I got everything I wanted for Christmas and a few things that weren’t on my list. Life is like that. We receive it all and realize that the things we didn’t anticipate can also be a gift. Unfortunately it takes some years under the belt and some tumbles and detours along the path to learn this. When we’re young, we think everything is divided into good and bad and can’t imagine that the good stuff might not actually be so good, and the bad stuff can really be blessings we don’t recognize. I’m learning this, but I also know I have a long way to go.

So here is what I received this Christmas:

1) Three children tucked safely at home (for a while) and happy to be here. I don’t take this for granted.

2) Traditions continued, which makes us feel as though the world and life is a little bit predictable. That’s an illusion, but on some level, Christmas is about suspending reality and relishing the thought that we have been inserted into one of those homey Christmas songs. My favorite is Amy Grant’s song “Christmas Can’t Be Very Far Away.” You can bet any song that begins with a line like “Little bits of heaven floating gently by the window…” is going to drown you in sap. And it does. But I love it. I also love our family traditions: at least three batches of chex mix, “the best sugar cookies ever”, and puppy chow (we do love our Christmas calories); a mandatory watching of Elf, A Christmas Story, and Christmas Vacation; an extended family Christmas party that is LOUD and LONG (love it!); lazy days between Christmas and New Year’s that include a visit from my in-laws (You know what? I love this too and always have).

3) A crazy, ridiculous schedule the two weeks before Christmas that should have driven me insane. Instead, God gave me perspective through the eyes of a friend whose husband had to have emergency brain surgery (he came through and is recovering…praise!), a Christmas party at the Realation DHS Group Home, and Kyle’s trip to Colombia to visit orphanages in three of its cities.

As I ran from place to place and skyped with Kyle every evening, I began to realize why we wait in anticipation for the Savior during Advent. Life down here “under the sun” is broken, but Christ came to put it all back together. Every Christmas, we light Advent candles and read Scripture about his coming, but do we really know why we’re supposed to be impatient about this? I caught a glimpse this Christmas and it made some sense. In the middle of the hectic pace, that was most definitely a gift.

3) And, I received some tangible gifts. Here are a couple: One hummel, which I receive every year. This year, Kyle chose one that fits perfectly with the past twelve months.

Our eyes have been opened to how many fatherless (and motherless) children there are around the world. I love this image and hesitate to place it in the display with all the others. For now, I’m keeping it where I can see it every day.


I did not grow up with aquariums and have never wanted one (do we need one more creature to feed or clean?), but I’m liking it. There is a reason why places like doctor’s offices have fish tanks. Calm. Soothing. Distracting. Nice. Kyle has taken this on as his – so he shall clean, maintain, troubleshoot, flush dead fish down the toilet. What a guy. He’s a gift I am thankful for every day of my life.

Some of what I received this year was expected. Some things came from nowhere. But I extend my hands and receive it all, knowing that it has passed through hands big enough to hold the world.

Shop Differently: Give a Card, Make Life Better

There are certain people in my family (remaining nameless), who wouldn’t know how to do Christmas without gift cards. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one, practical hand, gift cards make sense to give to those who sit with blank, unblinking stares when you press them for wish list. They are also often good for those same people to give, since they don’t want to shop anyway. My dad falls into both of these categories. Wrapping up any gift that he must find a place for in his home is simply sinful. He doesn’t want half the stuff he already has, and he certainly doesn’t want to trek out to buy stuff for anyone else. He’s an anti-stuff guy. So, yes, it’s gift cards for Dad. But the teenagers and college kids fall into the “give ’em a gift card” category too, and so does my cousin and my uncle. They don’t like stuff either. Some years, it seems as if our family Christmas party is more of a card exchange party: “Thanks for the Visa gift card and here’s your Barnes and Noble gift card. Merry Christmas.” Watching someone reach into that tiny gift bag for that same gift card can seem a little perfunctory. But hey, I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I’ll take a B&N gift card any day you want to give me one, Dad.

Some things won’t change. Dad, the cousins, the college kids, and my uncle will always be the gift card people. It makes sense. But my Dad surprised me this year by saying that he really doesn’t even want a gift card. I should explain that the only gift cards he receives are those to restaurants, since anything else would be wasted on him (read: he won’t get out to use it because that would involve shopping). So I’ve been pondering what to do about this, and I think I’ve found a solution. He doesn’t read my blog (he hates computers, too), but for those family members who can’t keep a secret, spoiler alert.  I’m about to reveal my Christmas idea.

And, this is a Shop Differently idea for the gift card people in your life.

Meet Iman.

He lives in Azerbaijan, and sells milk and breeds cattle. In a country where corruption is the modus operandi, it’s tough to make an honest living. Azerbaijan is also a country where those who aren’t in government or don’t live in the quasi-glitzy capital city of Baku are reduced to scratching out a living doing whatever they can, and, often, that isn’t even enough. I’ve been there and seen it for myself. These proud people want to make a good life, but sometimes they just need a little help. Maybe a little loan? Iman needs about 1,500 AZN in order to purchase more cattle for beef and a milk cow. Demand on these products is high, and he just isn’t able to cover the cost for growing his business and making a better life for himself. I know, you don’t have 1,500 AZN. How can you (and I) help Iman? Get a gift card!

I discovered Kiva about five years ago, and it just keeps getting better and better. Now, you can purchase a gift card for your loved one for as little as $25, and give someone like Iman a loan to help him get more cattle and a milk cow so he can sell meat and milk. Genius! Here’s how it works:

You purchase a Kiva gift card from their website. You’ll be able to print an actual card to give to your recipient after check-out. Your recipient will redeem it by selecting a borrower from Kiva’s list of fundraising loans and during checkout, they will apply the code from their gift card. All loans made by the gift recipient will be credited to his or her account and, when the borrowers repay the loan (and yes, there is a 97% repayment rate) those repayments can be used by the recipient to make even more loans! Tell me of a better Christmas gift for someone like my dad than helping an entrepreneur in a developing country work his or her way out of poverty. It beats a candle or a golf sweater any day.

I have to be prepared when I go to the Kiva website, because the stories are addicting. Here are a few more to get you as excited as I am about Kiva gift cards:

Maria lives in Colombia and is trying to make a living selling clothes, perfumes, accessories, bags, and other items. She wants to improve her quality of life by expanding her business, so she needs to purchase some cabinets to put her items in. Maria, as described by Kiva, is a “tireless fighter” who has run her own business for several years now. She needs a $1,075 loan, and is 46% there.

Oybegim lives in the Rudaki region of Tajikistan. She is 23 years old, married, and lives with her parents. Oybegim has been working as a seamstress from home for the last three years. She is taking out this loan to purchase fabrics. She needs a loan of $650 and is 3% there.

So if you’ve always yawned at the thought of getting out to get that obligatory gift card, here’s the answer! I think what the recipient receives is far better than anything a traditional gift card can buy.

And as for Dad, don’t forget, “mum’s the word.”