Monday, December 24, 2012

It's NOT the end of the world, but what about Christmas?

According to the Mayan calendar I shouldn't be typing on my computer today.  The end of the world should have happened on December 21, 2012.  The speculation surrounding that date has been made into movies, some were scared to send their children to school.   Meanwhile, the schools here were canceled due to weather and a lack of power at one of the schools.  We didn't rejoice, in fact my teenagers were pretty distraught.  They had hoped to finish up their final exams that day.  That day may go down in history as the first day that my children were NOT excited about a snow day.

I have to ask the question:  Were you concerned?  In our house we made jokes.  I also informed my children that if Jesus did decide to come back on that day I was ready.  I operate under what I know to be fact.  The Bible says that no man knows when the coming will be.  The Mayans were not told before the Son.  That’s a fact.  The Mayans probably got tired of calendar making and instead started working on something else.  I have no idea what happened, maybe they thought it would be funny to mess with a future generation they wouldn't be around to see, and just stopped. 

It wasn't the end of the world but is it the end of Christmas as we know it?  All over the world people are finishing their Christmas shopping and wrapping in preparation for the big day.  We count gifts and make sure that we have enough for everyone; we think to be sure we haven’t left anyone out.  We get together with family and some members don’t even speak to each other.  Some go into debt in an effort to provide their children with the best possible Christmas and for what?  What does Christmas mean?  I hear people asking for specific gifts.  “Johnny wants a pair of jeans but they must come from the Buckle because otherwise he won’t wear them.”  “Sally wants Ugg boots.”  “Fred wants a flat screen TV.”  Seriously, I have to ask myself what happened to Christmas? 

In a manger thousands of years ago a Savior was born with no crib for a bed.  He was wrapped in swaddling cloths and placed in a manger.  No heat, no air conditioning, no Pampers, no layette, no hospital staff, no sterile conditions did our Savior have for a beginning.  No He was born in a barn with farm animals and the smell of well…farm animals.  Do you get it?  Did Mary have a baby shower?  Did the mother of our Savior, a teenage girl, get the things she would need to care for a newborn?  No.  She was visited by three Wise Men who brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  What was she supposed to do with that?  They rejoiced.  They celebrated the birth of the Son of God. 

What are we celebrating?  We get together with our families and we exchange gifts and sometimes we don’t exchange words.  We don’t even see them the rest of the year.  We make no effort.  We buy them gifts and send them on their way and think that covers us for the rest of the year.  Is this of God?  Is this what God intended for us to do in celebration of the greatest gift known to mankind?  I hardly think so.  I am not saying we shouldn't get together with our families.  I am not even saying we shouldn't exchange gifts.  What I am saying is this:  Can we do those things and remember the purpose?  Can we do those things and remember why we celebrate in the first place?  Or have we become so commercialized that we can’t even remember why? 

I don’t want to go through the motions.  I don’t want to get so wrapped up in the things of this world that I have forgotten who gave them to me to begin with.  I don’t want to forget the true meaning of Christmas.  I want to REJOICE for our Savior was born.  In ALL things rejoice.  

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Silent Night... In December?

I normally have 2, sometimes 3, evenings each week where I have to attend a meeting, practice or event.  However, since December began I have been gone more evenings than I have been home.  Of course, most of the things have been enjoyable.  I have had music practices, parties, concerts, meetings, and even a date with my husband.  However, I am finding these busy nights can quickly wear me out.  I think that’s why I have had the following song stuck in my head all month:

I've made the same mistake before
Too many malls, too many stores
December traffic, Christmas rush
It breaks me till I push and shove

Children are crying
While mothers are trying
To photograph Santa and sleigh

The shopping and buying
And standing forever in line
What can I say?

I need a silent night, a holy night
To hear an angel voice
Through the chaos and the noise
I need a midnight clear,
A little peace right here
To end this crazy day with a silent night

December comes, then disappears
Faster and faster every year
Did my own mother keep this pace
Or was the world a different place?

Where people stayed home
Wishing for snow
Watching three channels on their TV
Look at us now rushing around
Trying to buy Christmas peace

I need a silent night, a holy night
To hear an angel voice
Through the chaos and the noise
I need a midnight clear,
A little peace right here
To end this crazy day with a silent night

What was it like back there in Bethlehem
With peace on earth, good will toward men?

There were shepherds out in the field
Keeping watch over their flock by night
And the glory of the Lord shone around them
And they were sore afraid
And the angels said, “Fear not, for behold
I bring you good news of a great joy
That shall be for all people
For unto you is born this day
A Savior, who is Christ the Lord
And his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor,
Prince of Peace

I need a silent night, a holy night
To hear an angel voice
Through the chaos and the noise
I need a midnight clear,
A little peace right here
To end this crazy day with a silent night
To end this crazy day with a silent night
(I Need A Silent Night by Chris Eaton & Amy Grant)

It’s so easy to get caught up in the busy-ness of December.  To try to add too many things to our already full schedule.  But, if those things, even if they are good things, keep us from spending time with God and listening for Him, then what should we do? 

For myself, I decided that I didn’t need to try to pile on more activities to do with our kids and then just feel guilty when we ran out of time to do them.  In order to do some things, like spend time with family and friends, we have had to forgo other things.  We skipped one party to enjoy a quiet night at home with my parents before they flew home.  We put up the tree one day and then finally decorated it about a week later.  Instead of spending time shopping for gifts we can’t afford, we are spending time together, playing games, watching movies, baking, laughing, hugging and loving each other. 

Our family’s focus is less on gifts and traditions and more on relationships and time.  As it gets closer to Christmas, what will your focus be on?  What should it be on at this time of year? 

I want to be like the shepherds who heard the angels announce Jesus’ birth.  I don’t want to miss the message because I’m too busy.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Christmas Memories

This time of year, I do a lot of reflecting.  Memories flood my mind like a monsoon.  Some make me smile; others make me cry.  It seems appropriate that this is the time to reflect as we celebrate Christmas with the coming of the Christ child.

The tree always stood in front of the window in the living room.  It is funny;  I cannot remember a single ornament or topping on the tree.  I remember every year when I was old enough to figure it out; I would go into the living room and carefully unwrap each item in my stocking.  I would then rewrap them and place them carefully back into the stocking and wait.  I had to wait until a certain time to wake up my mother on Christmas morning.  The one year she had to wake me up, she was disappointed. 

The entire family would go to grandma’s house on Christmas morning.  No less than twenty people piled into her small house for Christmas.  I remember every inch of that house.  I remember the look of every room, the pictures that hung on the walls, the furniture, the positions of the furniture in every room. The haze of smoke that hung in the air.   We always had green bean casserole.  I’m not sure who made it.  And one of my aunts made the best yeast rolls.  I remember that we thought she worked so hard on them, and they ended up being from a package.  The food for our feast would cover the counters and the table, and desserts would be on top of the chest freezer just outside the kitchen.  If I close my eyes, I can see each family member in their designated room.

The house is no longer standing.  It was torn down several years ago and now it is an empty lot.  There was a time when I didn’t have a Sunday or a holiday without all of them; now I just see the few remaining relatives at funerals.  I still see two family members from my mother’s side at Christmas time.  It’s my cousin and her daughter.  It is the highlight of the season for me.  For those few hours, I am taken back to a time that helped to form and shape who I would become.  I am the oldest cousin again.  We tell lots of stories and catch up on what we have missed. We tell our kids about the pink flamingo and blue ribbon clubs of our youth.  We made up these clubs of course.  For the blue ribbon club we used my grandmother’s dryer sheets to make the ribbons.  For the pink flamingo you would have to ask my cousin what we did.   I no longer remember anything but the name of it.  We tell them how my cousin would read the Reader’s Digest, and I, being the only child, would beg her to hurry up and finish reading so we could play. 

When your matriarch is gone, and her daughters are gone, who holds a family together?  If you know a family that has succeeded in holding itself together, I would be interested in knowing how it’s done.  It makes me incredibly sad and I miss my mother so much it takes my breath away. 

With Christmas approaching, I think of those times with bittersweet memories, and yet I look around at all I have been given and my tears turn to joy.  You see, my family didn’t go to church.  The only churches I entered as a child were those of my friends.  I only remember my mother going to church for four events before she was diagnosed with cancer: my wedding and the baptism of my three children.  While I miss my mother every single day, I wonder if she had lived longer, if she would have come to know Christ as her savior.  I don’t know if she would have been baptized, I don’t know if she could have walked the streets of gold.  If there is anything I can say that could be good about cancer it is this:  My mother came to know Christ before she passed. I will see her again, because I know without a doubt she is in Heaven.  If she had never gotten sick, but  had been hit by a bus or some other tragedy had struck her down early instead, I don’t know that she would be there.

My mother will be spending her ninth Christmas with Jesus this year.  I have to say, I am a bit jealous.  Don’t get me wrong -- I love every inch of my life.  I love my husband, my children, my home, my family, my friends, my friends who are like family, and even my three crazy cats. But how glorious would it be to spend Christmas, the day we celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus, with the man himself?  No, I have no plans of going anywhere soon.  I just no longer have a fear of what comes next after this life, and while this life is pretty good, it’s not near as good as what is waiting for me in Heaven with my Heavenly Father.

This year, as you light your tree, and take the pictures of the kids opening their gifts from Santa, I would like to challenge you to not only remember those times when you were a child, but also to remember the reason we celebrate in the first place.  And if you are missing someone like I am, may I assure you that it's...OK.  Don't be afraid as you thank God for sending His son that He will get mad if you ask Him to tell them you miss them.  He understands our humanness and still loves us.  Share the memories, share the reason, and take the time this year to reflect!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Christmas Legacy

Around the corner from my house, our local hospital stands a mere 5 stories high. I can see the giant blue "H" on top of the building while standing in my back yard. I can hear the life flight helicopters whisking over my roof, and the sirens sailing down the street every single day. There is no opportunity to forget that the hospital sits right around the corner, the noise of the hustle and bustle reminding me always to pray.

Right now, in that hospital, my mother lies in a bed too weak to get up, too tired for much conversation, too sick to eat, too young for the prognosis she faces. She awaits her second surgery in a week's time. She's in pain. She's quiet. She's sleeping more than anything.

And it's Christmastime. As I wait to see how long she will remain in the hospital, I wonder how we will make this Christmas, the one that the doctor's say will be her last, as special as she always made it for us.

When I was a child, Christmas was always a special time in our house. Even in lean years, my parents somehow filled the space beneath the Christmas tree with gifts. Mom loved decorating the house with us. We went to the Holeski Christmas tree farm and chose a tree to cut and drag home where Dad put it in the stand and then helped get the decorations from storage. He left the decorating to Mom, my sister, and me.

Alabama Christmas would play in the cassette player. Mom would expertly place the lights and garland on the tree while candles burned in the Home Interiors sconce on the wall, filling the air with the scent of pine and cinnamon. One of us would set up the ceramic nativity set. Ornaments and silver tinsel covered the tree. The little brown gingerbread ornaments complete with my toddler teeth marks, the shiny 1970s bulbs passed to my parents from my grandparents, the sewn snowman ornaments purchased at a local craft bazaar, the pretty glazed ceramic angel given to my mother by my 2nd grade teacher. A flashing, rainbow colored star donned the top of the tree.

Once the tree and decorations were adorning our home, Mom watched Charlie Brown and Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman with us. She baked sweet treats with us. Sugar cookie cut-outs, Russian teacakes, and peanut butter cookies with Hershey's kisses in the center. She made us homemade hot cocoa during Christmas break.

Mom didn't even realize she was doing anything to make Christmas special, but she did. Now I face the task of how to make this Christmas special for her. I hope that she gets to go home soon, but I don't know if that will happen. I hope that she is...


For one last Christmas.

And while I hope, I have to decide. How do we make this Christmas special? How do we hold on a little tighter and let her go all at the same time? Do we decorate her house hoping that she gets to spend her Christmas there? Do we deliver decorations to her hospital room? What do you give to the person who has everything she wants? How do we hold onto Christmas joy in the midst of such intense sorrow?

I know this isn't the kind of post that is going to have you clicking your mouse to get back to read more, but that's not why I'm posting it. I'm writing this post for two reasons. Therapy. It comes in many forms, and, for me, it often comes through the written word. I'm writing this for myself.

I also write to ask you to pray, not just for my mother and my family, though we certainly need to be uplifted, but for the many, many families who face similar predicaments this Christmas. I look back at the year my mom lost both her parents and wonder how the selfish, 19 year old girl that I was didn't see how much my mother needed support that Christmas. Did I pray for her? For my aunts and uncles?

I don't even remember.

I implore you, be that support for someone this year. Send them a card. Tell them you're praying for them. Drop a small gift on their doorstep. Hug them in the grocery story. Take their kids somewhere for an afternoon and free them up to be with their loved one. Take 5 minutes, 2 minutes even, to show someone who is hurting that you care about them this Christmas season. I promise you that they will never forget your kindness even if they are too overwhelmed to tell you how much it means to them right now. It means a lot. I know this for certain. Whether they have lost someone already and face the empty chair at the Christmas dinner table, or they are told that they will be losing someone soon, they need you. Your prayers going up on their behalf will get them through each day, each hour, each moment when they think they can't put one foot in front of the other, when they leave the hospital and find that, as they slowly shuffle across a dark parking lot, every muscle in their body aches from exhaustion and stress and they wonder if they will collapse before their hand reaches the handle on their car door.

So I ask you to pray for us. Pray for people like us.

And remember your Christmas blessings, past and present. What a blessing it is to look back on my childhood Christmases and to see my mother sitting on the couch as we opened the gifts she perfectly chose for us because she always knows exactly what gift to give. What a blessing it is to remember the red skirt she sewed for me when I was in junior high school so that I had a beautiful outfit to wear to church on Christmas. What a blessing to remember how she has continued this Christmas legacy by showering her grandchildren with the same kind of attention to detail, right down to choosing Spiderman, Dora, and princess gift wrap according to each child's taste.

Mom would tell you that she isn't anyone special, but I tell you that she is. She is amazing. She is one of the most thoughtful people you'll ever meet, and this Christmas? More than anything, I want to bless her as much as she has blessed me. This Christmas, my mother is my greatest Christmas blessing.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

My Favorite Christmas Carol

If you've ever looked in the hymnal at the "Advent" section of songs, you find the usual suspects: "Away in a Manger," "Silent Night," "The First Noel" and more.  You have to look a little harder to find my favorite carol "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." It's generally one of those half page songs at the bottom of the page with a much more popular carol above it. But the words, oh the words.

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

The words were written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1864 - during the heart of the Civil War, and yet, they're just as appropriate today.  I know I can't even begin to count the number of times I've been able to relate to the next to last verse.  I've had three generations of my family (on both sides) deployed overseas for one conflict or another. I can only imagine that the other members of my family have wondered where the peace on earth is.

I'm so glad Longfellow didn't leave it at that.  The last verse gives me goosebumps every time I hear it sung.  "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.  The wrong shall fail, the right prevail" Praise God for that!

If you need a rendition of this song to listen to, I strongly suggest David Phelps's version from his "Joy, Joy" project.  He leaves the third verse out, but I don't think that detracts from the message of the song.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

I Don’t Like Christmas Carols

I told my wife I was going to write a blog about my favorite Christmas carol. She asked me what my favorite carol was. I told her I didn’t have one because I really don’t like Christmas carols. She said, “How are you going to write about your favorite one then?” I said I’d just make something up.

Well, now that I’ve thought about it, I decided it’s probably not nice to make something up and act like I like something that I really don’t like. I think that’s called a lie, although it seems like a pretty innocent lie to me. 

I guess it’s better to tell the truth and the truth is I never have liked Christmas carols. I’m not really sure why. I grew up singing them, but I didn’t like them as a kid either. I’m not a Scrooge. I love Christmas. I like Santa Claus alright…although my wife doesn’t. I like snow and eggnog and presents. I guess it’s fair to say that I like pretty much everything about Christmas except the carols…and maybe mince meat pie. I’ve never really been sure what’s in mince meat pie. 

I know why I don’t like some carols…like We Three Kings. It’s in a minor key, and it’s kind of boring. My son sang it in a Christmas play once. I liked it that time but I think that was only because my son was singing it. That one that has the long GLORIA in the chorus…people always take a breath in the middle of the word and that bothers me, that and the egg shells thing. Silent Night is ok I guess, although I like it better in German and with a guitar…call me a purist. And then there’s the problem with the words, Away in a Manger for instance. That line about “no crying he makes.” Not only is awkward English, I’m pretty sure Jesus cried like every other baby. 

I guess what really bothers me about Christmas carols is that they kind of trivialize what happened that first Christmas. I mean think about it. God came down to earth! It wasn’t just about a star and shepherds and wise men. It was about God putting on flesh and coming to earth to be the Savior of the world. I’m not sure how you capture that in a song, or a sermon, or a book… I’m just saying that I think sometimes we reduce God-sized events into people-sized poems and songs and it really kind of steals the mystery and majesty of it all. I guess I don’t mind if you sing Christmas carols, just try to remember that Christmas is bigger than any carol. 

Meanwhile, I’ll keep trying to find one I like. Maybe next year.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

My Intentional Advent

   As an adult I have grown to love the season of Advent, a time to focus on the coming of Christ and the amazing gift we received that day.  I'll admit that too many years have gone by where I was caught up in the busy-ness of the Christmas season, and I didn't put any effort toward specific anticipation of that day.  This year, I've promised myself, will be different.  My church is in the middle of The Story campaign, an approach to the Bible that looks at The Upper Story (God's story) and The Lower Story (the people's story) and how God brought the two together. Jesus Christ -- God in human flesh -- is the truth revealed. Life only makes sense in light of His coming.

   One of the greatest revelations of God's heart is John 3:16 -- "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son what whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life."  Our pastor reminded us recently that, as we celebrate God's love this Christmastime, we want to focus on the first part of the verse that talks about God's love and His gift.  He loves.  He gives.  As the above verse so beautifully makes known, that is the theme of God's heart.  We can read story after story of God's interaction with people in the Bible:  Adam and Eve, Noah, the Israelites, King David and Bathsheba...God consistently loved each of these sinners and gave them a way to life.  Time after time, person after person, God loves.  God gives.

   Christ's life -- from birth to resurrection -- is central to all of history.  Jesus is the focal point of all Creation and time.  God didn't come up with the idea of Christ as Savior after trying to deal with people for a couple thousand years.  The gift of Christ was real and present first because God loves.  Because God gives.

   So this year I've started the Advent season with specific devotionals and readings that will lead me through the next couple of weeks pondering the themes of hope, love, joy, peace, and finally the celebration of Christ's birth.  I encourage you to do something similar, whether it's specific Bible or devotional readings or something impromptu that you do yourself everyday: singing Christmas carols, lighting candles, reading the nativity story, or performing intentional acts of kindness that make giving very real to someone in need.  Let's not forget the importance of that life-changing yet simple first Christmas.  Let's attend to Christ's birth with the reverence it is due.

"The angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God.  And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.'" 
 ~Luke 1:30-33