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PRISONERS OF HOPE

January 18, 2020

Nine years ago, Clare and I went to Newberry, South Carolina, for the town’s autumn festival. The owner of a bookstore there asked me if I would come and talk about my writing and sign copies of my books.

While I was in this quaint shop, I looked through the section of old books, one of my favorite things to do. I love to browse through the used volumes in old bookstores. A title caught my eye, Prisoners of Hope. I recognized immediately that the author had lifted this phrase from the prophet Zechariah. It is one that I have paid attention to before in my devotional reading. I had not read this book, written in 1900 by a woman named Mary Johnston.

The story, set in Colonial Virginia, is about a family that came to Virginia by way of the Chesapeake Bay. The family did not come as wealthy planters. They came as indentured servants, therefore the title. Those people who came to this country as indentured servants had the hope that they would have a new beginning. People who were prisoners settled much of the colony of Georgia. Most of them had been transported from the debtor’s prisons of England.

One branch of Clare’s family came to Georgia. Her family is quick to say their immigrant ancestor was not in debtor’s prison but was a member of the Royal Guards. The Royal Guard were British soldiers on the ships bringing the prisoners to the New World.

I met with a friend I had not seen in several years. Born and bred in Spartanburg, he had been living in China, working there as an English teacher. Following a traffic mishap, he endured an ordeal beyond what most of us could ever imagine. He spent eight months imprisoned in a forced labor camp in China. At night he was confined in a concrete cell with 29 other men. The cell had no chairs and no beds. By day, he worked making Christmas lights destined for market in the United States. I doubt that I will ever again look at Christmas lights without thinking of him. As difficult as his imprisonment was, it became the source of an inward journey recorded in journals. Those notes will eventually become a published memoir.

When I was in seminary, I read Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl. The book chronicles his experiences as an inmate in both Auschwitz and Dachau, Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust. Frankl’s writing details the various ways inmates found meaning during imprisonment. Frankl’s words prompted me to pay attention to other important works written from a prison cell.

As a part of my functional major in pastoral care and pastoral counseling, I spent one unit of training working as a chaplain in a medium-security prison in LaGrange, Kentucky. Personal letters and journals written by the inmates were carefully censored, as was all correspondence coming into the prison.

The Apostle Paul wrote several of his letters during his two-year confinement in Rome, in approximately 61-63 A.D. Regarding his shackles as a minor concern, Paul used this time of incarceration to write letters that, for over two thousand years, have been a source of encouragement to his readers.

In 1658 John Bunyan, a Baptist minister in England, was indicted for preaching without a license. Though he was initially imprisoned for only a few months, officials extended his sentence to nearly twelve years because he refused to stop preaching. During that time, he penned Pilgrim’s Progress, still considered a classic of Christian devotion.

Miguel de Cervantes returned home as a wounded soldier after serving in the Spanish army during the 1600s. Unable to find work, he was sentenced to debtor’s prison. There he wrote Don Quixote, as well as other stories, poems, and plays. I suppose that being behind bars leads to fantasies about jousting with windmills.

Watchman Nee, born in China, became a Christian in 1920 at the age of seventeen. The Communist government arrested him in 1952 because of the verbal and printed professions of his beliefs. Though he remained behind bars until his death in 1972, he continued to write about his faith. Those books and letters remain a source of inspiration.

Mahatma Gandhi was imprisoned several times for leading revolution in India through passive resistance and nonviolence. The Essential Gandhi includes his teachings on civil disobedience, freedom, and even the joy of prison.

During World War II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was active in the German Resistance movement against the Nazi regime. He was among those who opposed Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. The Gestapo banned him from preaching, then teaching, and finally, any form of public speaking.

He participated in a plot to remove Adolf Hitler. In 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested. While imprisoned, the young pastor produced numerous letters later published as Letters and Papers from Prison. Bonhoeffer was hanged at the age of thirty-nine, three weeks before the end of World War II. His words continue to inspire believers to this day.

The late Nelson Mandela, an anti-apartheid activist and leader in the struggle for equality in South Africa, was also a Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Locked up for twenty-seven years at Robben Island, he kept a secret diary. Upon his release, he published his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. Much of that book was written during his imprisonment.

On Martin Luther King Day, I recall some of the most profound words that have been written from behind bars. King was one of the most influential civil rights leaders in modern times. After initiating a nonviolent protest against racial segregation on Good Friday in 1963, he was arrested and placed in solitary confinement in Birmingham, Alabama. Mayor Albert Boutwell was a segregationist, and Police Commissioner Eugene Bull Conner was notorious for his violent treatment of blacks. Governor of Alabama in 1963, George Wallace had won that office with campaign promises of segregation forever.

Eight white Alabama clergymen wrote a letter published in The Birmingham News on April 12, 1963, entitled “A Call for Unity.” The eight pastors agreed that social injustices were occurring but expressed the belief that the battle against racial segregation should be fought solely in the courts and not taken into the streets.

King responded with an open letter written on April 16, 1963. While specifically addressing those eight clergymen, King clearly wrote to a national audience. He declared his conviction that without direct action, civil rights could never be achieved. As he stated, “This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.'” He asserted not only that civil disobedience is justified in the face of unjust laws, but also that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

The letter proclaimed, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King also quoted the words of Justice Thurgood Marshall, “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

I will never forget a conversation I had with General Norman Gaddis. General Gaddis was Colonel Gaddis when he was an Air Force pilot. He was shot down over North Viet Nam. He was in solitary confinement in what the United States Prisoners of War refer to as the Hanoi Hilton for 1000 days, about three years. Then for another three years, he was in a cell with three other American officers, also prisoners of war.

In conversation with General Gaddis, I asked, “What got you through? What gave you the ability to endure those six years?”

He answered succinctly, “Scripture got me through.”

I said, “You mean they let you have a Bible?”

He answered, “Oh, no. They did not let me have a Bible. When I was growing up, I was in Sunday School. I was always encouraged to memorize Scripture. I was surprised to know how much of that I remembered. Even when I could not remember the exact words of a verse, I could recall stories that I had heard as a child. Can you imagine what the story of Daniel in the lion’s den meant to me?”

That is what it means to be a prisoner of hope. It means that in whatever circumstance you find yourself, you know that ultimately your life is at the mercy only of the Almighty. Your life is not at the mercy of those who would persecute. It is the reason the prophet Zechariah coined this improbable phrase, “prisoners of hope.”

With this provocative phrase in mind, let us remember those in our own time who are persecuted for their faith or their desire for freedom. They are truly prisoners of hope.

DANIEL MORGAN AND THE BATTLE OF COWPENS

January 12, 2020

On the first Tuesday of each month, I have the privilege of leading a book club at First Presbyterian Church in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Last week, we discussed the recent book by Dr. Melissa Walker, Professor of History at Converse College. The Battles of Kings Mountain and Cowpens: The American Revolution in the Southern Backcountry should be on the reading list of every armchair Revolutionary War history buff, especially those in South Carolina. Dr. Walker presents a lucid narrative of these pivotal battles. Her superb selection of primary sources includes both dramatic eyewitness accounts and compelling vignettes of backcountry life. She does a masterful job recounting the story of the events in the South that resulted in American independence.

On Christmas Day, 1780, General Daniel Morgan was camped on the Pacolet River in the Upcountry of colonial South Carolina.

Lord Cornwallis, commander of all British troops, thought that Morgan was going to attack the fort at Ninety Six, South Carolina. Cornwallis ordered Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton march west to thwart Morgan.

Tarleton was a brash twenty-six-year-old officer with an infamous reputation. At the Siege of Charleston and the Battle of Camden, he proved ruthless. Commanding the British Legion, Tarleton won decisive victories at Monck’s Corner and Fishing Creek. After his victory at the Battle of Waxhaws, he ordered the slaughter of American soldiers who had already surrendered. His nickname, Bloody Tarleton, was well deserved.

Tarleton and the Legion marched in pursuit of Morgan, first to Ninety Six and then to the Broad River. Morgan received word that Tarleton was hot on his trail and moved north, attempting to avoid being trapped between Tarleton and Cornwallis.

By the afternoon of January 16, 1781, Morgan was approaching the Broad River, which was high with floodwaters. By nightfall, he reached Hannah’s Cowpens, a grazing area for cattle along the river road. When General Andrew Pickens joined Morgan’s camp, Morgan decided to stand and fight.

Tarleton received word of Morgan’s location and marched toward Cowpens at 3:00 on the morning of January 17. On that day, in what is now Spartanburg County, a decisive victory was won. Daniel Morgan became a hero.

A statue of General Morgan stands at the center of Spartanburg. Who was he?

Daniel Morgan was born in 1736, the fifth of seven children of a New Jersey blacksmith. As a teenager with a quick temper, he got into a fight with his father. He left home never to return. He worked his way through Pennsylvania and settled on the Virginia frontier.

Daniel Morgan was a large, rough man. Poorly educated, he was known as a man who worked hard and drank hard. He was charged several times with horse stealing. Gambling and womanizing were among his vices. He worked at a sawmill and as a teamster until he saved enough money to buy his own horses. He fought in the French and Indian War, serving as a wagon master. He came to the attention of a young colonel, George Washington, who, among others, referred to Daniel Morgan as the Old Waggoner.

In 1758, while carrying dispatches through the wilderness, he was ambushed and seriously wounded. A bullet hit him in the neck, going through his cheek, knocking out the teeth of his left jaw. He stayed in the saddle and managed to escape. The wound permanently disfigured his face.

After the French and Indian War, he bought a house in Winchester, Virginia, and set up housekeeping with a 16-year-old girl. By the time they married eleven years later, they already had two daughters.

Morgan returned to military service to put down the Indian uprising known as Pontiac’s Rebellion. He led a five-month campaign against the Shawnee Indians. When the American Revolutionary War began, Daniel Morgan led a rifle company from Virginia, marching them in only 21 days to join George Washington at Boston.

In the invasion of Canada, Morgan was defeated and taken captive by the British at the Battle of Quebec. Refusing to surrender his sword to British troops, he handed it, instead, to a French priest. While a prisoner, he defied an order from a Red Coat officer, slugging him in the nose with his fist. As punishment, Morgan received 500 lashes with a whip across his back. He survived the brutality, but carried, with the scars, a score to settle. He remained a prisoner of war for two years until he was freed in an exchange.

Colonel Morgan rejoined George Washington and was assigned to raise and command a regiment. In 1780, after the bloody Battle of Camden, Daniel Morgan was sent south to join General Gates at Hillsborough, North Carolina. He was promoted to Brigadier General and assigned to General Nathaniel Greene at Charlotte. Greene dispatched Morgan’s regiment into the backcountry of South Carolina. The British sent Colonel Banastre Tarleton to track down and engage Morgan.

Morgan’s victory at Cowpens on the morning of January 17, 1781, is his finest hour. His defeat of Tarleton is considered the turning point of the Revolutionary War in the South and the greatest tactical victory of the war. It was the first battle in which the Continental Army and Patriot militia defeated regular British Red Coats.

After the Revolutionary War, Daniel Morgan settled down, became somewhat domesticated, and was baptized in the Presbyterian Church. He spent time with his family, especially his 19 grandchildren.

Fourteen years ago, on January 17, 2006, a group of citizens gathered in a brisk wind at Morgan Square in downtown Spartanburg to mark the 225th anniversary of the Battle of Cowpens. The statue of Daniel Morgan had been refurbished and relocated; one of many times the monument had been moved. Dr. George Fields quipped that the statue of General Morgan has traveled around the square so frequently that “It should have been designed with wheels.”

Dressed as a patriot soldier, Dr. Fields gave a stirring account of The Battle of Cowpens. Wofford College President Bernie Dunlap presented an address on the life of Daniel Morgan. He entitled his remarks, “The Heroic Reprobate.” Those assembled joined in a prayer of rededication and the laying of a wreath.

We are all indebted to the reprobate hero.

OUT WITH THE OLD! IN WITH THE NEW!

January 5, 2020

On New Year’s Day, many families in the Upstate gather for a meal as traditional as watching parades or football bowl games. Pork chops or short ribs, black-eyed peas or Hopping John, collards or turnip greens, and cornbread are the usual fare. My dad used to survey the dinner plates of all those gathered and dole out a crisp two-dollar bill to anyone who ate their greens and peas. Southern lore holds that anyone eating such a meal will enjoy prosperity in the year ahead. Dad gave us all a jump-start on the anticipated good fortune.

The Romans depicted Janus, the god of doors and gates, as a deity with two faces; one looking backward, the other looking forward. The two-faced god, holding keys, presided over new beginnings. The month of January in the Julian calendar was named for Janus. The first day of the first month was his sacred day. Janus characterizes all of us at this time of year. We look back at the year that is ending. We look forward to the year ahead.

What have been the blessings of the past year? My personal list is lengthy and includes family and friends. There have been times of difficulty, to be sure, but even those have presented opportunities and reasons to be grateful.

We describe a new beginning as turning over a new leaf or starting with a clean slate. A new calendar presents us with 365 new leaves and 365 clean slates. We can plan ahead for events that have top priority. Marking special birthdays and anniversaries on a new calendar serves as a reminder to save those days. Blocking out time for vacations and other family occasions in advance guards against the inevitable avalanche of routine daily activities that can crowd out the most important events.

The beginning of the New Year brings with it a flurry of resolutions, ranging from the impossible to the foolish. Many pledges and promises will be short-lived. By the time you read these words your best intentions may have already been discarded just a few days into the year. Many of our pledges of resolve will meet with mixed results.

A man in Georgia resolved to win the lottery. He spent so much money on tickets that his exasperated wife left him.

A woman living in a New York apartment resolved to adopt a new pet every month. Her landlord soon evicted her.

Most of us have had the unhappy experience of making resolutions we could not keep. Failure to honor our goals has often left us feeling guilty.

Here are some tongue-in-cheek suggestions that should be relatively easy for us to keep.

  1. Gain weight, at least 20 pounds.
  2. Stop exercising.
  3. Read less. It makes you think too much.
  4. Watch more TV.
  5. Procrastinate more. Start next week.

The New Year is both a time for looking back and for anticipating the year ahead. It’s a time to reflect on and make changes that might improve our lives. According to Time.com the top ten New Year’s resolutions contemporary Americans make are also the ones we have the most difficulty keeping. This list may help you consider your goals for the coming year.

  1. Lose weight and get fit.
  2. Quit smoking.
  3. Learn something new.
  4. Eat a healthier diet.
  5. Manage money.
  6. Spend more time with family and friends.
  7. Reduce stress.
  8. Make better use of time.
  9. Simplify by getting organized.
  10. Quit drinking.

Three psychiatrists at the University of Maryland Medical Center, who are also professors of psychiatry, advise that the key to achieving even the loftiest goals is to get started immediately. Allow action to precede motivation. Don’t wait until the mood seems right. Begin now!

  1. Be positive. Avoid perfectionist thinking.
  2. View setbacks as lessons for growth. Mistakes can be, and usually are, opportunities for learning. If you fall short of your goals, ask yourself what hindered you from achieving them.
  3. Make resolutions that are flexible and realistic. Avoid words like never and always in your resolutions. Think in terms of gradual, steady improvement.
  4. Share your goals with trusted friends. They can gently nudge you in the right direction when you veer off course. Accountability contributes to success.
  5. Give your resolutions personal meaning. Your goal should be something you really desire to change or achieve, not just something that others say will be good for you. You can be successful with strong, internal motivation.
  6. Set realistic goals that are attainable. Take small steps that are likely to be met with success. Rather than trying to lose ten pounds in a week, join a weight-loss program instead. Try to lose one pound a week.
  7. Acknowledge the spiritual aspect of your goals. A good resolution will honor your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual dimensions.

In my personal experience with New Year’s resolutions, I am more likely to be successful if the goal is not simply self-improvement. A higher goal is to make life better for others, as well as for ourselves. A few examples may prompt a similar sense of resolve for you. This is a list I have honed over the years.

  1. Express more appreciation for others. Make opportunities to offer a simple thank you. A word of encouragement affirms others and reduces stress for them and for us.
  2. Perform random acts of kindness. These gifts of grace ease the way for others.
  3. Plant a tree or a few flowers to brighten a corner of the world.
  4. Recycle. Doing so helps the environment and raises our awareness.
  5. Give a handshake, a hug, or a pat on the back. Kneel when you speak with a child. Call a person by name and look them in the eye. Personal contact enhances life.
  6. Vote. Your voice makes a difference for us all.
  7. Obey the law, especially when driving. Everybody benefits.
  8. Pray beyond your own circle of concern. Impart hope to others.

The best resolutions are not so much the ones that make us better individuals, but those that make the world a better place for us all.

Several years ago, I was headed out the door to church for a New Year’s Eve Watch Night communion service. We had entertained a houseful of teenagers earlier in the evening and had two large plastic trash bags filled with empty pizza boxes and discarded paper products. Clare asked if I would take the accumulated debris out of the house. I stuffed the black bags into the trunk of my car. I dashed to the church in time for the service delaying the dumping the refuse. After the service, after midnight, early on New Year’s morning, I drove home, completely forgetting about the unsavory cargo in the trunk of my vehicle. New Year’s Day and the day after came and went. On January third, I opened my car door for the first time since very early New Year’s morning. The three-day-old garbage made my car smell like a sanitation truck. I had carried last year’s garbage into the New Year! It is a mistake many of us make in our own personal lives.

A new beginning calls for focusing on blessings rather than difficulties of of the year past. We have the opportunity to make important decisions about how we will spend the gift of time in the year ahead. It is a good idea to dispose of last year’s emotional and spiritual garbage, leaving behind past hurts and grudges, as we begin this new year.

Out with the old! In with the new!

TEMPUS FUGIT. CARPE DIEM.

December 29, 2019

At 3:30 A.M. on a cold Wednesday morning four years ago, our daughter and her family were packed and ready to depart for their home in Chicago. Clare was rocking our three-year-old granddaughter, saying goodbye. The little girl was sad to leave after a delightful Christmas visit here in the Upstate. She said to Clare, “When we are together, we need to savor every moment.”

We were all surprised at this profound truth spoken by our grandchild. “Out of the mouths of babes….” came to mind. Those parting words from a holiday four years ago prompted this column.

When I worked at the lumberyard, the family business started by my grandfather, the days leading up to New Year’s Day were always the time to take inventory. Every 2×4, every bag of mortar mix, every piece of plywood had to be counted. My uncles, my dad, and my grandfather would spend the week counting. I remember taking a pad and pencil to one of the smaller warehouses to tally the number of doors and windows. Taking inventory was a tedious task, but it was necessary to the operation of any business.

Since those days at the lumberyard, I have realized the importance of taking an annual personal inventory. I have tried to set aside some time in the last week of the year to take inventory of my life. I usually get a new calendar for Christmas. I try to block out distractions and sit down with last year’s calendar and the calendar for the year ahead. This has become for me an important time of self-examination, prayer, and decision-making.

Some years ago, during my private year-end inventory, I complained to God that I did not have enough time to do all of the things I wanted to accomplish.

In a moment of quiet reflection, I received a message from God. Mind you, there was no flash of light, no audible voice. There was only a quiet truth seeping into my heart and mind.

“Kirk, you have exactly the amount of time that I intend for you to have, no more, no less. I have given you 24 hours every day, seven days every week. Day by day, week by week, this is what I bestow on all my children. You have the same amount of time as Mother Theresa had. You have the same amount of time I give to Bill Gates. Albert Einstein and Albert Schweitzer received the very same allotment I give to you. Look at your calendar. This is the time I give to you for the year ahead. How will you use it?”

I realized that, not only do I have enough time, I have exactly the right amount of time, the time God had ordained for me. Read more…

A SEASON OF LIGHT

December 21, 2019

A motorist was trapped in his automobile on a lonely stretch of a North Dakota highway during a December blizzard. As the snowfall subsided, the traveler ventured out of his car. In the bitterly cold night, he trudged through the drifts toward a faint light in the distance. The light grew brighter as he approached a farmhouse. The home was that of a Jewish family who offered the warmth of hospitality to the stranded man, a chair by the fireplace and a bowl of hot chicken soup. The light that saved the stranger’s life came from the glowing candles of a menorah displayed in the window of the farmhouse.

A menorah is a candelabra with nine candles used in the celebration of Hanukkah.

Often, Christmas falls within the eight-day observance of Hanukkah. This year the Jewish observance begins on the fourth Sunday of Christian Advent, Sunday, December 22, and extends through Monday, December 30, 2019.

Christians mark the days of Advent by lighting candles in an Advent wreath. They gather for worship in churches on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Also known as the Feast of Dedication or the Festival of Lights, the days of Hanukkah are marked by Jewish families as they light candles in a menorah each evening.

The origin of Hanukkah dates to 164 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) when Syria dominated Israel. Antiochus Epiphanes, the king of Syria, was a harsh, cruel tyrant. Jewish worship, including the observance of Passover and the Sabbath, was forbidden under then reign of Antiochus. Idols representing Greek gods were set up in the temple, and the scrolls of the Torah were burned. Antiochus slaughtered a pig on the sacred altar, committing what the Book of Daniel refers to as the abomination of desecration. The Syrians murdered thousands of Jewish dissidents who were steadfastly loyal to their faith.

Three years later, under the leadership of Yehuda the Hammer, better known as Judas Maccabees, the Jews defeated an army of 40,000 Syrians. Judas and his band of four brothers, known by their family name as the Maccabees, liberated Jerusalem. They entered the temple and cleansed it of idols. They also built and dedicated a new altar to replace the one desecrated by Antiochus.

A part of the dedication was the relighting of the eternal flame representing the presence of God in the temple. However, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to keep the light burning for one day. By Jewish law, consecrating new oil would require eight days. Miraculously, the small cruse of oil continued to burn for eight days.

Hanukkah, which means dedication, commemorates this divine blessing. It is an eight-day festival of thanksgiving and rededication for the Jewish community. Jewish families light candles in the menorah each evening. The center taper, known as the servant candle, is used to light the other eight, each in turn as the days pass. By the eighth night, all candles are burning.

For Christians, the celebration of Christmas includes symbols of light: the star of Bethlehem and the candles in an Advent wreath. For Jews, the symbols of divine light are the Star of David and the candles of the menorah. In this season of light, we recognize and respect both traditions.

In 1973, Clare and I moved our family from Louisville, Kentucky, to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It was in that good place that we learned about the Moravians. Church historians regard the Moravians as the first Protestants. The denomination originated in Czechoslovakia around 1415. Started by a Catholic priest named John Hus, the fledgling group was a persecuted church until they found refuge on the estate of Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf. They moved across the border from Moravia to Zinzendorf’s property, thus giving them the name Moravians.

The Moravians made their way from Czechoslovakia to Germany to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. A contingent settled in Salem, North Carolina, on 10,000 acres known as Wachovia. Today many of the area attractions preserve the history of these settlers and educate visitors about their origins and influence. Our family adopted several of the Moravian traditions while we lived in Pfafftown, north of Winston-Salem.

A Moravian star is the very first Christmas decoration to appear at our home. I usually hang it on our front porch the Friday after Thanksgiving where it remains in place until Epiphany. From the beginning of Advent until the Day of Epiphany, our Moravian star represents the light that pointed the way to Bethlehem.

The Christmas Eve candlelight service, sometimes called a Moravian love feast, features the sharing of Moravian coffee and a sweet roll. Each worshipper receives a candle from a server. The beeswax candles, trimmed in fireproof red paper, remind worshippers of the gift of light in a season of darkness.

An Advent wreath is another way to mark the approach of Christmas. Four candles are arranged on a table in a circular wreath. Each Sunday during Advent a new candle is lighted. A white Christ candle is in the center. It is lighted on Christmas Day.

We enjoy several Advent wreaths in our home. One was made for us by Dr. Bob Cooper, a dear friend and fellow pastor, in his workshop. Constructed from simple wooden blocks, the sturdy wreath is at the center of our breakfast table. Another wreath, handmade by Sid Luck, a potter in Seagrove, North Carolina, graces our dining room table.

From the time our children were preschoolers, we have displayed a wreath on a table in our foyer that we purchased in Old Salem. We found the decoration when we lived in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It was a simple circle with four red candles around the perimeter. A tall dowel wrapped in red ribbon lifted a tiny paper Moravian star above a manger scene created entirely out of cornhusk doll Nativity figures.

Each Sunday in Advent we gathered our five children around the wreath to light the appropriate candle. One year, on the third Sunday of Advent, we lit the peace candle. After reading a Scripture passage from Isaiah about the promise of peace, we sang a Christmas carol.

As I was offering the closing prayer, there shone a great light! Our Advent wreath with cornhusk figures burst into flames!

Holy smoke!

I grabbed the burning wreath and started to dash toward the front door. Clare shouted, “Throw it in the bathtub!”

I stopped in my tracks, turned on my heels, and detoured to the guest bathroom just across the hall. I jerked back the shower curtain, dropped the wreath into the tub, turned on the faucet, and doused the flames with water.

The smoke alarm was blasting. Younger children were crying. Older ones were laughing. All of us were greatly relieved.

Some of the cornhusk figures were burned to a crisp. A few were charred but still recognizable.

To this day, we display a wreath with the manger scene of cornhusk figures. Some of them are replacements. Others are scorched survivors of the fire. I have reworked the wreath. The paper Moravian star has been replaced. We still have candles on the wreath, but, for obvious reasons, we never light them. The figures singed in the fire are a reminder of God’s protection.

Whatever your holiday traditions may be, the wisdom of a Chinese proverb offers sound advice for this season of light. “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

True, but please, use caution with those candles!

CHRISTMAS STORIES

December 15, 2019

Our family enjoys good stories. The holiday season is a time for tales. Whether read in a book, sung as a song, viewed as a television special or seen as a movie, Christmas narratives abound. From “Frosty the Snowman” to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a first-rate story lifts the spirits. Miracle on Thirty-fourth Street and A Christmas Carol are worth reading or viewing again and again. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a part of every Christmas for us. Henry Van Dyke’s short novel The Other Wise Man, first published in 1895, is among my personal favorites.

In 1823, Clement C. Moore wrote his famous poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” The description of flying reindeer pulling St. Nick’s sleigh captures the imagination of children of all ages.

Drawing names from Clement Moore’s poem, Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, crooned in 1946, “You know Dasher and Dancer, Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid, Donder and Blitzen.” Autry then asked the question, “But do you recall the most famous reindeer of all?” Rudolph is, of course, the answer. This reindeer with the red nose is the most famous.

The story of Rudolph is both remarkable and disputed. One version is attributed to the book Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins. According to the Collins’ version, the story of Rudolph was written by a grieving and depressed father, trying to bring comfort to his little daughter while her mother lay dying of cancer. It has been especially meaningful for people experiencing a difficult time during the holidays.

Paul Harvey, however, shared a different account in one of his “The Rest of the Story” radio segments. According to Harvey, Bob May worked as a copywriter for the Montgomery Ward Company. When May’s boss asked him to write a children’s story for a Christmas promotion, he took elements from his own life and from “The Ugly Duckling” by Hans Christian Andersen.

May pitched his story, impressing Montgomery Ward executives. The company published 2,400,000 copies of the book Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer during the 1939 and 1940 Christmas season promotions. By 1946, Montgomery Ward had printed and distributed more than six million copies of Rudolph. With the company enjoying financial success that year, the executives awarded Bob May the copyright to his popular Christmas story. The book became a bestseller.

That same year Bob’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, wrote a song adaptation of this tale of the popular red-nosed reindeer. Both Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore turned down the opportunity to record the song. Gene Autry’s version, released in 1949, became a phenomenal success. Generations later, the song remains a favorite among adults and children.

The season of Advent presents many challenges to a pastor. One is to tell the old, old story of Jesus’ birth to people who have heard it over and over again, as well as to those for whom it is only vaguely familiar. The preaching task is to retain and restore the mystery and wonder of the original story. We have the responsibility of liberating Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, and the magi from their confinement as stained-glass icons; we must free them to be real people again.

The second challenge is to remember that Christmas is a time of sharp emotional contrasts. Many people have little difficulty finding joy in the season, but December brings sadness to others. For those who are hurting, the coming of Christmas may be filled with dread, despair, bitterness, and anger. Some are freshly wounded; others carry deep scars from years gone by. For them, Christmas is anything but “the season to be jolly.” They suffer while others celebrate.

In fifty-three years of pastoral ministry, I have learned that the best way to present the message of hope and love that is at the heart of Christmas is through stories that parallel and perhaps merge with the original story.

My first year as pastor at Morningside Baptist Church, I told a Christmas story as the sermon on the last Sunday of Advent. I recounted my role as Joseph in a children’s Christmas play long ago at Croft Baptist Church. The story of that pageant is included in my book Santa Almost Got Caught.

Several friends encouraged me to present a new story every Christmas. In subsequent years, on the Sunday before December 25, we replaced the pulpit with an easy chair. There I could sit and share an original Christmas story. The Morningside congregation was delighted with the change in format. That worship service also attracted many visitors.

Nine of those stories have been collected in the book Comfort and Joy, published in 2005 by Hub City Writers Project. The premise of these original stories is that the holidays do not necessarily bring cheer for everyone, but the season does offer comfort and joy.

By the time of my retirement from Morningside, I had written another eight Christmas stories. Since then I have written three more.

This year I have the privilege of narrating “The Snowman,” a musical rendition of the story by Raymond Briggs, to be presented by the Spartanburg Philharmonic Orchestra on Sunday, December 15, 2019, at the Chapman Cultural Center.

I recently found a list of the thirty most popular Christmas stories of all time. Some are books; others are poems. Here is the list.

  1. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  2. Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien
  3. The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski
  4. The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
  5. A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote
  6. The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffmann
  7. Silent Night: The Story of the WWI Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub
  8. The Battered Bastards of Bastogne: The 101st Airborne and the Battle of the Bulge by George Koskimaki
  9. The Elves and the Shoemaker by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm
  10. The Steadfast Tin Soldier by Hans Christian Andersen
  11. Twas The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore
  12. A Letter from Santa Claus by Mark Twain
  13. The Fir Tree by Hans Christian Andersen
  14. What Christmas is as We Grow Older by Charles Dickens
  15. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by Frank Baum
  16. “Christmas Trees” by Robert Frost
  17. Christmas Day in the Morning by Pearl S. Buck
  18. The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen
  19. Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer by Robert L. May
  20. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr. Seuss
  21. The Cricket on the Hearth by Charles Dickens
  22. The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  23. The Snowman by Raymond Briggs
  24. The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
  25. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson
  26. The Chimes by Charles Dickens
  27. “Amazing Peace” by Maya Angelou
  28. The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern
  29. Miracle on 34th Street by Valentine Davies
  30. A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas

This is just a beginning list. There are many other good Christmas books. Clare and I have others that we enjoy. Please feel free to add your own.

Could I encourage you to share a good story with someone you love this Christmas? Nothing comes to mind?

Do you recall the recitation by Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” an animated television special based on the comic strip “Peanuts,” by Charles M. Schulz? Linus shares the best Christmas story ever told. You can read it in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2. There you will find the adventure that is the source of all good Christmas stories.

PRESENTS OR PRESENCE?

December 13, 2019

Here in mid-December, procrastinators will crowd retail stores, bargain hunters will search for reduced prices, and cyber shoppers will max out their credit cards in one final frenzy. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day gifts will be given and received. On December 26 many will exchange their gifts for a more suitable size, style, or color.

Perhaps this is a time to rethink our gift-giving.

The story of the Magi is a story of unusual people giving exotic gifts under strange circumstances. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh, as odd as they may seem, were quite appropriate; gold for royalty; frankincense for a priest, myrrh, an embalming spice, for one who is to die. In giving gifts it is not only the thought that counts, but also the meaning behind the gift.

Well-chosen gifts need not be as extravagant as those of the wise men. One Christmas our children and I enjoyed making and giving bluebird boxes. Another year, I cut out breadboards. Clare added a loaf of homemade bread. One year, when our budget was especially tight, we made hand-cut paper snowflakes for family and friends. These simple gifts can be more meaningful than purchased items.

On Christmas Eve, Jeff and his extended family gathered in the living room of his grandmother’s home. The family had grown so large that they had decided to draw names instead of giving gifts to everyone.

Aunt Ethel decided she didn’t want to draw names. A wealthy spinster, she could afford to give everybody a gift! She took delight in selecting and wrapping gifts. Her decorated presents were works of art.

When Jeff received the elongated, flat box decorated with a Styrofoam snowman, he thought that he knew what Aunt Ethel had given him. In early December, she had phoned to ask Jeff what he preferred. He carefully opened the box, keeping the cleverly crafted snowman intact. He was horrified! Aunt Ethel’s present was perhaps the ugliest necktie he had ever seen. It looked something like a bag of Purina Dog Chow. The pattern of large red and white checks.

Jeff’s face revealed his shock and disappointment. He lifted the tie from the tissue paper and looked into the empty box to be sure he hadn’t missed something.

Aunt Ethel asked brusquely, “Don’t tell me you don’t like it.”

Then she added, “It’s exactly what you said you wanted.”

Jeff responded, “Aunt Ethel, when you asked me if I preferred a large check or a small check, I didn’t know you were talking about a necktie.”

Most of us have had the experience of receiving a purchased gift that we did not need or want. Homemade gifts are always a delight to receive.

In our home, we enjoy treasures that have been given to us in Christmases past. Cross-stitched pieces, knitted afghans, wooden serving trays, crocheted dish cloths, homemade aprons, paintings, and hand-thrown pottery are pleasant reminders of friends and family who have taken the time to make a gift.

One smart dad that I know gave each member of his family a paper Christmas ornament. The ornaments were hung inconspicuously on the tree. On Christmas morning, as presents were opened, the family wondered why there were no gifts from Dad. After all of the other gifts had been unwrapped, the dad presented the paper ornaments to his family.

Tucked inside each ornament was a personal note. To his son, he gave a three-day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail, just for the two of them. To his daughter, he gave a three-day skiing trip, just for the two of them. To his wife, he gave a Caribbean cruise, just for the two of them. The smart dad was a contemporary wise man. He not only gave presents to the people he loved, but he also gave the gift of presence, time to be with them.

For many people the gift of presence is the heart of faith. The meaning of the divine covenant is God being with his people. The gift of Immanuel is God with us.

The gift of presence is better than presents.