there is no naughty list

Here is my standard disclaimer about all things parenting related: I merely share what works for me, resonates with me, and interests me. Talking about what works for me is by no means a judgment about what works for other people, unless what works for you is abuse. 

Trying to figure out how to celebrate Christmas with your own kids is fraught territory, especially in the age of Pinterest and Instagram. This is especially true for people of faith who are concerned about the commercialization of our celebration of the birth of Jesus. I find myself smack in the middle of tension between my desire for a meaningful time that reminds my family of who Jesus was and why he was born an also the traditional, but rather irreligious, magic of Santa and reindeer.

While we incorporate an observation of the liturgical season of Advent, a Jesse tree, and making sure to give back to others, I didn’t want to wholly ditch Santa and have my kiddos be the ones informing all their elementary school classmates that the man in the sleigh is a lie. I wanted to find a balance somewhere in between, one that involved celebrating Santa as an embodiment of God’s love and generosity to us, without actively lying to my kids or using Santa to manipulate their behavior.

I am also, admittedly, kind of freaked out by the Elf on a Shelf. I read enough crit theory in my English MA program to feel that the whole thing is rather Foucaultian, a panopticon for children. My general parenting approach is not to coerce good behavior out of my children through a surveillance state or through bribery or threats. I have largely been a student of the “peaceful parent” school, though I admit I have always yelled more than I want to. I think my kids behave best when they feel we are in a warm, loving, and cooperative partnership to have our best days together, and when missteps and misbehavior happen, it is a time for emotion coaching and learning. I just can’t find it in me to be all “SANTA IS WATCHING YOU” in order to get them to behave.

But kids absorb things in our culture, and this week, my kids have been asking me, “Mom, is there such thing as a naughty list?” As I pondered my answer, and clarified my “theology of Santa,” I decided this might be worth firing up ye olde blog and writing about.

My answer is this: there is no naughty list.

First of all: why does Santa give presents at Christmas? Why do any of us give presents at Christmas? Santa gives because Santa (a real man and saint!) loved Jesus very much, and wanted to share that love for others. Just like God freely gives not just the gift of Jesus to the world, but all good things to all people, Santa has a spirit of love and generosity and gives to share the love of God with the world. We, and Santa, give gifts at Christmas because we believe Jesus was a great gift to the world, and because we believe God is a generous giver of gifts.

And if Santa gives and loves like God gives and loves, how does God love? The God I know gives and loves unconditionally. There is nothing you can do to earn or un-earn the love and generosity of God. God lavishes love and gifts on us because of who God is, not who or how we are. Would it make sense for a Santa who gives in the spirit of God’s unconditional love to be doing it conditionally? If I believe in a God who does not keep a record of my wrongs but pours out forgiveness, then how could I teach my children about a Santa who keeps a naughty list?

I never want my kids to doubt for a minute that they are worthy of love and acceptance and belonging. People who believe they are loved and accepted act in loving ways toward others. People who think they are constantly working against a cosmic balance sheet of naughty or nice live in fear and strive to prove their worthiness.

Santa is pretend. A fun myth. Good fun. But the stories we tell and the myths we share shape the way we see the world, Christmas, and God. On Christmas morning Santa will fill my kids’ stockings (in our house, Santa only does the stockings) because he is sharing the love of God with them, a love that in turn should inspire us to love and give to others.

I’m already obsessing about Advent

Ideas for creating a Jesse Tree Advent Calendar | erniebufflo.comI’m the first to gripe about “Christmas Creep” and how people keep trying to make Christmas happen before its time, which, in my opinion, should absolutely never be before the day after Thanksgiving. (Mostly because Thanksgiving is one of my favorites.) However, I spent the last week obsessively working on finishing the Advent calendar I started making for the girls in 2013. It was a bit more than I could achieve when the girls were one, but now that they’re three, not only do I have more time to craft, I really think they’ll enjoy incorporating this tradition and get something out of it. And I’m writing about it now because if you start soon, you’ve got time to make one before Advent starts, too. But not if you have two one-year-olds — take it from me and take it easy on yourself.

Celebrating Advent has always been part of my family and faith tradition, a way to focus on the “reason for the season” as my dad loves to say. Growing up we had an Advent wreath and candles, and I remember doing family devotionals sent home by our church. Through friends, I heard about the Jesse Tree tradition, which uses the whole “out of the stump of Jesse” prophecy from Isaiah to tell the story of Jesus’s family tree through ornaments and a tree. Each ornament corresponds to a Bible Story about one of the members of Jesus’ family tree, so each day leading up to Christmas, you take out an ornament and read the corresponding scripture. One friend even hosted a Jesse Tree ornament party a few years back, where everybody was assigned one ornament and made enough for everyone, so each guest left with a complete set but only had to make one type of ornament — fun and efficient!

Ideas for creating a Jesse Tree Advent Calendar | erniebufflo.com

Ideas for creating a Jesse Tree Advent Calendar | erniebufflo.com

Lots of people put the ornaments on their actual Christmas tree or on a smaller table-top tree that they use just for the Jesse Tree. I had seen many beautiful felt and fabric Advent calendars, so that’s what I had in mind. I love the idea of making a normal Advent calendar slightly more scriptural, so I started looking for Jesse Tree Advent calendars. I wanted to make something that my family could use for years to come and remember fondly, so I bought a kit from an Etsy seller that included patterns, instructions, and all the supplies. My kit was $60, but it looks like my seller is no longer selling the kits, just fully handmade calendars for $390. While I love my kit, I can’t imagine having paid nearly 400 bucks for a completed calendar, though I know that it’s worth that with all the painstaking work that goes into it. So painstaking, in fact, that I modified my calendar– I used puffy paint on the felt to make the ornaments instead of hand-sewing tiny layers and appliques, and I machine-sewed the body of the calendar. I have come to accept that I am just not a fan of embroidering. It’s beautiful, but tedious and frustrating.

Ideas for creating a Jesse Tree Advent Calendar | erniebufflo.com

 

Ideas for creating a Jesse Tree Advent Calendar | erniebufflo.com

Still, I didn’t want to write about finishing this beautiful thing for my family and then be like, sorry, folks, good luck to ya. I found a few felt Advent calendar patterns that I think you could fairly easily adapt into Jesse Trees by swapping out the ornaments, either by making these felt ornaments, by trying one of these other kits, or by buying a set of alreadymade Jesse Tree ornaments. There are also lots of free tutorials for making felt Jesse Tree ornaments online.

Is a Jesse tree part of your holiday tradition? Do you celebrate Advent in other ways?

no words

Maria II.

I find myself unable to write much of anything right now. On Sunday at church, the sermon focused on Romans 8:26: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” Our pastor accompanied this lesson with a slideshow that could have come from within my own mind– Ebola, Gaza, Ukraine, ISIS, Robin Williams, Mike Brown, Ferguson. In a world that seems to have gone wrong, it’s hard to find the words to pray, the words to describe how we feel, the words to articulate what needs to be done. My last post was about dealing with darkness, but at times there just seems to be so much of it, not just in my own soul, but in the world.

I take some comfort in Romans 8:26. I also take comfort in the words of others who describe things outside of my experience in ways too powerful for me to ignore or deny, who break into my privileged world and open my eyes and leave me groaning for change. It feels silly to write my usual parenting stuff in the face of these last few weeks in the world. It feels silly to try and take on global issues on which I have no experience or expertise, either.

Instead I groan. I pray. I read folks like Stacia L. Brown and Ta Nehisi Coates. I am glued to Twitter, breathing prayers for the protesters each night in Ferguson. I encourage everyone I know to know their rights. I try to find small ways to help. But I have no words.

 

The image used above is via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

the light and the dark

orsbornpicLike a lot of people who have spent their lives loving his work, I’ve been pretty sad about Robin Williams’ death. He was just a bright light in the world, and now that he’s gone, things seem a little dimmer. He will be missed.

I’m glad that his tragic suicide is being used to shed some light on the very real problems of depression and suicide. It’s not enough to replace his light, but it’s something.

I have been concerned by some of the rhetoric I’ve seen though, even in well-meaning statements. Mental illness is an illness. It’s one that others often don’t know about, because of things like stigma that keep people from reaching out. But it’s an illness, same as any other chronic condition– with something like diabetes, your pancreas doesn’t work right. With mental illness, it’s your brain. You can’t cure any chronic disease just by “knowing how loved” you are. Or by “knowing God.” Or by “choosing joy.”  Continue reading “the light and the dark”

good friday

I won’t be making it to a Good Friday service this year, but I’m thinking a lot about what this day means. It’s a weird day if you’re a Jesus follower who doesn’t believe in what theologians call “penal substitutionary atonement.” In more normal terms, that’s the belief that the reason Jesus died on the cross is because God was angry at us for being sinners, and someone had to die for it, but instead of killing us and killing us forever, or damning us all to hell, God sent Jesus, God’s only Son, to die in our place as a sort of proxy stand-in recipient of God’s wrath, so that we could be forgiven and live forever with God. I don’t believe in this, because, to paraphrase Brian MacLaren, I believe in reading all of the Bible and in fact approaching God Himself, through the lens of Jesus. And in Jesus I do not come to know an angry God who demanded blood to satisfy his rage.  Continue reading “good friday”

ash wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent. I like Lent, if that can even be said. It deeply suits a morbid, doubting place in my soul, and knowing that the church has made space for such a season in the church calendar reminds me that this part of me is not contrary to my faith, but part of it. Sometimes I find myself envious of those for whom faith comes easy, who are quick to count blessings, who feel God’s presence regularly, who don’t feel like they’re talking to the ceiling when they pray. While I am richly blessed, while I find much joy in my family, friends, and daily life, faith still does not come easy to me. If on Ash Wednesday, most Christians are remembering that they come from ashes and to ashes they will return, then for part of me, it is always Ash Wednesday. Especially after my near death experience, I just can’t NOT be aware of the reality of death and loss.

I need Lent to remind me that not only are these thoughts just part of the package, they propel me for a reason. I need Lent to teach me that this Christian journey isn’t about how much or how deeply I believe, or how hard I try, or how strictly I can keep the fast. I need Lent to show me just how desperately I need Easter, a new day dawning to look forward to. I need Lent to remind me that I’m not apart from the faith, but still in the thick of it, even as like an apostle I pray, “Lord I believe, please help my unbelief.”

And so, I will fast. This year, I’m abstaining from meat. Last year’s failed attempt at a vegan fast definitely showed me the limits of what I can do on my own, and inspired me to take a smaller step this year. Last year I failed in my fast– but that’s kind of the point of the fast anyway, to show us our own limits and failings and to teach us to rely on the abundant Grace of God. This year, aware of my failings, I’m trying again. I am sure I will still need grace. I know it. I feel it. The need rises from me like smoke from ashes.

This year, my prayer is well summed up by T.S. Eliot in “Ash Wednesday:” “pray to God to have mercy upon us / And pray that I may forget / These matters that with myself I too much discuss.” And for you, if you observe Lent, I pray for a meaningful season as you journey through the dark, always heading toward the light.

*Image on this post is via the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, via Flickr, under a Creative Commons License.

hello, babies

Kid President is pretty amazing. I think most people need to watch that video sometime before or after their high five just for getting out of bed in the morning. Because the world IS amazing, and we all mess up, and we do need to forgive each other’s mess ups. And maybe dance some more and have some more corndogs.

He actually echoes a favorite bit of Kurt Vonnegut that I’ve loved since I found out I was pregnant with twins. It’s from a baptismal speech the protagonist of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater plans for his neighbor’s twins: “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

This quote actually led to me experiencing a moment of kindness. I had tweeted about my love for the quote and how I wanted to hang it up in my babies’ room. Then I almost died and came back again, and a friend I had only met via Twitter said she had made me something to celebrate my survival. One night soon after we had both babies home, she came by and gave me this beautiful (and slightly censored because kids) canvas:

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It’s one of my favorite things in my favorite room of our house. I want my kids to know that they have to be kind. But I also want them to know that people are kind. That the world is full of good and beauty, if we look for it. I guess that’s my answer to Kid President’s question about what kids need to know.

It reminds me of a bit in Thomas King’s The Truth About StoriesKing’s refrain throughout the (excellent) book is that the truth about stories is that’s all we are. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and about the world literally construct the world we experience. He points out in one passage that we can tell ourselves or our children that “life is hard,” but we can equally teach them that “life is sweet.” Each perspective constructs a way of being in the world. Sometimes life is just hard, it’s true. To quote Vonnegut again, “so it goes.” But I think the balance bends toward the beautiful and the good, because I believe in a God who is at work on a great project of reconciliation, re-creation, and renewal. And I think we get to participate in this project, to be agents of beauty and goodness and change. I’m raising up revolutionaries to participate in this project, too. So I want them to be kind and see kindness, in their hundred years here and beyond.

merry crazy magical christmas

This week, the Christmas and the Crazy have taken over. We’re about to leave for a week with family in Colorado. I’m super looking forward to it, because I’m excited for everyone to see how much the girls have grown, and to watch them get loved on, and to see them finally able to play with their 2 year old cousin, and to spend time with people we don’t see often enough. But I’m also dreading a bit all the prep it takes to get us out the door and onto planes and through the plane ride, and sleep disruptions that come with traveling. Last year’s visit was amazing and also awful because the girls were both sick the whole time and did not sleep at all. This year, they’ve picked this week to cut their canines AND some molars, Etta’s started coughing in the last 24 hours, and Claire’s nose is running like a faucet.

Meanwhile, I realized yesterday, when Claire’s preschool teacher gave me a list of all the kids’ names, that I was meant to bring some sort of Christmas Thing for all the kids. I’d planned and prepared to gift her three teachers and three therapists, but the kids threw a wrench into my plans. A quick jaunt to the store (well, as quick as any jaunt can be with a toddler who wants everything she sees) and I had clearance jumbo crayons and holiday coloring books for all the preschoolers. I also dipped my toe into the Crazy Pinterest Mom deep end by using my phone to edit a pic of Claire in her Christmas jammies, send it to Walgreens through their app, and pick my prints up an hour later, ready to turn them into custom gift tags. I must say, it made all the gifts look super cute for less than $5.

photo 1

At the same time, yesterday was just a truly hellish day on the toddler front. Etta was teething and cranky and on a nap-strike all day, and then Claire came home ready to cry at the drop of a hat. I seriously fantasized about just running out the door and down the block and on and on and on.

But then, the magic started to happen. We went to our Happy Place, a local Mexican restaurant where they know and love us and give us our usual table. We drank margaritas and the girls ate cheese dip. We got them to bed. I got to attend a Christmas party with some of my dearest friends. The girls woke up happy, and we had a little mini-Christmas so we could do it just the four of us, before we head off on our trip. We all opened our stockings and sipped egg nog and just enjoyed a morning together. Etta napped (glory hallelujah)! Claire came home happy from preschool! Sesame Street-as-babysitter allowed me to finish sewing my last three gifts! I got Claire snuggled and to sleep, and then got a rare 20 minutes of holding my sweet Etta baby (who is usually go go go), just smelling her hair. By the time I had both babies in bed tonight, my world had turned a complete 360 from yesterday’s insanity.

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I’m starting to realize, early enough to have it matter, I hope (because, ha, seriously, I have it easy with toddlers, there’s no school programs or class parties or dance recitals or required outings yet), that Christmas is not about making the magic for my kids, even as I have to make magic happen in the form of last-minute gifts for bunches of preschoolers. Because my kids are the most magical thing I’ve ever seen, when I stop to see it. Christmas, really, is about a magic, miraculous, mundane thing: babies are born every day, but the Son of God is only born once. God picked the most normal thing in the world and used it to transform everything. And in the process, even the mundane becomes magical and miraculous. Christianity talks a lot about God giving us a new heart, a new life. But I think lately what I need the most is new eyes to see what’s already around me all the time.

Things like: the day before yesterday, I stopped at a light next to a man begging. The light turned green, and I drove away. But a verse popped right into my mind: Give to anyone who asks of you (Luke 6:30). Later, somehow, that same guy approached me in a parking lot a mile away. With my new eyes, I saw it as an opportunity to fulfill the verse that had popped into my mind and heart, and I gave him some money. I don’t know if I should have, I don’t want to debate giving money to strangers, and I don’t want to brag or let my left hand know what my right is doing. All I know is, in that moment, I truly felt I was being given another opportunity to do the right thing.

Later, irked in traffic, head and sinuses pounding, I looked up and saw a bumper sticker on the van in front of me: “Good Happens.” Message received. It does.

I want to be the good that happens. I want to see it. I want to hold it and smell its hair. And I can, all because of a baby that was born. Because of a new heart. Because of new eyes. That’s what this Christmas seems to be all about, for me. It’s my first to be acutely aware of the Crazy and the Busy. But it’s also my first with two magical little people who are old enough to be starting to see the magic. I want to see it too.

stepping into a new faith community

Please to enjoy this photo of the bufflogals in their church clothes, as I'm not sure what else goes with this post.
Please to enjoy this photo of the bufflogals in their church clothes, as I’m not sure what else goes with this post.

On Sunday, we attended a Membership Matters class and picked a date, so it’s official: we’re joining our neighborhood United Methodist Church, marking the end of our church search, a search we’ve been on since our beloved community and church plant Eikon disbanded about a year ago.

While we knew finding another Eikon would be impossible, it wasn’t easy to choose a new church to call home. For one thing, even within our marriage, finding a church we both agree on is tough, because certain things like the role of women (we’re for equality!), the importance of social justice and creation care, the belief that the salvation of all things is about more than just asking Jesus to live in your heart, and love for all people regardless of sexuality/race/socioeconomic status are important to us, but we also wanted a great kids program and a vibrant worship experience. Add to that equation that we were also hoping to land in the same place as some of our Eikon friends, and you have a group choosing a church by committee.

We tried big churches and small churches. Presbyterian, Episcopalian, non-denominational/evangelical, and Methodist. We liked aspects of just about every place we visited, and truly disliked only one experience (let’s just say a sermon about how God wants to make people materially wealthy isn’t the way to our hearts). I truly think we could have been happy in many of the congregations we visited.

We even really seriously considered the church that I would say was farthest outside my comfort zone, a non-denominational/evangelical church. It was definitely different than the Presbyterian churches I grew up in, but I was willing to give it a shot because it seemed to have a deep commitment to racial and cultural unity, which is rare in churches in the South and in the US as a whole, and because it had a lot of young families and seemed to have a great kids program. We attended regularly for many months, truly enjoyed our time in worship there, and even went to a class for potential new members, but ultimately, the fact that the leadership (elders and pastors) was all-male, the fact that homosexuality was condemned as a sin, and a few other little things we heard in the preaching came together to show us that we weren’t in quite the right place, though we wish that group the best in their work toward reconciliation and unity.

Ultimately, we started attending a contemporary service at a United Methodist church very near to our house, which is a major plus when trying to get ourselves and two small people out the door on Sunday mornings. We started just as a new pastor for that service came on board, and we have really enjoyed his preaching. We like the music and worship style a lot, and there are many young families and a great, well-run kids program for the girls. Theologically, as the senior pastor said in class today, there’s really not a lot about Methodists that would make them stand out among other mainline protestant denominations, because they all believe the same things, but I liked that he said that what Methodists try to emphasize above everything else is grace. I have also long loved the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as a way of making sense of scripture, theology, and the world, because I think it’s vitally important to know the Bible, but also impossible to read/understand/value the Bible in isolation from tradition, reason, and lived experience.

We like that there are women on staff as pastors, and that the UMC affirms women in full equality. We also like that this church is a large church that uses its size to do large amounts of good in our community and the world, and we look forward to plugging in to some mission opportunities there. Ultimately, I think and hope and pray that this will be a place where we can find a peer group but also have a diverse community, where our kids can be nurtured in the faith, where we can learn and grow ourselves, and where we can connect with opportunities to participate in God’s redemptive work of making all things new and whole. I do know that the UMC has some work to do to become truly inclusive of all people regardless of sexuality or gender identity, but I feel the denomination is moving in the right direction, and am encouraged to see same-sex couples in worship on Sunday mornings, which I take as a sign that this particular congregation is on the side of inclusiveness and equality.

So– this lifelong Presbyterian is joining up with the Methodists. I guess this makes me a Presbodist?

real beauty is a revolution, not an ad, man

Last night I posted this to Facebook:

Screen shot 2013-04-19 at 7.26.47 AMIt was in response to the latest Dove video, which you can see here:

And look, here I am writing about it anyway! (Just as I have before about earlier Dove ads.)

As far as the video goes, I absolutely agree with the seeming diagnosis that many women have a kind of body dysmorphia. They focus on the qualities they hate rather than the qualities they like, and this causes them to perceive themselves as vastly less attractive than they are perceived by others. However, I think this video suggests the wrong treatment for their diagnosis. They suggest that beauty, physical beauty, “couldn’t be more critical to happiness.” And they suggest focusing on the things you do like about yourself, and, presumably, buying Dove products to help you mitigate and feel better about the stuff you don’t like, like your armpits, for example.

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I literally can’t get my mind around “beautiful underarms” as a concept. Underarms are just underarms. If someone is scrutinizing yours, the problem is THEM.

Like I said, I absolutely agree that there is an epidemic of low self esteem in our culture. I would say, however, that the underlying cause is not that we don’t value our physical beauty enough, but that we put too much stock in it altogether– that we make it “absolutely critical” to our happiness.

If the strangers in that video thought the women they met were more beautiful than the women saw themselves, how much more beautiful are those women to the people who know and love them? Think about the people whom you love most in the world. They’re gorgeous to you, right? There are moments with them that simply take your breath away. And it’s because the truest beauty we see and love in others, the kind we need to see in ourselves, comes from love. When you look at people through the eyes of love, they become beautiful to you, a beauty that is pervasive and total and has nothing to do with the shape of their jaw and everything to do with the shape of their heart.

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I just loved this vow from mooshinindy, seen on Instagram. It’s part of what kicked off my thinking about seeing my babies and myself through the eyes of love.

One of the most mind-exploding aspects of becoming a mother has been the way it has utterly changed how I feel about beauty. Into my life have come these two absolutely gorgeous, utterly and totally beloved little creatures. They take my breath away. Daily, their beauty brings tears to my eyes and a pang to my chest. There is not a bit of them, not even their underarms, that needs to be made more beautiful.

And here’s the truly mind-bending part: I came into this world the same way. I took my parents’ breath away. To them, I am heart-stoppingly beautiful. And I am that way to others who love me as well. And even crazier, bigger, more mind bending? I am beginning to see that I am that beautiful to the One who created me as well. And if that isn’t enough to revolutionize our thinking, what is?

The Beatles say, “You’re talkin bout a revolution, well, you know, you oughta free your mind instead.” The Bible says, “Do not be conformed to the ways of this world, but be transformed, by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Freeing and renewing our minds can’t be done when we accept consumerist culture’s premise that beauty is external. It can’t be accomplished by cheerleading brands for ever-so-slightly widening the cultural beauty standard. It can only be done by trying to get our heads around just how deeply we are loved, and seeing ourselves and others through the eyes of Love.

Now, I know this is a much more difficult premise than simply obsessing over parts of ourselves that we like, or buying a cream. Learning to love yourself is tough stuff. But it doesn’t happen if we’re simply focusing on another aspect of our physical appearance. It can only come from the amazing, crazy, transformative power of an encounter with Love. For me, that’s the Love of God. For you, it may be simply meditating on the way you deeply love someone in your life, and trying to see yourself through those same eyes. But this is the revolution folks. You gotta free your mind.