Tuesday, January 20, 2015

What Are We Reading?

Are you like me?  I read all the time but it's rarely these days that I read a novel - a whole book - just because I want to read a book.  I've resolved to do more of that in this new year.  I have three books that I started last year and for one reason or another I put them down in mid-stream because there was an urgency to soak up some needed information from someplace else. 

I've also resolved to cut the ties with the tv...and sometimes with the social media.  My tv habit these days is to turn on a program I want to see - usually a sports event - and mute the sound.  I don't need the yak of a talking head describing the action of a football or basketball game, a golf match or - my heart's love - a NASCAR race.  I see it.  I get it.  And if I should be reading and miss something big, I have the assurance you're going to re-play it for me.  Again.  And again.  And yet again. 

So it was with a real sense of accomplishment last week that I made it the goal of my weekend to finish reading The Red Tent.  It had been recommended to me by someone I respect who suggested it would give me a clearer picture of what life was like for women in those primitive days of Isaac and Jacob and all of Jacob's children. 
This novel is the imagined story of Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob and his wife, Leah.  While Dinah never speaks a word in Scripture, she is the subject of a horrific event.  Diamant creates a story of Dinah's whole life from start to finish.  All the Bible characters are there and more are added.  She gives them all a fleshed-out personality and a sometimes surprising place in the story.   These are, after all, real people living real lives. 
As I read the Bible, I often imagine and wonder what could have been going on around the events.  The Bible is so sparse with detail that my mind wants to fill in the back story.  I read Red Tent all the while thinking, "This woman thinks like I do.  I write short stories.  She has written a whole book!".
I am fascinated by what could have been going on in the daily lives of the ordinary people - especially the people who crossed paths with Jesus and had no idea who or what He was.  I've started writing short stories that take a look at some of these peripheral characters and events.  In the coming weeks, I will share some of them here.  In the meantime, if you haven't read The Red Tent, take a look into the life of Dinah. 
What have you read lately?  I'd love to have some suggestions.  My current read... another take on the story of Jacob and Esau:  Thorn In My Heart by Liz Curtis Higgs.  Hard to beat that Liz when it comes to a page-turner! 

Monday, December 29, 2014

Empty Stockings

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care
Awaiting the children who soon would be there.

Empty stockings tell two tales.  I hang them with joy before the children arrive and think about all the little things they will hold.  Stockings always come first on Christmas morning.  Before going in to the tree to see what Santa left, the kids sit in the family room floor and dump out the stockings.  Whatever else is inside, there's always chocolate... lots of chocolate! It's just the beginning of the merriment and fun of the big presents under the tree. 

The stockings have done their job.  Now they're empty again.  Our time together goes on, the memories of another Christmas are made and stored up in our hearts to keep forever.  And then everybody goes home.

The house is quiet.  The stockings hang empty by the fireplace.  It's a bittersweet time.  Each one tells the tale of a different child.  As I take them down, I will see each precious face, hear each distinct voice, re-live all the special hugs.  They will go back into their box to be ready for another year. 

Symbols of a festive time and the gathering of ten dear people who are my family.  May God richly bless each one of them - and me too - as we enter a new year.

And I wish each of you a healthy and blessed 2015!

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.