Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Our Family Christmas/New Year's Letter ~ Our Top 10 of 2013

Dear Friends & Family,

Merry (belated) Christmas and Happy New Year! We thought we'd give you the Top 10 Highlights of our year.

1. Jake got the limb lengthening contraptions off his arm last Christmas (because of his Ollier's disease) and we are so thankful to see that his arm has been growing this year! It's truly amazing what medical technology can do!

2. In February we took the next step in building Dad's Disappearing Salsa Co (our new family business)....we built a certified "Salsa Kitchen" at the house! Once we received our permit from the health department, we hit the ground running, selling at all the local festivals, flea markets and shows. In October we launched our full-featured website and began selling wholesale to stores. We are so thankful to see God blessing our efforts and we look forward to seeing what God has in store this next year. We'd love for you to check out our website! www.dadsdisappearingsalsa.com

This is a family business so everyone gets involved! The kids fold, cut and staple the labels on all the packages.  They like to have races to see how fast they can do it!
It was a busy season from June all the way through December. 

3. In April we enjoyed a visit from Steven's parents and together went for an ultrasound to discover we were having a our 7th boy!

4. On May 28th, we welcomed our sweet little Ezra James! He is probably our happiest baby yet, smiling at everyone with his big adorable smile and "happy eyes" as I call them. He is almost 7 months and is already crawling. He makes us all so happy!

Big brother Abel with Ezra
Hanging out in the "Salsa Kitchen" sink

5. My mom came to help out when Ezra was born. Sadly, this was the first home birth (out of 6) that she missed! Ezra actually came before his due date! But we were so happy to have her here with us for a couple weeks. And what a help she was!

6. We had a very busy spring and summer selling Dad's Disappearing Salsa Mix at 2 different evening farmer's markets each week. I took a few weeks off from the farmer's markets after I had the baby, but got to bring Ezra to make his debut appearance at the Clinton Farmer's Market when he was just a week old! 
The boys are getting really good at talking to people about our salsa and making lots of sales!  Here they are at the Livingston Farmer's Market.

7. August was Cousin Camp!  My brother Danny and his wife Jessie and their 4 kids came down for a couple of weeks.  We had a great time together, making lots of fun memories.

Grizzly (left) & Ezra (right) were born just a few days apart.
Everyone loves Uncle Danny!

8. In the fall, Jake and Zack joined the ranks as entrepreneurs, starting their own business "Sticks-N-Stuff", making and selling PVC bows & arrows, blow guns, sling-shots, etc. They did it all on their own, including the upfront investment. They sold at 3 markets, with a booth next to ours at 2 of them, and even one with a booth quite a distance from ours. They did great and were definitely encouraged with such a successful first business venture. We can't wait to see them continue in the spring when the markets start up again.

9. With our attention focused on building our new business and the time investment that requires, we decided it was time to take a break from some aspects of our farm life. With baby goats being born every year, we found ourselves with too many goats who were eating us out of house and home and  not giving us anything in return. In fact, we didn't even have a good milk goat this year.  Do you remember Maybelle who nursed on herself?  You can read that story here. Yeah, she didn't end up giving us any milk.  So, it was time for them to go. Though it was sad, we were glad to be able to give them to a family in our church in exchange for a bunch of free range meat chickens in our freezer. They are now grazing happily on acres of luscious green pasture. Maybe we'll start over with a new milk goat at some point...and definitely get a new flock of chickens here soon. For now, we'll focus on dealing with our 3 remaining chickens who think they are cats! Yes, you can just call us the funny farm!

10. So here we are at the end of our Top 10 and I know you've scrolled down before you read anything else to see if there's a special announcement. Well, there is a baby coming, but it's not ours (heehee). It's the baby Jesus (well, I guess you could say it is ours! He's for all of us!). And this advent is a time to anticipate not only his coming as a baby, but his coming again...as the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords!!! We can't wait! Are you ready?
(Sorry, this was written as a Christmas letter that morphed into a New Year's letter.  I'm not the only one that does that, right??)

We hope you and your family are doing well. We would love to hear from you, so please leave us a message! May you know God's love and abiding presence this year.

The Mena Family
Steven, Jenny, Jake, Zack, Ben, Sam, Hailey, Jed, Abel & Ezra

This is one of our favorite pictures that my brother took while he was here. He's an amazing photographer! Check him out at www.vasquez.co.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Jesus Stocking- How Can We Give to Jesus at Christmas?

"Mom, if it's Jesus' birthday, why do we get all the presents? What does Jesus get?"

I'm not sure how I answered that question a couple years ago, but I know it made me really start thinking. How can we give to Jesus at Christmas?

Isn't it just like Jesus though, even on HIS day, to give US a gift? It was never about him...it was about us.   He never considered himself, his own desires, his own suffering.  He considered us instead.  He gave even when it hurt.  He gave to the point of death.  He gave us everything, holding nothing back.   He gave us the greatest gift...He gave us Himself.

It's overwhelming when I think about it.  It makes me hurt and rejoice all at the same time.  His LOVE simply amazes me!  It makes me look up to heaven with a smile on my face, arms stretched wide and bask in the goodness of it...His love never stops shining on me!! This love that reached down from heaven and rescued me.  This love that made me a new creation, a vessel that He molds and shapes and fills....fills with love upon love upon love.

But this filling up with love isn't like pouring water into a pitcher.  No, it's like pouring blazing light into a vessel with a million holes....it spills out but never empties! It is love overflowing. And this is the gift Jesus gives us at Christmas.  And with hearts overwhelmed and bursting with gratitude we say, "Jesus, how can we give back to you?"

And Jesus says, "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.   Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." (Matt. 25:35-36,40)

That Christmas with those piercing questions from a child?  It was like an ah-ha moment.  How do we give to Jesus? We give to the least of these.  We give like Jesus gave...not considering ourselves, our own desires, our own suffering...giving when it hurts, holding nothing back.

So we talked about it as a family.  We talked about what we could give up and give to Jesus instead.  We came up with an idea.  We would give up our stockings!  Instead of spending money on items for our stockings, we would give it away instead.  On Christmas morning everyone found money in their stockings, gathered it up, pulled out the computer...right there on the family room floor with the family all gathered around, and picked out items for the least of these from the Gospel for Asia website...chickens, mosquito nets, bibles, blankets, tracts, a water filtering system, rabbits, etc.  It was my FAVORITE part of Christmas.

Out of this came the idea for the Jesus Stocking.  The idea being that we can be filling up Jesus' stocking all season long with money to give to Jesus...to the least of these...on Christmas day.

So last year I made Jesus Stockings as gifts...(I don't really sew, but made an attempt at it!)

This is my brother's house with the stocking I made for them last year.

Of course, I never got around to making a Jesus Stocking for my own family (you know how that goes), so we just use our crazy striped stocking since it looks different than the rest (the kids are already filling it up with money they have saved...can you see it stretching longer and longer?).

We all had matching stockings at one point...then our family kept growing! So, we have an assortment of stockings.  The "Jenny" stocking was the one my grandma made me and always used at her house when I was a little girl.

When I gave the Jesus Stockings, I included a little letter explaining where the idea came from and ideas of how to use it.  Apparently, I was not the first one to come up with the Jesus Stocking! (no surprise) There are many great ideas out there for using the Jesus Stocking to give to Jesus at Christmas.  Here are some more ideas...
  • You can write letters of thanks and praise to Jesus. Maybe you would sit down on Christmas Eve and pass out paper and pencils, or maybe it would be something everyone would do throughout the Christmas season as things come to mind. Young kids can write simple words of thanks or draw pictures. You can even invite friends, family and guests to participate as a way to share the meaning of Christmas with others. It's about God’s gift to us…and there is so much to be thankful for! (check out this article and this blog!)
  • Another idea involves reflection and thought as you might consider what God would have you give to Him… a way of surrendering more of yourself to the Lord. Maybe there is a certain area of your life that needs to be surrendered to God, a sin that you have been hanging on to, or a new commitment you want to make to grow closer in your walk with the Lord. This is really His gift to us, as it is all a work of grace as He molds us and shapes us, making us more like Him. He gently leads us one step at a time. This could be an opportunity to ask God what the next step is that He wants to take us to. (check out this blog)
  • If you want to collect money to give away to the needy, you might consider a way your family can earn money.  Maybe a yard sale earlier in the year?  Plan a "Rake-A-Thon" and find sponsors to pledge money for each hour you rake an elderly persons yard (you can join up with other families)? Check out this link to see what my kids did last year to raise money for the poor. Let us know any other ideas for earning money as a family!
These are just a few ideas. You can come up with your own too! I would love to hear ideas you come up with or if/how you use a Jesus Stocking in your own home. Please share with us!

May your Christmas be filled to the full with God's love, overflowing to others.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Can Santa Be a Part of a Christ-Centered Christmas? Our Family's Unique Tradition {With Free Candy Cane Story Printable}

What does your family do with Santa Claus? I have such fond memories of my childhood days as I would dream about that jolly man with a white beard and his little elves all busy making my Christmas gifts at that magical place called the North Pole. I could imagine Mrs. Claus sitting at her quaint wooden table drinking her hot chocolate and looking over the "naught or nice" list, smiling at Santa as he walks in with a jolly laugh, holding his belly as it jiggles. I remember trying to figure out how Santa could come down the chimney and leave us gifts, eat our cookies and never make a sound. It was such fun! And that's exactly what my parents were hoping for...to give us a joy-filled, fun Christmas.

I think that's the desire of every parent....to make their children smile. Of course my parents also desired to make Christ the center of our Christmas. They certainly worked hard at that and taught us all about Christ's coming to earth as a baby to be the savior of the world. They wanted this to be the most important part of our Christmas celebrations. I mean, my dad was a pastor and my parents loved Jesus with all their hearts! I really think they had no idea that as a young girl I would lie awake in bed on Christmas Eve conflicted and feeling a sense of guilt because, though I wanted Christ to be the most important thing about Christmas, really I was most excited that Santa was coming that very night...and bringing me presents! It's actually been something I have wrestled with through the years as I struggle to sort through the confusion of Christmas.

Christmas is like a two-sided coin, both sides opposite each other, having nothing to do with each other really.  One side is so shiny and bright, loud and dazzling with excitement...and the other is dim and subtle, so much so that you could almost miss it.  Jesus, a little baby in a manger.  Nothing glamorous about that. No, he came so humble and quiet...."the mystery so large becomes the Baby so small, and infinite God becomes infant" (Ann Voskamp). You have to really slow down, be still and quiet to see Him.

Isn't it hard enough to keep our eyes fixed on Christ with all the distractions of this world and the selfish desires of our hearts that constantly pull us away? So, why make it harder by adding in such competition for our affections and attention, at a time when our hearts ought to be drawn to our Savior? Isn't it kind of like putting a child at the starting line of a race, telling them to keep their eyes on the prize at the end..."It's the most important thing, nothing else compares!" and then placing enticing toys and candy all along the sidelines? Yes, it may be fun, but it pulls us away from the Best thing.

I understand the desire to make Christmas a fun time for our kids. I want the same thing! But if it's really true that there is no greater joy than knowing Christ himself, then can't we make Christmas all about Christ and be confident that it will be joy-filled and exciting? Does it have to be Jesus plus this or that? Or is Jesus enough?

So, that's what we've tried to do...narrow our gaze on Christ at Christmas, which for us means removing the glitzy "other side" of Christmas....namely the Santa side.  Now, this doesn't mean that we pretend like Santa doesn't exist. By no means! We tell our kids about Santa (kind of hard to avoid him), but not just about the legend of the reindeer, elves and bowl full of jelly. We tell them the whole story...the true story. Actually, I think it's a pretty awesome story. Saint Nicholas really lived, and he loved God...and he loved others. He was actually a good picture of Christ to us. He was a picture of self-less love.

There are many legends that have been passed down about St. Nicholas, and though the accuracy of the legends aren't exactly clear, it seems safe to say he was the bishop of Myra in the 300s, known for his generosity and kindness. It is said that he received a large inheritance from his parents when they died and gave it all away to the poor. He was known for giving his gifts in secret, often throwing bags of money into people's homes at night, sometimes landing in their shoes or stockings. The story we read to the kids each year (Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend) tells the story of St. Nicholas secretly giving money to three daughters whose father was so poor he didn't have money for their dowries. Because of his gift, the girls were able to get married and have a hopeful future. This is the kind of compassionate generosity he became known for all over the world.

Of course every parent has to decide how they want to deal with the issue of Santa Claus, giving it much prayer and consideration. People land in different places and that's ok.  I'm certainly not in any place to make judgments. But if you've come to a place where you want something different but don't know how to do it, can I share with you what we do?

On December 6th, which is St. Nicholas Day (did you know there is a day set aside in honor of him?), we do something special. We read the story book about who he was and then go out on our own little secret gift-giving mission! But we add a little twist to it...

Instead of giving bags of money, we give candy cane bundles! Why candy canes, you ask? Here's why...the candy cane can be used to tell the gospel!  So we bundle up our candy canes and attach a little card that tells the gospel through the different elements of the candy cane. Then we head out to secretly drop them off on the doorsteps of random people's houses...in the dark of night.  

Now this is the really fun part...

Our kids love to do things to the hilt. So, they dress up in full camo and become like a stealth special forces unit. No, I'm serious! They army crawl across the lawn, make the drop, dash behind a bush, roll down the hill and back into the van. It's the most hilarious thing you've ever seen! It's like a boy's dream! And they get upset when the candy canes are all gone and it's time to head home. Of course, mom and dad are a wreck hoping we won't get caught and have the cops called on us! (It's not like we're a little conspicuous or anything, in our huge blue van with the headlights off.) But it's just so much fun. Then as we drive home we pray for all the people that will find our gift and read the candy cane story, the simple gospel story... that God would use it to speak his love into their hearts.

Oh yeah, one last bit of fun awaits the kids when we get home. Laying on the piano (not sure why we use the piano, probably because we don't have a fireplace) are each of their socks filled with some coins (like maybe $1! Cheap parents!). Hmm...I wonder who left those there? ;-) Ok, they know it's us, but it's a fun way to tie it all together.

Not sure if we look camouflage or just redneck!
The kids have come to really look forward to St. Nicholas Day...but not for the presents that he will bring. You see, we've learned something from the man in red that we want to imitate. We want to give to those who are in need. And what greater need do people have than for Jesus himself? In a small way, we are giving them Jesus. And in all of this we are striving to keep Jesus the center, the most important part of Christmas. Because truly, nothing else compares.

Click here to download a free Candy Cane Story Printable
(I can't take credit for this. I found it online years and years ago, but can't find it anymore.)

Just print them on cardstock, cut them out and attach to a bundle of
candy canes! 

What does your family do about Santa Claus? Do you have any creative traditions that you've started to help you focus on Christ as a family? Please share them with us!  

And I'd love to hear if you decide to adopt our St. Nicholas Day family tradition.  So leave a comment and tell us about it!

Later I'll share some other family traditions we do to draw our hearts to Christ at Christmas.

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*Just for fun...

Here are some pictures of our Candy Cane Missions from the past (2008 is as far back as I could find, but I'm sure it started before that). **Disclaimer**- My children dressed themselves for most of these missions ;-)


I'm very pregnant with Jed here (born 12/26)



I guess I forgot to take a good sock picture this year!

I  guess I forgot to take an "outside the van" picture this year  :-/

And 2013 will be happening in just a few days!...
and with another addition to the family, baby Ezra :-)