Christmas of a different kind

My alarm went off at 4AM. For the first time in my entire life, 38 years, I was awake at 4AM on Christmas morning. I was also completely alone for the first time, with the exception of my cat, Mr. Glitter Sparkles.

Typically Mr. Glitter Sparkles wakes me up demanding a morning treat, but this was too early for even him.

I groaned. It was Christmas morning, and I groaned. I rolled out of bed and headed to the bathroom to get ready for what would be a really long Christmas day. I threw on my Rescue Mission t-shirt, some jeans, and boots, did my hair and makeup, and headed out the door by 4:30.

Fort Wayne was a ghost town. It was dark and cold, but there wasn’t any snow. I needed Starbucks badly, but even on a regular day they wouldn’t be open this early, so I was definitely out of luck. I put on some Christmas music hoping to lift my mood, and even Andy Williams and his “Most Wonderful Time of the Year” didn’t do it.

I love my job. I love The Rescue Mission and what it does. I love that God uses us to help homeless people find and follow Jesus and change their lives for the better. But on Christmas morning, I just wasn’t feeling it. I wished I was sound asleep in Florida at my parents house like usual and not due to wake up for another four hours.

After dropping my things off in my office, I went to the lobby to greet the reporter who would be interviewing me live on their morning news show. I put on my happy face and greeted him with very convincing, “Merry Christmas!” He was genuinely filled with joy, which was slightly irritating at the time, but I didn’t let my disdain show.

“Well, I’ll do my teaser here in a few minutes. I won’t need you until around 5:40,” he said.

“Sounds great,” I replied. “I’m just going to go do some work in my office until then.”

Going back to my office meant trekking through the courtyard again, since my regular route would have been through the chapel, and the chapel was filled with sleeping homeless men. But I as I turned to head through the courtyard, I saw something I didn’t see when I came through before. I glanced down the hallway and saw homeless men sleeping on cots. As we often do, especially in the winter, we had run out of room in the chapel, and men were sleeping in the hallway.

IMG_5462Getting up at 4AM on Christmas morning suddenly didn’t seem so bad. Working on Christmas day suddenly felt like nothing. I stood and stared at the sleeping men in the dark hallway for awhile. Being homeless at Christmas. Sleeping on a cot in a hallway at Christmas. I grabbed my phone to capture what I saw, as I knew it would be a pivotal moment in the day for me.

As I walked outside into the courtyard, I began to cry. I felt super selfish for hating my Christmas morning. I woke up in my own house, in my own warm bed. I drove my own car to my job, which I love, that gives me a paycheck every two weeks. I had so much to be thankful for.

I pulled myself together by the time I went back up front for my live interviews.

“I’m here in downtown Fort Wayne at The Rescue Mission with their Director of Marketing & Donor Engagement, Natalie Trout,” the reporter said into the camera as he began the interview.

With a cherry disposition, I spoke with the reporter about how we were planning to give away more than 3,000 Christmas meals between the hours of noon and 3pm. All were welcome, whether homeless or not.

I had a few hours between my interviews and when I needed to be back at work to take photos at The Rescue Mission’s Christmas dinner and to tend to any news stations who might show up. I ran home, had my boyfriend meet me there, made some cinnamon rolls, ate breakfast, and then headed back to The Rescue Mission at around 11AM. I planned to be done by 1PM, at which time my boyfriend and I would go out for a delicious Chinese dinner.

Things did not go as planned. While the Christmas meal was turning out to be a huge success, my bad attitude somewhat returned when one particular reporter was hanging around longer than I would have liked. The other two news stations had finished, and all I was waiting for was for this one reporter to leave, so I could leave and spend the rest of the day with my boyfriend.

It was almost 2:30PM when I thought the reporter was finishing up.

“I’d like to talk to one more person,” he told me. “Maybe someone with a really great story of why they are eating here today.”

I text my boyfriend: “Who knows when I’ll be out of here. This reporter won’t leave!”

Noel, my boyfriend, was very understanding and patient. Chinese food would have to wait until I could leave work.

48427577_2175054049181395_2107974123585011712_nThe reporter ended up interviewing a man probably in his early 60’s. He was by himself, and appeared to be talking a lot to the reporter. I was thrilled, hoping this meant he was about to wrap things up. I was right.

“Natalie would you mind sitting across from him and chatting with him while I shoot some b-roll?” the reporter asked me.

“Sure,” I said, and I sat down across from the man and introduced myself. He said his name was Jerry.

“Have you been here before, Jerry?” I asked him, as the reporter walked around us taking video.

“Oh yes,” Jerry said. “I love the Mission. Many years ago I stayed here. Now I come back for holiday meals because I have nowhere else to go. But mainly I come here because there’s always someone who is willing to listen. I don’t have anyone in my life who will just sit and listen, but there’s always someone at The Rescue Mission who will.”

Then, the reporter tapped me on the shoulder, “I got what I need, Natalie, so I’m going to head out. Thanks for everything!”

With the reporter gone, I was free to go. But here was this man across from me, who just wanted someone to listen. I text Noel and told him I’d be even longer, that I had something important to do.

Jerry and I talked and talked. He told me that at his lowest point, he wanted to end his life. He drove onto the interstate, parked his car, and got out with intentions of walking into traffic. He said God then spoke to him and asked him if he really wanted his 11-year-old daughter to hear that her father was scraped off the highway. Jerry’s answer was, “No.”

The man I talked with wasn’t homeless. He has a home, a job, and a car. Jerry was just very lonely. He came to The Rescue Mission to find someone to listen, and God put me in his path. Although it meant putting off Chinese food even longer, I was incredibly thankful that for the second time on Christmas Day, God reminded me of what Christmas was all about – love for God and love for others.

It was a strange Christmas. It wasn’t what I imagined or hoped for. It was so much better. God reminded me of what’s important, and I hope to carry that with me for the rest of 2018 and into 2019.

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests.”
Luke 2:14

The issue with “keeping Christ in Christmas”

IMG-3593“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whoever believes in Him at Christmas, shall have everlasting life.” John 3:16

“And do not forget to do good and to share with others in December, for which such sacrifices God is pleased.” Hebrews 13:16

Wait a minute… those don’t seem right…

I love Christmas. I love what it stands for, I love making cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning. I love Christmas music and cheesy made-for-TV Christmas movies.

Christmas is just the best! But I’ve realized something odd about Christmas, for me, the past five or so years: it’s become less and less about Jesus (whose birth we are celebrating). Do I blame commercialism, or society, or this sinful world we live in?

No.

I blame the fact that my relationship with Christ is as strong as it’s ever been.

The issue with “keeping Christ in Christmas,” is that so many people literally keep Him right there in December and ignore Him the rest of the year.

My spiritual journey is an interesting one. I’ve always “been a Christian.” Mom and dad did all the right things raising me and having me involved in church. Christmas was always so spiritual, as I’d be a part of the church pageant each year, the family would go to Christmas Eve communion, and dad would always read the Christmas story before I went to bed on Christmas Eve.

Christmas continued to give me this happy Jesus-y feeling throughout most of adulthood. I would feel especially close to Christ at Christmas, causing me to make more donations, give more gifts, and maybe even talk about Jesus more. After all, Christmas is when Christians celebrate the Virgin birth.

It wasn’t until my early 30’s that I really “got” what it means to be a Christian. It’s not a set of rules to follow, it’s a relationship with Christ. And since that relationship with Christ has grown the way it has, Christmas doesn’t give me that ultra-mega-Jesus-y feeling anymore. That’s because for the past five years or so, I don’t keep Christ locked up in December. I keep Him in my every day life.

I realize the saying, “Keep Christ in Christmas” is typically meant for those who dismiss Him completely at Christmas, but I encourage you to look at it another way: Are you keeping Christ in Christmas, but ignoring Him the rest of the year?

Are you emotional about the miracle of Jesus’ birth in December, but could care less in June?

Do you notice the poor and homeless around Christmas, but forget about them in the spring?

Do you volunteer your time to help those less fortunate this time of year, but find you don’t even consider the less fortunate once January hits?

I realize we’re each on our own spiritual journey in this lifetime, and trust me, Christ loves you even if you do only acknowledge Him at Christmas. Even if you keep Him there. But I’m here to tell you that each and every day can be like Christmas if you build a relationship with Him.

The magical feeling of Christmas each and every day?! Absolutely.

I’m not suggesting we remove Christ from Christmas, but spiritually, for me, it’s not the huge religious deal some people make it. I often fail miserably, but I try to make Christ a huge deal every day, not just in December. I am thankful for His birth every single day.

The things God has called us to do as Christians do not have an expiration date. They do not have a timeline other than living for Him each day. And trust me, when you do, your life will change in ways you can’t even imagine.

“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other,
just as Christ God forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32

“In the same way, let your light shine before others,
that they may see your good deeds
and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16

“Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord,
and He will reward them for what they have done.” Proverbs 19:17

And then came Giving Tuesday

It really is fabulous that we shove our way through Black Friday sales, click “Purchase Now” over and over again on Cyber Monday, and THEN we have Giving Tuesday. It’s like saying, “OK if you have any money left, why not give it to help someone less fortunate?”

I just find it a little backwards that we have Giving Tuesday AFTER we’ve spent money on gifts for people who probably don’t need anything we’ve purchased them. Maybe Giving Tuesday should be BEFORE Thanksgiving?

I’m not trying to make anyone feel guilty about anything. It actually really irritates me when I see that being done.

The other day someone posted something about being appalled that none of his Facebook friends donated to his food drive, and he implied that no one cared about the homeless in our community. I immediately took offense to it (I tend to be sensitive about that kind of thing). Just because someone doesn’t give to your cause, doesn’t mean they aren’t giving to another cause. I do my best to give of my time and money, but we can’t give to everything. We just can’t.

However, if you are looking to give this holiday season aren’t sure where to donate, here are a few organizations that I have experience with, and I have seen first hand that they are doing great things in the name of Jesus.

12017597_10153015984556573_9042627776706687868_oDestiny Rescue: In September I went to Thailand where I visited three rescue homes and two prevention homes. This organization is real and legit, and they are making major strides in ending child trafficking in places like Southeast Asia. I’ve spent time with girls who had been trafficked, and I’ve seen how Destiny Rescue uses God’s love to change their lives.

208280_10150151374051573_8138803_nFood for the Hungry:  Many years ago my church began a partnership with Food for the Hungry. Food for the Hungry is so much more than just child sponsorship, and I got to see it with my own two eyes in 2011 when I went to Nicaragua. The organization truly transforms communities, as they commit to them for long periods of time. Your sponsorship does more than help feed a child, it changes the lives of people in an entire village.

1012685_10151453429291573_1152998984_nLifesong for Orphans: Lifesong will always be near and dear to my heart. In 2013 I experienced the work of Lifesong Zambia, and it was one of my favorite mission trips. They are yet another God-centered organization doing great things for the poor in many nations.

1978758_10151969816186573_1983580348_nNakalanda Project: When I lived in Uganda, every month we would go by bus, then boat, then boda out to the village of Nakalanda on an island in Lake Victoria. We would help our friends Stephanie and Rev. Stephen hold their jigger clinics for the local community. But Stephanie and Stephen have done so much more than just jigger clinics in Nakalanda. They, like other organizations I have mentioned, are truly working hard to transform an entire community. They are also two of the greatest people I have ever met!

blog_headerThe Esther School: While I have been to Zambia, I’ve never been to The Esther School, but I can say that it is in good hands with the Costley family. Wayne Costley, who I taught with at Heritage International School in Kampala, Uganda, is the headmaster at this Christian day school in Zambia. Your donations to support the Costley family would be put to good use, as I know the wonderful and selfless hearts of Wayne and Allison and their two beautiful daughters.

Of course, my hope is that you’ll find an organization or missionary to support on a regular basis, but I hope you’ll at least find somewhere to donate today on Giving Tuesday. Maybe it’s not supporting international missions, maybe it’s taking box of food to your local food bank or some winter coats to a homeless shelter. Maybe it’s spending time with a friend who needs some spiritual guidance and support.

Giving is giving, and it’s always a beautiful thing.

However you choose to give, I pray you’ll do it in the name of Jesus. After all, it’s His birthday that causes all this excitement every December.

“He who is generous will be blessed,
for he gives some of his food to the poor.”
Proverbs 22:9

When Starbucks ruined Christmas (or so they say)

STARBUCKS COFFEE CANADA - Red Cup Pre-OrderIt was early November when the latest meeting of the “Angry Christians” club was called to order in a small American town east of the Mississippi. Everyone had come with their list of things to be angry about, and they were ready to discuss.

As the president of the “Angry Christians” club started the meeting, someone burst in.

“You won’t believe it!” the man said. “You simply won’t believe it!”

All of the Angry Christians turned to see a man holding up a red Starbucks cup.

“Christmas is ruined!” the man shouted. “Christmas is gone! America is taking Jesus out of Christmas, and that is obvious because of this red Starbucks cup!”

The Angry Christians’ blood began to boil. They tore up their lists because nothing was worse than this.

“Starbucks hates Christians,” the president said. “Starbucks hates Christians, and it hates Christmas! We have to tell Jesus!”

Meanwhile in heaven, Jesus was sipping on a Starbucks peppermint mocha when one of His angels walked in shaking his head.

“We’ve got another issue from the Angry Christians,” he said. “This time it’s over a Starbucks cup.”

The angel put some paperwork in front of Jesus, who read it, and then sat back in His golden chair. He looked at His own Starbucks cup. Then He looked at the angel.

The angel was tired of waiting for a response, so he said, “Sir, what do we do about this?”

Jesus put His cup down and stood up.

“Is Starbucks a Christian company?” Jesus asked.

“No, sir,” the angel said. “They have no religious affiliation.”

“Did they ever have my name or image on their cups, and now they have removed it?” Jesus asked next.

“No, sir, they simply took off things like trees and snowflakes. They change the design of the cup every year.”

“Christmas is when Christians celebrate my birthday, right?” Jesus said.

“Of course it is, sir,” the angel replied.

“And does a plain red Starbucks cup mean it’s no longer by birthday?”

“Not in the least!”

Jesus was perplexed. “Will any fewer people become Christians this holiday season because snowflakes and trees were removed from this year’s Starbucks holiday cup?”

“I don’t imagine so, Lord,” the angel said. “If the Christians are doing their jobs on earth, they should be the ones leading people to you.”

“Then why,” Jesus said as He picked up His peppermint mocha, “are they letting a cup get them so upset?”

“Well, they feel it just another way America is taking you and your name out of Christmas.”

Jesus looked at the angel and chuckled. “Take ME out of Christmas?”

“Lord,” the angel said, realizing that taking Christ out of Christmas was impossible, “forgive me for even approaching you with this. For I have forgotten that you ARE Christmas. Starbucks can’t remove you from Christmas. America can’t remove you from Christmas. NO ONE can remove you from Christmas because you are God and you ARE Christmas!”

Jesus smiled. “That’s right. And I always will be.”

The angel gathered up the paperwork to bring the news to the Angry Christians, but Jesus stopped him before he walked out.

“And let’s be honest,” Jesus said. “Christians love their coffee. Do you really think Starbucks would purposely try and upset Christians and lose all of that business? Of course not. And if my followers were to boycott every business that didn’t glorify me, I’m not sure they’d have many places to go. Do they research the religious beliefs of each and every place they spend money?”

“Sir, you always have the greatest points!” the angel said, as he left the room.

Jesus sat back down and again looked at the Starbucks cup on His desk.

If the holiday season is about me, how many of my followers are doing things I actually called them to do?  Jesus thought. These people who are angry over a cup, are they feeding the poor, visiting the orphans and widows, fighting for justice of the oppressed? Or are they just looking for something to be angry about….

Back on earth the angel returned to the Angry Christians meeting, but no one was there. He hoped maybe they were downtown passing out free coffee to the homeless or visiting the sick in the hospital. Instead, they had all gone home to update their Facebook pages with anti-Starbucks status updates since Starbucks had ruined Christmas.

The angel shed a tear at the actions of the Angry Christians members who were allowing anything to ruin what Christmas really means. “Christmas is still about Jesus,” he said. “It can’t ever NOT be about Jesus.”

“Stuck” at Christmas

Visiting Santa the year we got the van stuck on Christmas day.
Visiting Santa the year we got the van stuck on Christmas day.

Nice job, mom and dad. Get me a Walkman for Christmas but no batteries.

It was the Christmas of 1990, and I was dying to listen to my Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson cassette tapes in my new Walkman. Unfortunately, we had no batteries in the house. I would have to wait.

I’ve never been a patient person. While I don’t remember throwing a fit or anything, I can imagine that I was pretty bummed at the thought of waiting until the next day to listen to my Walkman. Mom and dad agreed that we’d pile into the family van and drive around our small town until we found a gas station or something that was open.

We were unsuccessful, but as we drove around, mom and dad got to play with their new Christmas “toy”- a video camera. As dad drove us around, mom videoed the sights of Celina, Ohio: the lake, the courthouse, our church, our neighborhood, and then… my school.

West Elementary was obviously vacant. Not even the parking lots had been plowed, and they were covered in snow and ice. Still, we never imagined that our van would have any problems maneuvering through.

We were wrong.

As mom filmed my school through the passenger side window, all of a sudden we stopped.

Dad hit the gas. We went nowhere. The tires spun. We didn’t move.

We were stuck.

While we laugh about it now, at the time it wasn’t so funny. It wasn’t like we could pull out our cell phones and call someone- it was 1990. None of us had cell phones. Eventually, someone came through the parking lot. I don’t remember what the woman was doing there, but she was certainly our guardian angel. She had a bag of salt in her car, and we used it to get traction under the tires. We were rescued.

It wasn’t the last time I would feel “stuck” at Christmas. I actually think it’s quite easy to feel stuck this time of year. People are stuck working days they don’t want to work, stuck having to make huge dinners for events, stuck with all the gift buying, stuck with credit card bills, and sometimes even stuck being around family they don’t want to be around.

But just like the guardian angel who helped us get unstuck in the West Elementary parking lot, we’ve got a guardian angel to see us through times we feel stuck in life. Not just a guardian angel, but a Savior.

Christ was born to give us hope, and that’s what we celebrate at Christmas. Leading up to the birth of Jesus, God was quiet, and He didn’t speak to His people for hundreds of years. They were struggling and in desperate need of salvation. It came in the form of the Christ child.

Maybe you feel “stuck,” or that God is being too quiet in your life. Remember that He is always there for you, ready to help pull you out of any sticky situation. He sent His Son to save us, to “unstick” us from sin. So when things start feeling overwhelming this time of year, or when you feel stuck having to do so much, remember that you do have a Savior, and that this is the time of year we celebrate His birth.

“She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus,
for he will save his people from their sins.”
Matthew 1:21

Christmas is Wednesday? Are you sure?

There is a little boy with a small homemade broom sweeping the dirt in front of his tiny home across theIMG_4842 street from us right now. His mother is hanging lots of colorful laundry on the line, and his father appears to be mashing up something for lunch.

The intense Ugandan sun is beating down on the tin roofs of the shacks behind our apartment. The beautiful, towering palm trees are a stark contrast to the dirty, rickety homes surrounded by chickens and naked children.

I hear birds- lots and lots of different birds who sing their songs from the tree tops where they no doubt have the best view of Lake Victoria and the rest of Kampala.

Our day guard is sitting under his favorite tree, wearing the same t-shirt and pants he has worn for the past few weeks. My friend’s little boy approaches him with a stuffed Sponge Bob and hands it to him. The guard, who appears to be only about 15, just kind of looks at it and hands it back. He speaks no English so we know absolutely nothing about him… except that he likes to climb trees.

IMG_4847I get a whiff of the familiar nauseating smell that so often permeates around our apartment. From our second-story balcony I can see piles of trash in the nearby field. Chickens and goats rummage through it to find something to eat, and a handful of Ugandan children play soccer, dodging the hordes of garbage people have dropped off in the field.

A rooster crows and someone turns on their radio. A local radio host gives the morning news report in Luganda. The sound of it is temporarily interrupted by a big truck driving by, carrying policemen in the back who proudly hold their rifles as if to say, “Don’t mess with us.”

It is hot. It is smelly. It is dirty. It is beautiful. It is Uganda.

And it is Christmastime.

You would never know it.

Sure, inside our apartment we have nativity scenes, a small Christmas tree, even stockings hung. But other than that, it’s life as usual for most people around here.IMG_4844

I don’t want to go off on the whole, “Christmas isn’t about all that commercial stuff anyway” tangent that so many people seem to go off on. While that’s true, I don’t think God has any problems with decorations and festivities that celebrate Jesus’ birth. And I’m not going to pretend that I don’t miss all of that. For me, it’s a big part of what makes Christmas special.

Christmas is different this year. For 32 years I’ve spent Christmas day with my mom and dad, and this will be the first year that I don’t. However, it’s also the first year that I’m 100% sure that I’m exactly where God wants me to be. I am blessed, I am thankful, and I am humbled by this experience. I am thankful for a Savior who loves me enough to send me here.

For some reason, God didn’t want me around the glitz and glam of an American Christmas in 2013. He wanted me in Uganda… surrounded by chickens and goats, and a group of new friends who have become like family.

IMG_20131124_174954

A headless Precious Moments and how it taught me the truth about Santa…

Each Christmas, there was always one guaranteed gift under the tree: a Precious Moments figurine. The pastel, porcelain, big-eyed figures were a huge collectors item in the 80’s, and each year Santa would bring me a new one.

IMG_20121201_082616I loved them! Their sweet, innocent faces and Bible verse stamped on the bottom made them so special. But the disappointing thing about Precious Moments was how fragile they were. You couldn’t play with them, only set them on a shelf and look at them.

As a child who made salt and pepper shakers at restaurants put on shows and talk to each other, it was obviously very difficult for me to just look at my Precious Moments. They were just dying to talk, to dance, to have tea parties, and live in a world as spectacular as the one my Barbies were in.

It was only a few days after Christmas one year, I think I was about five years old, that I asked my mom if I could look at all my Precious Moments.

“Yes, but be careful. They break very easily,” she said as she spread out more than a dozen Precious Moments on a towel on the dining room table. “Don’t touch them, just look.”

Mom left the room, and I was in awe. There they were, spread all over the table like a little Precious Moments village. There was the clown, the one with a harp, someone was making a salad, another had been shopping. They were just begging to come to life! They had so much to do! So much to say!

I couldn’t resist any longer. I grabbed the clown. She was so adorable with her face paint and balloon. I knew she wanted to dance. I hopped her around the surface of the table, saying hello to the other Precious Moments as she did so. One of them stopped her.

“Hello Clownie!” said a Precious Moments with a harp.

“Good day!” Clownie responded.

Before I knew it, the two were in full-blown conversation and things began to get intense. They talked more and more and even began to jump around! They were so happy to finally have a voice and to be able to move! LepetitThey talked and jumped, and talked and jumped….

And then….

CRASH!

Clownie and the other figurine collided.

Clownie had been decapitated. Her head rolled across the dining room table. The room began to spin and I couldn’t breathe.

Just then my mom yelled from the bathroom, “Nat! I’ve got your bath ready!” I quickly grabbed the clown head and gently rested it on the shoulders of the clown. It would have to do for now until I thought of a great idea to get myself out of this mess.

After my bath I dried off and put on my pajamas. Then I heard the reaction.

“NATALIE ANN TROUT!”

I began to cry and to make the walk to the dining room. There was mom, holding Clownie’s body in one hand, her head in the other.

“What happened?” she demanded.

“I was makin’ ’em talk,” I said quietly, so quiet that she didn’t even hear me.

“What?” she snapped back.

“I was makin’ ’em talk,” I said, and I began to cry a little more.

“Natalie, I told you not to touch them! I paid good money for these!”

I stopped crying. I was confused.

“No you didn’t,” I said. “They’re from Santa!”

“THERE IS NO SANTA CLAUS!” she yelled. I mean literally, full-blown yelled it at me. “I paid for these!”

The tears returned, and came as quickly and as heavily as ever. My heart literally broke in two. Mom was mad at me, Clownie had no head, and Santa wasn’t real. So much to take in at such a young age.

For years we’ve talked about how that one moment probably ruined my life. We often joke about how someday Oprah or Dr. Phil will have my mom and I on the show and we will talk about that terrible day that she screamed at me that there was no Santa Claus.

Clownie’s head was glued on with ease, but she and the other Precious Moments were silenced for eternity. Never again would they speak, sing or dance. Although it ended in tragedy, they would never forget the day they came to life. And neither will I.