The True Joy of Christmas

How was your Christmas season? Whether it was busy and exciting or quiet and nostalgic, I hope you had a “God moment”—a time when you knew He was real and He was really with you, no matter what. A moment that, as C. S. Lewis put it, you were “surprised by joy.”

I believe that, in His compassion and grace, God reveals Himself in ways uniquely suited to each one of us. He came to my scientific husband most clearly in the calculations and astronomy of “The Star of Bethlehem.” He comes to me best in music and poetry. Words that sing of His presence.

Imagine that.

So my special moment happened on the Sunday before Christmas as I was flipping through the TV channels, looking for something seasonal. I stumbled on a show about the composer George Frederich Handel and his writing of “Messiah.”

Now I have a long and happy history with that glorious piece of music, starting with the world-famous “Hallelujah Chorus” with which we finished our high school Christmas concert every year. When we sang more of the full oratorio in college, “Messiah” began to move me from performance into faith. The chorus, “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” filled my eyes with tears and choked me up so much I could hardly sing.

It was the first time I realized who Jesus was.

And here was the story behind “Messiah.” Music and history—my passions.  Of course I stayed to watch.

I was fascinated to learn Handel wrote his famous oratorio during the darkest period of his life, when he faced failure and bankruptcy. Moreover, his collaborator was dealing with depression and the suicide of a beloved brother. His favorite lead singer was traumatized by abuse and scandal. The themes of darkness and light, of hope and despair, of suffering, rejection and eventual triumph woven into the composition had deeply personal and emotional roots for all the artists involved.

No wonder I was so moved.

But God had another surprise.

Unsure of the “Messiah’s” reception in London, its first performance had been in Dublin, Ireland. The composer and musicians decided to donate the proceeds to a fund for the relief of people trapped in debtors’ prison.

Eighteenth-century prisons were horrible places—cold, dark, damp, filthy, crowded, full of disease and abuse of all kinds. The show depicted such a prison– stone walls, filthy straw-covered floor, ragged, dirty, people sitting in complete despair. As the chorus “Lift Up Your Heads, O Ye Gates” was sung, the iron gates suddenly swung open and the stunned inmates were ushered out, blinking, into the sunshine of the courtyard. They stepped forward, one by one, as the jailers read their names and amount of their debt, crossing each person off the list and pushing a stack of coins across the table. Overwhelmed by joy, the freed prisoners ran into the arms of their waiting families.

“Jesus paid a debt He didn’t owe,” said the narrator, “because we owed a debt we couldn’t pay.”

It was the clearest picture of redemption I have ever seen. And of the glorious reunion at the gates of heaven when, freed and forgiven, we stagger into the arms of our waiting loved ones…to live forever.

Wow.

“And that,” whispered the Voice to my heart, “is what Christmas is about—not Santa and presents and ho-ho-ho. Not even a celebration of love and good feeling, nice as that is. I came—not just to love the world, but to redeem it.”

When the show finished with “Hallelujah” as sung in different languages and different ways by people around the world, I got a glimpse of the glorious Christmas moment yet to come “when every knee shall bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord…” (Philippians 4:10)

Surprised by joy? I was flooded with it.

And my Christmas was merry, indeed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of Sparrows and Drivers’ Licenses

“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered…” (Jesus) Luke 12:6,7 NIV

Do you doubt that? Yeah, me, too. How can the Lord of the measureless universe care about me at all, let alone the smallest concerns of my life?

A recent devotional reading suggested we fight that doubt by noting the little ways God shows us His love.

My first entry is a lulu.

Have patience with the details here. They turn out to be important.

It was 4th of July weekend—a holiday for many but a normal Friday for me. My “to do” list included buying groceries, getting some cash for the Farmers’ Market, and, looking at the stuff piled up in the garage, taking in the recycling.

I live in between two towns about ten miles apart. I’ve been doing the first two items in the smaller town—easier on a Friday afternoon—but the recycling in the bigger one.

Surely, I thought, the smaller town must have a place. I googled it, got a company and an address, loaded up my car and set off, only to find Google was wrong. The company no longer existed.

What now? I wasn’t going to unload all that stuff again. I couldn’t just keep going, either; I could hardly see out of my car. With a sigh, I went to the bigger town, only to find the first recycling place closed for the weekend. Third try: Wal-Mart. Success at last.

By this time, the afternoon was getting late. Should I just go home? No, I needed the cash as well as the groceries. With a frustrated sigh, I re-traced my steps.

Groceries bought at last, I chatted with a friend from church as I stood in line at the bank counter, while the teller smiled and handled his business.

My turn. I slid my check and drivers’ license over the desk.

“Did you know your license is expired?” she asked.

What? Sure enough, there it was. It had expired on my birthday back in April. I had no idea–and neither had all the people who been looking at it since then. Only this sharp-eyed teller had taken the time.

I ran home and checked the Department of Motor Vehicles website. Good news: I had three months’ grace period. Bad news: the first appointment I could get at our licensing station was August 28. I would have to go in Monday morning, hoping they could fit me in.

So there I was at opening time on Monday with a small group of other folks…most of us without appointments. They gave us a form and a number.

When I finally got to the desk, the clerk looked at my license and gasped. “You could be in serious trouble here.”

“Don’t I have three months?”

“No,” she replied. “It’s—90–days.” We added it up. My birthday is April 9; today was July 8. 30 days in April minus 9 = 21; plus 31 in May = 52; plus 30 in June = 82 days; plus 8 days in July. Grand total: 90 days!

Exactly.

Now all those unimportant details became critically important. If I’d decided to go home on Friday, or decided to shop at a different store, if I’d gone at a different time, hadn’t chatted with my friend who just happened to be there, giving the teller time to look, or had a different teller, I’d have been too late. My license would’ve been cancelled. In Montana, that means complete re-testing—written and driving. Since such tests are only done with appointments, I’d have to wait until the end of August before I could drive again!

You say all that was coincidence? Perhaps.

But you’ll never convince me.

 

 

Remembrance…and Gratitude

 

The Nazis invaded Norway on the day I was born. Before I was two months old, Poland fell, ending the so-called “phony war.” Europe was crumbling like a piece of rotten wood; England was hanging on by the tips of its fingernails; Japan was sweeping through Asia, crushing its subjugated peoples with sadistic brutality. I was about 18 months old when the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor.
I grew up in a world at war. One of my earliest memories was praying with my mother for “the soldiers and sailors overseas.”
I didn’t know what it meant. At age 3 or so, I had a dim idea of what soldiers and sailors were but I remember wondering about “overseas.” Was it a place? If so, where was it? And why did people there need prayer?
Many a child of my age throughout the war-torn world knew only too well what we were praying for, why we prayed, as they trembled in bomb shelters, fled as refugees, knew hunger as I have never known it.
I met some of them the other evening.
Flipping through the channels on a rainy afternoon, I stumbled on a PBS special called, “America’s Finest Ambassadors.” Did you happen to see it?
Germans of my age shared their memories of the names and the faces of American GI’s who had showed them kindness and compassion at the end of the war, sharing their rations in a time of great hunger, protecting and helping them, playing with them, giving them candy bars and gum. One battalion stationed in bomb-wrecked Berlin even held a Christmas party, complete with a turkey dinner and gifts of candy, for 200 children of their neighborhood. 75 years later, their eyes filled with tears and voices with emotion. They are still grateful.
I, too, found myself moved to tears. I was so proud of those young men whose faces filled my TV screen—ordinary boys from ordinary backgrounds, fresh off the horrors of the battlefield, who could show such compassion for the hungry, frightened, traumatized children of the enemy.
They were real soldiers who had just fought a real war, war that demanded terrible things of them. What they had seen and done there would haunt them forever.
But they were good men who had fought for the future, for the children of the world…and I was one of those children. They gave their lives, their health, their safety, their innocence so we wouldn’t have to. They bequeathed us a better life than they could ever have dreamed of.
I pray my life was worthy of that sacrifice.
For on this Memorial Day, I look back…and like those Germans, I am grateful. And humbled.

The Final Word

It was a cold rainy Saturday morning. December 1983. My first time to Europe, to Paris, to Notre Dame. I walked through the west doors under the famous sculpture-covered arches and was stunned to silence. The vaulted ceiling curved high overhead, the arcades along sides spread into candlelit gloom, the central aisle stretched away in front of me. It was immense. Quiet. Awe-inspiring.

Then I got to the “crossing” where the arms of the church meet… and stopped dead, speechless.

For at the end of the transepts on either side of us glowed the huge rose windows in all their red and blue glory. I thought of the all devotion, the artistry, the skill which created this wondrous sight, all the history this place had seen and survived. I was moved to tears.

I’ve been to Paris many times since then and gone to Notre Dame every time. It became my place to go on that first afternoon when I was too jet-lagged to go anywhere unfamiliar, a special spot to simply sit and absorb the ageless beauty.

So, like the rest of the world, I was shocked and horrified to see it burning last Monday. Someone said it was “like a punch to the gut.” Yes, that was the feeling. I could hardly believe something that had survived so much for so long might not survive me.

Despite the inferno which consumed the 12th century “forest” of trusses and beams under the roof, the flames shooting hundreds of feet in the air, the collapse of the spire at the very top of the cathedral, Tuesday morning revealed the cathedral, though deeply wounded, was not destroyed. The ancient walls still stand. Most of the relics and treasures were rescued. Even the rose windows I so cherish survived—something I think is pretty close to a miracle.

But that wasn’t all that survived.

In scrolling through the photos posted after the fire, I came across this one.I noticed something a sharp-eyed commentator on the evening news also did. What do you see first? What stands out to you beyond the gloomy scene, the heap of blackened rubble?

The cross. The golden cross behind the altar glows brightly as ever.

I was reminded of the cross formed by the steel beams in the wreckage of the World Trade Center, the huge face of Jesus I saw painted on the underside of the onion domes in the Kremlin. To me, they all whisper: “I’m still here. No matter how bad things look, how far My people have wandered from Me, I’m still here. I have not abandoned or forsaken you. And I will prevail.”

“The cross has the final word,” writes Cody Carnes in a recent song with the same title,

“The cross has the final word
Sorrow may come in the darkest night
But the cross has the final word. …
The Savior has come with the morning light
The cross has the final word. …
He traded death for eternal life
The cross has the final word.”

What a message for Holy Week! No matter how dark things look in the world or in my own life, God is still in control. And He has the victory.

Christ is risen, indeed. Hallelujah!

 

A Hard Winter and the Sixth Man

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1:2-4 NIV

 

It was a long, tough winter. Record-breaking, as it turned out.

January was mild enough but the worst was to come.

On February 6, my journal recorded 3-4 inches of snow and -12o. The cold and the snow kept coming. For weeks, we arose to grey skies and swirling snowflakes. On February 19 my thermometer read -26o. It snowed heavily for three days in a row—something I haven’t seen in 40 years. By the 28th, we peered out our kitchen window at this:

Even the onset of March gave us no relief. I took this picture on the morning of the 5th, crying, “I’m so OVER this!”

That morning, we were the third coldest place on the planet!

As we all huddled inside and tried our best to endure, a bronchial-respiratory bug began making the rounds. I wasn’t as sick as I’ve been in recent winters, but I was sick enough to go to the doctor. The cough lingered on, along with general weakness and shortness of breath. Then the constant coughing kicked up pain in my back.

For the first time since I learned to ski, I experienced all the misery of winter with none of the fun. At first, it was far too snowy and cold to try skiing. Then, I was too sick and weak to plow through the feet of accumulated snow.

I stared out the window and sighed.

Then I worried about a granddaughter who was diagnosed with a rare and painful bone condition after weeks of testing…and her family, trying to move to a new house in the midst of it all. And another old friend who I’d shared many a ski trail with died suddenly. Even small doses of the daily news made me want to shut my ears and scream. Restricted by my newly-discovered milk and egg allergies, I couldn’t even turn to the foods which had been my comfort since childhood.

I staggered into Bible study that Tuesday afternoon in mid-March, struggling to find joy anywhere, my faith weighed down by one trial after another.

Until discussion with my colleagues lead me to the Book of James.

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds,” we read. Really? Joy?

Then we came to the heart of the passage: “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete…”

Radio teacher Charles Swindoll once said the Greek word translated as “perseverance” means to “hold up under,” picturing a little donkey grunting under a big load. Since we had owned and loaded donkeys for many years, the illustration stuck. So I shared it. And we laughed together.

Ah, yes. The purpose of trials is to teach us how to “hold up under,” to strengthen our endurance muscle. We do that as we strengthen any muscle—through exercise. It isn’t fun and it isn’t painless but it does us good in the long run. James says we will be “…mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Who doesn’t want that?

Somehow my load felt lighter. I remembered why enduring it mattered. I knew my fellow Christians understood and were cheering me on. Their encouragement was enough to keep me going.

In my life-long journey of faith, how many times has the church been there for me like that, doing what it just did? How often have fellow-believers made a huge difference in my faith? More than I can count.

I believe that’s the church’s most important job: to stand with and for each other. To be part of that “great crowd of witnesses.” (Hebrews 12:1)

Now the church isn’t perfect; no group of imperfect people is.

But ask any coach how much better his team plays when the stadium is full of cheering fans. They can make the difference between winning and losing. Basketball coaches often call their fans “the sixth man (player).”

Does the church matter?

What do you think?

 

 

 

Chosen

“You did not choose Me, but I chose you…” (Jesus) John 15:16

“Think of a time when you felt overlooked or rejected,” writes Michele Cushatt in her thought-provoking devotional, “I Am.”

No sooner had I finished reading those words than an image leaped into my mind.

Eighth grade. Honor society assembly. A group of teachers and students sat proudly on the stage, watching people walking around the rest of us, tapping out the ones selected to join.

And I was not.

It was the worst moment of the worst time of my life.

Thanks to my school’s misguided decision to launch dating dances in 7th grade, I had quickly and painfully learned I would never be the popular girl, the one voted Queen of the May. Though athleticism wasn’t valued in females when I was young, I didn’t have any of that, either. Besides, I was being bullied by three “mean girls” who made my life daily misery. And, like most kids of that age, my hormones were going crazy, leaving me a physical and emotional mess. I remember my mother saying, “Is there ever a (calm, normal) middle ground with you?”

But those common junior high traumas were not all I suffered. I carried a dark secret in that “Father Knows Best” era: my family life was in chaos. My father was at the peak of his alcoholic addiction—a problem which made him range and rant around the house all night, while my mother tried in vain to calm him down. I cowered under the covers, frightened and helpless, wondering what was wrong with us, thinking we were the only ones who lived that way. I was deeply ashamed, terrified someone would find out. Then my beloved grandmother, who was my anchor in the storm, died.

But at least, I had the classroom. There, I was the star. I might have been picked last when the recess softball teams were chosen, but everyone wanted me when it was time for spelling. My hand was always in the air, as I cried, “Teacher! Teacher!” shouting out the answer when she didn’t call on me. My report cards boasted all A’s. Always.

Now, even that had been taken from me. I could hardly believe it. Why didn’t I make it? What hadn’t I done? What had I done wrong? I was never told.

Sixty-fourSee the source image years later, I still feel the pain. Looking at the logo right now makes me cringe.

Writer John Eldredge speaks of “arrows to the heart”—wounds that go to the very center of our being, destroying our confidence, our trust, our understanding of who we are. That’s what this awful moment was to me.

Cushatt writes, “Our great rejection becomes a demarcation point, after which something changes within. …We assume we aren’t good enough, smart enough, worthy enough for the choosing.” I would add, we never completely trust our value again. In the back of my head lurks a little voice which says, “If they really knew who I was, they’d reject me.”

That’s why Jesus’ words here are such balm. The Lord of the Universe has chosen us: you and me! And not only that. Paul writes in Ephesians that we were chosen “…before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight.” (1:4)

“Have more beautiful words ever been spoken?” writes Cushatt. “We, with our many physical limitations and emotional flaws. We, with our long string of human rejections that’s left us bristling and afraid. God looks at our bruised, less-than selves and sees someone worthy of love. …(He says:) Her. The second from the right. I want her. With me.”

The One Who knows us better and more deeply than any one else loves us, now and forever. He promises never, ever to fail or forsake us. (See Hebrews 13:5) He has chosen us—yes, you, yes, me–to belong to His eternal Honor Society: the only one which matters.

Selah. Pause and let that amazing truth sink in.