It’s Christmas Eve at the farm on Willow Road; and like a large part of the Midwest, we’re experiencing an unexpected heat wave. With the last several days of unseasonable warmth, I’m pretty sure the newly planted wheat crop doesn’t know what to do. After a blustery night of rain, the clouds broke and the morning sun rose on fields of shoots in tidy rows bearing a green normally reserved for spring. And with it, the local farmers are in the tension of optimism of strong early growth and the rueful worry of a cold snap damaging the delicate seedlings that are usually insulated by the snow blanket.

The county road commission closed the bridge over the creek as well, forcing some to take a three mile detour to get their equipment from one field to another. It’s also made the Christmas visits by neighbors a lot lighter and drive by traffic almost nonexistent this year. Even this late in the season, you would expect a car or tractor to pass by every half hour or so; but the change in traffic has made our little corner of the township feel even more remote and quiet than usual.

Not that there isn’t plenty of activity in the house. Julia is still keeping us light on our feet, but she’s now in bed dreaming of a visit from Santa (yeah, she’s starting to grasp the concept) while Jocelyn is in the kitchen preparing a Christmas breakfast of french toast muffins. And I’m sitting by the fire, wrestling with a slightly embarrassing story that I think I’m supposed to share with you – trying to piece together how it connects with a greater conviction that’s been brewing in me over the past few months.

So here goes.

Julia has really been a challenging but fun kid to have around over the past several months. Fun because we are seeing her make so many great strides in her ability to communicate and participate in many of the rhythms of life – challenging because of a real streak of willfulness that can really bring Jocelyn and I to the edge as she pushes back against the seemingly reasonable expectations that we have. (By the way – don’t jump to the comment section and lambast me quite yet. I know the irony of that last sentence.)

At last year’s church Christmas pageant, I caught this shot of her in a moment of unconscious harmony with the planet and bursting pride for me. I chuckled to myself, knowing that nearly every other kid was onstage behind her. She had no interest in being with the rest of her class (too chaotic), but she was owning that streamer that she was waving.

In the months that followed, she blossomed in a lot of cool ways, including a ballet class she took last spring. After standing there on stage during the final performance while her classmates danced, she finally joined them in line and performed with them. Breakthrough. We were all a mess – including her teacher, who told us through her tears that she had never seen Julia do any of the movements in class. She would only stand there and watch the other girls. But it was clear that, in her way, Julia was getting it. Even now, we occasionally sing the little song they played and she’ll own those dance moves just about anywhere. She’ll even pause in the middle of a busy mall full of holiday shoppers to bust a little move when the inspiration hits her.

So I was really looking forward to the Christmas pageant at church this year. It was totally unspoken, but my hope was to see another step in the journey. Who knew? Maybe she’d actually step up on that stage and take her place with her classmates. So many possibilities…

So with camera in hand, I waited with the rest of the proud parents in breathless anticipation for what might be. And (as you’ve probably guessed by now) it didn’t go as expected.

Julia crept tentatively into the auditorium with the rest of her classmates; but as soon as the music started, she bolted back up into the hallway as if she had been pushed by the force of that first power chord from the electric guitar.

After a bit, I stepped up into the hallway to see my daughter with her back to the music and lights, faithfully doing the hand motions that the kids were doing on stage. I asked her if she wanted to come out with me and got an emphatic “no”.

She performed unseen for the rest of the recital.

And I was left standing there, wondering what to do with the bitterness I felt. It wasn’t wholly directed at her, but more at the situation and myself for setting up a standard in my head that Julia was under no cosmic obligation to fulfill. I understood that reality in my head at that moment, but it was still a real blow to my heart. I’m sure that with more time, I’ll have the perspective to be able to look at the situation with more balance and optimism. But as I write this, I’m just not there yet. I’m still nursing the grief of a little dream that died.

It took the teaching pastor that day wisely reminding everyone to congratulate their kid to begin to bring me out of my funk. I knelt down, hugged and kissed my little girl and told her how proud I was of her; and in that moment it changed from an act of obedience to something a little more genuine. I realized – even as I was saying the words – that I was proud of her and out of all the little girls in the world, I would choose her first.

I learned (again) what it means to love – even when you have to push the disappointment aside. Because in the end, those disappointments are of my making – not my kid’s. And I pray for a posture of heart that dares to dream little (and big) dreams for Julia and to work hard for and with her, abandoning the results to a Love that holds her more dearly and sacrificially than I have the capacity for in this life.

THAT is the Love we celebrate this season.


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