Thursday, December 18, 2014

Advent Joy

Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy which shall be to all people.  Luke 2:10

It’s a well-known scene in American cartoon land:  Charlie Brown trudges through the falling snow and comes upon the booth.  Psychiatric Help 5 cents.  Dejectedly, he sits down.  The ever-crabby Lucy realizes she has a customer and comes in a flash.  Just to be sure, she makes him pay for her advice in advance.  He drops his nickel into her “cash register” - the can with the slit in the top - whereupon she shakes it and makes happy faces about the sound of money dancing around in the can.  Finally, she remembers her client.

“Now,” she says, “what’s your problem?” 

And he replies, “It’s all this Christmas stuff that’s got me depressed.  I don’t know what to do and everything I try to do gets messed up.” 

“Well, Charlie Brown, what you need is a project,” she says.  “You need to come direct our Christmas play.”  His ego is stroked, he perks up and takes on the power position of directing the play.  Chaos ensues.  If you’ve ever directed anything, you know it can be a lot like herding cats.  They go through a lot of activity that all has to do with money and shopping and presents, but in the end, Linus steps into the spotlight in the middle of the stage.  Everyone falls quiet, and in the plain language of the Bible, he recites the Christmas story.  As the cartoon episode ends, all is peaceful and calm in Peanuts Land.  For a moment.  Thanks to those tidings of comfort and joy.

I love those Peanuts cartoons – both the ones in the paper and the animated ones on tv.  I love them because they’re so simple.  The basic truths of life are shared with such clarity.  I don’t care who you are, there are times in your life – yes, even mine – when we could all be mistaken for Lucy.  She’s the perfect crab, but she knows it all.  Just give her a chance…she’ll tell ya!  We all feel like Charlie Brown sometimes – the perennial loser.  The butt of every joke.  The one who never knows anything and who never gets any Christmas cards.  We know for sure that Lucy is never going to let him kick that football but we can’t help watching as he runs toward it with all his might and kicks as hard as he can into the dead air as she pulls it away at the last minute and he lands flat on his back.  We all feel that life is like that sometimes.  Nothing can go right.  I was talking with a friend just yesterday and when the poor girl got finished with her litany of the day’s miseries I felt like I needed to find that 5 cent psychiatric booth.  Heck…I’d even pay a dime.  And when all of these things stack up at holiday time, they’re just magnified.  We need joy…like Snoopy has.  If Charlie Brown is the perennial loser, Snoopy the dog is the perennial winner.  He sits atop his doghouse, reading the paper and waiting for his humans to bring his supper dish.  He often breaks into his happy dance.  That’s what we’re all looking for…our very own happy dance.  The dance of pure joy.

The other thing I love about the Peanuts Christmas stories is the tree.  Talk about the personification of simplicity!  Just a few sparse branches and one red ball.  When you think about it, how much tree does it take to make us have Christmas?  Several years ago, as our years were catching up with our bodies, Ed and I had to come to a realization.  The huge tree that had graced our living room for more than fifteen years was just too much work for two old people and when it was all together, the magnificently beautiful creation took over the room.  It was hard to let go of that tree but we did.  We donated it and moved down to a four foot tree.  Fine for Ed and me when the kids aren’t here but this year everybody is coming home so we need more of a tree.  So I’m here to give you the update today that the current fashion in Christmas trees is the skinny tree.  I got a seven foot slim tree.  It tucks nicely into a corner of the room.  I thought I had the skinniest tree in town until last night when we went to my brother’s house for supper.  My sister-in-law pulled me into her living room and said “Is your tree as skinny as mine?”  NO!  It was a seven foot pole with short green branches – almost straight up and down, artfully decorated and glowing with soft light…lovely.  They definitely won the competition for the skinniest tree.  But in that room, it’s perfect.  Think about it…all we want is the symbol of the holiday season.  I was looking at some of our pictures the other day and I came to the one of our skiing Christmas back some time in the ‘80s.  Instead of the usual gifts, we took our girls to Vail, CO, for a few days of real skiing.  We were arriving two days before Christmas and I assured them we would find a tree lot and get a small tree for the condo.  I even took a few of our favorite ornaments so we would have some familiar things with us.  Every time I look at the picture of what passed for a tree I crack up.  It wasn’t quite a Peanuts tree but it was a close cousin!  And what they charged us for it was obscene.  But it brought us joy.

Joy…how do we define this illusive emotion?  The dictionary says it’s the expression or display of glad feeling.  It can also be something or someone greatly valued or appreciated.  An unusual word.  We can either feel it or be it.  We experience the glad feeling because of something good or we can reach out our hand and be the joy for someone else.  The simple joy of Christmas is the glad feeling we have for the One who is most greatly valued and appreciated.  The angel spoke about it to the shepherds:  I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people.  We hear those angels again and in our hearts we do our happy dance.

Like the little people in the Peanuts cartoons, we take joy in the plain good news of the coming of the Christ child into the world.  The trappings of the season that we display to share our joy with the world may be elaborate or they may be as simple as that little Peanuts tree with one red ball.  The focus needs only to be our joy…our joy at His coming and the message of His salvation.  However we share it with each other and with the world, may it be a story of joy…glad tidings of great joy.

However you will be spending this next week, I pray that the Hope, the Peace and the Joy of Jesus will fill your heart. 




Thursday, December 11, 2014

Advent Peace

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angels praising God and saying:  Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.

Luke 2:13 & 14

I have a young friend who is a singer, working the music scene in Chicago.  His name is Zach, and he’s doing much the same thing that my daughter Becky did a few years back in New York…taking every singing job he can get including providing entertainment for company parties.  As you know, the last few weeks have seen our country afire with racial unrest the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long time.  The streets of major cities, including Chicago, have erupted into violence.   My friend posted the following on Facebook:

I left a holiday party this evening where I was singing carols about peace, joy, a new social order, of righteousness reigning on earth and walked directly into the broken and hurting society we live in. Police cars overtaking the sidewalk, hundreds of people running through the streets, and ANGER. That kingdom we were singing of has yet to come. 

No Zach, it hasn’t.  Peace.  It’s a word we hear at this time of year more than any other.  Is it just a candle on an advent wreath?  Even though it’s the season of peace, life goes on uninterrupted.  Not only on a global level, but personally…individually…things come at us that keep us off kilter.  Yes, we focus our eyes on a manger and a baby in a place called Bethlehem that is far removed from us in both time and distance.  We practice the joy of the season.  We come to church, we sing carols, we share the story with our children.  If only the world could truly know that peace and joy that Zach was singing about. 

The thing is…it won’t.  Jesus even told us that there would never be global peace.  And the reason is that everyone in the world does not know the One who is Peace.  We have to understand what peace is and where peace is.  Jesus is the only one who is peace.  Peace is not the absence of trouble but the presence of Christ.  Only when we practice His presence in our own lives will we understand what peace really is.  When we understand that, we can be at peace in the middle of mass chaos.  When our family is in a mess…when the test results come back bad…when we face the illness or death of a loved one…when the money runs out and the month is only half over…when a so-called friend turns out to be an enemy of the first magnitude.  The truth is…this life is hard.  I say it again – peace is not the absence of trouble but the presence of Christ.  I’m so glad God let me live long enough to begin to understand this.  For far too long, I let life jerk me around.  It seemed that one trial would barely be settled down and another would come to the fore.  Sometimes, they overlapped or stacked up.  They still do.  And I’m not about to tell you I don’t still get gripped in the gut when another challenge raises its nasty head.  But I am learning…little by little…to practice that presence of Christ…to worship instead of worry…to praise rather than pout.  And I’ve learned that we do these things by an act of our will.  It’s a choice. 

When we read the Word, we come to know Jesus…who He is and what He did for us.  If we are practicing the peace of His presence, we can imagine that He is standing nearby, beckoning for us to come closer, to feel the beat of His heart and hear him say “It’s ok…I’ve got it.  Trust me.”

Billy Graham’s daughter, Ruth, offers insights into the peace of Christ in her book, Fear Not Tomorrow, God is Already There.  First of all, she says, His peace is present.   Jesus says in the Book of John:  “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”  His peace guards us.  Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians: “The Lord is at hand…and the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”  His peace is certain.  Psalm 46 tells us to “Cease striving and know that I am God.”  His peace is comforting.  Psalm 32 says, “Thou art my hiding place.” 

Until every soul in the world comes to know Jesus and His peace, we have to be content with practicing that peace in our own souls.  And to rest in God’s glory when we have those moments in life when we see him more clearly than others. And when we need him more desperately than ever.

Hear these words from Ann Voskamp:

Okay, so nothing’s going real easy here, Lord…and maybe we just need our own quiet visitation this Christmas, just to hear it like a whisper in the midst of all the noise: 

What was intended to tear you apart – God intends it to set you apart.  What has torn you –

God makes a thin place to see glory.  The places where you’re torn to pieces can be thin places where you touch the peace of God.

Thin places are those times when heaven and earth seem to come so close together that we get a sharper glimpse of the Divine.  She speaks of thin places where you touch the peace of God…whatever is going on in your life, I wish you that peace of God.  Focus on it this Christmas and understand what it is.  It’s not just a candle on an advent wreath.

Let us sing with the angels: Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace for those on whom his favor rests.




Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Advent Hope

For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.

                                                                                    John 3:16

The first week of advent is the week of Hope, and what gives us that hope is found in this verse of scripture.  This is not only good news but it’s the best news the world has ever received.  God loves us and he wants us to be with him.  It’s the message of Christmas all wrapped up in one verse.

For the next three weeks, the Christian world will hear a lot about Mary and Joseph and angels and a baby sent by God.  There will be talk of wise men and a star and a stable in a tiny town called Bethlehem.  Scholars will continue their debate about the actual birth date of the savior – December?  April?  And Advent candles will be lit in churches all over the world until Christmas Day when the Christ candle will shine.  It’s all a part of the Christmas scene.  I refuse to even address the Santa issue.  What I want to talk about today is News – Good News.  The Best News the world has ever received.

We all get news every day – news from family and friends – news of the world going on around us – news that can come as a surprise or be the culmination of an anticipated event.  Sometimes, we have to wait, wondering if the news will be good or…not so much.  Last week I sat in a children’s hospital with my daughter and son-in-law, waiting for news of my youngest grandson’s test results.  Was his strange and inappropriate behavior caused by something wrong in his brain?  Was there some disease lurking in his blood?  We breathed sighs of relief as results – news – came back:  CAT scan and MRI normal, blood work normal, EEG normal. 

But then, the doctor came to sit and talk to us about the major hearing test, the ABR.  I think that stands for auditory brain response.  It’s a hearing test that requires anesthesia.  This time the news was not good.  Total loss in one ear, 50% in the other.  We’re about to learn more than we ever wanted to know about hearing aids – hearing aids for a five year old.  After a few tears were shed, we caught our breath and assessed the situation.  OK…the bad news is, Nathaniel is hearing impaired.  The good news is – because of all the tests – we know he’s otherwise healthy!  Just as ornery and quirky and funny as ever.  And observant!  Yesterday he and I got into my car to go meet his mother for another round of doctor stuff at the children’s clinic downtown.  Driving in Jacksonville scares the daylights out of me so I was a bit nervous as I backed out of the driveway.  From the back seat on the other side of the car came his observation:  that arrow is pointing that way and that means we need gas!  I said What?  And checked the gas guage.  He was right!  That little ride could have ended badly.

As we sat and talked one evening, he was going over the list of the months of the year…October, November, December…and how many more sleeps is it until Christmas?  25.  So he counted to 25.  And then he asked, “Mimi, why do we have Christmas every year?”  I gave him a shallow, easy answer – because December 25 comes around once a year.  The conversation went on to other things but as I pondered later I thought – that’s not good enough.  We have Christmas so that at least once a year the world is reminded of the good news of God’s love for us.  Even people who don’t know Jesus know Christmas and the hope is that somewhere, somehow through a story or a carol they will come to know.

We wait so often for news…good news or bad news – and news that can change from moment to moment.  Earthly news can bring us great joy or plunge us to the depths of despair. 

But the best news of all is that the good news that came to earth that night so long ago never changes. It trumps all the other news we get.  It’s the solid rock that we stand on in an ever changing, crazy, scary, dirty, materialistic world.  This news never changes:


And we can count on it forever and all eternity.  We call it Advent…and we call it Hope.
My hope for you is that you know the assurance of this Hope in your life today.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

An Unusual Thanksgiving

Have you ever spent an American holiday in another country?

In 1992, Ed and I were in Edinburgh, Scotland, with Daughter Becky and Aunt Clyde.  We were enjoying a wonderful vacation at the end of Becky’s London semester as a student at Samford University.   The three of us met Becky in London, rented a car and took off to explore the English and Scottish countryside. 

Those ten days of traveling in that part of the world in late November gave us insights into many things we had only read about.  First of all, the weather was appropriately awful.  Cold, damp, misty rain…I soon realized the best purchase I made for the trip was my London Fog coat with the zip out lining.  I never zipped the lining out!  It was the kind of weather England is supposed to have. 

Another thing we always hear about is the short days at that time of year.  We just didn’t realize that meant pitch black dark at four o’clock in the afternoon.   Something happens to your body clock when it gets dark no matter what time it is.  You start to sag, mentally and physically.  It occurred to us that maybe this is why the people in that part of the world are so accustomed to tea time.  Their work day is still going and they need a “pick up” to get them through to dinner time, which is generally around eight o’clock. 

Ed and I weren’t thinking one day when we began to explore a castle ruin in mid-afternoon.  Clyde and Becky wisely opted to remain in the car and read.  Before long, we realized darkness was coming on fast and we were a long way from the car, alone amid the partial walls and ghostly shadows in a place we weren’t familiar with.  The atmosphere got downright spooky.  We couldn’t get back to the car fast enough.  It gave me a newfound respect for the characters in those Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen novels.  I can see that having to deal with the darkness with just candlelight and occasional moonlight would make you susceptible to all manner of creepy thoughts.  It seems the darkness takes over and holds you captive until morning.

Thanksgiving Day found us enjoying the sights in Edinburgh.  At the recommendation of our hotel, we made reservations at a very nice restaurant just down the hill from Edinburgh Castle and feasted at midday on pheasant and salmon – no turkey.  To the people around us, it was just another Thursday.  For us, it was a grand and glorious occasion and we were thankful to be able to share this experience together.  When our lunch was over, we pulled our coats on and strolled down the block to our hotel. 

The people of Edinburgh went about their day all around us, unaware that we had shared a holiday.  What a lesson that remains to be,  that a holiday is what you make it.  If there is gratitude in your heart, it's Thanksgiving.  And it can be anywhere - in Vero Beach, Florida, or Edinburgh, Scotland, or the moon!  God appreciates a grateful heart...a heart that acknowledges the blessings that have been bestowed by grace. 

Today, I'm just thankful to be able to be with my family... my children and their children.  And once again, I am not at my home.  I'm in Jacksonville, Florida, because of a family health issue.  But thanks be to God, we are all okay.  My husband is at home observing the holiday with his mother.  They will be thankful together at her retirement home.  It's a bit strange, but we have realized we are all where we're supposed to be.  And we know it's not about the food or the setting, it's about the love and gratitude.

How are you observing this day?  Are you about to take the turkey out of the oven?  Are you getting dressed for a meal at a restaurant?  Maybe you're in a foreign country where they don't even know you're observing a holiday.  It doesn't matter.  Be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.