A Visit to the Past

Ken and I love to ride our bikes to the library in town whenever I need more research material, and then eat lunch at a fun restaurant. It’s about a 14-mile round-trip. There’s a sizable Hispanic population in town, so today we decided to try a little hole-in-the-wall Mexican store/taqueria that features authentic, homemade food. As soon as I stepped inside the little bodega, I was transported into the past. Early in our marriage, Ken and I spent two years in Bogota, Colombia while Ken performed with the National Symphony, a world-class orchestra. Meanwhile, I taught fourth grade in a Colombian school. I taught all of the subjects in English but my students and their families spoke Spanish, which made parent-teacher conferences very challenging.

So, when I walked into the little store and was suddenly immersed in a flow of voices chattering in Spanish, I was taken back to our adventures in Bogota. I remembered how Ken and I would traipse through little stores like this one, searching in vain for American products. Our Spanish slowly improved as we learned to decipher labels, but remind me to tell you the story, someday, of Ken’s disastrous attempt to buy cat food for our American cats. (It ends happily but a Colombian cat nearly lost one of it’s nine lives.)

The bodega’s meat counter reminded me of that incident, and also of the butcher shop down the street from our apartment, which I passed every day on my way to school. The Colombian butcher shop hung their raw meat from hooks in the front window, without refrigeration. I got really good at holding my breath for the full length of the block as I hurried to work. (We did not buy our meat there!)

This fresh produce section reminded me of the open-air market where we would shop for fruit and vegetables. Colombia has varieties of fruit that we’d never seen back home, like lulo and guanabana. Ken loved haggling over prices and trying to get a bargain. I just wanted to know “how much.” Ken said I was being gouged, but when I did the math, he was haggling over mere pennies. This little bodega even had an aisle of pottery like we used to buy in Bogota but the items all had price tags. Ken was disappointed that he couldn’t haggle.

Colombian food isn’t at all like the Mexican food the bodega served, which is good because we like Mexican cuisine much better. Here’s our lunch…and it was delicious!

We ate it as a picnic in a nearby park, something we never did in Bogota because it rained all the time. In fact, it rained every day for the two years we lived there. I always carried an umbrella. The city sits at an altitude of 8,660 feet, but if we took a bus down the mountain, we could enjoy sunny, tropical weather at a lush resort and breathe much thicker air. Of course, it required nerves of steel (or a blindfold) for the trip down the narrow, winding mountain road with no guardrails and sheer drop-offs, on a dilapidated former school bus—but that’s a story for another blog.

As we pedaled our way home from town again, I couldn’t help thinking about how our past experiences shape us and transform us into the people we are today. My time in Colombia drew me closer to God in many ways and became part of the foundation for my writing career. And it occurred to me that the things we’re experiencing right now—today—are shaping us into the people we’ll be in the future. We learned to adjust to a lot of changes when we moved to South America, and now we’ve all faced too many unwelcome changes these past two years. How we react to them will shape the people we become in the future.

In these challenging times, I don’t want to be taken captive by the constant arguing, fear-mongering, and divisiveness I see all around me. I want my faith to grow stronger and to flow out with joy everywhere I go. Right now, our journey may seem as harrowing as that bus trip down the Andes Mountains, but we’re God’s beloved children, and our future is safe in His hands.

Summer Memories

For the past week, our new ten-year-old grandson, Aiden, stayed with us while his parents were away on their honeymoon. He came into our life after our son married his mom last weekend, and having grandparents was a new experience for him. We are his first and only ones. I think he had a great time with us, biking the nearby trails on his new bicycle, going boating, learning how to find geocaches, playing at our beach on Lake Michigan, swimming in our friends’ pool, picking blueberries, eating corndogs and ice cream, working jigsaw puzzles, and playing dominoes and Scrabble. I have to say that we had a fantastic vacation, too, doing all of these fun things with him! We made a lot of memories together, and I was sorry for our time to end.

The week brought back wonderful memories for me of the times I spent with my grandparents in the summertime when I was a girl. My sisters and I were blessed to have both sets of our grandparents in our lives growing up. Our maternal grandparents lived in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, where there were magical woods to explore just beyond their house. A spring-fed creek ran through their property and my grandpa stocked it with brook trout and landscaped it with little waterfalls and ponds creating marvelous places to play. I loved exploring the woods and fishing in the nearby river—even though I never caught anything. At night, we would catch lightning bugs, and see millions of stars in the ink-black sky, and listen to grandma tell stories of when she was a girl and panthers roamed those woods.

Our paternal grandparents lived in a city, where there were also many wonderful things to do and explore. They lived in an apartment building, which was an adventure all by itself with nooks and crannies and alleyways and secret backyard lots. We could hop on the streetcar and ride downtown to the bustling city and big department stores—I especially loved riding the escalators. Grandma came from a large family and we would ride the streetcar all around town to visit her sisters and brothers and their families. I learned how to play canasta, and we spent hours playing it and other card games. Grandma played the piano at her church, and we’d sit at her keyboard and sing all of her favorite hymns together. She tried to teach me how to play but I was too fidgety to stick with it.   

As fun as all of these activities were, what stands out most in my mind now as I look back, are the deep, loving relationships that developed between my grandparents and me. I couldn’t have put it into words as I child, but they gave me an overwhelming sense that I was valued and loved simply for who I was. I didn’t do anything to earn their love except to be born, and I gave them nothing material in return. But I remember the love that shone in their eyes whenever they looked at me, and I realize, now, what a huge role they played in helping me understand God’s unconditional love.

I want to do the same for Aiden and my other two grandchildren. By setting aside time to be with them and give them my attention and love, I hope to teach them that they are valued and loved simply for who they are. People are the greatest treasure we have in this life, which is why I didn’t get any writing done this week. But I know that Aiden and my husband and I created memories that will last a lifetime.  

The Next Book

I’m in between novels at the moment, and searching for inspiration. After writing 29 books, I sometimes feel like I’ve used every storyline, every setting, and every plot device there is. I’m certainly not ready to retire, but what do I write about next?

As I faced the blank computer screen, casting about for ideas—life happened. My life.

This past month our family suffered a huge loss when my husband’s sister, Marion, passed away after a short illness. She lived nearby, so we were able to say our goodbyes and tell her how much we loved her, but it didn’t make it any easier. Ken is the youngest of six children and Marion was his last remaining sibling. She was also one of the most positive, joy-filled, loving people I have ever met, in spite of the fact that she didn’t have an easy life. Everyone who knew her loved her and wanted to be around her. I will miss her stories, her laughter, her beautiful perspective on life. We know she received a joyful welcome in heaven, yet we can’t help feeling sorrow and grief at her loss.

But even as we grieve, we also have a reason to rejoice. A few days from now, we will celebrate our oldest son’s marriage to a beautiful woman who already has become a daughter to us. She brings a young son into our family, a sweet, new grandson who we also love as our own. We feel God’s face shining down on all of us.

Three years ago, our son suffered through the most difficult, painful season of his life. Ken and I felt helpless as we watched him suffer. All we could do was stand alongside him and pray for him—to a Heavenly Father who also knows human suffering and a parent’s grief. My neighbor, who is also my prayer partner, prayed for him on her morning walks as she passed by our house. One morning she texted me a verse that God had given her for our son:

“But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will arise with healing in its wings.”

I looked up the context and read the second half of the verse: “And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall” (Malachi 4:2).

It seemed impossible, unbelievable, at the time. But as it turned out, our son’s night of darkness drew him closer to God, giving him a deeper relationship than ever before in his life. Now, as I see him with his new bride-to-be and young son, I see the fulfillment of that verse.

This—all of this—is what I need to write about next. Life! Life with its joys and sorrows, grief and laughter. Life with friends and family members who share all of it with us. Life with our good and loving God who never leaves us or forsakes us. I need to write authentic stories of people just like me, showing the hard parts of life in a fallen world, never pretending that pain doesn’t exist. But also showing the joy that a life lived with God can bring. Yes, life is hard . . . but God is good. And He loves us more than we can ever imagine. I still don’t have a plot or a setting for my next book, but no matter what I decide on, I want my story to burst at the seams with hope. Hope in the joy of heaven, which Marion is now experiencing. Hope in a Savior who can turn our tears into laughter and make us leap like a newborn calf with life and joy.

My 4th of July Favorites

I’ve been reminiscing this Fourth of July about all the things I love most about this holiday. I have to say that at the top of my list are outdoor band concerts. My family lived near the West Point Military Academy when I was a girl and we usually attended their outdoor concerts on the Fourth of July. The academy perches on a mountaintop overlooking the Hudson River, and we would gaze out at the amazing view on warm summer evenings while the U.S. Army Band played rousing marches and all of our other favorites. After I married, my husband and I had the privilege of hearing the Boston Symphony Orchestra perform on the Fourth of July at their outdoor concert venue in Tanglewood, Massachusetts. One of my favorites was “The 1812 Overture” with real cannons booming. Nowadays, our family attends my husband’s concerts with the American Legion Band in our hometown. These patriotic concerts are performed in the city park overlooking the lake.

Of course, a close second for Fourth of July favorites are the fireworks. When I was growing up, there was always a magnificent show of fireworks at West Point following the band concert. I loved how the exploding fireworks reflected off the river and the thunderous booms echoed off the surrounding mountains, amplifying the sound. What a thrill! Today we watch the fireworks from our beach on Lake Michigan. The sun doesn’t set here until 9:30, which means it doesn’t get dark enough to enjoy the show until 10 or 10:30 at night. The fireworks explode over the lake as dozens of private boats line the lakeshore, shining their running lights and sounding their horns in applause. We walk home in the dark afterwards, using flashlights and sparklers to light our way.

Fireworks

I can’t leave out Fourth of July family picnics when naming my favorites. My grandparents always held huge potluck picnics at their home in the country, attended by all of our relatives and friends. Grandma chilled bottles of her homemade root beer in the spring-fed creek that ran through her property. There were hamburgers, hot dogs with homemade sauerkraut, and potato salad, among other family favorites. When I’m able, I like to return to the town in New York State where most of my extended family still lives for a picnic reunion just like the old days. But now I’m my grandmother’s age, and the kids running around eating hotdogs are my grandchildren. When we can’t attend the reunions, our family enjoys backyard picnics at our house followed by a marshmallow roast over our firepit. My grandkids love to run through the sprinkler just like my sisters and I used to do, and write their initials with sparklers after dark.

My parents always made sure my sisters and I knew the history behind the Fourth of July celebrations. I remember family trips to Philadelphia, where my aunt and uncle lived, and visiting all of the famous landmarks there. I especially loved hearing the story of how the Liberty Bell rang so hard to announce America’s independence and freedom that it cracked. We lived near Newburgh, NY, which was George Washington’s military headquarters during the Revolutionary War. I was amazed to think that “George Washington slept here.” We also learned the story of the giant chain that stretched across the Hudson River below West Point to stop British war ships from sailing up the river and attacking. Following my parents’ example, my husband and I took our children to Boston to walk the Freedom Trail and visit Betsy Ross’s house, where the first American flag was sewn. We saw the Old North Church where Paul Revere made his famous midnight ride, and the site of the famous Boston Tea Party. I don’t always remember important historical dates and facts, but what sticks with me are the stories. I think listening to stories is one of the best ways to learn history. It’s why I tell family stories to my grandchildren. And why I write historical fiction.

So, now it’s your turn. What do you enjoy most about the Fourth of July? What are your favorite memories and stories from the holiday?

Together Again

I came across these wonderful black and white photographs while researching my newest novel, “Chasing Shadows,” which takes place in the Netherlands during WWII.

The pictures clearly show the joy the Dutch people felt as they celebrated the liberation of their country after six years of war and enemy occupation. The Dutch still celebrate that day, May 15, 1945, each year.

We’ve experienced just a small taste of that darkness and uncertainty and the sense of captivity to an enemy this past year during the pandemic. And while life hasn’t quite returned to normal yet—just as life in the Netherlands wasn’t normal for many months to come—most of us are already looking forward to what we hope is “the beginning of the end.” Now that my husband and I, along with our middle son, daughter, and son-in-law have all been vaccinated, we’ve decided to celebrate with a (masked) family reunion trip to our favorite cabin near Rocky Mountain National Park. I invite you to join us through these pictures.

Here are two views from our front deck.

Being able to spend time with family again seems richer and more meaningful after so much time apart. FaceTime kept me in touch with my two granddaughters, but how wonderful it is to be able to hug each other again! This is Lyla and me, hiking one of the beautiful trails together.

I’m also savoring the freedom of being outside in the wonders of God’s creation after a year of at-home quarantine. I hope I won’t ever take the freedom to travel for granted again.

The mountains are reminding me of God’s awesome power and might. The God who created the Rockies holds all things under His sovereign control. Including pandemics. Including my life, and my loved ones’ lives.

He also knows what the future holds. Like my granddaughter, Ayla, we can set off down that road to the future, safe and secure in His love.

As I look back at this past year, I’m searching for more ways to celebrate what I’ve learned and how I’ve grown and changed. Like the Dutch people will do on May 15, we also need to reflect and remember our own challenging times. What are some of the ways you plan to remember and commemorate the pandemic year?

Celebrating Fifty Years

The August day, fifty years ago, was hot and sticky. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except that I was about to marry my best friend. Ken and I had dated for two years in college, and when we kissed goodnight outside my dormitory we would say, “We’re another day closer!” We had finally reached that day. I saw Ken waiting for me at the end of the aisle and couldn’t stop smiling.

 It wasn’t a “picture-perfect” wedding by any means. Ken was starting graduate studies at Yale so we didn’t have a lot of money. My parents prayed for me before the ceremony, thanking God for “loaning” me to them for the past twenty years. Dad was very nervous. I was the first of his three daughters to marry, so this was new to him. As he walked back to his pew after kissing me goodbye, his shoe caught on my veil, dragging it with him. I scrambled backwards to keep it from tearing off my head, whispering, “Dad! Dad, stop!” He thought I was changing my mind.

Ken and I held hands as we spoke our vows—the ones that promise “For better for worse, in sickness and in health, until death we part.” Then the pastor dropped Ken’s wedding ring and it made a lovely, pinging sound as it bounced down the three wooden steps from the altar to the aisle. Our best man chased after it.

We knelt down and the pastor laid his hands on our heads as he prayed for us. But my headpiece had real roses in it, and I could feel the thorns digging into my scalp. I envisioned trails of blood coursing down my brow. I still remember what he prayed, though—that God would bless our marriage and make it endure as an example of what a strong marriage in Christ can be. Fifty years later, I think his prayers have been answered.

Our reception was in the church basement. My sisters and I had decorated the hall, Mom made the food. A woman we knew baked the wedding cake. We don’t have many photos of our wedding because our photographer had a heart attack a few days before the wedding and his replacement was inexperienced. It didn’t matter. The memories are engraved on my heart.

Four years ago, Ken and I attended a relative’s picture-perfect wedding. At the reception, the DJ invited all the married couples onto the dance floor for a Generations Dance. Each time he called out an anniversary—five years, 10 years, 15 years—couples who had been married for only that length of time had to sit down. At last, only the longest-married couple remained. Ken and I had won. The DJ handed us a microphone and asked us to tell the new bride and groom the secret of our long, happy marriage. I’m not sure how I replied, having no time to prepare. But I’ve thought about it since then and here are two of our “secrets.”

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The most important one is to build your marriage on the foundation of Christ. There’s a good reason why scripture tells us not to be unequally yoked with a non-believer—it’s because it doesn’t work. Since a Christian’s life-goal is to serve and glorify God, marriage becomes difficult when your partner has a conflicting goal. A successful marriage is going to require grace and forgiveness many times over, and this doesn’t come naturally to us. We learn what love and forgiveness are from God, who continues to love us in spite of our stupid mistakes, and who forgives us at great cost. The secret of a happy marriage is to follow His example and love each other sacrificially.

Ken and I were fresh out of college when we married, and we each had dreams for our lives. Ken’s first goal was a Master’s degree, so I postponed my dreams for a few years to support us. His bigger dream was to play full-time in a symphony orchestra, so when he won a position as principal trumpet in the National Symphony Orchestra in Bogota, Colombia, we moved to South America. We did the same thing a few years later when he won principal trumpet in a Canadian orchestra.

In the meantime, my first dream was to be a mom. Ken took several jobs in addition to the orchestra so I wouldn’t have to work outside the home. When I began to pursue my dream of writing, Ken became my greatest cheerleader. He bought our first computer, an expense we couldn’t afford, before I’d published a single word because he believed I’d be a writer, someday. My second secret to a long and happy marriage is to take time to prayerfully plan and dream together. Then do everything you can, sacrifice whenever you can, to help your partner fulfill those dreams.

Happy 50th Anniversary, Ken! It has been an amazing adventure!

Be Prepared

There’s no escaping the news, the fear, the warnings. The Coronavirus is coming! Beware! Be ready! I understand that I should be worried—after all, I’m over sixty and that puts me at a greater risk of dying if I do contract the virus. But strangely, I’m not worried. While I would like to live another dozen years and watch my grandchildren grow up, my philosophy is the same as my heroines’ motto in my novel “Where We Belong.” Whenever their lives were at risk they would say, “God knows when the end of our days will be; we have nothing to fear.” The question that should concern me is not “how or when will I die,” but “how will I live in the meantime?” How well will I represent Jesus?

I keep wondering what Christians are doing in China, where the outbreak began. Or in Iran, another hard-hit country where Christians make up a tiny minority. Naturally, they must hope to survive this epidemic—we all do. But I’m guessing that believers in those hard-hit nations are reaching out to their sick and dying neighbors with the love of Christ in spite of the risk to themselves. I’m certain we’ll hear stories of their courage and faith in the days to come. And of the lives they saved.

The Apostle Peter urged us to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). And non-believers are never hungrier for the hope that we have in Christ than when they are facing death. Perhaps that’s why God allows Christians to suffer through the same plagues and wars and disasters as non-Christians, side by side—so we can proclaim His love and hope to the lost.

While this particular virus is unusual, the fear and uncertainty it brings to people around the world is not. Every generation has faced life-threatening disasters, natural or man-made. In my novel “If I Were You” (releasing June 2), the main characters live in London during World War II, and experience the relentless Nazi bombings known as The Blitz. In the passage below, Eve is worried for her mum’s safety, and tries to persuade her to quit her job in London as a maidservant to Lady Rosamunde and go to a safer place.

“I don’t understand why you’re so loyal to her, Mum. Lady Rosamunde demands so much from you, working all hours of the day and night, yet she doesn’t have an ounce of consideration for you.”

Mum sighed and sat down on the edge of the bed. “It isn’t easy to explain, Eve. I suppose . . . I suppose it’s because of what the vicar once said in one of his sermons. He read a Bible passage that said servants should do their work joyfully, as if serving the Lord. Jesus said if we’re ordered to go one mile, we should go two. And I feel sorry for Lady Rosamunde. For all her wealth, she is a sad, lonely woman . . . But she gave me a job at a time when I badly needed it to support you. So I’ve always thought that God must have a reason for wanting me to work for her.”

I don’t believe there are any “accidents” with God. Whatever disaster may strike us—a Nazi bomb, a deadly virus, or a heart attack—we can know that it is firmly under God’s control, and that it will serve His greater purpose. We already have eternal life, and so “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). We can face the end of our days with nothing to fear.

If you’d like to learn more about “If I Were You,”  follow this link to see a fun video with more information: http://bit.ly/3828FZS

 

Keep Hammering

I have the best job there is. I can live in an imaginary world all day, making up stories and creating new characters. I’m my own boss. I can set my own schedule and even work in my pajamas if I want to. But as great as this may sound, I don’t live a glamorous life with TV appearances and book signings and huge royalty checks. It takes me a year to complete a book, and for most of that time my life is very routine—some would say boring.

On a typical day, I’m mostly alone with no one to talk to except imaginary people. And even though I’m my own boss, I find that I’m much more productive if I stick to a schedule (and change out of my pajamas.) I get up early, eat breakfast, and then have my “quiet time,” praying and reading my Bible. This daily time alone with God helps me remember Who I’m really working for and why.

After my quiet time, I go into my office, sit down at the computer, and write. (Of course, I also check my e-mail and Facebook and try not to get too distracted . . .) There are days when my writing goes so well that I lose all track of time. On other days, I have to discipline myself to write whether I feel like it or not. As my manuscript deadline draws near, I set daily writing goals—usually about five pages a day. I work this way for 5 days a week and sometimes on Saturday but I always take Sunday off—a Sabbath rest that refreshes me for work on Monday.

I recently completed another novel, and after time off for a much-needed vacation, I will soon begin the process all over again—researching then writing and rewriting another novel, finishing it one year from now. I’m sometimes asked why I do it. Why do I sit at my desk day after day, year after year, with no guarantee that my book will ever sell a single copy or will impact a single life? The short answer is, because I’m convinced that it’s what God has asked me to do. Mind you, it took a few years for me to come to the conclusion that God had called me to be a writer. And it took eleven years from the time I first sat down to write until my first book was published. Believe me, there were many rejections and tears and much second-guessing during those eleven years. But I kept writing, with no guarantee that I would ever be published, no proof that I wasn’t wasting my time.

I often thought of Noah. Many years passed from the time when he first heard God asking him to build an ark, until the first raindrops fell. He had no money-back guarantees while he hammered away. If it turned out that God hadn’t spoken to him, then he would have wasted his life. But he took a chance that God was calling him, that the rain would come, and he obeyed. And Noah saved himself and his family.

I believe that God calls every one of us to serve Him—in a variety of ways, big and small, as many and varied as there are snowflakes. We can choose to actively listen for His call or not. Then we can choose to obey or not. Most of the time, we won’t have any guarantee that our obedience will have an effect. Will we keep hammering? Keep writing? Keep praying for that person God put on our heart? Keep doing the daily task of showing up, doing our best, believing that we’re acting in obedience with no proof, without a single raindrop falling?

If you’re losing heart, wondering if your calling is real or if your work is in vain, consider Noah. Or Abraham. “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). And because he obeyed, Abraham became the ancestor of Jesus Christ.  Please don’t give up. Please keep hammering and obeying. I’m very glad that I did.

At a Loss For Words

Monday is coming and I have to write my regularly scheduled blog. The problem is, I’m all out of words. I have no more stories to tell. That’s because the deadline for my next novel is two weeks away. I’ve been writing it for a year, and it has turned out to be 130,000 words long. That’s a lot of words—which is why I’ve run out!

The novel is finished but I’m spending the final month editing and tweaking and putting in all the final touches. That means I haven’t gone anywhere in days. My friends think I’ve become a hermit. My family forgot what I look like. I have nothing cute or funny or interesting to say in a blog because I’ve been holed up in my office, working. But the day after I turn in this manuscript, I get to leave my work and cold, snowy Michigan for a vacation in Florida with my husband and our friends.

So, what’s my point? I have two. First, there are seasons in life when we need to dive into our work with everything we’ve got. As the scripture says, “whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord.” Work isn’t a curse that we’re doomed to perform like slaves. When God enables anyone “to accept his lot and be happy in his work—this is a gift of God.” But it shouldn’t consume our lives all year long, either.

Which leads to my second point—rest. God ordained rest, too. My Puritan ancestors would like me to feel guilty for sitting on a beach a few weeks from now when I should be working hard, giving my all, all the time. I’d like to remind those workaholic ancestors that God rested from His work on the seventh day. He wove the rhythms of work and rest into the fabric of creation. He doesn’t mind at all when we rest from our labors. Truly!

In case you’re wondering, the yet-to-be-named book that I’m racing to finish will be published in June of 2021. I know, that’s a very long time from now. But I’ve also completed another novel entitled “If I Were You,” which will be out in June of THIS year. It takes place in London during World War II and has a bit of a “Downton Abbey” feel to it.

So, here’s my advice. Work hard at what you do right now so when my book comes out next summer you can sit on a beach somewhere and read while you rest from your labors. And now . . . I need to get back to work.

Visiting Bethlehem

The first time I visited Bethlehem more than 25 years ago, I expected to feel a sense of the beauty and simplicity of the much-loved Christmas story: a crude stable, the holy family, shepherds, wise men, and the Son of God in the manger.  I was sadly disappointed. The traditional site of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is inside the Church of the Nativity—a truly ancient church built in 565 AD.  It has survived enemy invasions, the Crusaders, restorations, renovations, a fire and an earthquake, but it looks like . . . well, a church.  A beautifully decorated and ornamented church, with all the sacred clutter that has accumulated over the centuries, but it bore no resemblance to my image of what Jesus’ birthplace was like.

But wait—the real site was down a set of stairs and inside a natural cave that has been venerated as the place of His birth since 160 AD. But even this simple cave was so gilded and bedecked with artwork and tapestries and lamps and incense burners that I still couldn’t get a sense of what it might have looked like on that first holy night. In the center of the floor was a silver-encrusted star with a hole in the middle. By putting my hand inside, I could touch the place where Jesus was born more than 2,000 years ago.  I tried it, but I left Bethlehem feeling empty, unable to make the sacred connection I had so longed for.

And isn’t that how so many of our Christmases end up feeling? In spite of all the tinsel and glitter and sparkle, all the money we spend and the stress we endure as we try to create the perfect Hallmark Christmas, we’re often left with the same let-down feeling I had inside that church in Bethlehem.  We’ve lost the simple beauty of the story, that precious connection with Jesus that is the true miracle of Bethlehem.

The year after I visited Bethlehem, I began looking for ways to recapture the simplicity of Christ’s incarnation. Santa Claus has never been invited to our family’s Christmases, and we’ve always celebrated it as Jesus’ birthday, exchanging presents because God gave us the gift of His Son.  But year after year, the clutter and glitz had draped themselves over our celebrations, just like the religious trappings that have collected inside the Church of the Nativity over the centuries.  That year, I purchased a nice but inexpensive manger set. I wanted something that wasn’t a toy, but that my children could handle and touch. We placed it at their level and at the center of our holiday, and began the simple tradition of gathering together as a family to fill the empty stable while my husband read the story from the Bible. Our children divided all the people and sheep and camels among themselves and when we got to their part in the Bible story, they added their figures to the stable.

This simple tradition has become so beloved by all of us that we still do it the same way every year, even though our children are now adults. One year, our daughter was living overseas and couldn’t make it home for the holiday but we still held our family tradition while she participated via Skype. And it’s always in those moments, with a simple stable and inexpensive plaster figures, and my precious loved ones gathered around me that I feel the holy wonder of Christmas once again—Emmanuel, God with us! May you find Him this Christmas season, too.

What Christmas traditions are special for you and your family?