Uniquely Deep, Uniquely Mi Vida

Captured by Joy

I smiled as the children sang in the cafeteria. A volunteer had come in to play the piano during the school’s lunch time. He wanted to bring a little Christmas joy to the kids. As I dropped off the children and helped them get their lunches, he started to play Frosty the Snowman, followed by We Wish You a Merry Christmas. The children started singing, and with every voice, others joined in. I smiled as I walked out… you could hear them all the way down the halls. What joy it is to hear the happy children! Those children had been captured by the joy of Christmas. I hope they didn’t forget to eat their lunches.

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If you find yourself singing along at the stores, or office, when the Christmas music is playing, you too have been captured by joy. If you find yourself singing or humming even without music, as you clean the house, drive, cook, shop or more, then you too have been captured by the joy of Christmas. It is hard not to be, unless you just can’t sing one note   😀

There is plenty around us to remind us what Christmas is about. We hear, see, and smell Christmas around us wherever we go. In Puerto Rico you even hear the joy of Christmas outside as you walk down the streets of the towns. Music is played loud and people just gather with their instruments and play their favorite songs. In the stores we are greeted with “Merry Christmas” not like in the USA where it has been mostly replaced with “Happy Holidays.” (Although, here in Texas people refuse to change it, and continue saying “Merry Christmas!” I’m sure there are others places like this too).

In the USA we still hear the songs of Christmas, different styles and different songs, but still it brings an atmosphere of joy and peace. A story in history tells us of the Christmas of 1914 during World War 1, when a truce occurred in the Western front. They too were captured by the Joy of Christmas and as the Christmas music played, soldiers celebrated and even spread joy with their enemies.

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That is what Christmas does; it brings joy all throughout the world. It captures the hearts of all men (that is an inclusive statement, and yes it includes women and children).  It brings JOY to all, regardless of where you are. It encompasses cultures, languages, and age, regardless of how it is celebrated. It brings joy across the “trenches,” brings down walls, and yes, makes us vulnerable, yet strong. It causes us to see others as Jesus sees them. We extend a hand of friendship and spread the joy to others even to the least of them. Our world becomes different; it opens up dialogues, rebuilds friendships and mends broken hearts. (At least it should if you are truly celebrating the true Christmas). The JOY of Christmas is this powerful because CHRIST is in it.

This is why the Angels sang, “JOY TO THE WORLD, the LORD has COME.” Let your heart be captured by the coming of the LORD. Let JOY ring! And as your heart is captured by that joy, whether it be through song, cooking, baking, giving, playing games or just smiling, let it be uniquely You. So be captured by the uniqueness of the true JOY of Christmas: “CHRIST” who has COME!

MERRY CHRISTMAS! ******FELIZ NAVIDAD!

Uniquely Inspirational

Captivated by Christmas

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”

-Luke 2:15-19

As soon as my first child, Celeste, was lifted from my womb due to a c-section done because her heartbeat showed duress, the nurses rushed her to check her. I couldn’t wait. I called her by the name Todd and I had chosen if we had a girl, “Celeste.” At that moment I saw her beautiful face turn towards me as she blinked, to what seems to focus on me, with all that junk on her face. It was the most captivating moment and a treasured memory. The nurse allowed me to touch her before she was cleaned up.  With my second and third it was just as captivating as I held both Aliza, and later Erica, in my arms for the first time.

Watching the girls be mesmerized by the Christmas lights as we drove through the Kansas City Zoo years ago made my heart leap with joy. They especially loved the real live nativity scene later that night when we visited our church. We pointed out the “Star of Bethlehem” and the “3 kings” in the night sky often, remembering how mesmerized and captivated I was by them, growing up. I loved watching stars move across the night sky wondering how amazing it would have been at the birth of Jesus. It was, of course, Sirius, (the brightest star in the sky) and the 3 stars of Orion’s belt. (which, if you drew a line through them, point directly to Sirius.) But it didn’t matter, it was the reminder and the “wonder” of what took place over 2000 years ago that kept my girls and us in awe at Christmas.

The “3 Kings”, other wise known as Orion’s belt,  following the star of “Bethlehem”, other wise known as “Syrus” (not the true star of Bethlehem, that was a once in a life time event.)

I treasured the memories of my girls growing up: When they first encountered Santa, and, yeah they cried, except for Erica who, as a baby, instead tugged at his beard.  I’m sure they wondered,  trying to figure out how he fit into the story. When they participated in the Christmas programs, and sang even when, as toddlers,  did not cooperate fully with the directions. (we had a runaway angel once). Later, when they were older, they helped other children choose the gifts for their parents, wrapped their presents, did crafts with them and dressed up as elves for photos, all for the sake of less fortunate children. One year, they wrote their own play and presented it to the family. They learned to bake and decorate cookies. All those memories and more, I cherish. Those memories captivated my heart as I’m sure it captivated theirs. Those little moments, so significant to even the youngest, bring an amazing wonder to the  awesomeness that is Christmas.

The songs playing around us, the smell of cookies and pies being baked, or in our case, flans and tembleque, watching our children open gifts, smiling with joy, baking cookies or drinking hot chocolate by the fireplace (here in the US), gathering with friends and family for meals, visits and church services, all to celebrate this amazing time of year. The gift exchanges, the joy and laughter that come with it, participating in the parrandas and trullas in Puerto Rico, visiting family, and yes, eating everywhere you go, listening to the people celebrating, seeing the lighted homes, the Christmas trees, it is all captivating indeed. But not as captivating as that morning long ago.

I am reminded often of how captivating were the events that surrounded the birth of Christ. Those stories that Mary “pondered” in her heart. She memorized every detail, the angels as they passed on the message, her fears, her visit to her cousin Elizabeth and how she reinforced the message of the angel. She remembered having to deal with Joseph and his fears. (And I’m sure somewhere in her life she had to deal with telling her family and friends). Then there was the trip to Bethlehem, the arrival, and searching for a place to stay. This was followed by the birth of the Messiah, Emmanuel, Jesus. Then she heard how the angels showed up, and told the shepherds who the child was. Then came the move to Egypt, and the arrival of the wise men… and so much more. I am certain that as Mary held her new born and was captivated by Him, his lillte hands, fingers and toes and wondering eyes, she could not imagine what this child would bring to the world. Oh, to be capture by His first first smile, steps, words and more. In awe Mary held her baby close. All these memories were captivating… even more so than anything we have encountered during Christmas.

It is the story of long ago, the wonders that led to the birth of Jesus, then the actual birth followed by Jesus himself. This is what ultimately captivates me the most. The promise of salvation, the way to salvation that was made for me through this child.  Salvation that came through an infant as fragile and innocent as any other child, yet the Son of God, better yet, “God with us.” He began as a baby who was vulnerable, trusting His mother Mary and his earthly father, Joseph to take care of Him. He found his attention captivated by his surroundings. I’m sure, as he saw through human eyes and felt with His human heart, he was amazed by the world he found himself in.

I wonder, I am captivated by that baby that I never met face to face. Yet, I carry Him in my heart.  I am in awe of what He went through to come to us, of what  He, Jesus, did for us. For it was this unique and amazing child that brought the Love of His father so that I can live captivated by his forgiveness. He brought the presents of HOPE, JOY, LOVE, PEACE and GRACE that only He can give. I pray that, this Christmas, you too are uniquely captivated by HIM!

Uniquely Mi Vida

Confounded by Culture

A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.” -Mahatma Gandhi

I was 7 years old and we had just arrived in the “mainland”from the Island. More specifically, we had arrived at Texas. As I walked out of the airplane it was night already, and I was freezing. The thin jackets from Puerto Rico couldn’t stand up to the cold of south Texas. I tried to stay warm standing close to Mom with her arms wrapped around me. It was November, and I was excited and scared at what was to come. I was soon embraced by my first real coat, and Dr. H.O. Espinoza, whom came to be like my “grandfather.”

recien llegamos a San Antonio 1977
Our Recent arrival to San Antonio (recien llegamos a San Antonio)

We had been in the mainland of the U.S.A. for approximately a week, and we were getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving. At the time my understanding was that we were having a huge meal with other pastors and their families at the Espinoza’s home, where we were staying temporarily until our own house was ready. I came into the dining room area where tables had been setup with all kinds of food. My curiosity of what we were having got the best of me. Asking constantly, “what is that?” I came to the giant bird on the table.My eyes were amazed at its size. My mother came over and I looked up and exclaimed with my unbelievable amazement, “Mami the chickens here are HUGE!” 😆 She looked at me with the eyes of a mother and smiled hugely, “Mamita, that is not a chicken. It is a turkey.” Then she carefully laughed…  🤔 I was confused, and could only say, with a bit of disappointment, “Then what is a turkey?” She tried to explain to me, and then left to obviously go to tell Sister Espinoza what had transpired. Bro. Espinoza heard of my confusion so he pulled me aside and not only showed me pictures of a turkey, but introduced to me the story of the first pilgrims in America.  And here I thought we were simply having a special meal to give thanks to God for all that He had provided. 👼 Little did I know that there was a whole historical story behind it.

Next thing I know, I was learning songs about someone named Rudolf with a red nose and Dashing who throws the snow at who knows who (and why are we singing about someone being so mean? And wouldn’t snow hurt somebody? I heard it was cold like ice?) … and the more I was introduced to the stories of American Christmases I wondered, wow I didn’t know the reindeer were animals that could fly with names even. 😲And they told me unicorns🦄 didn’t exist.. Thank goodness to all those movies that set the record straight for me, and explained all the songs… except about this “Dashing” kid…and this horse that opens something called “slay.” (Shamefully, I didn’t get the story straight until I dared to ask 3 years later🤦‍♀️.)

..And while many celebrated Santa, we celebrated the birth of Christ, which apparently Santa celebrated in a different way here in the USA. Then, while the songs of Christmas faded in the background and people put away their lights and trees, in came the new year and our tree was still up, as it is for all Puerto Ricans. For us, Christmas was not over. We waited patiently for the coming of the “3 Magi Kings” (As some call it “epiphany.”), who delivered gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus. Though the kids at school made fun of the 3 kings and their story, and I felt sorry for them because I got more gifts… not once but TWICE. That’s right, on the eve of Jan.6, good boys and girls in Puerto Rico, gather grass and water for the camels,write a letter to the kings and in the morning we have MORE presents. 🤗

          When Todd and I were engaged, I introduced him to our way of celebrating Christmas. raqui blog pic002We married soon after Christmas day and made a decision to include both cultures. ✨Though the stories of Frosty and the red-nosed reindeer were not on my top 10, not even my top 100, I conceded to allow my kids hear the stories, take a photo with Santa, and open at least 2 presents on Christmas morning and sing the solemn Christmas, English music. In exchange, Todd (and the girls), had to hear “parranda” music, eat pasteles, lechon, flan and more, celebrate 3 Kings Day, and join in the parrandas and trullas, the real way to go “caroling”. (Of course to do that you would have to be among Puerto Ricans and be willing to stay up way past bedtime and eat during the night). In many ways, my daughters got an extended Christmas and different celebrations for almost 2 months. Eating different things for Thanksgiving, opening presents the night before Christmas from each other (like we did growing up), then in the morning from “Santa,” and then on Jan. 6, the ones from the 3 kings. It wasn’t easy combining it (and budgeting for it)… but we did it. We added a 4th aspect to our family traditions, the American “Black Friday” sales… which started with us getting presents for hundreds of other children which eventually led to teaching our girls the importance of giving with joy and love. (I was co-director of a compassionate ministry center and it this was a part of our Christmas assistance program I was God-led to create, called “Gift of Hope” in 2004.) It wound up being a budget friendly way to do all the gifts and a late night (early morning) of fun for all. It was always funny to see the reactions of the Walmart cashier as she wondered why anyone would by ten of the same board game,or have 4 carts loaded with kids toys. It was always a joy to be able to tell them we were wisely using donated money to get as many presents for poor children as we possibly could.

Missing the pasteles but still enjoying a mixture of Puerto Rican food and american. (Roasted pork, rice w/piegon peas, tostones, rolls and greenbreans)

 Yes, Thanksgiving and Christmas are BIG in our house. With the uniqueness of the American traditions, (did I mention learning how to bake pumpkin pies and Christmas cookies?😉) and the uniqueness of the Puerto Rican ones. We have created a colorful mix of cultural celebrations. When others thought that our cultures clashed, we were enjoying the colorful mixture they create. It is a joy to find ways to celebrate, and yet find the biblical perspective of them. We have opted out of some cultural celebrations because they are not compatible with our subculture that we share, Christianity. We see the uniqueness of others and the stories behind them, and based on these we add them in. So no, Peter Cottontail does not come through our home… (I said it when I first heard about it, age 7, and I will say it again, a rabbit should NOT be laying eggs… that is just wrong!), nor do we bother much with Halloween except when the girls were little, and dressed up as princesses to pass out candies and share the love of God.

           It is the mixtures of cultures and their traditions that, when they seem to clash, their combination makes our family culture unique. From the New years and Easters, to the 4th of July celebrations, to quinceañeras (sweet “15” instead of “16), to Thanksgiving, Christmas and more, it is this unique cultural traditions that have made our Home joyous. Figuring out how to celebrate is not that easy, but knowing the story behind the traditions and celebrations certainly helps. It is the story that makes them worthwhile and as unique as the celebration itself. So, for Thanksgiving, we will have our turkey on Thursday with our American family and then have a Puerto Rican dinner, including “lechon asado”(roasted pork), with my side of the family.

         During this holiday season, I encourage you to find those traditions that make your culture unique. You can even add your own family traditions into the mix. Teaching and learning celebrations that others around you have is fun to do as well. You may not celebrate it, but you can learn about it. History is full of traditions and every culture has those that have been around for 100’s of years. Every culture has its unique traditions and celebrations and many are family fun. So next time you hear Puerto Ricans“caroling” at your neighbors doors at 2 A.M., don’t huff and puff and call the police, instead pick up any instrument you have, and join them… believe me, it is fun plus, you get to eat… again. It is so unique!

To celebrate with my people and see how we do “trillos” (parrandas during the nights) click here