Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Greatest Gift

None of us are rich, monetarily speaking. None of us have ever, for example, dived beneath the Christmas tree and found the keys to a fancy new car. Or even a new car. Or just a car.

No expensive jewelry, costly perfume, cutting edge electronics, designer clothes...none of those exotic gifts that grace so many homes this time of year. We can't afford them, it's true, but even if we could, I don't think we would. For us, the greatest gift doesn't automatically mean the most expensive. In fact, the less wealthy we all are, the more creative our gifts become. Most cost very little, and some nothing at all!

In our crowd, you can never go wrong with edibles, many of them tenderly home-made. I personally like them best for the children, since even if - okay, when - they throw the wrappers all over the floor, they get picked up and cause no further mess till the next year. Some gifts are both edible and thoughtful. Last year, I found a place to order Jack his favorite kind of veggie ribs, and he was thrilled. This year, Mom found him a couple kinds of BBQ sauce based on popular soda flavors. We have no idea yet what these bizarre creations taste like, but we all had a good laugh imagining the possibilities. 

Books, usually used and nearly always vintage or hard-to-find, are also popular. Mom just got Damon two books by Peter Hathaway Capstick, an extraordinary hunter and author. The fact that I have been trying to get my hands on those books myself is pure coincidence. Anyway, there is nothing wrong with a multitasking present. And Tina got the hilarious photo essay, "101 Uses for My Ex-Wife's Wedding Dress". 

Caleb got Damon and Devon each a pair of hockey skates (used, of course), and John got his mom a snuggie. It will come in very handy if she can just get the time to sit down.

Then there are the 'special' presents. Most often snapped up in thrift stores or on clearance racks, these chance finds are both inexpensive and perfectly suited to the recipient. Tina got me a lovely soft blue sweater, and a vibrant purple hat/scarf/gloves set. I had been meaning to get myself an adorable winter hat, better suited to a delicate bus driver than the full-face ski mask (aka bank robber hat) I wear to shovel snow.

Mom found me a couple of VHS movies that I remember fondly from my childhood. That does not make them vintage, no matter what the item description might say.
"Bag 'em, Danno!"

Mom received a cute little gadget whose purpose at first escaped her. Sewed from lacy, acid-washed blue jeans, it's a hanging tube that holds plastic bags. You know, those bags from the grocery store that you always see in the Man Harming Wildlife documentaries, because so many get thrown away rather than re-used. Well, around here, those plastic bags play a vital role in the containment of certain, ahem, hazardous waste by-products from an anonymous incontinent family member. (We'll call him Strandpa.) Now Mom can dispose in style! I'm sure the garbage men will be grateful.

There was a new category of gifts under the tree this year, with only the cost of wrapping paper. Let's just say it takes re-gifting to a whole new level. Basically, you liberate - a nice way of saying "steal" - the person's stuff, and then give it back to them. 

Tina used to play a version of this game with our brothers when she was little. First, she would steal a whole bunch of their stuff. Then she would open a store, and charge them actual cash money to redeem their own belongings. Upon complaining to Mom, they were told to play nicely with their sister. It was a nice racket. They are still bitter.

The gift version is a little kinder and gentler, since there is not actually a price attached. A few weeks before Christmas, Tina found one of Devon's favorite toys, a plastic parachute man with a working parachute. He had lost it several months before, and it had slipped my mind to give it back once it was found. An honest mistake. Really.

When Devon opened it, he was pretty blase. "Auntie, I already have one of these." We all began snickering as he turned it over and over to inspect it more closely. "And mine is blue, just like this one."

The roar of laughter nearly drowned out Tina as she told him, "Yours looks just like that one, because that one is yours."

And then Tina found out that she was not the only one who had caught re-gifting fever.

Oh, goody. Here's my platter.

This looks familiar, too.

She didn't mind a bit. When it comes to presents, she's always been a quantity over quality kinda gal. If you gave her a pack of licorice, she'd be happy. If you gave her the same pack, with each piece individually wrapped, she'd be thrilled!

Caleb got his own little surprise, too - the Bible he had forgotten at church only that morning.

Wow. Thanks, Uncle Jack.
Jack had already gotten an uncharacteristically pricey gift for me - a dishwasher. After 3 1/2 years of washing entirely by hand, I had gotten used to doing dishes the same way as when I was a kid. (Minus spending hours flicking giant bubbles in my dishwater.) However I can promise you that it will not even take me .07 seconds to adjust to having a dishwasher again. The kindness, thoughtfulness, and love that prompted it will stay with me all year. There are a few, a very few presents you just can't find at the thrift store.

Every now and again, though, the opportunity comes along to give The Gift - that one perfect present that a beloved family member has been longing for, and just hadn't been able to get. This year was Tina's turn. She had always wanted a rock garden.

Jack had been telling her for a while now that he was getting her rocks for Christmas, and that is what he did. With some help from children and small cousins, we collected rounded stones from a field, left there several thousand years ago by a passing glacier. Wrapping them was a family collaboration.

Jack and Damon helped...

...and so did Potto.

It's hard to believe how well his fur has grown back!

The finished rock garden.

Tina was thrilled. You can see the joy all over her face. But hey, some of them were individually wrapped.

No, wait..........there might be something else.......................................

Each year, I think we do a little better at capturing the true spirit of The Greatest Gift. This season isn't about selfish gratification, price tags, or credit card bills. It's about family togetherness and love. The bonds we form with family and friends give honor to the greatest gift of all, when God sent His Son to earth, to become ours now and forever.

Emmanuel, God with us.

Praying for God's peace to guide us as we enter the new year,
Noni Beth

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Eve Morning

It's been a while since I mentioned Grandpa. He's still ticking, though some days the boundary between death and life stretches pretty thin. This is another in a long string of "Last Christmases" he has stuck around for, each one better than the last, though each one finding him weaker and less alert.

Living in Death's shadow for so long has left us with a few oddities, not that we were so normal to start with. What follows, though it happened to land on Christmas Eve this time, is fairly typical of several days out of every week.

See, Grandpa has now been diagnosed with two, count 'em - TWO fatal conditions. One is his heart, where one or more unnoticed heart attacks left him with only a teeny tiny bit of living heart tissue. We found out about that more than a year-and-a-half ago, The doctor said there were no statistics for men Grandpa's age with a heart so bad, as they were all already dead. He said that, if Grandpa were 50, he would give him a year to live.

Then, a bit over 6 months ago, Grandpa was additionally diagnosed with some kind of blood cancer. I forget the name, but basically, the problem is in his bone marrow. His marrow produces blood cells, but the cancer prevents an increasing number of them from maturing. Those "toddler cells" end up clogging up more and more of the production line, resulting in anemia that just keeps getting worse. The doctor said the life expectancy is usually six months.

So now, Grandpa has outlived both his original year, and his six months. He has grown worse and worse, now bedbound and unable to walk. He regularly almost dies, but somehow finds the strength to soldier on a little longer. 

Hospice was going to babysit Grandpa for a few hours, long enough for us to take part in the third Christmas program this month. We had already practiced all the songs for the community Christmas program, so everything was perfectly ready.

Until nearly all of us got sick.

By the grace of God, our dreadful colds hadn't impaired our singing voices, so after a few days of concern, our part in the program remained intact.

Until Grandpa tried to die. Again. 

On the way out to the car, he lost consciousness before ahem, spoiling his lovely new Christmas outfit with a round of nausea. As usual, his will to live prevailed, but his trip to town had to be cancelled. So did our tenor part (Mom), and the pianist for two of our three songs (also Mom). 

All's well that ends well, even if a few modifications had to be made. Our trio became a duet, I played for the kids' song, and our quartet became a lovely reading about the birth of Christ. The other families at church participated beautifully, and then, and then....

The Luau. 

I think it's fairly safe to say that luaus are few and far between out here on the plains, much less vegetarian luaus. It was a worthy feast, indeed, and everyone enjoyed it, except Mom. 

Tina took some home for Mom, so she would have enjoyed it, except for one thing. She had just reached the stage of sickness where she lost her sense of taste. "Mmmm, mmmm," she exclaimed bitterly. "Christmas texture."

My heart was sad for her. Very, very sad. Not too sad to keep me from chewing my way through every blissful second. 

After all, SOMEONE needed to enjoy it.

Too sick to have adventures,
Noni Beth

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Christmas Soliloquy

Hey, don't knock my poinsetta! You wouldn't look so great with frostbite, either...
As with most of our holidays, Christmas has its roots in paganism. Just as bunnies and eggs are firmly attached to Easter, so are Christmas trees and Santas linked in our minds to the festive winter holiday season.

Some folks choose not to celebrate or even acknowledge Christmas, because of those pagan origins. I have no objection whatsoever to anyone who lives up to the leadings of their conscience.

My own personal belief is this:

It's always the right time to take advantage of any opportunity to turn people's minds to heavenly things. It's always the right time to teach our children how to be unselfish. It's always the right time to bind the hearts of our family together with thoughtful gifts. 

Crass commercialism would like to see Christmas as one giant extravaganza, with each person trying to outdo the next in lavish gifts and skyrocketing credit card bills. The hustling and jostling in the world's malls is far removed from the simplicity and beauty of the story of Jesus' birth.

And Mary brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

As the Christmas season washes over you, take time to remember the One who humbled Himself, was born as an impoverished infant in a borrowed shelter, and who lived and died to save us from our sins.

The story of Christ's birth can only be fully understood when viewed through the story of his death. His death only makes sense when we see it through His resurrection. His resurrection points us to the awe-filled day when He comes again, this time as Eternal King.

It's always the right time to talk about Jesus.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Lunar Eclipse

Just before the end, the moon sank below a pesky cloud. The next total lunar eclipse is scheduled for Tax Day - April 15, 2014.

Sunrise today is at 7:38 am, and sunset at 3:59 pm, thus making this the shortest day of our year. Incredible as it seems while this early in winter, our days will actually get longer from here on out.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Star of Wonder

Not quite two weeks ago, Damon 'disappeared' for a couple of hours. Of course, being the experienced mother that I am, I knew where he was. And having been something of a daredevil myself, I simply listened for screams instead of calling him down.

Next thing you know, our roof was decorated with lights. That was typical enough, but he had also tried to decorate our antenna in the shape of a tree. It looked amazingly arboreal, right until an anonymous family member we shall call Rina said, "Your house looks like a church."

And it did.

No matter how many times we looked at it, the tree had permanently become a steeple. At least until Jack decided to do something about it. Last night he came home with a small box and handed it to Damon. The boy about did cartwheels - it was an adorable little star for the top of his stee- um, tree. 

Later I went out to look at it. Apparently some assembly had been required, since the adorable little star dwarfed the 'tree', and nearly our house. The beacon is visible from outer space. 

I tried to take a picture of it for you. Standing in the cold, shivering, is not the recommended way to hand-hold time exposures of 1-3 seconds each. In general, hand-held is not the recommended way to do time exposures at all, but (ahem, Sweetheart) NO ONE HAS GOTTEN ME A PINK TRIPOD YET. 

What else can you do with an impossible situation? You just have Fun with Time Exposures AND Zoom Lenses Simultaneously. Seriously, I think the shivering even helped.

Until the next adventure,
Noni Beth

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Loaves and Fishes

I wasn't even supposed to preach today. It was Jack's week. I didn't mind, though, and since I'm doing a long series on the Old Testament, I didn't even have to come up with a subject - just go on to the next story. For a brief time I did consider preaching on a passage in Matthew that really impressed me during my worship, but finally decided to continue with the series.

This week's sermon was Child of Promise, about the birth of Isaac, the miracle boy. Of course it leads very naturally into a comparison with the birth of Jesus, also the Miracle Boy. It was a beautiful power point presentation, complete with Bible verses, applicable quotations, and tons of pictures to keep the kids interested. Hey, adults like pictures, too, but kids like them most. 

Since I wanted to be on time, I got ready a half hour early and dashed over to help with Grandpa so Tina could get done early enough. (She was giving me a ride to church, as I am short a vehicle just now.) Fortunately, most of the work was already done, so I stood there looking gorgeous in my new outfit from Tina, and held Grandpa's clothes in case anyone needed them. "Saul," Tina called me, snickering. (From Acts 7:58.) To save time, I called Tiggy and asked her to pack my computer and cord, so we would be ready.

The trip in to church didn't go very smoothly, either. Ultimately, we had to turn around almost there, and meet with Mom to disgorge two passengers. To spare anyone embarrassment, I will call them Mevon and Merafina. 

With not much time to spare, I began to assemble the electronics to hook up the power point. Computer? Check. Cord? Cord?


Um, Tiggy, where did you put my cord? The stunned look on her face and involuntary 'o' of her mouth told me all I needed to know. Suddenly I felt like that kid with his nose pressed against the glass, and no way to get in and reach my precious sermon.

With a hasty contemplation, I realized there was no time to reconstruct my intended sermon. It was too much information, taken back and forth from several sources, and scattered over numerous chapters in the Bible. I just am not that good. What I needed was something simple. Something I could just stick to one place, go through bit by bit, and have ready in 15 minutes or less. Something very much like....that passage in Matthew.

Maybe I did pull a Jonah by not picking that in the first place. Maybe I ignored the quiet prompting of the Holy Spirit, asking me to share the lessons from the feeding of the 5,000. Whatever the case, God mercifully brought me back around and dropped me off at Ninevah, thanks to a missing power cord. 

The sermon went well, much better than I deserved. And yet, that's what the lesson was all about. Jesus could have created an opulent banquet, there in the middle of the desert. The people could have feasted on dainties and delicacies. Instead, Jesus turned to the people - asking what resources they had to offer.

It wasn't much, just one boy's lunch. Bread and fish, the usual dinner of the poor folk. But placed in the hands of Jesus, it became enough to feed 5,000 men plus women and children, with 12 baskets left over to share. 

That happened to me today. Left with the electronic equivalent of about a half a loaf and no fish, I was sunk. With my inadequate resources in the hands of the Master, they grew to fill the need.

And I have my next sermon done already...