was a big question mark and it was an intimidating place to be. To complicate things, we moved in the middle of the summer so our kids didn't have an instant network of ready-made friends at a new school to pull from and it put me in a position of being intentional about finding friends for the kids.

I prayed fervently for the Lord to lead me to friends for the kids and for Curt and I, then set to work to meet new people. In the first week we lived in Newberg, we signed up for the reading program at the library, for swimming lessons, for pre-school, for MOPS, and for Vacation Bible School. We went to various parks around the Newberg area and I got very familiar with the "Hi. I'm Jodi. We just moved from Chicago. What's your name and how old are your kids?" mantra. But as we traipsed around, God orchestrated the days and times of our activities and started answering my prayers.

At swimming lessons we met Lauren and her three kids, Alex, Collin and Jack. Jack was in Alli's class and they were like two peas in a pod, creating mischief and looking irresistible while they did it. Lauren and I exchanged numbers and an easy friendship started to form. In a matter of a few weeks, we were getting together regularly and she watched Paige for me every Wednesday for an hour so I could volunteer at the elementary school.
A week after being in our rental, we were invited to a neighborhood block party and we met the Russell family who had a daughter Grant's age and a son close to Alli's age. Bobbi is a Newberg native and was gracious enough to initiate being my local tour guide. She took me to cool parks, included me in outings she was planning, and saved us the best possible spots to watch the annual Newberg Old Fashioned Days parade. She and Eric attend Solid Rock and encouraged us to come with them. We went one time and knew we'd found our new church home.

Bobbi introduced me to her sphere of friends on our street, and that's how I met Kelly. Her two boys match up perfectly in age and disposition with Grant and Paige and immediately frequent play dates became part of my schedule. Lucky for us, Kelly and I really connected and before we knew it, we were having weekly coffee, swapping kids to exercise, and dragging bus stop visits into lengthy conversations.

Our first week at our new church, I overheard James talking about a triathlon he completed, so I butted into his conversation and introduced him to Curt. His wife Laura loves running like I do and they have four kids, in rapid succession, just like us. We had instant connections on multiple levels and quickly developed a deep friendship. Even though we live 45 minutes apart, we feel intimately connected to them and relish every chance we have to get together.

At VBS I met Milly, a gorgeous European who happened to sell Mary Kay (I was out of every product I owned) and lives in the neighborhood we just moved to. Her daughter Jordan is becoming one of Alli's good friends and her gift of hospitality is so comforting. She always has hot tea and coffee cake ready for visits at her house.

We joined a house church and began developing friendships with Andrew and Minnie and Nick and Kari. A recent women's event began the start of new relationships with Jessie, Raina and Christy and I'm excited to see where they go.

Good friends of ours who live in Seattle introduced us to their best friends who live locally in the Portland area. Wendy and Drew embraced us and introduced us to their whole circle of friends. A few play dates, a couple of BBQ's and the circle kept expanding.

When Alli started school, I gained Amber, and her daughter Faith, as quick friends for both Alli and I, and when I attended my first MOPS session, my table leader, Sandra, and I laughed at all we had in common, including sons and daughters the same age in the same classes at school. Sarah Farris had a daughter Katie's age, lives within a mile of our new home, and recently relocated from down South, so we had a lot to talk about as well.

This Sunday we started digging through the boxes in our garage. It was unseasonably warm and the entire neighborhood was out enjoying the 60 degree December day. We realized that the street directly above us is LOADED with kids and all these families quickly initiated introductions between their kids and ours. Within minutes the empty lot next to ours was full of kids, ours included, playing in the mud, rappelling the rock retaining wall, riding bikes or playing football. Kids came and went in groups between about 5 houses and I lost track of the names of all the neighbors I met who welcomed us warmly with open arms.

When the kids toured their new school, Grant was able to bring his new best friend with him to check stuff out and it seemed to ease his anxiety about starting a school because he got to experience it first with Alden.

Moving to our new home this past week was really eye-opening. Friends came out of the woodwork to offer help with watching the kids, packing and unpacking boxes, schlepping furniture, and loading and unloading the UHAUL. Our entire work crew, with the exception of my Mom's husband, was made up of guys from our house church. My Newberg girlfriends showed their girl power and helped me haul all the mattresses and box springs over and provided fun places for the kids to play so I could power on with projects uninterrupted.

Today as I reflected on their kindness, I realized that God had answered my prayers for friends not just for the kids, but for Curt and I as well. In a short span of time, our family already has a circle of wonderful people, from all walks of life, who have welcomed us into their homes, their lives and their hearts. I miss my friends from Illinois, but these new friends have softened the pain of separation and enriched my life and I am so grateful. In a blink of an eye, these new friends, will be old and dear friends and I love that.

Monday, December 1, 2008

It's Official

It's official. We are bonafide home owners once again. The past 10 days have been a blur of activity, excitement and work, work, work.

Last Friday night, the kids, our dog and I pulled into our driveway, van loaded down with various treasures like TP, baby wipes and rugs, and nearly tackled our realtor Kim in our excitement to get the keys. Katie, our 6 year old, took the cutest picture, from her perspective, of Miss Dittler giving me the keys. Curt met us at the house and we unpacked the first of about a bazillion loads from the van while the kids ran around screaming with excitement in the empty upstairs.

The original plan was to stay at the rental until the 29th and each day leading up to the big move, schlep stuff over in the van while Curt painted like a mad man. We scrapped the "staying in the rental" on Friday night over pizza and tore back to the rental to dig for sleeping bags, air mattresses, folding tables, and toothbrushes.

Our first night in Big Blue was really memorable. Curt set up the loft for the kids with a TV, a movie and camping chairs, and while the kids watched High School Musical 2 for the hundredth time, Curt and I worked ourselves silly schlepping loads and sealing the granite and the grout in the tile. I somehow muscled the futon mattress into the back of the van since the camping mats were nowhere to be found, and at midnight, we collapsed in a heap and tossed and turned with excitement all night. Our two-year-old, Paige, abandoned potty training weeks ago, but was put to bed in underwear by her big sister Alli, so in the first 12 hours of our occupancy, our carpet was christened with charcoal smears from the camping chairs, baby pee from Paige's accident, and dog diarrhea, from our nervous puppy who we thought would be fine sleeping one night outside of her crate. And all my cleaning supplies were at the rental house!!!!!!

We essentially ignored our kids for the next week while Curt painted and I moved the rental house over van load by van load by van load. I'd unpack the boxes, load the empties back in the van, referee fights between the kids, get Curt's list of supplies that needed to be bought, and head out for another load. We worked ourselves into the ground, but the euphoria of a new home kept us motivated and fighting through the pain of exhaustion. Curt wore holey jeans to church cause I grabbed the wrong ones from the rental, we ate way too much fast food, caved into way too many pleas for candy and gum, griped at each other on occasion and were forced into breaks to comfort kids who were crabby and resisting change, but we relished this time as a family getting to know our new home. And as the week progressed, it started to feel more familiar.

In less than a week, Curt painted the bonus room (3 coats), three kid bedrooms (some with multiple coats), the master bedroom, the family room (2 coats) and the kitchen, all done with precision and ease. He is a painting ROCK STAR! As he'd finish a room, I'd come behind him with dressers and bookshelves and stuff to fill them. By Friday night, all the kids rooms and the bonus room were set up and functional.

I had my kitchen set up by Monday, so we decided to break it in on Thanksgiving Day. We worked on Thanksgiving morning, painting and hauling stuff over, then quickly showered and started preparing a feast. We threw a 16 pound turkey (the smallest one Costco had) into our new oven, whipped up some home-made mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, green beans, and some pumpkin and apple pie. When all the food was ready and the table was set, we woke Paige from her nap and Curt led our family outside for a dedication ceremony.

We each picked a rock from our lot and then Curt read the story in Joshua 4 when God parted the waters of the Jordan River at flood stage and the Israelites walked across on dry ground. God instructed Joshua to construct a rock memorial as a constant reminder of God's miraculous deliverance and provision in a seemingly impossible situation. God told Joshua, "Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, 'What do these stones mean?' tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever." We each placed our rock in a pile, then laid hands on our memorial and thanked God for His miraculous provision of Big Blue.

We moved to our front door and Curt read to us Isaiah 61:1-3: "The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion - to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of His splendor." Curt explained to the kids that God expects us to use our home as a safe haven to welcome people, no matter their status, race, or personality. We prayed that people would find salve for their wounds and that our home would be filled with the oil of gladness. As we prayed this out-loud, Curt followed ancient Old Testament tradition and anointed the door posts of our home with oil.

We moved to the center of our home and gathered in a pile on the landing of the stairs. We are studying the book of James at church and Curt wrote out a prayer for our home, based on the book of James. Here's what he prayed, based on his notes.
"Lord, you have brought us through the trial of uncertainty, unfamiliarity, all things new and searching for a home. And we hope that through this trial, You have developed perseverance and maturity in us. We ask that the faith born out of this trial would lead to much action to advance Your kingdom. We know there will be future trials and we welcome them as a chance for You to continue to build perseverance and maturity in our lives.

You've given us wisdom when we asked and You've given us the crown of life. You have given us Big Blue, a good and perfect gift that comes from the Father of Heavenly Lights. We pray that this gift would never become an idol, taking Your place, but that it would always be a blessing to bring You praise.

LORD, we have heard and read Your word and we have tried to do what it says. We want to use this house to serve others, because we know You will always meet our needs. We pray against showing favoritism or partiality toward the rich, and we pray against envy and selfish ambition that could evolve as a result of this blessing. Help us not to hoard or go after luxury and self-indulgence, but to be generous. Show us when we fail and give us hearts to repent quickly.

LORD as we live in this house, help us keep a tight rein on our tongues. May the words we speak be sweet, fresh water that edify and build other ups and may our words always give praise to You, LORD and Father. Help us not judge our neighbors or speak evil against them in any way. We pray that our home would be pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.

God, we have asked and received. You have poured out a blessing from heaven. Help us always to submit ourselves in humility to You and Your perfect plan. Help us not to boast about tomorrow and we ask that if it is Your will, that we would live long in this home. LORD, we ask that You will make Big Blue a House of Faith and that prayers of righteous men and women would be offered here. That healing would happen here. That sinners would turn from their ways and find repentance, grace and new life in our home. We give Big Blue back to You. God live here. Rest here. Reside here. We ask in Jesus' name, Amen." And then we feasted. It was beautiful.

On Saturday, a crew of guys from our house church and my mom's husband Terry, came and loaded up the UHaul (times two) with what was left in the house and the garage. Our new garage belched the contents of the UHaul into our driveway, so we tackled that project on Sunday. By bedtime on Sunday night, we managed to give away and sell a bunch of stuff on Craiglist, had the contents of the garage contained to within it's walls and finished setting up our bedroom. Today I supervised while the rental home got a thorough spa treatment and every nook and cranny got cleaned. I turned in the keys at 4 p.m. and closed that chapter of life.

Grant and Katie will catch the bus in the morning and begin their first day of school at Mabel Rush. They met their teachers today and some of the neighborhood kids over the weekend and I'm sure will do fine with yet another huge transition.

As I glance around the corner at the pile of laundry larger than Mt. Hood, I realize that we are really living in this home. Praise God from whom all blessings flow - it's official!