I'm curled up by my tree right now, listening to Mannheim Steamroller. I just finished reading some passages from the New Testament. I feel close to a loving God, aware of his blessings and grace in my life. The sounds of children are filling our house--all of them are home with us after a semester of separation. Scented Christmas candles are burning, and those smells mix with the Christmas cookies baking to create a very pleasant, cozy background. I'm working on my third novel. I got the first draft for the cover of my second novel yesterday--which is like Christmas coming early. Perhaps most of all, I love and am loved by an amazing woman who make me happy. She just brought me a sample of the cookies she is baking for our neighbors. Life is good. The Ghost of Christmas Present has been a regular and cheerful visitor at our home this season.
Why do I say all of this?
Partly because I'm grateful for it and I think it's important and healthy for the soul to express gratitude.
But I say all this for another reason. This Christmas is merry and happy--but it's the continuation and fruition of many years of preparation. I realized that the blessings of this Christmas have grown from seeds that were planted many years ago--in ground that did not always seem very promising.
The satisfaction I feel in my children is deep and enriching beyond what I can express. But it was not that many Christmases ago when we had a squalling, screaming infant who would not stop crying. He interrupted our sleep and we didn't think our lives would ever be our own again. The same college freshman who now fills us with joy just by being home with us was much the same. I remember his first Christmas very well--rocking him for hours and hours, singing to him until my throat was dry and cracked, trying desperately to lull him to sleep and get him to stop crying. I remember driving with him through the foothills of Provo, UT on Christmas Eve, hoping the car would make him stop crying--even for a little while. I remember our frayed nerves and nearly despondent hearts as we drove past house after house. The people in those houses, we thought, must have perfect lives. They were warm and cozy and didn't have a screaming baby. The despair that tired parents feel in moments like this is hard to articulate.
My marriage is likewise a source of great joy and satisfaction. My wife is a warm and loving woman. She is loyal and supportive beyond anything I could have hoped for. She is beautiful and intelligent and she fills my life with light. Somehow, she loves me. But it wasn't always easy. I remember many Christmases that were difficult as we worked through the inevitable problems and challenges of married life--times when there was plenty of tears and heartache for both of us. Our marriage is very happy now but that took time and work, patience, tears and years of unstinting, unremitting, unyielding effort, mixed with the determination to make it work.
God is a warm and loving reality in my life. But there were other Christmases when illness ravaged my body and emotions, when I cried out for healing. Christmases where I wept bitter tears for my weaknesses and failings and sins, for the ways I had hurt others or myself. Christmases where I could go on only because I hoped that what we were celebrating was true. Christmases where I cried out for God's mercy and grace not because I deserved it, but because I needed it so urgently.
I have been blessed to be able to write books for fun, and to have them published. It is little-kid-on-Christmas-giddy exciting to see words you labored over become a real book, to have people you don't know read it. It's jump-up-and-down exuberance to get a note from one of those people--even if you don't make any money at it. But, I spent a lot of years--many, many years sitting in front of a Christmas tree writing term papers and 30 page essay final exams, cramming for finals, grading papers for tenured professors, and feeling the special agonies that a student feels at the end of the term. For years, my Christmases were not my own as I struggled to complete a dissertation. I also remember the rejection notices, the agonies that my book would never be published, never find a home.
We have a comfortable living. Not much extra, and it always seems we are only a few paychecks and car repairs away from disaster. But we have a snug cottage with a roof over our heads and food on our table. Literally--our table groans with the kindness of my students and their parents as incarnated in treats and holiday food. But I remember years when things were very lean. When Christmas was entirely dependent on the kindness of anonymous strangers. When I was the only teacher who didn't receive a gift. When we had to decide between health insurance and the light bill.
What has made the difference between the years in the past? The years of leanness and difficulty and the current happy time? I don't for a moment discount the grace of God. To do so would be to discount the effect of the sun on the flowers. Without any doubt, the birth of the Babe in Bethlehem benefitted us and has generated much of the energy behind our blessings. But there is something else that I think is important. Two things, actually.
First of all are the choices. The choice to work through problems in a difficult marriage. The choice to keep pushing through difficult years in academia. The choice to keep having children even when things were rough. To try one more publisher. And so on. Each of those bleak memories is a crossroads, where we could have taken a different path. I'm glad we didn't.
It occurs to me that the good things in life we have come as a result of choices and effort and a lot--so very much--of patience. But--the rewards seem only to come after a very long struggle sometimes. There will be plenty of times when letting go is tempting, in fact, when it seems the only reasonable option. But if you want the reward, you have to keep going a little longer. The blessings will come. We do eventually reap what we sow. I fear that we have moved away from understanding that profound truth as a society.
The problem is that when I needed to make those choices, I didn't have the experience I have now. I was nowhere near wise or mature enough to make the choices that would bring me happiness, or to understand how much joy they would bring. And it's hard to choose joy in the future if it means difficulty in the present--especially when you don't know how much joy.
Fortunately, I had traditions, which were the way my ancestors were able to pass their wisdom on to me, and the direction that comes from my religion. Even though I couldn't know how happy these choices would eventually make me, I made the right decisions out of duty, deference, and obedience. The good news is that it doesn't matter why we make good choices. As long as we make them, it generally works.
I love the idea of choices, of human agency. There is so much I can't control in my life and the lives of my loved ones. But I've learned that I always have choices. And looking at life as a series of choices empowers one and banishes feelings of helplessness. The act of choosing is an act of spiritual creation and seems to bring hope, strength, and resources. That is another truth I fear we have lost sight of culturally.
The second thing that made the difference were people. A thoughtful professor who made a difference in my life. A skillful and compassionate editor for my dissertation. The kind people who provided Christmas for our children. A loving and inspired bishop. Warm and supportive colleagues. The list goes on and on. Now that we are in a good place, I'm trying to be one of these people--to do for other people what was done so often for us. And there is great joy in that.
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