Saturday, December 24, 2016

Expecting

Somewhere around 1991 my mom loaded a K-Mart shopping cart with Christmas gifts for me, my brother, and my sister. She wasn't a shopper and Amazon was just a rain forest, so it strikes me now what a sacrifice it was for her to do that each December. I don't know what was in the cart, because I wasn't there. But I remember hearing her tell my dad how embarrassed she'd been when she had to walk away from the cart and leave the store empty-handed. Maybe she forgot her check book. Or maybe the total was higher than what she thought it would be. Whatever the reason, she fixed it. She went back the next day and retraced her steps, filling the dang cart for the second time.

I couldn't guess at what she hoped for when it came to being the mom at Christmas, but her expectations were somehow always exceeded. There weren't lists of meaningful family traditions, but I remember feeling like I was lit from within at Christmastime. I felt extra tucked-in. Safe. Warm. It was the best of everything.


It's 10:13 pm and I'm blogging at night, as if it's 2009 and my three babies are tucked into their single-occupancy rooms in the creaky upstairs of our farmhouse. The train wails and a fiddle weeps from the speaker hidden above our kitchen cabinets. I'm right here, in 2016, where not even an hour ago, I sat at the kitchen table trying to jam mismatched puzzle pieces together while worrying I'd already ruined Christmas.

I want my kids to somehow experience that intangible feeling that something special is underway. I'm desperate for it and I hate it. I fight the shine even as I fork over money for new books, a tulle skirt, a telescope, a complicated electrical outlet system with its own remote control.

I tell myself we'll lounge around and eat like kings, or maybe like the judges on Master Chef. I categorize a three-columned grocery list and burn a three-wick candle. I bake things. I buy a new puzzle. I play Yahtzee with an eight-year old and pretend it's not frustrating at all.

Last night I dreamed (again, again, again) that I was back in college and had nonchalantly skipped the entire semester, only to come to my senses as finals week approached. Was it too late to drop every class? And would I still have to pay for the credits? I woke up sweating bullets. All week long, I've known what I was up to with my big ideas and my faux-pine scented air. I'm no stranger to the calamity of Shannan Martin, who busies herself crafting unrealistic expectations in an attempt to combat the sinking feeling that most days she's pretty unremarkable.

~

Earlier tonight we did our third Advent reading of the season. It was about the name of Jesus, and what it means. We tried talking about Emmanuel, but apparently it was a bit too soon after three rounds of Mad Libs because Ruby and Silas couldn't stop laughing about moldy bears clapping their belly buttons together.

We all know it's important that God came as Jesus to be with us, but I honestly wish I had just been with my kids in all their inconvenient exuberance. I noticed Ruby's cheeks swallowing up her full moon eyes, her mouth wide, like a child who doesn't know unnecessary pain. But this was a serious moment we were trying to have, and I forced myself not to let go.

Now I'm left wondering if Jesus wouldn't have felt most near if we had just closed the book and giggled together until our vision blurred.

As I sit here, Cory is downtown in the dark with his camera, trying to nail a shot of something having to do with Christmas lights and rain puddles. Before he walked out he asked me what I was going to write about. "I don't know, meth, depression, and white supremacy?" I joked.

These have been hot topics in our house this week as I wrap gifts and daydream about whisking heavy cream into flour for cranberry scones.

People I love are burning alive, and my cheeks are on fire.

But I am with them in this dirt. They are with me.
This life is a gift I'll never deserve.
And sometimes rain at Christmas is a relief.


Tomorrow morning (Christmas Eve) we'll open a few gifts. We'll turn off our phones and thank God for the surprises he dealt us, especially each other. Calvin bought Ruby a whole bag of oranges just for herself and Cory's gifts both came from Goodwill. There's sausage thawing for gravy and a pineapple ready for slicing. Dinner will be homemade Korean food, in honor of our oldest Korean who will be playing his violin at the Christmas Eve service.

We will grab our fresh start with glad hearts and both hands. At some point, we'll drag it face-first through the crumbs beneath the table. We will need the Savior who came for us and doesn't stop.

Emmanuel.

God is with us, even when we run.
God is with us, even when we fight.
God is with us, even when we are tired.
God is with us, even when we are sad.
God is with us, even when we can't get a grip.

God is with us, even when our streets swallow us whole.
God is with us, even when people say we don't matter.

God is with us, even when we are sort of sad for the family we lost along the way.
God is with us, even when we sit in seg at the county jail.
God is with us, even when we are strung out and picking at our skin.
God is with us, even when it seems too quiet to believe.

God is with us, even when the house is a wreck.
God is with us, even when the marriage is a wreck.

God pierced the earth with purity and humility and now, we don't have to keep clawing for something better. We don't have to do anything alone. We stretch out our arms, reaching for fistfuls of grace while wearing shoes caked with mud.

We are here, but he is here, too.

God is with us.

I can't wait for tomorrow.


Friday, December 9, 2016

The Gift Your Family Might Not Know it Needs

Yesterday, in passing, someone referred to next weekend as being one week before Christmas and I almost spit out my tea. Like most of life these days, it feels entirely impossible yet close enough to touch. 

The kids have one week of school left, but all week I've been ahead of myself. I'm ready to bust out the puzzle and hunker down. I'm so ready to eat random dips with my friends at strange hours and stay up late with Cory. (Friends, we have hopped on the Poldark wagon and *I have heard* there is trouble coming, but I can't walk away. We're springing for season 2 the minute Christmas break starts. Don't try to stop us.)

For now, I'm slowly adding Christmasy touches to our home and we're enjoying what I hope will be a new tradition for our family - sharing our home and our table with someone each Friday during Advent. We're all waiting with expectation and it's even better to wait together. With a plate of tacos.

All the while, life is still life. The neighbor boys pile into our living room every morning and some afternoons. Three nights ago as I was running out the door for a PTO meeting, two brothers showed up at the door - one crying, one sulking. I was in a bit of a rush and no one was really talking, but I eventually gathered up the loose ends of their angst. Not knowing what else to do and because their ears were bright and freezing, I cupped each of their faces in my XL hands, looked them in the eye, called them by name, and said, "I love you." I told them to get along. Be good to each other. "Friends will come and go, but the two of you are best friends for life." They sniffled and avoided eye contact and didn't say a word in return. Then we headed into the bitterly cold night and walked our separate ways. It felt like maybe the most important three minutes of my entire week.

When I tell you my neighbors have changed my life forever, I know it sounds a bit trite. But I grew up in a tiny corner where both walls were white, along with the floor and ceiling. My childhood was simple. It was bright and beautiful. But it did not allow me to see or understand the breadth of human existence. I had one Asian friend. My cousin wanted and received a black baby doll for Christmas one year and it disarmed us. It was a topic of conversation, not because we were "racist", but because it simply did not fit the script. That was not our world, or so we thought. People of color existed, somewhere far removed from us. Without intending it to happen, I learned to see them not as bad or less than, but as "other".

I will never begrudge the tiny towns sprinkled across our country which lack diversity. It doesn't, in itself, mean anything about the good people who live in them. It simply means that is where they live. If that happens to be you, please remember it was also me, not long ago. Wherever we are planted, we're called to love people and make God's light known. 

But I wish my library had been stocked with books featuring people who didn't reflect my own life. I wish my white teachers would have at least talked about different experiences. I wish my white pastors would have refused to hang pictures on the walls of a white Jesus with light brown hair. I wish I hadn't casually, quietly been taught that "people like me" were the center of the Universe, and everyone else was somewhere at the periphery. 

I wish I had learned the beauty of God's diverse kingdom from birth, in a way that was meaningful.

Life is a crash course now, and I'm playing catch-up. My bland diet has left me starving for the essential nutrients of a well-lived life and faith. 

Maybe you feel like I do. Or maybe you honestly don't, but you sort of wish you would. Changing courses starts with just a single degree of rotation. Most of you are not called to change communities (though some of you are,) or adopt a child of a different ethnicity. But there are small things we can do that have big impact on our lives and particularly on the lives of our kids. 

Here's one: Buy your kids books that feature people of color. Let your gift to them be the understanding that the world is much richer than they imagine. 

As a mom of multi-cultural kids, this has become imperative and life-giving for my family. As they grow, I become more keenly aware of how important representation is for them. But even if my kids were Caucasian, like me, there would be tremendous value in a personal library that honors a wider scope of personal history and experience. 

I've put together a list of the books my kids are receiving from us this Christmas (shh!) along with a list of favorites we already have on hand.


Song of the Trees by Mildred D. Taylor

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

Dear Juno by Soyung Pak

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich

Ichiro by Ryan Inzana

Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba


These are favorites from our personal stash. I scour thrift stores for new additions.

Additional favorites:
Brown Girl Dreaming
Esperanza Rising

(Also, check this out: 1000 Black Girl Books Resource Guide )


I would love for you to list your favorites in the comments. We're always on the hunt for new favorites! You can also pass this list along to your public library and request a more diverse selection if you find it lacking.

Also, next week I'll be sending out a Super Scoop newsletter, sharing some of my favorite things this season. Make sure you're on the list to receive it!


*All links are Amazon affiliate links. 


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Ministry of Giving a Rip at Christmastime


Two nights ago I sat curled up on a friend's couch, listening as she talked about feeling a little sad right now.

"It's Christmas," I said. "It's the season for sadness."

She laughed knowingly. "Yeah. I reminded myself I felt this way last year, too."

It wasn't always this way for me, or not precisely. But time keeps on turning. We learn things. We grow. And like my second grader trying his best to focus and "grow a bigger brain" just two blocks away, learning is never without a cost.



My kids have started praying for Aleppo. Over the weekend Cory and I decided to share Ann Voskamp's post with them. In keeping with most of our lives, it wasn't a particularly tender moment. I was listening from the kitchen while I mashed avocados into guacamole, but I noticed the way the usual rumble of our home's waking hours was hushed. And the questions began pouring in.
"Dear Bana & the Kids in Aleppo…

When we heard that you’re eating grass, and garbage… that there’s only a few days left till your starvation… while we were all swollen with how much turkey and cranberry and pumpkin pie we ate this past weekend — we all needed to come find you and look you in the eye.

When you, Bana, you tweeted to the world what you’re seeing through your little seven-year-old eyes, and we read what you typed: “Last message – under heavy bombardments now, can’t be alive anymore. When we die, keep talking for 200,000 still inside,” we hardly breathed and we needed to hold out our hands to you.

The anger of this world cannot and will not make us deaf to the cries of our children..." (excerpt from Ann's post)

 abc news

I worried maybe it was too much, lingering on the popular belief that kids should be protected against this sort of thing, that it's not fair to burden them. But the skinny tree is crammed in the corner of our tiny living room and soon it will have presents underneath. It's so hard for kids to wrap their minds around suffering, especially during Christmas, but quite honestly, I know no other way to show them the full story - the Herod that led to the manger that meant our Savior was born humbly so we could see the beauty that grows from low places.

They are children. I don't expect too much from them when it took me 35 years to begin to understand. But when God called my family to the compassion of suffering with our neighbor, he called all of us. We refuse to look away.

I covered the guacamole with plastic wrap, grabbed the chips, and eyed Cory across the room. As always, we created a "big" moment in the midst of our chaos without leaving enough room to tidy up the edges. Parenting, at least for us, is an exercise in begging God to fill in the cracks. Shoes-coats-last minute bathroom visits - and we were in the van.

"Does anyone want to pray for Aleppo?"

Calvin did.

Here's the thing - I struggle when people talk about how "beautiful" so-and-so's prayer was. Call me immature. Say I'm missing something. I'm sure both are true. I happen to not have the gift of poetic prayer, and I've learned to not pretend otherwise. They all count, even the ones breathed through gritted teeth. Even and perhaps especially the desperate ones strung with cuss words from our friends at the county jail, who have learned to speak the language of pain.

All that aside, Calvin's prayer made me weepy. It was beautiful.

"Help the people bombing Aleppo to change their ways."

My eleven year old somehow understood that in the end, it's the only miracle that will help.
Image result for aleppo children
save the children

My house smells like pine, I'm sipping orange-spiced tea, and I'm offering you the gift of sorrow for our friends and neighbors, our brothers and sisters and mothers in Aleppo. They are not so different from you and I. They cook dinner, laugh, and cuddle up. For generations they have built a future just to watch it crumble around and upon them in a picture of apocalyptic hell on earth.

It is Tuesday, December 6th in Aleppo. This very moment they are kissing their kids' cheeks and praying for tomorrow. They're tending to what needs done and asking for a miracle. They are as full of life and dreams as we are, as hopeful and creative, every bit as funny. They like their toast a certain way and their coffee black, or heaped with cream. They remember the feel of wool on their skin. They remember a time when they weren't starving and scared, and when their children didn't look like this.


Some say this isn't our problem. It's too impossible. The stakes are too high, or too confusing. It's Christmas, after all, and we can't bear more darkness just now.

But I know we are different.

Five long/short years ago, we stood against injustice by trying to fund a well so an impoverished village could have clean water. We watched water run through our homes and looked hard at the ways we took it for granted. We forced ourselves to face their pain. And though it looked impossible on paper for our tiny community to accomplish this huge goal, we were not deterred. We stepped out in obedience, not knowing how long it would take or if if would ever even be "successful" (in the ways the world defines success.) 

When we exceeded the goal ($12,000!) in less than two months, I was slackjawed. Speechless. These are the kinds of things that return lonely hearts to their homes and restore souls. This is Jesus brought low to the earth, small and unlikely, to save us.

So, here I am, today, not asking for a dime.
I'm just asking us to care.

For some of us, caring might mean sending some cash along the way. But for many of us, it will be much bigger than money. It will mean risking our reputations and sacrificing our common sense. It will mean bearing a burden we'd rather ignore. It will mean hauling around a bucket of sadness while we shop for presents, bake cookies, and wait. The most important sacrifice is the one that is hardest to make, and I am asking you - begging you - to define with me that *thing* holding us back from loving these precious neighbors, then tossing it on the altar and watching it burn.
“You don’t feel the siege biting until it’s gone too far. Then the market shelves are free of everything. You see no bread, no milk, no rice. We’re eating two small meals a day now and soon it will have to be one. But you know what scares me even more than hunger? The international silence. No one has helped us. We are alone.” Washington Post article from December 3, 2016

Ann has helped create a website full of important calls to action. Please read through it and act in whatever way God is calling. Please, please share. Rally your families and your people. Print the ornaments off and pass them out at church or the coffee shop. Take a picture of you and your people holding a DIY #WithAleppo sign and tag it on social media. Above all, pray. This is not an invitation to a miserable Christmas, it's an invitation to a meaningful Christmas, where we carry out our beloved traditions while fighting for the life we say we value.

I cannot stress this enough - people will think you're nuts. They might be annoyed. They might talk smack that you dare to try to "ruin" their Christmas. But we were not born to live among the "international silence." Most of the world seems to be okay with leaving an entire city alone and bleeding - we are not among them.


Our bread feels painfully small right now. There is simply not enough of it and we're too far away. But in the face of need, Jesus faced his disciples, looked them in the eye, and said, "You do it."

They dared to believe he meant it. They suspended their judgment long enough to trust that for some crazy reason, he wanted to work through all they lacked. They handed it over and the Savior of the world made a way.

With Aleppo and with so much love,
Shannan (& Co.)

Here's the website, one more time.