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THE GARDEN IN WINTER

January 16, 2018

One mild winter day, I took a bag lunch to the gazebo at Hatcher Garden. The ten-acre woodland preserve within the city limits of our town was quiet. Two men were busily working near the entry to the garden. They quickly finished their task and disappeared.

As far as I could tell, I had the place to myself, except for a large red-tailed hawk perched on a tree limb above a pond. I thought he, too, must have had food on his mind.

There was evidence that work was being done. I guess the staff and workers had gone to get something to eat.

After lunch, I strolled through the beautiful landscape, a gift to our community from Harold and Josephine Hatcher. Now this public area is open year-round. It features a series of ponds and an impressive waterfall. The main attractions are the plants – trees, shrubs, and perennial flowers. Birds and insects add interest to this public treasure.

The peaceful solitude and quiet beauty of Hatcher Garden in winter is quite a contrast to the happy sounds and active people that fill the space in the warmer months. Along one of the paths I found a bench in the sun. I paused there listening to the birds and the breeze in the trees. In that moment the garden became a sanctuary for me, a place of contemplation and prayer. Read more…

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PRISONERS OF HOPE

January 14, 2018

Several 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 books and sign a few copies.

While I was in this quaint establishment, I browsed through the selection of used books, one of my favorite things to do. A title caught my eye, Prisoners of Hope. I had not read this book, written in 1900 by a woman named Mary Johnston. I recognized immediately that the author had borrowed this phrase from the prophet Zechariah.  It is a concept that I have paid attention to before in my own devotional reading.

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 be able to make a new beginning.

People who were prisoners settled much of colony of Georgia.  Most of them had been transported from debtor’s prison in England. One branch of Clare’s family came to Georgia with James Oglethorpe. Her family is quick to say their ancestors were not in debtor’s prison, but they were guards on the ships that brought 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 every again look as 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 find 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 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 39 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.

January 15 is designated as Martin Luther King Day. King was one of the most influential civil rights leaders in modern times. After initiating a nonviolent protest against racial segregation on Good Friday 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.

From behind the bars of the Birmingham jail, Dr. King penned a profoundly worded response in 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 who 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.  That is 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 really 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?”

All of these people might rightly be called prisoners of hope.  To be a prisoner of hope 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 wonderful 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.

TEMPUS FUGIT. CARPE DIEM.

January 1, 2018

 

At 3:30 A.M. on a cold Wednesday morning two 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 have time 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 two 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 count doors and windows. Taking inventory was a tedious task, but it was necessary to the operation of a small 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 ignore the telephone 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 of 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 and Billy Graham. 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.

A teenager proudly showed me his new Christmas present.

“A new wristwatch,” I said.

“No, it’s not a wristwatch. It is a chronometer,” the young man explained.  “It is very precise, very accurate.”

The new gift on his left wrist looked just like a watch to me. The name chronometer reflects the meaning of the Greek word chronos. It means time that can be measured, time that is sequential.

A year-end personal inventory presents us with a new calendar, a clean slate. Some things have already been planned for the New Year, but before filling up the spaces, make a list of the things you simply do not want to neglect.

Certain occasions, such as holidays and anniversaries, come around only once a year. When I have gotten a new calendar from Clare for Christmas, the important days have sometimes been marked for me. For most of our married life we have had regular calendar sessions together. It is a safeguard against a husband’s absent-minded ways.

The birth of a child, beginning first grade, a graduation, a wedding, all are occasions that happen just once in a person’s life. Sometimes these things can be planned ahead of time and written on the calendar. Often they are unpredictable and require a spontaneous response.

These non-repetitive events have been some of the high points in our marriage. I think especially of the birth of each of our children. Being together in those miraculous moments are treasured memories for us.

The Latin expression tempus fugit, time flies, is frequently inscribed on clocks and sundials. The Roman poet Virgil wrote, fugit irreparabile tempus, which means, irretrievable time flees.  It expresses concern that our limited time is being consumed by something that has little or no importance. Time is irretrievable; once gone, it’s gone.

One spring afternoon, I listened to a young mother describe her day. “I wanted to spend some time working in my garden. First, I had a number of errands to run. I left home early, dropped my third grader off at elementary school, took my four-year-old to preschool, picked up a breakfast biscuit at a fast food restaurant, dropped several letters in the gooseneck at the Post Office, went by the bank to make a deposit, dropped books in the return drop at our public library, picked up a prescription at the pharmacy drive-through, and I left dirty clothes and picked up clean laundry at our local dry cleaners. All the while, I was talking on the cell phone. By then it was time to pick up my four-year-old. We returned to the same fast food restaurant to pick up lunch. When I got home, I realized that I hadn’t even been to the bathroom. In fact, I never got out of the car!”

Most of us have had similar days.

Taken together, the two Latin phrases, tempus fugit, time flies, and carpe diem, seize the day, help us understand how we can best be good managers of our time.

Time is constantly moving. It stands still for no one. We need to make the most of every opportunity.

So, two years ago, on the very last day of our Christmas holiday celebration, very early in the morning, our three-year-old granddaughter was sitting on Clare’s lap. They talked about how much we had all enjoyed our visit together. With some sadness grandmother and grandchild spoke about the impending separation that would soon follow when this child’s family returned to Chicago.

The childlike wisdom imparted by that little girl took all of us by surprise. The words still ring true. “When we have time together we need to savor every moment.”

It was a remarkable statement for a child, one that she had no doubt heard from some adult in her world. It is a lesson that she has learned from her mother and her grandmother.

Our granddaughter became a little professor for all of us, speaking a truth that we all need to remember.

A good resolution for the New Year is to savor every moment, especially those we share with the people we love.

With our grandchild’s admonition in mind, I look forward to breaking in a brand new calendar for a brand new year.

Clare joins me in wishing for each of you a blessed new year.

EXTENDING THE SEASON BEYOND CHRISTMAS

December 26, 2017

Is there anything quite as over as Christmas when it is over? Colorful wrapping paper and bright ribbons are reduced to trash as quickly as gifts are torn open. Fresh green trees that have graced our homes for weeks begin to drop needles until they are discarded along city streets where the wait like fallen soldiers to be collected by the body wagon.  Even artificial trees are stored in plastic containers the size of coffins. Decorations are packed away in the basement, the attic, or the garage until next year.

Christmas is over!

Read more…

CHRISTMAS AT CROFT

December 16, 2017

When I was two years old, my parents were asked to leave the First Baptist Church of Spartanburg. This had nothing to do with my being in the terrible two-year-old stage of childhood development. My parents were sent to start a mission outside the Spartanburg city limits. First Baptist Church had purchased one of several vacant chapels remaining at Camp Croft, an abandoned military facility where the United States Army had trained soldiers during World War II.

My dad, who ran a lumberyard as his regular work, had always been a devoted churchman. At Camp Croft, he did almost everything from repairing the building, to leading the singing, serving as deacon chairman, sometimes preaching, and praying without ceasing.

Christmas at Croft was always a happy time. One of the high points was the Sunday night in December when every young person in our church took part in the Christmas pageant. I was usually a shepherd. Any boy who did not have one of the major parts – Joseph or

a wise man – was automatically relegated to the role of shepherd. Any girl who did not have a

major part – Mary or the Archangel – played the role of an angel in the heavenly host.

Being a shepherd was not hard. A shepherd did not need much equipment. Shepherds went barefooted. They wore their fathers’ bathrobes and draped towels on their heads, which they secured with old neckties. Since my dad did not own a bathrobe, I had to wear my mother’s

bathrobe. It was a red quilted robe.

The only problem with being a shepherd was coming up with a suitable staff. At Croft we

tried several kinds over the years. One Christmas, we made the staffs out of heavy cardboard.

They worked fine until it rained on them. Once they became soggy, they just flopped around.

Another year, the shepherd’s crooks were made from broom handles and bent coat hangers.

These worked fine as crooks and as lethal weapons. Finally, my dad made some top-of-the-line

shepherds’ crooks out of quarter-inch plywood at the lumberyard. When the shepherds gathered in the foyer of the church, we always managed to have a sword fight or two. Those plywood crooks sure made a lot of racket as they clacked together.

When I was ten years old, Gregory, the boy who always played the part of Joseph, came down with the flu. On Wednesday night before the Christmas pageant, the pastor’s wife, who served as the director, told my mother that I would have the role of Joseph.

This change in cast called for several major revisions. First of all, my mother’s red quilted bathrobe, which I had always worn in previous pageants, just would not do. The pastor’s wife made me wear the pastor’s bathrobe, which was the most garish-looking robe imaginable. I felt like I was wearing Joseph’s coat of many colors. She rolled up the sleeves, bloused the

robe above the belt so the back wouldn’t drag across the floor, and cinched the belt tight. I

was still allowed to go barefooted, but I would have to wear a different towel. A white one was

much too plain for Joseph. She wrapped a striped towel around my head and tied it with one of

her husband’s gaudy cast-off ties.

The biggest problem I faced was that I had to stand close to Jenny, the prettiest girl in the church. At that time in my life, I was scared of girls. Jenny was a year or two older than I was, and she looked like a grown woman to me. She had started filling out in all the right places. Standing close to Jenny would have been hard in any circumstance, but standing close to Jenny while wearing a bathrobe was almost more than I could take.

The cast practiced the production on the Wednesday night before the Christmas pageant. Several men in the church worked on the spotlights that were to be focused on the stage. Jenny and I were to walk down the aisle and place a doll in a manger made from scrap lumber.

Beverly, the Archangel, was stationed in the baptistery window above the scene and shared good tidings of great joy. As the shepherds came down the aisle, the heavenly host was to sing to them. Finally, the wise men were to come forward and present their gifts to the baby: a cigar box wrapped in gold Christmas paper, a Witch Hazel bottle wrapped in tin foil, and an Old Spice Aftershave bottle.

We had rehearsed well. We were ready.

On Saturday, Gregory called and said, “Kirk, I’m better now. I don’t have the flu anymore. Please let me be Joseph. I already know how to do it, and I can do it better than you.” Gregory was sweet on Jenny.

I said, “No, I’ve practiced, and I think I can do it.”

Gregory was a persuasive fellow. When I wouldn’t budge, he talked one of the wise men into being a shepherd instead. If Gregory couldn’t be Joseph, at least he could be a wise man.

The night of the pageant came. Everyone – shepherds, angels, wise men, Mary and Joseph – gathered in the foyer of the sanctuary. Shepherds were clacking those plywood staffs together, and angels were fluffing their wings as they were led into a side room. Each group had a cue to enter the sanctuary. Jenny and I, as Mary and Joseph, would enter with baby Jesus when we heard the music of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

Anxious to see inside the sanctuary before the pageant began, Jenny cracked the door open and peeked inside at the assembled worshippers. She said with alarm, “Y’all, there are people in there! I’ve gotta’ go to the bathroom!” She tossed me the baby doll and took off running.

She had been gone just a few minutes when the pianist began playing our cue, the carol “O LittleTown of Bethlehem.” I stood there with the doll, not knowing exactly what to do. I didn’t want to walk in without Mary. There couldn’t be a single-parent family in the Christmas pageant! Thinking that we had not heard our cue, the pianist started playing the second verse much louder. Jenny returned soon afterwards. I shoved the doll into her arms before we hurried down the aisle together.

I don’t remember the doll ever crying when we rehearsed. But it was a Betsy-Wetsy doll. This time when Jenny laid baby Jesus, the doll, in the manger, it issued forth a wail that sounded like a mad cat. I got tickled. Have you ever been tickled when you weren’t supposed to be? I struggled desperately trying not to giggle out loud. After all, this was supposed to be a solemn occasion.

Fighting to keep my composure while waiting for the shepherds to walk in, I became aware that I was extremely hot. In those days, I used a product on my flat-top haircut known as Butch Hair Wax. It was basically petroleum jelly with a faintly sweet aroma. I would comb that wax on my hair to make it stand up straight. Between the glare of the spotlights, my nervousness about standing next to Jenny, my attempt to control the giggles, the warmth of a towel tied on my head, and the pastor’s bathrobe, my hair wax started to melt. I could feel it oozing down my forehead. I used the sleeve of the pastor’s bathrobe to wipe the goo away from my eyes.

When the carol “Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night” was played, the group of boys rattled down the aisle with their plywood staffs. Beverly, the Archangel, appeared in the baptistery. When the spotlight caught Beverly’s braces, it really did look as if the glory of the

Lord was shining round about her. Most of us were “sore afraid.”

“Angels We Have Heard on High” marked the entrance of the heavenly host through the side door. During rehearsal, the angels had not practiced their entrance with their wings. The wings were made out of cardboard covered in gold foil with a gold tinsel border. No one

had foreseen the problem their size would cause. With wings wider than the door, the first angel got stuck in the door jamb. A helpful mother backstage rushed over and turned each angel sideways before sending them in, one at a time.

“We Three Kings of Orient Are,” signaled the wise men to enter and present gifts to the baby Jesus. They made their way down the aisle as the carol was played, one carrying the cigar box wrapped in gold paper and one carrying the Old Spice Aftershave bottle. Gregory followed.

I think he must have been about halfway down the aisle when he realized that he had forgotten to bring the Witch Hazel bottle. In his last-minute rush to get one of the main roles, he left out one of the most important props – a gift. As I again wiped away Butch Hair Wax from my forehead with the sleeve of the pastor’s bathrobe, I saw Gregory hike up his own bathrobe and reach in his blue jeans pocket.

The wise men reached the front of the church and presented their gifts. The cigar box wrapped in gold paper was laid by the manger. The Old Spice Aftershave bottle was carefully of offered to the Christ child. Finally, Gregory placed at the feet of baby Jesus his gift, a Duncan Spinner Yo-Yo, recently extracted from the pocket of his blue jeans.

I have often thought about that Christmas pageant at Croft. It certainly was different from the elaborate, professional ones presented in places like Oberammergau, the Crystal Cathedral in California, or even in the large, sophisticated churches I have served since Croft.

In some ways, though, that Christmas pageant at Croft is more like the first Christmas than any of the others could ever be. The people in that first Christmas pageant in Bethlehem so long ago were so much like us. There was a young woman, probably a teenager, about to have her first baby in a stable. There was a carpenter serving as a midwife, who, like the character Prissy in Gone with the Wind, didn’t know a thing about birthing babies. The shepherds, the blue-collar workers of their day, were just minding their own business when they were overcome with fear, wondering what on earth, and what in heaven, was happening. And there were the wise men, who hitched their caravan to a star, bringing gifts as precious to them as a Duncan Yo-Yo is to a young boy.

In the Christmas pageant at Croft, we always concluded the service by singing “Away in a Manger.” A line in that carol says, “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Just as surely as that Betsy-Wetsy doll cried, I’ll bet the baby Jesus cried.

I do too.

I laugh, and I cry, every time I remember Christmas at Croft.

THE CHRISTMAS RUSH

December 10, 2017

A health conscious businesswoman visited the gym to exercise as a part of her regular routine.   She finished her daily workout by jogging several miles. In the winter months her running was done on a treadmill. One December morning the treadmill she was using went berserk. The control buttons, ordinarily used to slow and then stop the machine, were unresponsive. Instead of slowing down, the treadmill went faster. Frantically the woman punched the control panel, but to no avail. Her heart pounding, her breathing labored, she finally decided she would have to jump.  Sprinting at a flat-out pace, she took a desperate leap of faith and fear. Though she was able to escape the renegade contraption, she landed hard on the concrete floor, fracturing her right wrist. She spent the holidays in a cast up to her elbow.

Something similar happens to many of us during the holidays. We are hijacked, not by a treadmill run amuck, but by the frenetic pace of activities. The Christmas rush begins the day after Thanksgiving and continues through New Year’s Day. Most of us fill our calendars with activities observing the holiday season.  Busy schedules and deadlines make us feel pushed and harried.  We are constantly reminded of the dwindling number of shopping days until Christmas Day.

A sign announcing the last day to mail packages in order to ensure arrival by Christmas is prominently displayed at the Post Office.  Family gatherings and social occasions, heaped on top of our regular responsibilities, leave us irritable and exhausted. Charitable events and faith group activities, though well-intentioned, add to the demands upon our time.

The choir director of a small church was frustrated and angry. At every rehearsal key members of the choir had been absent for one reason or another. Weary of their excuses, the director scolded the group for their lack of commitment.

Then the director complimented the pianist, “She’s the only one I have been able to count on. She has been here for every rehearsal.”

The pianist responded, “It was the least I could do, especially since I can’t be here for the cantata on Sunday.”

This is exactly the problem so many of us have. We spend an inordinate amount of time, money, and energy preparing for the holiday season, but when the important occasions arrive we are unable to fully participate.

The holidays offer us many rich cultural opportunities. Every town has its own Christmas parade and display of Christmas lights.  Musical presentations abound, from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker to Handel’s Messiah, from school programs to choir cantatas. A difficult reality to grasp is that no matter how we may try, we cannot do everything.

Having been a pastor for fifty-two years, I have learned to give choir directors and ministers of music a wide berth during the holidays. I have also learned that when it comes to promoting busyness, there are few offenders more to blame than the local church.

As one weary soul said in late November, “Trying to find a free evening during the holidays is like trying to find a homegrown tomato in my vegetable garden in December.”

A major part of seasonal stress for many is increased financial anxiety. The day after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year, has been dubbed Black Friday. The first workday following Thanksgiving is now called Cyber Monday, the busiest online shopping day of the year.  For many, overspending becomes the norm.  Credit card debt spins out of control as buying frenzies escalate and consume us, leaving many to struggle with an avalanche of bills come January.

“I hate Christmas,” one beleaguered husband and father said. “Every year my family spends so much that I am barely able to pay off the debt before the next Christmas. Then they do it all over again.”

A simple solution is to have a reasonable plan. Our holiday calendar needs to include time for family, personal reflection, rest, and relaxation, as well as activities that are selected, by priority, from our array of options.  Our holiday budget needs to allow for giving meaningful gifts to family and friends as well as charitable contributions.   Develop a plan that works for you and your family rather than allowing the expenditure of time and money to spin out of control like a renegade helicopter.

The holidays for Jill were always hectic.  She operated a catering business from her home. She had numerous parties and receptions on her calendar. There was more to do than she could squeeze into her schedule.

One year she decided to send her Christmas cards early.  Jill was the kind of person who kept meticulous records from year to year of cards sent and cards received.  She resolved to purge her list, striking from the list the name of any person who had failed to send her a card for the past two years.  She purchased the required number of cards and enough holiday stamps to mail them.  She added a brief greeting and her signature to each card before mailing them ahead of the postal deadline.

As Christmas approached, Jill received cards in her mail box nearly every day.  Much to her chagrin, several of the people she had purged from her extensive original list had sent cards to her this year.  One busy Friday, while out shopping for Christmas gifts at a stationery store, she picked up a box of twenty-five generic holiday cards. She felt compelled to send a card to every person from whom she had received one.  By Christmas Eve, she had mailed all but three of the additional cards to people previously expunged from her list.

A few days after Christmas, as Jill was paying her bills, she reached for one of the leftover generic cards, belatedly remembering that she had not even taken time to read the inside verse before she sent them.

She opened the card and read in dismay:  “This little card is just to say, your Christmas gift is on the way.”  Oops!

Rushing through Christmas can be costly.  Not only can we become overextended in time, energy, and money, but we may also become depleted emotionally and spiritually.

Many of our Christmas carols remind us that we need calmness in our souls. Silence, stillness, and peacefulness are important to our most beneficial observance of this season. Finding the quiet center is the way to enjoy the season and preserve our sanity.

The words of John Greenleaf Whittier may become our prayer:

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,

Forgive our foolish ways!

Reclothe us in our rightful mind,

In purer lives thy service find,

In deeper reverence praise.

 

Drop thy still dews of quietness,

Till all our strivings cease;

Take from our souls the strain and stress,

And let our ordered lives confess

The beauty of thy peace.

THE PROMISE OF PEACE

December 8, 2017

In our family, we have maintained the tradition of the Advent wreath. When our children were young, we displayed a wreath on a table in our foyer.  We had purchased 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 held a tiny paper Moravian star above a manger scene created entirely out of corn husk doll figures.

Each Sunday in Advent we gathered our five children around the wreath to light the next candle. One year, on the third Sunday of Advent, we lit the peace candle. We read 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 corn husk figures caught on fire!

Holy smoke!

I grabbed the flaming wreath and started for the front door. Clare shouted, “Throw it in the bathtub!”

I did as she said and turned on the shower.

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

Before Christmas, we replaced the wreath and the star. Some of the figures were burned beyond recognition. A few were charred but still recognizable. To this day, we have a manger scene of corn husk figures. Several of them still carry the singes from the fire.

For many Christmas can be a very difficult time. Like the figures in the manger scene, in this season there are many who bear the scars of Christmas past. Those who have carried the burden of grief during the holidays or those who have spent Christmas in the hospital know all too well how difficult this season can be. Some have spent Christmas in prison. Many have spent Christmas away from home in military service.

It was in a world just like this one that Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem. It was into this kind of hardship that Jesus was born, out back, in less than ideal circumstances.

During the Civil War Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of America’s most famous poets, wrote the words to a familiar Christmas carol

In 1843, Longfellow, already a widower, married Frances Appleton. They settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Henry and Fanny eventually had six children. Their life as a family was happy.

In 1861, Fanny Longfellow was melting sealing wax on an envelope when the long folds of her dress caught fire. Henry desperately tried to smother the flames with his own body. Henry was badly burned on his face, arms and hands. Fanny suffered much worse; she died the next morning.

Enduring Christmas without Fanny, Henry captured in his journal the sentiments so many have felt through the ages: “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.”

Two years later, in early December 1863, Henry received word that his oldest son, Charles, a lieutenant in the Union Army had been severely wounded. Although Charles would survive, his recovery at that time was uncertain.

Longfellow greeted that Christmas with a heavy heart. He’d lost his wife, his son had nearly died, and the country continued making war on itself.

The bells that Henry heard ringing that Christmas inspired him to write the poem that would eventually become a carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

Longfellow’s personal difficulties and the war give the words to the carol a deeper meaning.

 

I heard the bells on Christmas day

Their old familiar carols play

And wild and sweet the words repeat

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

 

I thought how, as the day had come

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along the unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

 

The third verse takes on a much darker tone, reflecting Longfellow’s mood.

 

And in despair I bowed my head

‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said

‘For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.’

 

Even in his despair, the last verse of the carol gives reason for hope.

 

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;

‘God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

With peace on earth, good will to men.’

 

This Advent, the singed figures on our wreath and the words to Longfellow’s carol will be for me reminders of one of the most important themes of Christmas.

Peace is not the absence of conflict or difficulty.

Peace is a gift of grace to the human soul.