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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!

A KENTUCKY THANKSGIVING

November 28, 2019

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is the least commercialized of all our celebrations. The fourth Thursday of November, for most of us, is a day to pause an express our gratitude before Black Friday, identified as one of the busiest shopping days of the year. The brief respite is a time for reflection, for heart-felt appreciation, and for nostalgia. One of my fondest Thanksgiving memories is a Kentucky Thanksgiving with a young man I’ll call Bobby. I have changed his name to protect his identity.

Bobby was fourteen years old. He was large for his age, but shy and withdrawn. His severe acne, unkempt hair, broken front tooth, smudged glasses, and distant stare were external evidence of a troubled mind and a broken heart.

Bobby was a patient in the adolescent unit at Central State Hospital, a mental hospital in La Grange, Kentucky, where I worked as a student chaplain while in seminary. Though Bobby was diagnosed as chronically depressed and borderline schizophrenic, he had moments when his intellectual functioning exceeded that of the hospital staff.

Bobby was one of the patients who prompted the comment, “The main difference between the staff and the patients in this hospital is that the patients get better.”

As Thanksgiving approached during those golden autumn days in Kentucky, the staff in the adolescent unit at Central State Hospital was delighted to learn that almost all the teenage patients would be given a three-day home visit for the holiday, all, that is, except Bobby. The treatment team had determined that Bobby was not ready to function for three days away from the hospital. His home situation had been assessed as being so dysfunctional that he could be allowed no more than a one-day visit accompanied by a hospital staff member. If Bobby went home for Thanksgiving Day, he would have to return to the hospital that same night.

Other staff members had looked forward to having Thanksgiving Day away from the hospital. I volunteered to accompany Bobby to his home in the Kentucky mountains for the day. The social worker contacted his mother and his grandparents to arrange the visit. I would drive him to his mother’s house for Thanksgiving dinner and bring him back to the hospital before nightfall. Clare and I planned to have our family Thanksgiving meal after I returned to our home that evening.

Thanksgiving Day dawned clear and cold. I met Bobby at the adolescent unit early. I wondered what this visit to his home would mean to him. Those dark vacant eyes, practically concealed behind the dirty glasses, revealed no excitement. The sunny Thanksgiving morning and the beautiful Kentucky countryside made our three-hour drive through the Bluegrass Region into the mountains a scenic trip.

Though I attempted several times to strike up a conversation about Bobby’s family and their usual Thanksgiving celebration, Bobby responded with silence. His only conversation was to give a running commentary on the make and model of every automobile on the highway. He knew details about many of cars, such as engine size and horsepower. The only significant exchange between us was his assertion that I had not made a wise selection when I had purchased my used car. I should have chosen a Ford Mustang, he advised.

When we arrived in the coal mining mountain town, Bobby directed me to his mother’s house. A note of anticipation arose in his voice as we approached the modest home. The frame house suffered from neglect. Shingles were missing from the roof, and paint was peeling from the wooden siding. The screen door was completely off the hinges, propped against the house. Bobby said, “Her truck is gone. She’s not here.” His face showed no emotion; his voice disclosed disappointment. Bobby did not knock on the door. He just opened the unlocked door to search the house. No one was home.

“Could she be at your grandparents’ house?” I asked.

“We can see,” replied Bobby.

We drove for several miles on a winding back road to his grandparent’s home. The log house perched on a mountainside showed no sign of life. “Maybe we missed them,” suggested Bobby. We took the twisted trip back into town to his mother’s home. No one was there. I offered to buy Thanksgiving dinner for the two of us, not knowing where I could find a restaurant, much less a restaurant open on the holiday.

Bobby refused my offer. “I’ll fix something,” he said.

Inside the small kitchen, I watched as my fourteen-year-old host opened the refrigerator.   It was well stocked with beer, but food was sparse. Bobby took bologna and a bowl of cold grits from the shelf. In a large iron skillet, he fried thick slices of bologna. In the remaining grease, he browned slices of cold grits. I fixed two glasses of water. We sat in ladder-back chairs at an old card table. I quoted Psalm 100 and offered a blessing. Bobby and I ate together and cleaned up the dishes together. When it was time to leave, we closed the door, leaving it unlocked as we had found it.

The three-hour drive back to the institution seemed interminable. Our only conversation was about automobiles. At one point, I tried to allow Bobby to speak about his hurt.

“I’m sorry we didn’t get to be with your family.”

Bobby replied stoically, “It’s OK.” Then he commented on a passing Pontiac.

Just before sunset, Bobby and I climbed the back stairs to the adolescent unit at Central State Hospital. A childcare worker unlocked the door to allow for our entry. As I prepared to leave, Bobby turned toward me, threw his arms around my neck, and said, “This is the best Thanksgiving I have ever had!”

On Thanksgiving Day, our family repeats together the words from the Bible, “Enter into his gates with Thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name.” (Psalm 100: 4)

When I hear that scripture, I remember the Thanksgiving meal of fried bologna and cold grits, shared at a card table, in a rundown house in the mountains of Kentucky.

I am reminded that Thanksgiving is not what is on our table. Thanksgiving is what is in our hearts.

BEN FRANKLIN’S BAD IDEA

November 24, 2019

Cam Newton, quarterback for the Carolina Panthers football team, has been placed on injured reserve for the remainder of the 2019 season. I recall a Monday night game several years ago when Newton endured a brutal pounding by the Philadelphia Eagles. The Panther quarterback was sacked nine times by the aggressive defensive line of the Eagles. As I watched Monday Night Football, I thought the team from Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, was not so kind to the team from Carolina

Then I recalled the historical importance of the Pennsylvania city. Independence Hall is a treasured location in American history, the site of origin for two of our defining documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America. Philadelphia is the home of the Liberty Bell. The city was also the residence of the patriot pictured on our one-hundred-dollar bills, Benjamin Franklin. He is one of the most famous Americans of his time, considered to be one of our Founding Fathers.

Franklin helped to establish a new nation and to define the structure and function of American government. The Philadelphia statesman played a major role in crafting our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.

Franklin’s inventions reveal a man of varied interests, many talents, boundless energy, and great curiosity. Ben had poor eyesight. Tired of constantly taking his glasses off and on, he cut two pairs of spectacles in half. Putting half of each lens in single frames, he invented bifocals. I am grateful for his invention every single day.

My family and I deeply appreciate the fact that Ben Franklin founded the first public lending library. What a great idea!

Franklin learned much about ships during his eight voyages across the Atlantic Ocean. He suggested dividing a ship’s hold into watertight compartments so that if a leak occurred in one, the water would not spread throughout and sink the ship.

In colonial America, people warmed their homes with open fireplaces, a dangerous practice that burned a lot of wood. Ben invented a cast-iron furnace that used less wood and allowed for warmer, safer homes. His invention is still called the Franklin Stove. In the same vein, Ben also established the first fire department and the first fire insurance company. Think of that the next time you see one of the big trucks rushing to a fire.

As Postmaster, Franklin mapped mail delivery routes. He invented a simple odometer. When attached to his carriage, it allowed him to measure the distance of postal routes accurately.

Inventor, businessman, writer, scientist, musician, humorist, diplomat, civic leader, international celebrity, and ladies’ man, Ben Franklin was a genius.

Like most brilliant folk, Ben Franklin had a few crazy notions. The story of Ben’s famous kite is well known. Rigging a kite with wire and a brass key, he flew it in a thunderstorm. Not a good idea. What a shock! Because of him, meteorologists now refer to thunderstorms as electrical storms. Out of his hair-raising experiment came Ben’s invention of the lightning rod.

Franklin had many good ideas. He also had at least one very bad idea that could have altered the course of history and changed the celebration of Thanksgiving as we now know it. Ben proposed to Congress that the wild turkey be designated as our national bird. Thank goodness the distinguished group of legislators saw fit to overrule the patriot from Pennsylvania. In their wisdom, Congress made the bald eagle our national bird, not the wild turkey.

Imagine how our lives might have been different if Benjamin Franklin had prevailed and the turkey, rather than the eagle, had become the symbol of our great nation. We can all be glad that Ben Franklin did not have his way. For those among us who look forward to the first day of April each year as the beginning of turkey hunting season, April Fool’s Day might be a different kind of experience if the wild turkey had become our national bird as Ben Franklin proposed.

Other things in our culture would have been different, too.

  • Our coins might be minted with turkeys on the reverse side rather than with eagles. A flip of the coin might require a call, “Heads or turkeys?”
  • The Great Seal of the United States of America might display the image of a wild turkey instead of a bald eagle.
  • The professional football team in Ben Franklin’s City of Brotherly Love might not be the Philadelphia Eagles, but the Philadelphia Turkeys.
  • When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the lunar module of Apollo 11 on the surface of the moon, we might have heard the radio transmission, “Tranquility Base here. The turkey has landed.”
  • The Boy Scouts of America might never have become the character developing organization that it is today. Scouts might not be as motivated to make their way through the ranks if the highest award were the Turkey Scout Award. To call a young man a Turkey Scout just doesn’t have the same ring as the honor of being an Eagle Scout.

I have a notion that Thanksgiving Day might be a different kind of celebration if families who gathered at Grandma’s house were praying over and feasting on our national symbol. We can be grateful that the eagle is on our coins and the turkey is on our tables.

Both ornithology and theology point to the eagle as a rare bird. The eagle is a symbol of strength and achievement, representing the qualities of clear vision and vigilant protection.

The Bible includes multiple references to the eagle. Turkeys, however, are never mentioned in Scripture.

Perhaps you will gather with your loved ones on Thanksgiving Day to enjoy a turkey dinner. Before the meal, take a moment to give thanks for two birds, the turkey and the eagle. You might choose to read Psalm 103, a beautiful prayer about the blessings of God that mentions the eagle.   Or perhaps you would enjoy the words of the prophet Isaiah in one of the best-loved references to the eagle:

 

But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength;

they shall mount up with wings as eagles;

they shall run, and not be weary;

and they shall walk, and not faint. (Isaiah 40:31 KJV)

 

Each year the traditional Black Friday shopping frenzy encroaches on Thanksgiving Day. True thanksgiving is as rare and as endangered as the eagle.

While turkey has become a Thanksgiving tradition, I know that other fowl are sometimes substituted. One year just before Thanksgiving Clare and I were given two wild geese with directions about how they were to be cooked. We followed the directions and the birds were tasty. However, our children were not favorably impressed. The following year we resumed the tradition of turkey.

Some people prefer quail, Cornish game hens, or doves for Thanksgiving.

I recently heard a five-year-old child ask an interesting question. “Grandma, do we have to have turkey for Thanksgiving? Could we have fried chicken this year?”

I am glad Congress rejected Ben Franklin’s idea. I am grateful for both turkeys and for eagles. The truth is that Thanksgiving has nothing to do with the bird on our platter. It has everything to do with the prayer in our heart.