Day 15: When carols become more than background noise

IMG_5924Almost since we put away last year’s Christmas decorations, Benjamin has been asking to go caroling. (He must have seen it on TV because caroling is not something my non-musical family would ever think to do.) He kept bringing it up, so I recruited a few friends who can sing and the eight of us visited a couple of our neighbors on the snowy-est, coldest night we’ve had so far.

I wore a jingle bell necklace to distract people from my inability to sing on key, and the kids danced on the sidewalk. (Colt even made snow angels in each yard.)

And you know what?

It was fun.

And it meant an awful lot to my 6-year-old.

Jennifer Shaw

Jennifer Shaw

Today I have the honor of turning the blog over to Jennifer Shaw, a pianist and top 40 Billboard artist, who writes about the power of classic carols and how they can help prepare our hearts for Christmas.


You know, in our culture, music is so often background sound. They pipe it into shopping malls and 

play it on elevators. You really can’t go many places at Christmas without hearing music. And so many of the songs are just part of our cultural DNA. We’ve heard these songs since we were little, and we associate them with Christmas, which also usually means we associate them with strong emotions
and memories.

But if you really stop and listen to the words of the classic Christian Christmas songs, so many of them are absolutely amazing. They really help to keep me focused on the meaning of the season.  I’m not sure why music moves people the way it does, but the truth is that we were wired by God to
respond. No one is unaffected by music. Even people who don’t think they care are influenced with different emotions by the score in a movie, or by hearing the song that was playing when their heart got
broken in high school.

The reason Christmas music is so profound is that it couples that basic human
capacity to be moved by music with cultural and family traditions and experiences. Add to that lyrics
that proclaim to the world that God has sent His Son to us as the greatest gift ever given, and you have something with the power to move people deeply.

With all that said, how would I tell people to let music help them slow down and prepare for the
coming of Christ? 
I would tell them to stop and actually listen to the words. Think about them. Don’t
let it be background noise – let it be the prayer of your heart. Make it a time of worship. You’ll be
surprised how quickly it brings you out of the busyness and into the profound.




The sacredness of drawing monsters


At our house even a conversation about monsters is never simple.

I had barely walked through the door when Benjamin showed me his drawings. There were six monsters of all different colors and all different abilities on one big page, and they were all fantastical.

He had talked his dad into taking dictation, so two of the monsters had names: Shadow Puppet and Reptiliat The Unchained, to be exact. And as he told me about them and their powers, he slipped in a question about God creating monsters.

“I don’t know that God created monsters,” I said. “I think that’s something we came up with.”

“With our imaginations,” Benjamin said, more a statement than a question. Then, a thoughtful pause: “Do you think God minds that we made something up?”

My mind stuttered for a moment – or maybe it was my heart.


“I think God loves that we made something up,” I told him before I pointed to our book about snowflakes, the one with close-up pictures of the intricate designs.  “God loves to create.”

Each snowflake is different and beautiful, I reminded him. Then there are the sunrises God paints fresh every morning and the shades of blue that decorate the oceans and the seas.


Benjamin beamed at the idea that he and God shared something in common, and I shook my head at how easily I forget. I put dishes and laundry and paycheck ahead of baking and doodling, ahead of crafting and journaling. I tell myself that those artistic things are things I can get to later, after the real work is done. I forget that creating was some of God’s first work, some of his most important.

Busy people don’t have time to write and send cards, to make their own bookshelves in their shops, to stitch love and warmth into a quilt. But in all that busyness, we’ve missed the sacredness in creating.

“In a sense, our creativity is none of our business,” Julia Cameron tells us in The Writer’s Life.  “It is a given, not something to be aspired to. It is not an invention of our ego. It is, instead, a natural function of our soul.”

A natural, and important, function of our soul. And something worth remembering.

Church is something that happens — anywhere God is invited

For me, church is not just a building or even a group of people who worship and serve together – it’s something that happens.

As a kid I went to a rustic church camp tucked away in the hills of Arkansas. When my youth group first started going there, the cabins didn’t have air conditioning and you needed to wear rubber-soled flip flops in the shower to avoid a slight shock.

The centerpiece of the camp was the chapel and it had only a dirt floor and a tin roof. No walls. No frills. One night, it started to storm. Rain came down in sheets and slammed into the tin roof, making it almost impossible to hear anything else. Within minutes of the start of service water ran down the aisles and formed puddles among the uncomfortable pews.

But just when it seemed worthless to stay and try to listen, a man stood to sing the old Southern hymn “When the Roll is Called up Yonder.” It was as if he had swallowed a microphone. His deep voice carried from the front of that soaked little chapel all the way to the back, and as the words from the song washed over the congregation, things began to change. Teenagers started standing and thanking God for the changes they had seen in their lives, for the times he had helped them through rough spots and for the love he shared with them.  Gratitude and grace entered the room and there, amid the mud and the rain, church happened –creating a moment that God might want to be part of, something sacred, powerful and unforgettable.

I’ve been back many times to that little chapel that now has a cement floor and a new roof. I’ve spent time in the opulence and beauty of the Vatican. I’ve had thoughtful conversations with groups of friends, and I’ve stood alone in my modest kitchen with just the buzzing of the refrigerator. In all of those places I’ve had extraordinary moments when I’ve felt close to God and faith has come alive for me.

Hopefully I’ll have many more moments like that, wherever God would like to meet me.

Putting down spiritual roots

When my husband and I first married we rented an old house with a small, unruly yard. We happened to inherit six tomato plants from our neighbor and I was on the back deck putting them in pots when I found myself lamenting about how much stronger and larger they would grow if I could just plant them in the ground. Give them room for roots, you know.

Then a tiny, unwelcome thought made its way into my mind. What if I moved beyond the container and allowed myself to grow roots? For five years I’d lived in New York, yet kept my heart with my family in Oklahoma. Sure, I’d made friends but I hadn’t really gotten involved in the community in any kind of meaningful way.  I’d tried some churches but hadn’t settled in anywhere. I’d blamed it all on my crazy hours at work but really it was my attitude – my idea that this was only temporary.

By the time those tomatoes ripened, I realized how I was limiting myself and my life began to change.  It seems like such a simple observation now, but one I may not have grasped without the help of putting my hands in the soil and planting, of being close enough to creation to hear the Creator.

I know many people view gardening as a spiritual practice and they create quiet, sacred spaces for prayer and reflection. I’ve visited local rock gardens, a labyrinth bordered by flowers and a stunning synagogue where vines climb up the inside of its A-shaped walls. My blood pressure drops just thinking about it.

Some day I’d like to have a place in my yard to sit and enjoy a peaceful view, but for now I’ll have to enjoy other people’s gardens. We’ve moved into a home of our own and last summer we tore out a deck and removed shrubs to make way for growing boys, soccer balls and plastic ride-on tractors.

On the side of our house, though, are heirloom tomato plants, cucumbers, peppers and a lone pumpkin – all with plenty of room to grow.

Music: The sacred language of the heart


One of my favorite things growing up was listening to Mr. Tiger sing “Amazing Grace” at church.

Mr. Tiger didn’t have a particularly strong voice or even much of a stage presence. In fact, he’d just go up to the front of our little wood-paneled church, stand between the pulpit and the congregation and start to sing in Creek, the language of his boyhood.

It wasn’t often that I got to hear Creek or Cherokee or other Native American languages because for many of my classmates, those were the native tongues of their grandparents, of older aunts and uncles – languages that were at least one generation removed from us, even in a place once known as Indian Territory. So for me, hearing Mr. Tiger was a treat, a rare glimpse inside a wise and beautiful culture.

Eventually, of course, Mr. Tiger passed away, and I stopped looking for him at church. But I think of him often now that I’m 1,200 miles from where I grew up and am surrounded by people who don’t talk like me and who might never have seen the sun set over a wheat field that seems to stretch from one end of the Earth to another.

I don’t pretend to know what life was like for Mr. Tiger as he started to bridge the two cultures, one red and one white. But I do know that when he stood in front of us and sang in Creek it must have felt a lot like home to him. Sometimes he’d close his eyes, and I think the melody carried him back to times past like only music and language can.

I can never seem to adequately describe the power of music, but I know it preaches a good sermon all on its own and works like prayer to draw me closer to God and to remind me of sacred moments.

If I close my eyes, sometimes I can still hear the music of my childhood: the sound of a fiddle played late at night on a rickety front porch; the piano keys practically melting under my brother-in-law’s fingers when he adds a little kick to old Southern hymns; my precious daddy singing loudly off-key. Suddenly, like Mr. Tiger, I’m home again.