Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Camel on the Stable Roof

Few bouts of marathon training have been as rigorous as a few weeks ago.  I  lifted heavy weights, spent hours scaling flights of stairs up and down and up again, crawled long distances on my hands and knees, and had the time of my life.

Our grand kids were in town for a few days, and I was full-throttle in the gramma mode.  There is nothing better than that.  Our 20 month old grandson redecorated the bottom two feet of the Christmas tree every morning.  His little toy truck was parked in front of the manger set.  The camel was perched on the stable roof, and a plastic Snoopy toy stood reverently next to one of the shepherds.

One afternoon, our three year old granddaughter sat at the kitchen table, eating a snack of oyster crackers and shredded cheese, asking four million questions a minute, most of which started with "why, Gramma?"  We talked about hungry birds and greedy squirrels and what bacon looks like.  We made peanut butter cookies and watched Veggie Tales, snuggling on the couch. Together we constructed a gingerbread house our of graham crackers.  Evergreen trees were made of ice cream cones and green frosting.  Red and green sprinkles spread across the counter.  Our house was a wreck.  And at night, we all fell exhausted in bed. Mornings came far too early.

Little, if any, will these children remember at this age, doing the puzzles, going to the farm zoo in twenty degree weather, eating chocolate Cheerios, and playing tea party in the attic.   They may not remember the activities, but as the years progress, they will know what love feels like.  They will not care about any accomplishments in my life as much as how much I love them.

When our oldest grandchild was born, I held that little baby girl in my arms, moved visibly by a daunting responsibility.  The Bible speaks of our faithfulness to the generations to come.  Everything I have done, everything that I do will directly impact the life of this tiny baby.  I take seriously what I pass on to her, and to the children of the furthest generation, that they will know the LORD and place their hope in Him.  We will tell them about the wondrous love of God and how He sent His son Jesus.  But I realize that they will only know that He is true if it is lived out before them -- what they see, what they hear, and what grace they know. 

One generation shall laud Your works to another
and shall declare Your mighty acts.
                    Psalm 145.4

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Baby Is Here

 Our second daughter is pregnant, awaiting her first born son in a matter now of just a few more weeks.  She and her husband have prepared for his imminent birth by clearing out their little back bedroom.  Our son-in-law’s desk was squeezed into another room, and the day bed was disassembled and stored in the attic.  Our daughter has replaced that furniture with a crib, tiny clothes nestled in a repainted dresser from Craig’s List, and a padded rocker in the corner. 

On most accounts, she is ready for his coming.   But she has NO idea of how this little one will totally rearrange her life.  Our daughter is a doctor, and hence, she has delivered dozens of babies, everywhere from urban medical centers to a small hospital on the edge of a jungle in Ecuador.  The mechanics of the birthing experience are not unknown to her.  But the mysteries of becoming a mom have yet to emerge. 

Thirty years ago, there was no one more unprepared than me.   I was clueless.  When our first daughter was born, I had no idea what I was getting into, or of the love that radically deepened with the birth of each of our four daughters.  A few weeks before our oldest was born, I passed by the church nursery, terrified by the sound of the crying babies I heard.  But my relationship with my own baby changed everything.  I was the same me, but my heart underwent tectonic shifts as I began to see myself and others from a different perspective.  I am different because she came.   As each of our girls was born and grew up, and as each of our grandchildren come into this world, it is the relationships that continue to transform who I am and who I was meant to be.  And as deeply as I am attached in these relationships, I understand a little more about what it means to be loved by God. 

And so, in this advent of our daughter’s, I think about the advent we just celebrated in the month of December, the coming of Christ, who came as a little baby to save the world.  It is our relationship with Him that changes everything.  I thought about that the morning after Christmas.   Nothing is the same because He came.  I am not the same because He came.   My life is changed, not because of my doings, but by His relationship with me.

...for God is love.
In this the love of God was made manifest among us,
that God sent His only Son into the world,
so that
        we might live through Him.
                          1 John 4.9

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Strange Peace

I woke to a quiet morning when no one was stirring, except for my early bird husband making the coffee in the kitchen.  Several thoughts converged at once.  I began to think about what other things I needed to prepare for both today, Christmas Eve, and for tomorrow, Christmas Day.  I thought about the troubles in this world, the terrible shootings, the unrest in so many parts of the world.  And strangely, I thought about a couple of years ago when a blizzard raged in Chicago, a day when for an unbelievable 24 hours, there was no crime -- no shootings, no robberies, no violence (this peace broken ironically by two men forcibly stealing a snowblower from an old man trying to dig out his car).  But the city was distracted, and a strange peace ensued.

As I reached for my sweatshirt and slippers, I wondered, "what if this Christmas there was peace? No crime, not a shot fired anywhere in the world, not even a harsh word, a 24-hour amnesty this Christmas?"  That is the way that God intended the world to be.

I have no power to enforce gun laws or prevent wars or protect my city, but I can practice grace and pursue peace where God has placed me.  We have neglected to love those God has placed on our paths, in our homes, those even within reach.  We have forgotten who we truly are:  His beloved.  And because we are so loved, we can love others, not a  harsh word, no ammunition stored away from hurt feelings, no bitterness from Christmas past, but bring to the table joy and that what makes for peace this day.  Seek peace and pursue it.  It is not the other guy's problem, but my own. All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned each one to his own way (Isaiah 53.6).

That is why God sent His Son to save us from ourselves.

What a different world we would live in.  And we would witness what the shepherds saw, keeping watch over their flocks by night, a multitude of angels rejoicing,
"Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace,
     good will among men."

                   Luke 2.14

Merry Christmas, my friend.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Christmas Basket For The Needy

So many organizations rally their resources this season to help those in need.  But this Christmas, be aware that remembering the poor and needy around you may also mean those with a full refrigerator and a heart full of despair.  The home-less sometimes live in the biggest houses, accompanied only by loneliness and isolation too much to bear.

Those we least expect may be neediest of all.

Love does not discriminate between the haves and the have nots.  The biggest needs of all are often the invisible but desperate cries of the human heart, an empty life which may be carefully disguised by a nice car and expensive clothes.  Small kindnesses are always multiplied, whether deserved or not, and maybe especially when they are not deserved.  That is grace.

Even the rich young ruler sought the compassion of Christ.

The first and greatest commandment, Jesus said, was to love God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength.  The second is the manifestation of the first, to love your neighbor.

Practice grace before all.  Make us aware, O LORD.

...but he who is kind to the poor
                    honors Him.

                            Proverbs 14.31

Thursday, December 20, 2012

But There Is Hope

I have struggled with deep emotions since Friday, trying to put into words this unfathomable tragedy in Connecticut.  I have started a half dozen blogs, abandoned in mid-sentence, my throat tight, tears in my eyes, prayers for those families who lost so much.

And then wading through this strong current, it came together, not through any brilliance on my part, but God's Word coming suddenly to the surface.  So many verses of Scripture that I read this week converged.  Here is what I had jotted in my journal, even before the incident unfolded.

...when I sit in darkness, the LORD will be a light to me.  Micah 7.8
(no matter how deep the darkness)

...and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  Revelation 7.17
(restoration of the world, what God intended this world to be)

Every word of God proves true.  He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him.  Proverbs 30.5
(the freedom to walk in the midst,  His Word provides incredible freedom)

The LORD is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble.  He knows those who take refuge in Him.  Nahum 1.7
(stay focused on God, despite what is going on all around you)

After this I looked, and behold,, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues... Revelation 7.9
(from every corner of the world, redeemed and restored)

The last chapter has been written already.  God reigns.  God prevails and has revealed that hope to us throughout His Word.  God's hope is not as what the world portrays as wishful thinking.  The hope of God is that on which I can stake my life.

God has showed us what He has done about evil.    We celebrate next week the coming of His only Son who came to save us.

For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.           Romans 8. 38-39

We stutter at the magnitude of evil that was revealed last Friday.  But evil does not get the last word. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

And Into Such A World As This

We have quite suddenly been stripped of the festive trappings of the season.  Our grief resounds over the tragedy last week, our tears flow for the families and sweet children and brave, loving teachers.  The world seems so dark and full of despair.  We ache for good news.

And breaking suddenly into such a dark world as this, there appeared a great light to give hope.
         "Do not be afraid," the angel said to them.
         "For behold,
           I bring you good news of great joy
                  which will come to all the people,
           for to you is born this day in the city of David
                 a Savior, who is Christ the Lord."

           "Glory to God in the highest
              and on earth peace,
                     good will among men."

                                       Luke 2.10-11, 14

God still breaks suddenly into our lives, like a shaft of light through the gloom, no darkness too deep.  And as the angel announced on that night, "He is here."

May we read the Christmas story with different eyes this year, and sing carols not out of tradition or sentiment, but words afresh proclaiming "The Lord has come."  And that makes all the difference, good news of great joy, Immanuel -- God IS with us.  We are not alone.

In Him was life,
and the life was the light of men.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.

                           John 1. 4-5


Saturday, December 8, 2012

Free Engraving

I was purchasing a gift for someone this week.  The company offered "free engraving" as a means of personalizing the gift.  An engraved name establishes ownership, a way of "making it mine."  It is no longer a SKU number, a box, a thing, but it now belongs to someone.

Engraving requires a deliberate effort to impress deeply letters or designs upon an object, patterns sunken beneath the surface, for permanence.

The first Christmas that Bill and I were married, we purchased a Nativity set (as mentioned in a previous blog).  We bypassed buying the beautiful glass figurines, and instead went for the painted plastic set.  We wanted our future children not just to see a decoration, but to play out the story of the birth of Christ.  And they did.  The girls would -- almost daily -- move the shepherds and wisemen and Mary and Joseph around, acting out the story, sometimes even as it was being read to them.   And once, we found a Santa candle on top of the stable, "visiting Jesus," they said.   Physical touch is one of the primary means of teaching young children and getting it to stick.

When our girls were young, surrounded by the trappings of Christmas, the hoopla in the stores, the lure of television commercials, pseudo-Santas in the mall making minimum wage, we deliberately used every opportunity to engrave the truth into their hearts.

We also emphasized to the girls that this was not just another story, but that this is true.   Christmas is REAL, not just a made-up tale.  God has always used stories to imbed His truth, because narratives are so powerful.  But it is important to help young children to know what is real and what is pretend.  It is amazing how quickly children learn to differentiate between truth and the imaginary.  Make sure your children know that the Christmas story is real.   Jesus really came, just as had been promised.

Our creative girls took the story to other dimensions.   At school, our oldest had an assignment to create a holiday centerpiece as a gift.  She glued pieces of wood to a carousel of sorts.  And even now, two decades  later, Mary, Joseph, a lamb and the manger, still grace our table the month of December.

One bitterly cold Saturday in Ohio, our girls performed the Christmas story for us, the angel also serving as director and narrator.  "Joseph" had a beard of construction paper, and she also played the role of the terrified shepherd.  Mary "rode" a donkey, fabricated of a brown fuzzy blanket over a tricycle.  The plastic playhouse-- being stored for the winter in our unfinished basement -- became the Inn.  And our fourth daughter, only a toddler at the time, caused mayhem when she balked at being put into a cardboard box which was supposed to be the manger.  "Baby Jesus" did not cooperate at all, but wandered through the scenes.

But it was another means of "engraving" the story.

At age five, one of our daughters memorized Luke 2 which chronicles what happened.  Memorizing used to be called "learning by heart."  And indeed it was.  Those words were so engraved, that now more than twenty years later, she can still recite them word for word.

One year the Christmas story was molded in clay.  Another time in dough that spread the Word and flour all over the kitchen.

Let them see, hear, smell, touch, speak, and experience the truth of God's Word.  Let them have fun with Christmas in creative ways.  Let them make a mess.  It will follow them all the days of their lives.  And engrave the Truth.

And in that region there were shepherds
     out in the field,
keeping watch over their flock by night.
                          Luke 2.8

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Baby Is Missing!

When our oldest daughter was two, we had just made a major move and had welcomed another daughter into our family. It appeared we were now living in what appeared to be another country, instead of another state.  I was accustomed to a climate of frozen tundra in December, but where we lived now, it was 65 degrees, and I was hanging up garlands outside without even a jacket.

Preparing for Christmas, the first box we always open is our Nativity set with its plastic figurines depicting the birth of Christ.  This particular year, when I passed by the Nativity a few days after decorating the house, I noticed that Baby Jesus was missing from the manger.  I retrieved the cardboard storage box from the attic.  Nothing was left in there.  I got down on my hands and knees, looking under the table and a few chairs.   I looked over the little stable carefully, thinking maybe the baby had fallen behind one of the other pieces.  Mary, Joseph, and the others appeared no longer to have a look of awe and worship on their faces, but now astonishment and their hands up in the air as in shock. There had been a kidnapping.  The Christ Child was missing!
Our two year old wandered into the room.  "Beth, have you seen Baby Jesus?"
She looked up, questioning me with her little brown eyes.  I thought that maybe she didn't understand what I was saying.  I repeated myself.   "Baby Jesus is missing.  Do you know where He is?"

"Not time for Him yet," she responded like an ancient prophet.

She knew, even at that age, that we were waiting for Christmas to arrive.  And the main event was this baby in a manger bed.  And so, the Christ Child waited in a wooden drawer until Christmas morning when Beth retrieved Him and put Jesus where He belonged.

My friend Claire told me thirty years ago that she always placed her Nativity set "front and center," the very first thing that others would notice about their house at Christmas.  I have always remembered that.  The Nativity is not just a sweet little tag-along to the festivities, nor just another holiday story to put the children to bed at night, nor yet another seasonal decoration, but what prophets promised for hundreds of years beforehand, the story of the Anointed One who has come to save the world.  And so, even with little ones we can say, "What do the sheep say?"  Baa.  "What does the cow say?"  Moo.

"What do the angels say?"   He has come!!

And that changes everything.

For unto us a Child is born,
    unto us a Son is given...

                             Isaiah 9.6

For God sent the Son into the world,
not to condemn the world,
but that the world
   might be saved through Him.

                            John 3.17

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Grinch and the Dark House on the Block

We took advantage of the mild weather over the past few days to pull out our outside Christmas lights to hang on the tree in front of our house and string the porch railings with garlands

Actually, we were shamed into it.   Since Thanksgiving weekend, we have become the dark house on the block.  All up and down our street are displays of lights carefully strung on bushes and branches, strings of white lights and twinkling icicles outlining some houses, and candles in the windows.  In some yards, large inflatable characters call for attention at night, including one yard marked by lights for Santa's runway.  My favorite is one fifty-foot evergreen midway down our  block glowing with multicolored lights and a star on top that can be seen for a quarter of a mile.

This is Christmas, and it ought to be celebrated big time.  Who has become the Grinch but us?  Our homes should be the best-lit on the block.  We rejoice because CHRIST HAS COME!  It is not a Festival of Lights, but a Celebration of Light  ("I am the Light of the world," Jesus said). And it is our response to bear witness to that light that all might believe through Him. (John 1.7)

And while you won't find an inflatable Grinch in our front yard, nor Santa's runway, may our lives reflect the light of Christmas --the love of Our Savior -- in season and beyond, radiating from within and evident in who we are and all we do.  May our homes be so distinguished by His love that they glow.

The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.

                        John 1.5

In this the love of God
   was made manifest among us,
that God sent His only Son into the world,
so that we might live through Him.

                    1 John 4.9