Thursday, December 13, 2012

JOY TO THE WORLD

"Remember
This December,
That love weighs more than gold."
~Josephine Dodge Daskam Bacon

"We'd love to have you join us for Christmas Eve, Joy." Those words stuck with her as she made her way down the winding driveway to her old sedan. She tightened her scarf around her neck, grateful for the gift of warmth from her client.

"How can I join them for the service?" she argued silently with no one. "I don't belong in their church...in this wealthy neighborhood. I'm sure they were only being polite when they asked me."

But she couldn't shake the invitation from her mind as she climbed into her car, once again catching her jacket on the torn vinyl seat. She gazed through the windshield and the darkening night air at the home she'd just left. She had been cleaning for this family for over twenty years. She was fortunate. Most of her clients resided within a two mile radius, meaning less wear and tear on her tired, old car.  

The house was aglow with Christmas lights. A manger scene took up a good portion of the lawn stretched in front of their entranceway. She loved this family. The Martins had always treated her like a close friend. They never criticized her work or placed unreasonable demands on her, as some were in the habit of doing.

Once again, she traced her fingers over the cashmere scarf. It was by far the most generous gift she'd received this year. Tucked inside its folds had been $1,000, the amount Mr. Martin knew she needed for some repair work to her car.

"Come to Christmas Eve service with us." There it was again. The invitation seemed to have a life all its own. It had followed her down the driveyway and into her car. "What would I wear?" she spoke aloud in response. The scarf. Wear the scarf with your nicest pants and blazer. Go. They want to include you.

Though she wrestled with lingering doubts and the stirrings of nervousness, she made up her mind. "I'll go. It's only church. Maybe it will be nice. At least I won't be spending Christmas Eve alone."

When she got home, she had only enough time to shower and dress before the clock beckoned her out the door. She didn't mind. Her nervousness, coupled with an exhausting day cleaning three homes, had diluted her normally ravenous appetite.

She knew where the church was located. She'd passed it everyday on her way to work for over twenty years. Yet she'd never set foot inside. She imagined a room full of people dressed in their holiday best, singing Christmas caroles. "This will be fun," she said out loud.

She met the faces and eyes of the Martin family the minute she stepped into the Sanctuary. "You came!" Mr. Martin said with a grin. His wife and three children greeted her with the same warm enthusiasm. "And you're wearing your new scarf."

"You look beautiful, Joy," Mrs. Martin added. They led her to a pew near the front of the church.

Emily, their youngest, took her hand and held it tightly. "Wait 'til you see the angel. She's my favorite."

Angel? Joy squirmed in her seat. The lights dimmed, and a beautiful chorale filled the room. "Joy to the world, the Lord has come..." She sat still as could be, enthralled by all of it. But what pierced her most was the love she felt from this family whose toilets she scrubbed every week.

As the story of the first Christmas played out before her, Joy knew there was something this family had that she wanted. It had nothing to do with a large house, a fancy car, or a designer wardrobe. She wanted what only the Christ child could offer. When the pastor led in a prayer of salvation, she bowed her head in complete surrender. To the King of kings, and the Lord of lords. "Joy to the world, the Lord has come!"

"Merry Christmas, Joy," the Martins said as they parted company in the parking lot. "It already is," she thought to herself. As she climbed into her worn car and headed back to her apartment, she knew she would never be the same.

The next morning, Joy awoke to the ringing of her phone. "Hello?" she answered in a raspy voice.

"Joy, it's Mrs. Martin. We were wondering. You are like family to us. Will you come and spend Christmas day here? With us?"

Tesrs formed in Joy's eyes. Christmas with the Martins? Like family? Thank you, God! "I'd love to," she replied through her tears.

"I truly believe that if we keep telling the Christmas story, singing the Christmas songs, and living the Christmas spirit, we can bring joy and happiness and peace to this world."
~Norman Vincent Peale

"To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. If we think on these things, there will be born in us a Savior and over us will shine a star sending its gleam of hope to the world."
~Calvin Coolidge

"Christmas, my child, is love in action."
~Dale Evans

"What is important is faith expressing itself in love."
~Galatians 5:6b      

         

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

IN A MANGER

"He was created of a mother whom He created. He was carried by hands that He formed. He cried in the manger in wordless infancy. He, the Word, without whom all human eloquence is mute."
~St. Augustine

When our children were young, we had a tradition of taking them to see the Glory of Christmas at the Crystal Cathedral. We purchased our tickets early in the season to reserve seats close to the stage. The parade of live animals, the angels soaring above us, and the beautiful music brought the meaning of the season to life.

But  the condensed, dolled up presentation of the birth of Christ couldn't adequately portray the raw and less attractive side of this historic event. Like a young teenager, accompanied by her new husband, travelling during her ninth month of pregnancy. Because Caesar Augustus had called for a census of the entire Roman world.

Perhaps it was the long trek that triggered her first labor pains. Imagine the fear, disappointment, and confusion she may have felt when there was no decent room for her to rest. And then, to realize she would give birth to her first child in a smelly stable. How could this be? Certainly God wouldn't want his Son to be born in these conditions. I wonder if Mary and Joseph began to question and to doubt.

I have given birth. In a hospital. With medical staff. And drugs. Even then it wasn't pretty. I can only imagine her experience, especially at such a tender age.

I like to display Nativity scenes throughout our home at Christmas. I enjoy seeing the life-sized versions in front of local churches and town squares. But I wonder what Mary and Joseph would say if they were to walk among us today. Perhaps they'd giggle and point at our creche scenes as they recalled what it was really like that life-changing night. Frightening. Messy. Smelly. Confusing. Unnerving. Exhausting. Miraculous.

 If Jesus was walking this earth today, I think we'd find Him at a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter, a halfway house, or an AIDS hospice . Not curled up on a couch, by a pretty tree, sipping Starbucks, and dreaming of a white Christmas. That's me.

I have so much to learn. May I never forget. It's not all about stockings on the mantle, presents under the tree, nutcrackers and snowmen, or twinkling lights. There is nothing wrong with these things. I believe God wants us to enjoy ourselves, especially this time of year. But there's more to the Christmas story. It was the breath of heaven in the form of a newborn baby, to a teenage mom in a stable after an exhausting journey. The Lamb of God was placed in a feeding trough for animals and visited by smelly shepherds. This is how God came down to earth.

"The Almighty appeared on earth as a helpless human baby, needing to be fed and changed and taught to talk like any other child. The more you think about it, the more staggering it gets. Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as this truth of the Incarnation."
~J. I. Packer

"While they were there, the time came for her to give birth. She gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in a manger, because there was no room in the hostel. There were shepherders camping in the neighborhood. They had set night watches over their sheep. Suddenly, God's angel stood among them and God's glory blazed around them. They were terrified."
~Luke 2:6-9, The Message  

  

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A WONDERFUL LIFE?

Maybe I need to revisit the Christmas classic that brings enlightenment to downtrodden George Bailey. I may not be facing financial ruin and jail time like he was, but I can relate to his anguish. Let's face it. No matter how yours is packaged, it isn't always a wonderful life.

In fact, it can be downright awful. Heartwrenching. Disappointing. Even brutal. Sorry George, but I think you had it right. Life itself can be full of wonder and beauty, but day to day life isn't the wonderful, picture-perfect event we'd like it to be.

How can I look into the eyes of the kids I saw on Facebook, curled up in a hospital bed and fighting for their lives, and tell them it's a wonderful life? How can I even think of suggesting it to the elderly man I encountered in the store parking lot this morning? He slowly inched his way to the market, one step at a time, leaning heavily upon his crutches. The struggle, the pain, and the frustration were etched upon his face. Do I dare tell the homeless man and his young daughter I observed on my drive home that life is wonderful? These dear people know better.

Every year my family gets a chuckle over some of the letters we receive tucked inside the Christmas cards. We laugh because life isn't the way it's depicted in the sweet, sugary notes and the pretty photos. Life is hard! Yes, there are beautiful, wonderful aspects. And every day is a glorious gift. We are wise to appreciate the time we have to journey on this earth.

But it isn't a wonderful life. There are wonderful people, wonderful moments, wonderful memories ~ if we are blessed enough to encounter them. But from day one, life is a struggle.

The good news is that there is wonderful life ahead, IF we want it. No brag letter or polished photo can hold a candle to what awaits those of us who say "yes" to the invitation. "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." (John 3:16-17)

This is what Christmas is all about. God sent his Son into a world that had turned into anything but wonderful, in order that we could take hold of the wonderful life he has for us. And this life is for eternity. Not convinced? "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him." (1Corinthians 2:9)

"For God so loved the world..." How can we refuse that? Why would we want to? For those who choose to believe, it will be a wonderful life ~ one day.

"The birth of Jesus made possible not just a new way of understanding life but a new way of living it. It is a truth that, for twenty centuries, there have been untold numbers of men and women who, in untold numbers of ways, have been so grasped by the child who was born, so caught up in the message he taught and the life he lived, that they have found themselves profoundly changed by their relationship with him."
~Frederick Buechner

"I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of."
~John 10:10b, The Message           

Monday, December 10, 2012

THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS

"When we recall Christmas past, we usually find that the simplest things ~ not the great occasion ~ give off the greatest glow of happiness."
~Bob Hope

I could tell it was going to be a long night. Our two young children were pumped full of sugary treats. Bursting with excitement over gifts received at Grandma's, they couldn't wait for Christmas morning to arrive.

For the most part, I didn't make a big deal about Santa. But I didn't exclude him either. I tried to incorporate Biblical truths and sound moral teachings in the character of Santa Claus. He got credit for filling each stocking and bringing the main gifts. Every year on Christmas Eve, we left a plate of cookies and a glass of milk. And every Christmas morning, there was a note next to the empty plate, sharing the true meaning of Christmas with our kids.

As we made our way home that Christmas Eve from my mom's house, I was desperate to quiet the kids down. We still had a bicycle to assemble after they fell asleep. But as I observed their jabbery, wiggly states, I realized it might be a while.

"Time to settle down, guys. Santa won't come if you're awake," I told them. I felt a bit guilty for playing the "Santa" card, but there was still a lot to accomplish before sunrise.

They looked at each other and smiled, then continued on their merry way. I tried again, but to no avail. We pulled up to the curb in front of our house. My husband and I helped them out of their carseats and onto the pavement. Their little arms were laden with treasures from Christmas Eve.

"Ho ho ho. What are you children doing awake? I can't come to your house until you're asleep!" We all looked across the street at a man dressed in a Santa suit, getting into a car. "Merry Christmas!"

I'm sure my expression was just as full of shock and bewilderment as our two young children's. Those little legs scurried up the path and onto the porch, not speaking a word. As soon as my husband opened the front door, they flew up the stairs and jumped into bed. Forget pajamas. Santa was in the neighborhood, and he wouldn't arrive at our house until they fell asleep.

And they did. Quick as a wink. My husband assembled the bicycle while I filled the stockings. I don't remember what I wrote on the note that was left by the plate of cookies. But I remember the words I spoke out loud as I reflected back on the whole incident. To me, it was a Christmas miracle. "Thank you , Jesus. Thank you!"

"It is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas when its mighty Founder was a child Himself."
~Charles Dickens

"The message of Christmas is that the visible material world is bound to the invisible spiritual world."
~Author Unknown

"Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love!"
~Hamilton Wright Mabie


             

Saturday, December 8, 2012

CHRISTMAS MEMORIES

"Like snowflakes, my Christmas memories gather and dance ~ each beautiful, unique and too soon gone."
~Deborah Whipp

She pulled the knitted blanket up to her chin as the cold blast of air entered the house with her husband. Arms piled high with firewood, he kicked the door shut. "It's a cold one," he said under his breath as he headed for the hearth.

"You shouldn't be going outside in this weather. How can you see anything?" It was their first blizzard since moving to the mountains. Both were wrestling with doubts over their recent decision to relocate to a higher altitude.

He nestled into his chair and removed his cap and gloves. "Not to worry. I'm not going out again. Not 'til it clears. Supper smells good, by the way." He reached over and patted his wife's lap.

"Everything is ready. I feel a bit silly for cooking so much food." She sighed. "I couldn't help myself...holding out hope the weather would clear and the kids would make it up afterall." She smiled at her husband, though both had the same heavy heart.

"It doesn't feel like Christmas without the kids," he said quietly, looking at their photo on the mantle. "This will be our first year without them," he added.

"We'll see them soon enough. We'll just celebrate a little late this year." She hoped her words would soothe his aching spirit.

"Let's face it, dear. They aren't going to make it up. They can't take time off from work to come see us. We are on our own." He picked up a log and set it strategically on the fire.

He looks so defeated, she thought to herself. And then it dawned on her. The best gift she could give this dear man was a happy Christmas, kids or no kids. She'd do her best to bring some Christmas cheer to the evening. She got up and headed for the CD player, careful to select an upbeat holiday mix.

She scarmbled off to the kitchen and grabbed the dishes and utensils. Humming to the music, she set the table for two, using their best holiday china. She lit the candles and set the food on the trivets. Their dog Max followed her every move, eager to be a part of her festive new mood.

"Honey, supper is ready," she announced, pleased with the outcome of her efforts. "Come to the table before it gets cold."

"He stood up and stretched his back. "I'm not that hungry, just so you know," he protested as he made his way to his seat in the dining area.

"Well, get hungry! I've made all our favorites. And I cooked for twenty!" She squeezed his hand and smiled.

"Why are you so cheerful all of a sudden?" he questioned with a scowl.

"It's Christmas! And I have all the reason in the world to be happy. I'm married to the man I love, even if he is a bit grumpy tonight. Our family is healthy and doing well. We have this cozy new cabin to call home, and more friends than we can count. Most of all, it's His birthday," she said, pointing upward. "If that's not cause for celebration, I don't know what is." She squeezed his hand a little harder. "Let's enjoy Christmas, dear. If we let it, this can be a memorable one for us."

"You're right." They bowed their heads and gave thanks ~ for their family, their new home, their friends, good health, and for each other. And they gave thanks for the Christ child who had blessed them with so much.

The rest of the evening was spent reliving Christmases past, and sharing their dreams for the future. They exchanged gifts and read the story of the first Christmas together. The warm glow of the fire, the little tree laden with lights, and the snow falling outisde their window was enchanting. And they realized they would indeed look back on this night fondly. Gratefully. Even joyfully.

Christmas is what you make of it. It can be all about decorating, shopping, presents, and good food. For some, it can be a time of sadness, a season when loss is felt most profoundly. But for many, it's a time of reflection and rejoicing.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, Christmas is about the Christ child. And that holy, mysterious night over two thousand years ago. A young woman and a bewildered husband. And a stable full of animals in attendance of a birth. A choir of angels, worshipping, telling of the great news. Whether we choose to celebrate it or not, the true meaning of Christmas is unchangeable ~ and yet so profoundly life-changing.

Glory to God on the highest! And on earth, peace and goodwill to all...

"Love is what's in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen."
~Attributed to a 7 year old boy named Bobby

"Christmas ~ that magic blanket that wraps itself about us, that something so intangible that it is like a fragrance. It may weave a spell of nostalgia. Christmas may be a day of feasting, or of prayer, but always it will be a day of remembrance ~ a day in which we think of everything we have ever loved."
~Augusta E. Rundel

"Tradition: sit with husband in a room lit only by tree lights and remember that our blessings outnumber the lights. Happy Christmas to all."
~Betsy Canas Garmon

"But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.' Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.'"
~Luke 2:10-14   

      

     

Thursday, December 6, 2012

CONFESSION

"Few things accelerate the peace process as much as humbly admitting our own wrongdoing and asking forgiveness."
~Lee Strobel

For every time I have prayed, "Thy will be done," yet clung to my own will ~ Father, forgive me.

For every part of me that is still not conformed to You because I don't want to relinquish it ~ forgive me.

For every thought and action that is not in line with the truth about who You are, and the way I misrepresent you in the process ~ forgive me.

For being content to view people and circumstances through my own distorted perception instead of running to You for revelation ~ forgive me.

For clinging to my plans, priorities, and people instead of bowing to Your sovereign plans and purposes ~ forgive me.

For worrying about what others think instead of what You think ~ forgive me.
   
For running to the world for answers, affirmation, and affection when You tell me to come to Your throne of grace ~ Father forgive me.

For having one foot planted in worldliness and another in Your Kingdom, and unfaithfully trying to dance with two partners at once ~ forgive me.

For letting comfort trump courage, and putting pleasure above perserverance ~ forgive me.

For caring about feeding my body more than feeding my soul, and for overlooking the hunger in others ~ forgive me.

For words that say one thing and a walk that says another ~ forgive me.

For the abundance I have and the little I give ~ forgive me.

Wash me, that I will be clean and renewed. Fill me, that my life will be an outpouring of Your Spirit. Use me, that my life may glorify You. You are everything I need. All I am I give to You.

"The voice of sin is loud, but the voice of forgiveness is louder."
~D. L. Moody

"Peace comes when there is no cloud between us and God. Peace is the consequence of forgiveness, God's removal of that which obscures His face and so breaks union with Him."
~Charles H. Brent

"Forgiveness is always free. But that doesn't mean that confession is always easy. Sometimes it's hard. Incredibly hard. It is painful to admit our sins and entrust ourselves to God's care."
~Erwin Lutzer

"God pardons like a mother, who kisses the offense into everlasting forgiveness."
~Henry Ward Beecher

"If we admit our sins ~ make a clean breast of them ~ he won't let us down; he'll be true to himself. He'll forgive our sins and purge us of all wrongdoing."
~1 John 1:9, The  Message

"O Lord, you are so good, so ready to forgive,
so full of unfailing love for all who ask for your help."
~Psalm 86:5

"As far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our sins from us."
~Psalm 103:12
     

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

IN GOD'S HANDS

"Don't you see that we don't owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent. There's nothing in it for us, nothing at all. The best thing to do is give it a decent burial and get on with your new life. God's Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go!"
~Romans 8:12-14, The Message

I sat in church, clutching the dampened tissue as the tears streamed down my cheeks. The pastor's words, spoken with sweet conviction, were like a soothing liquid being poured into me. They flowed into my mind, then made their way downward. The message was more than just "something to think about".

My tears were an outward expression of what was happening on the inside. As his words of Life trickled down into my heart, they were challenging me. Changing me. Freeing me.

"Die to self." I have seen the sacrificial element, and known it to be a multi-dimensional principle. But I wasn't able to grasp what the other dimensions truly look like. Until Sunday, when I heard the pastor's message, and saw the visual demonstration.

The only way to really grab hold of God and live the Life he has for me, is to let go...even die...to my preoccupation with "self" and the things of this world I cling to so tightly.

Release. Let go. Trust Him. It's sounds simple. But it's so difficult to do. Why? Because I spend my life more focused on what I want than on who I want to be in Christ. I invest too much of myself in the pursuit of fleeting comforts and pleasures. I set my hope on people, promises, and promotions that are transient and temporary at best.

It doesn't have to be this way. I can release my grip and place both my hands in God's. It doesn't mean the other things will disappear. They may remain. But now, He is the one who will be caring for everything and everyone I clung to for so long. And what better hands to release all my cares into then his?

What blessed conviction! Because true conviction frees us, and empowers us in new and exciting ways. Those tears I cried in church were shed in joy, in new hope, and in holy revelation. If I can keep both my hands nestled securely inside of God's, I will know the freedom that comes with dying to self. And I will never be the same.

What are the things I am clinging to? What do I need to let go of? Show me, Lord. I am listening.

"Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you'll have it forever, real and eternal."
~John 12:24-25, The Message

"We feel 'conditioned': bound by the chains of our habits and compulsions, our likes and dislikes, our fears and guilt, our inability to love. Our great tragedy is that we often mistake these habits and compulsions for our true self...Our false self must die, so that we can find our true self, the self which God meant us to be and which he created in his image and likeness."
~Irma Zaleski

"We must die if we are to live. There is no spiritual life for you, for me, for any man, except by dying into it...The sentence of death must be in yourself, and then you shall enter into life."
~Charles Spurgeon

"Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not 'mine', but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." 
~Galatians 2:20, The Message

"If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to hang onto your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but are yourself lost or destroyed?"
~Luke 9:23-24

"So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life ~ your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life ~ and place it before God as an offering."
~Romans 12:1, The Message

"That's why my cup is running over. This is the assigned moment for him to move into the center, while I slip off to the sidelines." 
~John 3:30, The Message

"The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it!"
~2 Corinthians 5:17, The Message



    
       

Monday, December 3, 2012

GIFTS OR NO GIFTS

"I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year."
~Charles Dickens

How could it be December already? I walked throughout the house, flipping the calendars to unveil the Christmasy visuals. The stockings were already hung. Our house was beginning to have that cozy glow that comes with this season. But something was different.

I should be panicked, I chided myself. I haven't even begun my shopping. Every year, my goal is to have gifts purchased and wrapped by Thanksgiving. Not this year. There isn't a present in the house. Nothing to wrap. No trinkets to fill the stockings.

How am I not stressed? Honestly, it's a bit of a miracle. Christmas is going to arrive, whether I am "ready" with presents or not. If there is nothing under the tree, we'll still have so much to celebrate. Because the real gift of Christmas was birthed over two thousand years ago. Try as I might, no package under the tree is going to hold a candle to the real reason we gather together on Christmas day.

Usually, I share Jo's sentiments from a favorite classic, Little Women. "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," she lamented. But this year has ushered in new circumstances. Wasn't that true on the first Christmas, too? Everything was new...different...unexpected. A marriage occurred between Joseph and Mary. And a beautiful baby was born in less than perfect circumstances.

The past few months, our family has been focused on similar events. A wedding on the horizon has occupied much of our time and our thoughts. So has a new baby. Our grandson made his entrance into the world last week. His unique circumstances and the way he has already taken up residence in our hearts makes everything pale in comparison.

Tomorrow I will go out and face the crowds, and do my best to carry on our gift-giving traditions. But my heart is so full right now. I want to pause...and savor this precious season in our expanding family. I want to focus on what's important, what this season is all about. For the babe that was born two millennia ago...and for the little boy that was born last week. Both are miracles. And both are all the reason I need to celebrate, gifts or no gifts. May I never forget this.

"We consider Christmas as the encounter, the great encounter, the historical encounter, the decisive encounter, between God and mankind. He who has faith knows this truly; let him rejoice."
~Pope Paul VI