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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.

O, TANNENBAUM

December 8, 2019

For nearly fifty-four years Clare and I have enjoyed having a freshly-cut, fragrant evergreen to grace our home during the season of Advent. Over the years we have had Scotch pine trees, Canadian spruce trees, and red cedar trees for our Christmas tree. We have tried living trees with the root-ball intact placed in a large galvanized tub. Only one of those lived when we planted it in our yard. That was a Colorado blue spruce grown in the mountains of North Carolina and planted in the yard when we lived in Winston-Salem. By far, our favorite kind of tree is the Fraser fir grown above three thousand feet in the North Carolina highlands.

Many families in the Upstate participate in the tradition of decorating for the holiday season with a Christmas tree. Right before the first Sunday of Advent, we begin our decorating for Christmas. A wreath with a red ribbon on the front door and a Moravian star on the front porch are usually our first decorations. Those are followed closely by several nativity sets on available surfaces in various rooms of the house. The Christmas tree is up and decorated a little later.

Last year, a fresh Christmas tree was hefted into our home by our son-in-law. Once the Fraser fir was in place I followed a long-standing tradition. Years ago I developed the habit of tying the top of the tree trunk to a hook in the ceiling using a length of parachute cord. That extra precaution was deemed necessary after one of our young sons tried to climb the limbs. That is just one of many Christmas tree perils.

Once our tree was properly aligned, watered, and anchored to the ceiling, it was time to adorn the fir. Clare found Christmas music on the radio. The tree was beautifully decorated by our children and grandchildren. First, 1000 white lights were tucked into the thick green branches. Next, ornaments accumulated over more than fifty years of marriage were suspended from every available spot. Then, crocheted and tatted snowflakes along with crystal icicles and stars were added. Finally, a small Moravian star supported by a crystal angel was affixed to the tip-top.

When the entire project was completed, one of our grandsons asked, “Where did the idea of bringing a tree into the house begin?” Great question! Dead needle accumulation, clogged vacuum cleaner bags, and the hazard of fire are some of the Christmas tree perils.

Last year, several days after Christmas, I hoisted from its stand the Christmas tree that had graced our home for several weeks. As always, I wrestled it out of the front door, leaving an impressive accumulation of Fraser fir needles in its wake. Returning to the living room, I found one of my teenage helpers already vacuuming the pesky remains from the carpet. I raised yet again, the obvious question first uttered by my Uncle Asbury, long ago and in the same house, “Whoever thought that cutting a tree, bringing it inside the house, and letting it dry out for a few weeks was a good idea?”

Legend has it that one cold starlit night just before Christmas; Martin Luther brought a fir tree into his home, decorating it with candles to bring the light of Christmas inside. Unfortunately, a home with a freshly cut tree inside may bring in more than just the light of Christmas.

Our friends in the pest control business have numerous stories about unwanted critters that entered homes nestled in a Christmas tree. A praying mantis egg case lodged deep within the branches entered a home undetected. Warmed to room temperature, the eggs hatched, releasing hundreds of green insects.

Similar experiences with ladybug beetles are not uncommon. While both the praying mantis and the ladybug beetle are useful insects in the great outdoors, indoors they are regarded as pests.

When I was a boy, we cut our Christmas tree from a family farm in southern Spartanburg County. On a Saturday afternoon several weeks before Christmas, we scoured the woods for holly branches laden with red berries. We found mistletoe loaded with white berries high up in oak trees. We cut holly branches with pruning shears and shot mistletoe out of treetops with a rifle. With a bow saw, we cut a red cedar Christmas tree. We loaded the greenery on a lumber truck and made our way back to Spartanburg.

On one occasion, my dad, my brothers, and I brought our fragrant red cedar into our living room. The family decorated the tree that night, enjoying popcorn and hot chocolate together.

Several days later, my mother, in a panic, telephoned my dad at the lumberyard. The red cedar tree was crawling with red spiders. It was highly unusual for my mother to call the lumberyard and even more out of the ordinary for my dad to leave his place of business. But when he heard the distress in mama’s voice, dad rushed home to haul the Christmas tree, decorations and all, into the front yard. After spraying it with foul-smelling pesticide, he later brought the cedar back into the house. That Christmas, the cedar fragrance never returned, even after we hung cedar-scented car deodorizers like Christmas ornaments on the branches.

In recent years, Clare and I have purchased a Fraser fir for Christmas. Several years ago, I noticed that our Fraser fir grown in North Carolina had a certificate attached to the top, indicating that the tree had been treated with pesticides. That comforting assurance was short-lived. Within several days, creepy black bugs appeared all over the carpet and the drapes near the tree. Our certified fir was infested with black pine aphids. Our pest control friends rushed to the rescue. The tree and our living room had to be sprayed thoroughly.

When our children were young, they made a pallet out of an old quilt spread beneath the tree and pretended to be camping in the woods. Our son, Erik, liked to sleep under the Christmas tree. When he died in November 2000, Clare suggested that we put a Christmas tree on his grave. We found comfort in the memory of our son sleeping under a Fraser fir.

Every Christmas since I have placed a tree on Erik’s plot at Greenlawn. It was decorated with one gleaming brass star on top. This year we have made a change. Realizing that we are at a different time in our lives, we have decided not to put a tree on Erik’s grave this year. Instead, we are designating a place in our gazebo as a suitable spot for Erik’s tree.

Once again this year we will enjoy a fresh Christmas tree in our living room; fresh at least until the needles start falling off. Perhaps the most beautiful Christmas tree of all is the one we call Erik’s tree. We remember how much he delighted in taking a nap under the branches. The last line of a beloved Christmas carol, like a lullaby, comes to mind as a prayer for Erik. “Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.”

MADONNA IN BLUE JEANS

December 1, 2019

Long ago and far away, a young woman was startled by the news that she was pregnant. She had not had the first inkling, nor had she any reason to believe she was with child. She had saved herself for marriage. The attendant, dressed all in white, was neither a midwife nor a nurse nor a physician. The messenger who broke the news was the archangel Gabriel. The young woman was Mary of Nazareth.

Advent is Mary’s time. It is a season of expectancy for the young mother who lives in anticipation. But all of us, men and women alike, share in this pregnancy. This is a time of preparation for the arrival of a child, the nativity of Jesus. As surely as a young couple makes ready to receive a new child, we, too, must be ready for this new arrival. This is the essence of the season of Advent for those of the Christian faith.

When Clare and I got married, we knew that we wanted to have children.

We prayed that God would give us a child when the time was right. We became frustrated that God did not meet our schedule. We went for medical help and were told that it was improbable that we would ever have a child biologically. We pondered the possibility of adoption. We were overjoyed when Clare became pregnant but very disappointed when three months later, she had a miscarriage. Again, we were told that for us the possibility of having children was remote. We began to explore the possibility of adoption more seriously. After several months, Clare again became pregnant. The second pregnancy lasted longer, and our hearts were broken following a second miscarriage. I was angry. Clare was grieving.

We initiated the long process of adoption with paperwork, home visits, and medical tests. Within weeks before we were to receive our adopted child, we discovered that Clare was again pregnant. The choice was difficult. Should we terminate adoption and risk another disappointment? Should we continue adoption proceedings with the possibility that we would have two infants just six months apart in age? Our decision to terminate adoption proceedings was another grief for us.

Clare carried our child full term. We were expecting our firstborn to arrive on December 18, 1970. As these things often go, the anticipated date came and went, but still no baby.

As Christmas approached, Clare and I waited in Louisville, realizing that we would not be with either of our families for the holidays. We could neither travel to New Orleans, where her parents resided, nor to Spartanburg, where my family lived. We exchanged gifts with our families by mail.

Christmas Eve arrived; our child had not. We enjoyed dinner together in our home. Before midnight, we opened one gift each. Then we called both families to wish them Merry Christmas.

Just after we went to bed, Clare had her first contraction. Suddenly, we were wide awake! At 5:00 A.M., we were on the way to Norton Infirmary in downtown Louisville. A soft, light snow was falling, and the streets were empty as we drove through the dark Christmas morning.

At the hospital, I left Clare in labor and delivery and went to admissions to check her in as a patient. When I returned her contractions had stopped, and she was sound asleep. I waited. Then, about noon on Christmas Day she went into hard labor. We had taken Lamaze classes and thought we knew what to expect. In old cowboy movies, when a mother is giving birth, they send the husband out to boil water. Lamaze is something like that. It gives the father a coaching job to do while the mother works very hard.

At 3:26 P.M. on Christmas Day our first child, Michael Kirk Neely, was born. We were overjoyed. Finally, we had a baby, born on Christmas Day! Both sets of grandparents were elated when we telephoned to announce our son’s arrival.

The birth of a child is always a miracle!

The word Advent comes from Latin, meaning to come. Some Christian carols become prayers of anticipation: “O Come, O Come, Immanuel” and “Come, Thou Long-expected Jesus.”

In a spiritual sense, all Christians are pregnant with anticipation. Every year, we celebrate anew the birth of a child, not just any child, but the one born in Bethlehem. To hold an infant in your arms is a reminder of just how precious and fragile a life is. To hold your newborn arms on Christmas Day is a reminder that in the birth of Jesus, God made himself very vulnerable.

Each Christmas, we draw close to the manger and look into the face of this child. Look closely. Did you notice the resemblance? According to the Christian tradition, this baby is the spitting image of his Father.

I have always been fascinated by the description of Mary as a woman with a pondering heart. As a teenage mother she had much to ponder; most of all, the miracle she held in her arms and the responsibility of being his mother. In truth, the birth of every child is a miracle. Every child requires a lot of tending, even when that child is Jesus.

I miss my mother more at Christmastime than at any other time of year. She loved this season, decorating her home, hosting friends and family, and as much as anything else, rocking her grandchildren.

One of the great comforts for me at Christmas is to see mothers and grandmothers holding little babies. So many Christmas cards depict Mary and Jesus, Madonna and child, in soft pastel tones. Many Christmas carols present the same picture. “What Child is this, who, laid to rest on Mary’s lap, is sleeping?” Little babies do sleep and are sometimes calm and peaceful. But they can also be quite demanding. Though He was the Son of God, Jesus was also fully human. In the familiar carol, “Away In a Manger,” I doubt that the line “no crying He makes” was true for very long.

The word Madonna is Latin for my lady. A part of Christmas for me is to take note of the real-life Madonnas in my world: our nieces cradling a great-nephew or great-niece; a young mother sitting on the front row of our Sanctuary holding her newborn as she listens to the Christmas Cantata; grandmothers taking delight in their third- generation offspring, giving new mothers a temporary break from the constant demands of parenting.

Among the most precious images of the Madonna in my life are the pictures of our daughters-in-law and our daughter holding their children. These images of young mothers, often barefooted and wearing blue jeans, cradling a newborn child are visions that are as compelling as any Christmas cards.

For nearly fifty years, I have witnessed the love and care and constant attention of one of the finest mothers I have ever known. When our children were very young, I would sometimes come home from a day of ministry to find a Carolina Madonna in blue jeans, faithfully carrying out the ministry God gave her. I have seen her attend to our children at the expense of her own needs. Now we have thirteen grandchildren. Clare thinks about them constantly and wants to be with them whenever possible. The longer I am with Clare, the more I appreciate her and see in her the same maternal love so beautifully depicted in the face of Mary.

There is a special place in heaven for women like these. I imagine it to be a place that looks something like the front porch of a Cracker Barrel restaurant. There are plenty of rocking chairs. My mother and mother-in-law are there. Both of my grandmothers are there. Every woman is rocking and singing to a babe in arms. Those babies, who in my mind have gone to heaven in what seems to us an untimely way, are bringing their own special joy to eternity. And those women and those children experience Christmas, as one of our favorite carols puts it, “in heavenly peace.”

For those who have lost a mother or a grandmother, Christmas can be difficult, especially if the loss is recent. It is my hope and prayer that all of you will catch a glimpse of a real-life Madonna and that you, too, will know the blessing of heavenly peace.

Blessed Advent!