How Can a Tree Inspire Good Behavior?

I picked up Katie from school early the other day for a dental appointment. She wasn’t happy. It wasn’t because she dislikes our dentist. Dr. Sam is our longtime family friend, and my kids like going to his office. (Er, they like Sam. I’m not sure I can fairly say they like teeth cleaning appointments.) Katie was bummed that day because she was missing her teacher’s weekly drawing.

During the week, if a student gets “caught” doing something right—working quietly, putting away supplies, being kind and courteous to another student—the teacher puts your name into a box. At the end of the week, she draws names from the box for a prize. You increase your chances of winning by having your name entered more times into the drawing. (My kids will be ready to play Washington State Lotto in no time!)

Last year, one of the prizes was lunch with the school principal. Katie, somehow, didn’t think this was a coveted reward. “I don’t want to eat lunch with the principal,” Katie told me halfway through the year. “When my teacher tells me to write my name on a paper and put it in the box, I write down the name of a girl I don’t like and enter her name into the drawing for lunch with the principal.”

Yup, that’s Katie, working the system. This year, she’s more excited about the prizes. I asked her what she would have won if her name was drawn on teeth cleaning day. “Well, if my teacher drew my name, I get to take my shoes off in the classroom!” Katie told me. I’ve smelled Katie’s feet when she doesn’t wear socks in her Toms. I’ve smelled them from the driver’s seat when Katie removed her shoes in the back row of the minivan. Her classmates do not want Katie to win this particular drawing.

But shoes aside, it’s really classic classroom management stuff: Catch good behavior and reward it. I was also thinking about the Festival of Trees, put on annually to benefit Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma. I’ve volunteered for the Jinglebell Jam for years, and I love to see the amazing trees that volunteers decorate and put up for auction. A travel-themed tree may have first class tickets to Europe and hotel accommodations awarded to the winning bidder. A Toyland tree might come complete with bedroom furniture and a motorized toddler car.


Today, I decided to create my own behavior management, reward-themed mini tree with Starbucks and iTunes and Barnes and Noble gift cards and more as tree swag. If I catch my kids doing their chores without being reminded, doing extra work to help around the house, or anything I deem particularly noteworthy, I’ll enter their names into the tree drawing. Bad behavior will require a contribution of allowance money for me to purchase tree swag.

Christmas Eve, I’m drawing the name of the winner who gets all the prizes on the tree. May the odds be ever in your favor…


No Assembly Required

When I stop writing and turn off my computer tonight, I will crawl into bed and sleep for 7, maybe even 8 hours. Blissful, uninterrupted sleep. But crazy as it might be to say this, I’m also going to bed a little envious of some friends for their disrupted sleep tonight.

My high school classmate Brent is in the labor room with his wife, Lasa, as I type, anticipating the birth of their second daughter, Joon.

Another high school classmate Brad, and his wife, Michelle, welcomed beautiful Marleigh Sue into their family this past Monday.

Both babies are enormously blessed to be entering some really good families, and I’m flooded with happiness for my two friends this evening. I look at the precious photos of Marleigh and I think, “God is good.”

Then I think of Megan, born 15 years ago this next week. She was ruddy and cone-headed when she arrived after hours and hours of labor. All I thought was, Oh my gosh, she is the most perfectly, beautiful thing I’ve ever seen! Then I thought, Oh, look at that! She has all her fingers and toes!

I was so grateful that I didn’t have to assemble her. I was so busy during my pregnancy that if it were up to me to put together all the pieces throughout the nine months, she would have come out missing an ear or a liver or something that just slipped my mind. Besides, whenever I assemble something, I finish and then discover some extra parts and pieces…no idea where they were supposed to go!

I’ve had some amazing adventures: watched an exorcism in a thatched hut in Tanzania; been stranded in the volcano regions of Guatemala without a boat to cross the lake to grab  a cab to catch a plane home; rode mopeds, weaving through Bangkok’s infamous traffic; met movie stars, rock stars, and rubbed elbows with numerous politicians. (Elbows were the only things I rubbed as an intern, lest anyone is thinking of Monica Lewinsky.)

Those adventures pale in comparison to the mundane, but nevertheless magical moments of my children’s lives. My kids are crazy, infuriating, whimsical little wind-up toys that spin around and sputter and make a lot of noise. I had no idea how much I would love, and could love, another human being until I had them.

Since I’m 15 years ahead of some of my fellow class of ‘89ers on the whole parenting thing, I thought I’d share some random thoughts. Three, because all speeches or essays seem to mandate the rule of threes.

Train Up a Child in the Way He Should Go

Rebecca, my first editor at work had the most beautiful explanation of this Biblical admonition from Proverbs. She told me the verse is often misconstrued as an instruction for parents to dictate the course for their children. Sometimes parents see children as further extensions of themselves; little beings to fashion in their own image. So they map out their lives. Dictate career paths.

The meaning of the verse, Rebecca told me, was an analogy of a tender reed, growing toward the light.

A young shoot develops with a certain bent but needs support in the early stages to thrive. The verse calls for parents to diligently study and learn about their children; Look for God-given talents and leanings and then cultivate those gifts so “when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

I have always thought that was a beautiful but big charge for parents. I live off of to-do lists. I’m distracted by texts on my phone or Facebook postings. My mind wanders when my kids talk to me. It’s constant work to stay in the moment and listen to them. Watch them. Be a student of my children’s natures so I’ll know when they need to be curbed or when gifts need to be cultivated. Training up a child requires an attentiveness that eludes me so much of the time. When I do listen, I am often incredulous over what I hear. My kids are sometimes wise; often witty and wonderful. I want to listen more.

Glass and Rubber Balls

My colleague and friend Peggy and I used to talk extensively about the juggle of working full-time and parenting. Peggy, who worked as a news anchor for ABC news with Peter Jennings when her children were young, had this advice for me: When you’re juggling all those balls in the air, Shelly, remember that not all the balls are the same. Some of those balls are made of rubber. If you drop them, they’ll bounce away. Some of them are glass balls. If you drop them, they’ll break.

I’ll try to remember that when I head back to work, start graduate school studies, and manage my household and kids. I’m still a novice juggler.

Love Means Having to Say You’re Sorry

Okay, I’ve shared some of the wisdom of my village. What would I personally add? I guess I’m learning that there is no such thing as perfect. My kids are privy to all of me, the highs and lows.

They enjoy the fun of backward dinner nights on Thursdays and Groupon days where we try out activities and restaurants based on what Groupon/Living Social/Bloomspot offers I’ve purchased

From left: Ryan, Paige, Megan, and Katie


Ryan can tell you about Don Quixote, the Man of La Mancha; Katie has been reciting entire stanzas from Les Misérables since she was 5. Let’s just say, if there was a jeopardy category for Broadway song lyrics and plays, my kids would totally dominate the board. (They’ll likely disavow any knowledge of this when they’re teens and realize what geeks I’ve made them!)

They are also pros at packing suitcases and stepping through the paces of airport security as we travel on our vacations (shoes off and in the bins; electronics out of our carry-ons; 3 ounce toiletries in zip-locks). Megan calls our family, a “Party of Five.”

Then there are the times when they’ve quietly murmured to each other that they may not get home because Mom is lost. They will announce (as Paige wrote this week) that Mom is always late. (Megan will spend the rest of her life being half an hour early to things in reaction to the embarrassment she feels over being late so many times in her life.)

My kids have stared wordlessly at me, with tears streaming down their faces when I’ve utterly lost it and yelled at them. They witness me being tired and irritable; disorganized and distracted. And they call me on it regularly.

Paige and Katie were listening to me talk to someone on the phone. “You are so nice when you’re talking to other people,” Paige told me. “You’re grumpy and mean when you’re talking to us.”

So I’ve learned to say “I’m sorry” a million times. I wonder if I will wear the words out. Somehow, when I say “I’m sorry,” it makes my children cry again. They hug me. They pat my cheek or back and tell me it’s okay. And the episode is lost from their minds in much the same way that a sense of direction is lost on me.

My high school friends Brent and Brad, likely already know all of this. They are wise and smart so they’ve likely figured out the whole parenting thing even before having kids, while I’m still a novice parent. Pay attention. Juggle without dropping the glass balls. Say, “I’m sorry.”

I’m terribly relieved I didn’t have to assemble the parts and pieces of my children. I wouldn’t have known how to put so much love and laughter and forgiveness and joy inside them.

Triskaidekaphobia (For Megan, on her 13th birthday)

Sometimes we are too slow to properly perceive the pairing of joy with pain.

Too giddy with anticipation.

Too awed by the gift of life.

I steadied myself with the forewarning that you would be squishy.


More troll than doll.

But long labor helps the eyes see beauty and perfection.

Pain births a love more pure.

Sleepless reality set in with your built-in altimeter requiring us to stand and walk.

Walk and rock.

Motion moved us through the years;

schlepping past slurping fingers and satin blankies.

You sat and crawled and then one day walked past a dead bird on the road.

Why does God, who watches over sparrows, allow birds to die in the street?

you wanted to know.

How to explain freedom and its inherent cost in a sin-cursed world?

How to convey the ways our joys are now acquainted with sorrow?

Some fear the 13th floor. The 13th step. The 13th Friday.

Too slow am I to perceive the rocky road ahead.

I think “rocky road” and imagine us eating ice cream with nuts and marshmallows.

Nuts to being scared of the teen years!

We’ll step on the sidewalk cracks when we cross them.

We’ll taste the salty tears that spill onto our table.

We’ll walk under ladders.

More often we’ll try out the rungs as we step up

and view the world

from a different vantage point.

[I love you, Megan.  Always, Mom]

Every Monday Matters – Part Deux

The kids have been celebrating Every Monday Matters for several weeks now. We’ve planted bulbs in flower pots to welcome new neighbors; baked brownies for some friends; wrote and decorated appreciation cards to people this month. I know. We’re the best boy scouts ever!

Truthfully, we’re going a little stir crazy with Seattle’s long, dark tea-time of the soul, aka the Endless Winter of 2009. I’m also up for any excuse not to go out in the backyard with the pooper scooper. Come to think of it, my neighbors might possibly be more delighted with my diligence in that area than with our gifts of flowers.

Still, we are persevering. Tonight, we made St. Patrick’s Day buckets and took them to a nearby retirement home to hand out. Lest this sound simple, I assure you, it was not. While trying to decide what to put in the green buckets, I was recalling the church group of my youth and the effort we took to make beeswax candles for the elderly at Christmas.

We sang carols at a local retirement home and handled out our sweet, homemade candles. The next year we were informed that we could visit and sing again, but our well-intentioned gifts had nearly burned down the retirement facility when residents lit them and fell asleep. Incredibly, our church leader had us make candles anyway…just minus the wicks. It must have been so meaningful for those dear folks to receive a glob of wax that year…

I swung by Target after work looking for age-appropriate gifts. I saw denture cleaning kits. Bathtub rail grips. K-Y Jelly. Nothing seemed quite right. Except, perhaps, the K-Y Jelly. (My mother used to work part-time as a medical records consultant for several convalescent homes and observed that many of them resembled Peyton Places with geezers claiming senility for being in the wrong beds.) But I didn’t want to explain K-Y Jelly to my kids.

We ended up assembling buckets with vaseline lip balm, travel packets of tissue, hand and body lotion, and scented shower gels. Also chocolate kisses. We salvaged a few that Katie and Whistler hadn’t yet eaten during assembly. The kids labored over cards. Paige and Katie made hearts and flowers and stamped balloons on colored construction paper. Ryan decided to draw street signs that read: “Keep Out.” And, “No Trespassing.” Ominous cards, but what a GREAT speller!

At the retirement home, we explained what we wanted to do at the front desk. We didn’t have enough buckets for the whole place, so we asked who might most need a visitor or a gift to cheer them up. The staff had a spirited debate over who deserved a gift. Who needed someone. Who was too gruff to even merit a visit from small children. Then they had to discuss who was diabetic. Who had a roommate which required both residents to receive our St. Paddy’s Day treats. It was a delivery deliberation process worthy of a government Special Ops team.

Finally we were armed with a list of room numbers to visit, and we were off. Katie was beaming. Ryan was shy. Paige was winsome. Megan was observant as we handed out our buckets to ensure that we didn’t give lilac-scented bath gel to the gentlemen racing their electronic carts through the hallway.

Back in our car, we talked a bit about growing old. And maybe lonely. And maybe outliving your children or friends or spouses. Ryan wondered over how weathered and worn one man’s feet looked peeking out of the bed covers. Paige promised that she’d come and visit me when I get old one day—even if it smelled where I lived. That’s a nice promise.

It’s just that eventually you reach the point in the journey when your feet are weary and tired and where every day possibly blends into the next even as there are fewer days left to look forward to. I’m glad that not only does every Monday matter, but the days in between are rich with life’s moments too. Gotta make ’em count while you can…

Of Birds and Bees and Ryan’s New Squeeze

Megan’s the writer in our family. She started a blog which I stumbled upon, and, of course, read. How else would I know what’s going on in my preadolescent’s mind and life? And since she posted it, it wasn’t like I was picking a diary lock or something, though I probably would pick a diary lock if I thought it had any good scoop in it.

As it turns out, the blog was very helpful. It revealed that Megan has a strong vocabulary, a way with words, and a wry sense of humor. It also revealed that Ryan secretly confessed to Megan that he has a crush on Emily, a little girl in kindergarten–already starting with the younger women! Megan honored his secret by posting the news to the world-wide web.

“My 7-year-old brother has a crush on girl,” Megan wrote. “Good grief! When I was 7, I thought a crush meant that someone had stepped on your toes.”

Later that night, I was reading “The Longest Trip Home,” the memoir of John Grogan (author of “Marley and Me”). Grogan writes detailed recollections of his childhood awakenings to females starting with his request for a telescope so he could gaze at the next door neighbor sunbathing in her backyard. (His parents praised their son’s interest in astronomy… their “young Galileo.”)

Megan’s blog and Grogan’s insight into a young boy’s brain nagged at me. And I realized I hadn’t had THE TALK with Ryan or Paige. They’re young, but kids in school share things and allude to things, and I’d much rather be the one to share this with them and provide them with accurate information and at least a broad framework of what’s what. Specific details could be filled in later.

I have long thought that my kids should come upon this knowledge without coy analogies of “special hugs” “seeds” or talk about birds and bees. The conversation should be respectful. Honest. Direct. That way they wouldn’t think anything was dirty or something to be embarrassed about.

We sat down for dinner. I passed a bowl of broccoli to Paige and very casually asked the kids, “Do you guys know how babies are made?”

“Yes,” Megan said. “Can we talk about something else?”

“Well, I kinda know, like I know some things,” Ryan said.

“Mom!” Megan interrupted. “My stomach is totally nauseous. Can we NOT talk about this or I’ll be sick.”

“Yeah, Mom,” Paige said. “Like that stuff is really eewey and gross. Let’s not talk about it.”

So much for exploring the beauty of God’s plan for procreation. Eewey and gross. A vomit-inducing conversation. After the week we’ve had, I suppose I should avoid any discussions of bodily fluids and functions. So I shelved the talk and somehow we moved on to how some men (and all gentlemen) pull out a chair to seat a woman. We interrupted our meal to demonstrate this with me holding Paige’s chair out for her and instructing her to stay standing until the chair touched the back of her knees–you can’t push in a chair with a woman plopped down on it.

Ryan jumped up to demonstrate his fine manners. He marched over to Paige and barked at her, “Get out of your chair, Paige, so I can seat you.” Wow, the hearts you could win with that approach!

I give up. I think I’ll hit Amazon for a good ol’ book to educate the young the way that generations before me have handled this. And while I’m at it, maybe Emily Post will have a thing or two to share with Ryan about Emily etiquette.

My Secret Fantasy Life

In 2007, Michael J. Easley, then President of the conservative Moody Bible Institute, stood up and shared with the intimate crowd of six or seven hundred National Religious Broadcasters that he no longer had sexual fantasies; he had father fantasies. In these dreams, Easley would ask his children to help him rake the leaves in their yard, and his three teenagers would eagerly grab the rakes and thank him for the opportunity to contribute to the care and maintenance of their household.

Easley went on to fantasize about the day that his teenagers would stop sharing their list of needs with him and instead stop him to say, “Thank you, O Father, for thy bountiful provision and ways that you have provided for us.”

We all have our dreams. Mine were interrupted this morning at 4:30 a.m. by the third of my four children to be stricken with the stomach flu. If I could have videotaped the next 30 minutes of my life, the footage would be a powerful teaching tool for teenage abstinence or for better contraceptive use among couples.

Ryan, somehow, thought it necessary to run from his room to the bathroom to my room, barfing along the way, to let me know that he was sick. (In case I wouldn’t have figured it out by the trail along the carpet.) So I’ve been up cleaning the hallway carpet since 4:30 a.m. (Stupidly served the kids rice with their dinner…and I probably should not go on with any more detail.) I’m cleaning and thinking that mother’s day should be a week-long celebration. Heck, make that a month-long worship-fest to the mother/god.

I’m cleaning and thinking of my friend Erinn’s Facebook note about the pleasures of being single and sans children. I’m happy for her. Okay, I’m a bit wistful of her situation. Fine, I’ll admit it. I’m Incredible Hulk-green with envy of her as I think about her day likely starting hours later than mine this morning.

I’ve also been having imaginary conversations with a non-existent spouse. He’s saying to me, “It’s okay, dear. Why don’t you go to bed and I’ll clean this up.” As you can see, I have a vivid imagination by the time 5:00 a.m. rolls around. Or maybe I’ve been breathing the fumes from the carpet cleaner?

I’m picking up a pile of clothes that got left in the hallway–a pile which Ryan apparently stumbled over and uh, well, another laundry challenge. I’m drifting to the next fantasy conversation where I coo to my spouse, “Don’t worry about helping me, honey. You have to go to work tomorrow in that strenuous job you have as an underwear model (when you’re not managing those hedge funds), so why don’t you let me clean this up since I’ll just be napping and eating bon bons after the kids go to school.”

My spouse flashes a dazzling smile at me. He rubs my shoulders and tells me how great and sexy I look at 5:00 a.m. wearing those rubber gloves and wielding my spray bottle of Resolve Carpet Cleaner. He tells me he’ll be home early to fix us dinner now that he’s dropped his consulting work for the American Association for Nuclear Physicists and is cutting back his volunteer hours for Habitat for Humanity.

Sometimes it’s hard to know if you’re awake or still dreaming. The odor is usually one clue…

Shepherds Quake

It’s a challenge to meet everyone’s expectations for a Christmas note. Some want a traditional travel log chronicling the highways we crossed in our Winnebago as we camped and visited relatives in the summer. Problem is, we don’t own a Winnebago. And we don’t really camp. And I’m a bit doubtful my relatives would fling open the doors if I pulled up with my four munchkins looking for room in the Inn.

Others expect a litany of my children’s accomplishments. All I can say is that if there are awards given for Most Roles of Toilet Paper in the Toilet or Fastest Rappeler Down the Laundry Chute I might need to think about adding a trophy room to the house.

There was also a hue and cry for failing to dish the details of my dating life in last year’s note. Such curiosity. To which I say, “Get a life, folks!” Surely you all have better things to do than wonder who I’m out with and what I’m doing. Leave it to my father who thinks about this enough for everyone.

I entered my house one evening to the incessant ring of my telephone.

“Oh good, you’re home,” Dad said when I answered.

“Aren’t you out of the country, Dad?”

“Yes, we’re in Tokyo right now. But Mom said you were out on a date, and when I calculated the time, I thought you should be home by now.”

“Well, the beauty of technology, Dad, is that I can forward my home phone anywhere…”

Can’t help but give dear ol’ Dad a hard time. He recently suggested that when someone asks for my phone number, I should give the guy his number instead. Sure, Dad. Let me just go upstairs to my room and don my Burka while you pre-screen my dates.

If you must know, I had a very memorable Valentine’s eve this year. I got home from work and decided I was too tired to cook. I changed into a comfortable pair of old sweats and ordered pizza.

The kids and I started decorating Valentine’s day boxes: Princess Barbie stickers for Paige and Katie’s boxes; Darth Vader and the Death Star to hold Ryan’s love letters. Romance was in the air.

When the doorbell rang, I grabbed my purse, opened the door, and was rummaging to find my wallet when I heard Pizza Guy say, “Wow! You’re an absolute beauty.”

Hmmm I thought. I’m going to have to wear these sweats more often.

Before I could look up to lock gazes with the man/boy of my dreams, I heard him say, “You’re the best looking labrador I’ve ever seen.”

There stood Whistler, sniffing wistfully at the pizza box with his tail wagging. My ego took a dive, as did Pizza Guy’s tip for the evening.

So there you have it. The rest of the stories, well, I just don’t think it’d be polite to talk about the men I’ve dated this year. Not until I publish the book, at least.

My married friends shake their heads and say they’re so glad they don’t have to date again. Perhaps. But if I’ve learned anything at all, it’s that life is all about perspective. Consider my chagrin that Whistler continues to drink out of our toilets; Whistler, however, wonders why his inconsiderate family keeps peeing in his water bowl.

Dating is an interesting pastime on breaks from work and motherhood. I’ve rather liked discovering new music, books, food, and favorite haunts through the guys I’ve met. And for their part, they’ve been consummate gentlemen and excellent company at restaurants, movies, hikes, charity events, the theatre.

As for the strange guys? Writing fodder.

Life is so different than I envisioned in my early 20s—before I had children and while I still knew what parents were doing wrong in restaurants and grocery stores, and especially at Target. I knew back then, that I would one day hold my children on my lap and read E.B. White to them. (For my Adventists friends, just assume I meant E.G. White.)

We would bake and decorate sugar cookies together (my kids, not Ellen White). I think my children were sepia-toned and wore Florence Eiseman shifts over their cherubic wings.

Fast forward 15 years. I no longer know how to parent now that I am one. In the early sleep-deprived days, I’d show up at the office with burp rags on my shoulder. I’d head out for an afternoon outing without a diaper bag and end up begging for Huggies. And, “Could I please borrow, like, three wipes from you?”

(Come to think of it, maybe there’s some Freudian reason that Ryan feels the need to use an entire roll of toilet paper…something to do with feeling deprived or insufficiently cleansed as an infant?)

The more prepared ladies in the women’s lounge usually refused to consider my request for a loaner.

“Keep it,” they’d say, with withering looks. Maybe they sensed I wasn’t really planning to use and return their offered items.

Whereas I used to work tirelessly to coordinate the twins and match the girls down to hair accessories, shoe clips, and tights, I’m more inclined these days to let Paige and Katie wear whatever their hearts’ desire: Usually their Princess Halloween costumes. To the supermarket. In April.

Sure, I read to my kids, but I tend to read them the riot act more often than the “Trumpet of the Swan.” How else do you respond when Ryan unscrews every last sprinkler head to create gushing geysers in the backyard? Or when Ryan uses up the Costco multi-pack of Edge gel to have shaving cream wars against his sisters in my shower? Or when Ryan floods the bathroom filling water balloons for battle until it seeps and leaks through the laundry room ceiling?

Hmmm. Seems to be a common denominator here…

I had life so figured out at 20-something. Two kids, not four. Golden wedding anniversary not a failed try for ivory. Change the world. Change diapers. Sometimes, it’s important to just throw out the script and wing it so that you obediently stay in bed when your little girls tell you that they’re bringing you breakfast. I wouldn’t have known to plan for a bowl of microwave popcorn. But it was perfect. My best breakfast ever.

Megan’s life is growing increasingly full these days: honor student parties, birthday/slumber parties, outdoor camp, volunteer events, children’s church. Whatever people tell you about adolescents not communicating with you, it’s simply not true. Megan and I have very open, broadband-like lines of communications. She emails me from her bedroom. I open her notes on the kitchen computer. It really is today’s equivalent of sitting down at the kitchen counter to have milk and cookies after school each day.

To be fair, the emails came at my request. Megan had a habit of waiting until bedtime to tell me what she needed from me at, say, 7:00 a.m. the next morning.

(I’m thinking that the mother of a pre-teen wrote the story of Rumpelstiltskin spinning hay into gold throughout the night based on her daughter’s expectations of what could be accomplished by Mom in the wee small hours of the morning.)

After a few lectures about this, Megan has now taken to emailing me lists of what I need to do for her by Monday, by Tuesday and, graciously, “Stuff I need you to do whenever you can get to it.” In organizational-speak, I think it’s called, “managing up.” So while I’m learning to throw out my life’s script, Megan’s taken to scripting some of my life for me.

As we approach this Christmas season, my advice is to enjoy the elaborate pageantry of perfectly orchestrated music and lights and presents and parties, but leave some room for the unexpected wonders of, well, those unscripted moments.

Every year, my church, like most churches, holds a special Christmas service. The program is perfectly planned. A glistening tree finds its place on the platform, and the requisite poinsettias and candles are positioned along the stage and pew aisles.

It wouldn’t be our Christmas service without Wes Hart singing O Holy Night and our congregation closing with Silent Night.

My kids are keenly attuned to the sacredness of this service—a time of peace and sharing with others as we attach our tithe and offering envelopes with paperclips to the tree.

Last Christmas, Katie sat beside me scrawling on a Batman coloring book. (Okay, I confess that I failed to bring superheroes of the Bible or something a bit more appropriate than the winged-vermin in black vinyl.)

Paige was doling out crayons to Katie. Pink for Batman’s cape. Purple for his tights.

I think I was meditating on Long lay the world, in sin and error pining when the scuffle broke out. Katie didn’t want the color Paige was thrusting at her. Another crayon was seized, fought over and snapped in two. Teeth and claws, and I was whispering firmly to Paige when the strains of Silent Night began.

She slipped off the pew onto the floor in a pout. The lights dimmed as the program participants streamed off the stage and carried their candles down the aisles to illuminate our sanctuary in soft candlelight.

Katie’s black velvet shoes hung straight off the pew and swung in tantalizing reach of Paige’s face.

“All is calm, all is bright,” the congregants sang. Paige ripped Katie’s shoes off her feet and hurled them at her. Shoeless Joe Jackson, I mean, shoeless Katie Johnston flew off the pew and threw herself onto Paige.

Shepherds quake at the sight…

I don’t know what was going on by the time we reached the verse about With the dawn of redeeming grace.

That might have been the moment a fistful of paperclips fell out of Ryan’s pockets…paperclips he had collected off of the offering envelopes from the Christmas tree.

Life is so not what you expect at times, but maybe we are inept at setting the right expectations for ourselves anyway. I am beginning to think that the whole beauty and mystery of the Advent season is that a Child was born to unlikely parents, in chaotic circumstances, in a manner that confounded everyone’s expectations. There are human plans and then there is Divine provision.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that joy and peace, redemption and grace come to us in the unanticipated moments of our lives. Gushing geysers of grace as you anticipate Eggs Benedict and find, instead, popcorn on your plate.

Wishing you unexpected joy and laughter this season and unmeasured merriment in the New Year!