imageWhen I talked my mom and my sister into helping me sew Advent calendars for our three boys, I must not have been thinking about the 75 gifts it would take to fill all of those little pockets we designed. I guess I just got caught up in the glittery snowflakes and colorful buttons and ignored the hidden cost of three Advent calendars.

So, I’m starting early this year – not to rush the season, but to be better prepared to enjoy it. I thought some of you might also be looking for low-cost, low-clutter ways to prepare hearts for the gift of Christmas, so I’ll share some of the ideas I’ve been gathering. 

imageI knew we’d be visiting with out-of-state family, so I made a tiny notebook for each boy and asked family members to write something they love about each one. I used about eight small squares of scrapbook paper and bound them with a spiral, but you could keep it simple and use a hole punch and yarn or even a paperclip. You could do the same thing with favorite scriptures or holiday memories.

I also plan to upcycle some business card magnets by covering them with sayings and pictures that the boys would like, and I’ll cover some of our tea tins in paper or paint them to look like garages and houses – or maybe use one to make a stable for a nativity scene.

imageI love watching the boys create, so I will have a Lego-building challenge for them and print instructions for folding an origami star to remind us of the shepherds’ journey. I may also use some of our waiting-to-be-recycled cardboard and cut it into ovals for the boys to paint and then write on with chalk. Messages like joy and hope would be perfect on any Christmas tree.

I’ve also heard of families tucking in Christmas puzzle pieces as daily gifts and others using Advent as a time to do acts of kindness. Over the years we’ve collected plenty of Christmas books for special reading times, but for those just getting started, most local libraries have a wide selection if you visit early in the month. Some of our favorite holiday books came from thrift stores, so consider checking there, too.

Hopefully this year we’ll all, from the youngest to the oldest, enjoy the journey to the manger.

IMG_2660Sometimes people ask me to tell them about my most interesting interviews. They get really quiet, expecting to hear me rattle off a list of famous names that I’ve scratched down in my skinny reporter’s notebook.

But the people who come to my mind first are the ones whose names you probably wouldn’t recognize. There’s the boy in Oklahoma who donated bone marrow to save his little brother’s life. If I remember correctly, he was about 9 when he became one of my heroes. And there’s the woman here in Rochester, NY, who walks the streets helping prostitutes and the homeless get the medication they need as they battle AIDS and other diseases. What others turn away from, she looks squarely in the eyes.

Then, there’s the late Rev. Elmer Schmidt. When I met him several years ago, he was living at the Sisters of Mercy Motherhouse in Brighton, NY. He had most recently served at St. Anne Church in Rochester. That is, until the Parkinson’s stole so much of his health.

By the time I met him, the disease had taken most of his voice. He spoke only in whispers — between long breaks for breath — as he told about his stiff and stubborn hands and his crumbling legs. His thoughts were still there, but it was hard to concentrate, he said, and hard to bring them out in to the open.

I got the impression that he normally wouldn’t have talked so much about his illness, except that I had asked. You see, at the time, Pope John Paul II was suffering from the same disease and there were some who thought the pope should step aside. I was there to shake hands with the disease, so to speak, to be close enough to describe it to my readers. But what I shook hands with that day was life — a life altered, to be sure, but a life still adding others to its prayer list.

“It helps you to feel wanted, needed,” he told me that day, still ministering from his wheelchair. “You have to feel needed or you fold up.”

I often think of him, there in his simple room willing his facial muscles to let him smile. I never knew him at what others might consider his best, but I’d argue that I met a man that day determined to serve God and others regardless of his circumstances.

When I pray for God to wrap his arms around those who are suffering, sometimes my mind drifts back to that interview. And I ask God to slip a little joy in with the comfort. Amen.


A few weeks ago I was chopping carrots for soup while my mind stewed over hurts, over wounds and worries.


I wasn’t ready to forgive.


How would this turn out for him two years from now? Twenty years from now?


How many times must I, the one who knows what is best, reach out?


I knew many of the answers, even before the questions were finished. Of course forgiveness matters as much for me as for the person I am angry with. Of course I need to trust God with today — and with tomorrow. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that day that real-life, practical faith was inconvenient.

I like faith better in theory and at a safe distance. I’ll pray for those in prison and those far away who suffer from drug addictions. I’ll talk all day long about the beauty of grace and God’s love for all of us, and I will tell you how I love a great redemption story.

But can I be real honest here? Faith can be inconvenient when the one who needs grace and compassion lives in your home, when the one who hurt your feelings is a person you usually hug. And, yes, I love a good redemption story, but we broken and bruised humans can make a lot of mess before the story makes its turn for the better.

There, in the mess, is when it seems easier to walk away, more convenient to hold a grudge and tally the score. That’s where I was that day chopping carrots.

I was right, and I had been wronged. I could teach him a lesson about his mistake, or I could show him how to live in grace and help him write his redemption story.


I could be right or I could do what’s right.


By the time I moved on to chopping the celery, I had my answer: faith — even though it was inconvenient. Because when it is most inconvenient, it is probably the most needed. For others and for me.

IMG_9027IMG_9014For almost two years I talked to the boys about the Great Salt Plains in Oklahoma — how we would leave the trees and hills of Tulsa and trade them for the red dirt and flat, fertile plains to the west.

I described to them how you can watch a thunder storm careen across the sky for miles without buildings and lights spoiling the view and how, when we got to the salt plains, we would see the white stretch out all the way to the horizon.

Still, when the dirt road ended and we passed through the gate, they weren’t sure what to make if all that salt. It was overwhelming.

We brought out our borrowed shovel and began to dig shallow holes. We poured water down the sides and caught glimpses of sparkling crystals. The boys filled one plastic cup with treasures and started on another while I looked at their smudged faces and their shoes caked with mud and salt. Our tires were white. The knees of Jessie’s black jeans were white.

Everything was white because there was an abundance of salt. Not a salt shaker full, acres and acres full.

The Christian scriptures tell us that people of faith are to be light and salt in this world, and in all these years that I’ve been reading that verse, I’ve pictured salt on my dinner table. I’ve thought about salt’s importance in preserving and seasoning, but I’ve visualized it as small and scarce. I forgot that it fills oceans and seas and mines — even a portion of the plains in my home state.

I forgot that there is plenty of salt for purity, for sharing the flavor of compassion and grace. If we want, the salt that was once used to bind people in an unbreakable covenant of friendship could overflow on our tables and in our lives.

And the light that shines in darkness? The symbol of God’s love and hope? It’s plentiful, too, year after year after year.

That changes things for me. It shifts my thinking and my fears.

Unlimited love. Hope. Purity. Healing. Grace.

And suddenly, like the boys, I’m overwhelmed.

IMG_8745For two days I listened as business leaders and researchers and ministers shared their thoughts at The Global Leadership Summit. Each night I drove home in silence.

No radio. No podcasts. Just my brain whirring. Just my soul singing that we can all be leaders, that we can all serve – and that it’s OK if our serving looks different.

“To reach people who have never been reached, we do what has never been done,” Craig Groeschel, pastor at, said. I scratched it down in my notebook.

In the Christian scriptures it says God used the foolishness of preaching to reach people with grace and love. He picked what seemed the most unlikely to work, and he used it to touch entire nations of people.

Over the centuries we’ve come to expect pastors like Groeschel to preach. In fact, we’re so used to it that we might not even consider it foolishness anymore. It is the way people of faith do business.

But as long as there are people who are hurting. As long as there are people who feel forgotten and alone. As long as there are people who desperately want hope and a second and third and fourth chance, we need to risk trying something different, something foolish, in order to help.

What about joining a chess club or skateboarding or scrapbooking to help people know that they matter? Is there a way to use your talent in painting or plowing or parenting to build someone up? If lectures and sermons aren’t reaching someone’s heart, could video games or music or movies show her how she is valued?

They may seem like unlikely ways to share comfort and hope, but if we want to reach across the chasm to hold another person’s hand, we have to be willing to do what has never been done. We have to be the ones who move closer. We have to be the ones who listen.

Yes, preaching still works. It is still vibrant and important to many of us. But if we leave it at, if we think that is the only way God reaches out – well, then that’s foolishness.



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