Friday, December 30, 2011

Old Christmas and Putting Baby Jesus Back in the Box

Up and down my street, wreathes, and bows are disappearing from doors and mailboxes, and former brightly lit trees are stripped of their twinkles and headed for the recycling center.

Not me. 

Being of strong English-Scotch-Irish descent, I’m hanging on to Christmas. My ancestors used to celebrate Christmas on January 6, the date we observe as Epiphany when the wise men found the baby Jesus in the manger. 

When Christmas day arrives, I’m just beginning to celebrate. I can’t bear to put all the baby Jesus figures back in the box until at least January 6. 

Just the other day, I overheard someone in a store say, “I’m so glad it’s over.” 

It’s not over. 

It’s just beginning. 

This morning I read these words from The Message in Romans 8: “With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah… Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death… In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all.”

That little manger baby is here to put it all straight. What all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could never put back together, an infant comes to restore. 

In my life. And your life. 

Thank you, Jesus.

After Scrooge’s life altering encounters with the three ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, Charles Dickens writes, “It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well..”

May it be said of us that we keep Christmas well, that we allow Jesus to enter the garbage heap of our lives with his beauty and power and restoration. 

And so, old Christmas or new, no matter which day we put the clay baby Jesus back in the box, let's allow the eternal One to reign in our hearts.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

God's Guest List

I just finished reading New York Times bestselling author Debbie Macomber’s book, God’s Guest List: Welcoming Those Who Influence Our Lives. Macomber spoke at the 2009 American Christian Fiction Writers Conference, but I wasn’t able to attend that year. I later heard about one of the intriguing addresses she gave which I believe aligns with the theme in God’s Guest List.

She writes how years ago she made a list of thirty people she wanted to meet, which at that point seemed highly unlikely. But over time, God sent them her way. But after a disillusioning experience with one of the people on her list who turned out not to be the person she thought he was, God spoke to her about making a list with thirty blanks to allow God to send the people he wanted her to meet. She writes, “God would send people into my life? An open list. A guest list. It was as if He had issued invitations to my life and asked me to watch for the people He would be sending. What a concept!”

From that point on, she saw people with different eyes. She calls this list “God’s Guest List.” What started as thirty blank lines, she now realizes could be an infinite number.

She quotes Matthew 23:34, “Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers…” and pens. “ It’s up to us to recognize them. When we start searching, we’ll begin to look deeply into every person we meet to see if we can find God’s fingerprints on that person.”

As I reflect on the last couple of weeks, I can point to at least three people I’m sure God sent into my life.

James Shepherd receiving Honorary Doctorate
As I attended my nephew’s graduation from the University of Georgia, I had the honor of hearing the keynote address given by James Shepherd of the Shepherd Spinal Center.
Shepherd shared how his own spinal injury from a surfing accident in the seventies inspired him and his family to begin the Shepherd Spinal Center in Atlanta, which is now one of the top ten spinal care hospitals in the nation, and often treats patients regardless of their ability to pay.

He said speaking from his wheelchair, “It’s not what happens to you, it’s what you do with what happens to you.”

Later that week, I was eating at a Chick-Fil-A with my family, and noticed someone shooting a film nearby. During a break, the man being filmed turned to us and begin to share a little of his story. Michael Davenport lost both his arms as an adolescent when he accidently lassoed an electrical wire with a length of copper wire with which he was playing. He now works as an artist, painting with a brush in his mouth.

A couple of days before Christmas, I heard a knock at the door, and heard my husband welcoming Dr. Bob Bowen into our home. He attends a community Bible study my husband leads at the YMCA.

Dr. Bowen, now retired, was a former Physical Education instructor at the University of Georgia. As we talked, I also learned that from 1945 until a week before the end of the World War II, he piloted B-17s on missions deep into enemy territory. He helped the Allies by destabilizing Nazi synthetic oil production, and industrial centers. 
As he sat on my sofa, I realized that here was a man who made a difference in history when he was only twenty-two years old.

What a privilege to spend time with him.

At the end of each of Macomber's chapters in God’s Guest List, she adds a section called “Gifts from our Guests” on what she learned from the guest she’d just written about.

What did I learn from my three guests? From James Shepherd, I was reminded that God can turn adversity into a mighty power for lasting good. In Michael Davenport, I saw the reality of God’s words in Isaiah, “Beauty for ashes.” Everyday Michael Davenport puts beauty into the world despite his disability and scars from burns, which cover much of his body. And in Dr. Bowen, I saw again how the bravery and courage of just one person plays a significant part in the unfolding of a much larger plan.

When I was a very small child, I remember standing in my front yard, watching the planes glide overhead, and wondering whether I’d ever fly myself. Years later I’d be cruising in a plane similar to the ones I saw as a child when a former American President would emerge from first class and shake my hand as he graciously greeted each person on the aircraft.

That little small town girl could've never imagined the amazing people on God’s guest list for her. And that’s why Macomber talks about the anticipation of it all.

“Each guest that God brings into our lives leaves us with a unique gift.”

Who might be the guests on God's list for you?

Saturday, December 24, 2011

May your Christmas be a Blessed One!!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Bells Across the Snow for those who are sad

 For many, the Christmas season is a hard time for various reasons. For some, the loss of loved ones is more keenly felt this time of year. For others the bright wrapping and lilting carols stand in contrast to an ongoing struggle with sadness, or serious illness.

That’s why I’ve always appreciated that on Christmas Eve the devotional, Streams in the Desert, carries the poem , “Bells Across the Snow” by one of my favorite hymn writers, Frances Ridley Harvegal (Take My Life and Let it Be). It speaks to the tension between sorrow and joy, which almost everyone at some time in their life, experiences at Christmas.

O Christmas, merry Christmas!
Is it really come again,
With its memories and greetings,
With its joy and with its pain?
There's a minor in the carol,
And a shadow in the light,
And a spray of cypress twining
With the holly wreath to-night.
And the hush is never broken
By laughter light and low,
As we listen in the starlight
To the "bells across the snow."

O Christmas, merry Christmas!
'Tis not so very long
Since other voices blended
With the carol and the song!
If we could but hear them singing
As they are singing now,
If we could but see the radiance
Of the crown on each dear brow;
There would be no sigh to smother,
No hidden tear to flow,
As we listen in the starlight
To the "bells across the snow."

O Christmas, merry Christmas!
This never more can be;
We cannot bring again the days
Of our unshadowed glee.
But Christmas, happy Christmas,
Sweet herald of good-will,
With holy songs of glory
Brings holy gladness still.
For peace and hope may brighten,
And patient love may glow,
As we listen in the starlight
To the "bells across the snow."

The Christmas after my mother died,  I wondered whether I’d be able to celebrate that year. But as Christmas drew near, God gave me a song which carried me through the season. I posted it last December. You may read it again here, and I hope that for any who are struggling, God will use it to encourage your heart.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

One Ringing Bell News Update: A Ringing Bell Night Before Christmas

It you missed the first gazillion posts in this continuing series and would like to read more, click on the “Ringing Bell Update” label below this post.

With our apologies to Clement C. Moore and a whole lot of other people who might be offended, the staff at headquarters presents :

 A Ringing Bell Night Before Christmas

Twas the night before Christmas, and all through Ringing Bell
Not a creature was stirring, not even Isabelle.
The nine stockings were  hung on the stairs with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.

(animals chose their own stockings)

Animals were thought nestled snug in their beds,
While visions of tasty treats danced in their heads.
And Lucy in her kerchief, and Charlie in his cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter’s nap.

Charlie decided not to wear the cap

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
We thought the Front Porch Grey was making toms scatter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

Moonlight caused something in the driveway to glow
 I squinted, tried to make out the objects down below.
When what to my wondering eyes should appear,
A sleigh, eight tiny mice, and two figures so dear.

A cat in a tuxedo, and another clad in silver
I knew in a moment it must be Carl and Wilbur.
More rapid than eagles the rodents they came,
Wilbur whistled, and shouted, and called them by name.

"Now Fancy Feast, Ocean White Fish, Tuna and Meow Mix!
On Turkey Leg, on Cat Chow, Hot Dog and Fish Sticks.
To the top of the down spout! To the top of the pear tree!
For all cheese balls! Cheese balls! Cheese balls, you’ll see!"

As squirrels that before the wild Lucy fly,
When they meet with her bark, scurry to the sky.
So up to the house-top the rodents they flew,
With a sleigh full of treats, Carl and Wilbur, too. 

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
Scratching and clawing, then Lucy said, “Woof!”
Outside, loud meows, and crashing to the ground
And then through the dog door Carl and Wilbur came with a bound.

Wilbur in a Santa hat, Carl with antlers like a reindeer,
I thought to myself, “What are you doing here?”
A bundle of treats Wilbur had on his back,
Just a Santa imposter, opening his pack.

Whiskers were tangled. Each nose red as a berry.
Though their fur was all windblown, they seemed quite merry.
Carl’s front teeth showed bits of leaf and pine straw
Then Wilbur lifted one mitted tuxedo paw.

“We're helping out Santa!” Wilbur exclaimed with glee.
“Needed a hand with the animal’s treats, you see.”
“They couldn’t go hungry,” Carl rubbed his belly.
“We even brought some yummy tuna fish jelly.”

Our Ringing Bell kittens now Santa’s jolly elves.
We at headquarters felt mighty proud of ourselves.
With a twist of tails and a purr in their throats
I watched in amazement those two in windblown coats.

They spoke not a word, but went straight to their work,
They filled all stockings but two, then turned with a jerk,
“Giving ours to help storm sewer cats,” they said.
“Of course,” I agreed, wiped a tear, nodded my head.

Through dog door they sprang, to rodents gave a whistle
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard them exclaim, ‘ere they drove out of sight,
“From Ringing Bell, Merry Christmas, blessed good night!”

Wilbur resting beside his sleigh after a long night's work
No animals were harmed in the making of these pictures. Can’t say the same for staff members.

"A merry heart doeth good like a medicine..." (Proverbs 17:22).

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Road to a Loving Heart

To use a cultural reference that’s sure to date me, the other night I thought of a line from Joni Mitchell’s song “Big Yellow Taxi” in which the lyrics talk about how so often we never understand what we have until we lose it(I’m paraphrasing so to avoid copyright infringement).

Sitting at my desk absorbed in a writing project, I heard a sound I’d never heard before emanating from another part of the house. Now having raised two children, there are two things related to noise that ought to stop any mother in her tracks. The first is silence. The second is an auditory trailblazer. 

I left my desk and went into the den. There was a reason I’d never heard anything like it before. I can’t tell you the last time I heard a seventy-pound dog stripping a cloth binding from an early twentieth century book. 

Yes, Lucy had selected a volume from my antique reader collection for her chewing enjoyment. 

I would have cried, but I’ve found it doesn’t do much good.

I sat down with the book to figure out if anything about it was salvageable. Trying to understand exactly what I’d lost now that it was gone, I flipped through the pages, scanned the stories, and the vintage lithographs. 

I almost decided to recycle it, when my eyes fell on  the words “The Road to the Loving Heart,” a story by Catherine Bryce about Robert Louis Stevenson. In it, she writes about how Stevenson moved to Samoa in the South Pacific for his health. He lived at the top of a hill for the clean air, but had an arduous journey to get there over a rough path. The often-needy Samoans were repeatedly the beneficiaries of his love and attention even though the journey to reach them took a toll on his health. After some time, the Samoans wanted to return Stevenson’s kindness and built a road to his house. Overjoyed by their present, Stevenson intended erect a road sign with words of gratitude to the Samoans.

But before he could, the Samoans put up their own sign in their language. Translated, it read:

 “The Road of the Loving Heart. Remembering the great care of his Highness Tusitala, and his loving care when we were in prison and sore distressed, we have prepared him an enduring present—this road which we have dug to last forever. It shall never be muddy, it shall endure, this road that we have dug.”

Bryce concludes by saying, “…that a kind deed is never lost; it will be found years afterward in some loving heart.”

Sometimes we grow weary, especially this time of year. Christmas brings additional demands. We feel stretched. We wonder if what we do makes a difference. Might it encourage us to know that our acts of kindness will not be erased, but carried always in other’s hearts?

“…blessed is he who is kind to the needy “(Proverbs 14:21).

Monday, December 12, 2011

Carpenter's Shop Book Signing and Bigger Vision

Catching our breath here after a busy weekend signing books and singing with the Athens Symphony Chorus.

The Carpenter’s Shop book signing for Give My Love to the Chestnut Trees was great fun, and we had the opportunity to see a lot of folks we hadn’t seen in a while including my son’s former scoutmaster, Dan Bowdoin, and Rev. Grady and Doris Wigley, our pastor and his wife when Jerry and I met. Two other very special people made a trip to buy a book after a long day in ministry. I was humbled that they braved the cold to come to my signing when I knew they could be at home getting some much-needed rest. 

Richard and Barbara Anderson have been tirelessly serving the homeless through the nonprofit Bigger Vision in our town for many years. After years of floating around the area in temporary shelters, they now have a permanent facility with 35 beds for the homeless in this community. It was such a joy to hear them share about their journey. And they’ve accomplished all this in their retirement years and while Dick has battled serious health issues. 

“I don’t want to spend my time going to bridge games, “ Barbara said. “I want to make a difference.”

So, in their late seventies, they're still actively involved in the daily operation of the shelter.

Making a difference, indeed. 

Barbara and Richard Anderson are two of my heroes. I don’t want to play bridge, either. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just not my goal. I can only pray that I’ll ever be able to accomplish a fraction of what the Anderson’s have. 

If you have financial gifts, coats, blankets, gloves, etc. that you’d like to donate, please contact the Anderson’s at Bigger Vision. 

For more great pictures from the book signing you may go to the Carpenter’s Shop Facebook page here

Many thanks to Brian and his amazing staff for a wonderful event and an opportunity to visit with so many friends, old and new. Love the ornament the Carpenter's Shop made for me.

"...I was homeless and you gave me a room..." (Matthew 25:35, The Message) 

Friday, December 9, 2011

Book Signing and Feature Article

Love to see any of you who live in the Athens, Georgia area for a book signing today at the Carpenter's Shop on Chase Street. The signing is from 5:00 to 6:30, although I plan to be there a few minutes early.

Also, the Athens Banner Herald ran a nice article about the signing and Give My Love to the Chestnut Trees today at .

Look forward to seeing you at the Carpenter's Shop.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

One Ringing Bell News Update: Wilbur...again

After our last update, we thought surely we’d be moving on to the adventures of one of the other animals here at headquarters, but we underestimated Wilbur’s power to generate newsworthy material.

This episode begins as the staff began readying for Christmas. 

“There,” one staff member said as she stood back to take in the lovely tree glowing with glistening balls and an assortment of angels collected over a number of years. “Isn’t it lovely?”

All agreed. When finished with the decorating, the staff took a much needed break and went out for a restaurant meal. 

If they’d only known what was happening back at HQ, they wouldn't have lingered so long over their food.

“Watch this,” Wilbur said to Carl as he launched into the air, grabbed a shiny green ball and crashed to the floor. Green glass shards flew everywhere. “Don't you think I'm a good jumper? And look at that pretty silver one up there, I can get that one too.” Once more he went airborne, lassoed a Christmas ornament and slammed to the floor.

“You’re not the only good jumper. I can do that, too,” Carl said and sprang up for an embellished gold ball. 

As the ball broke apart on the hardwood floor, Carl looked at Wilbur, “See.”

“Oh, yeah, well I can go higher than you.” Once more, Wilbur ascended. 

And so it went.

When the staff returned they found the floor littered with the remains of six glass Christmas balls.

Wilbur and Carl are now banished from the Christmas Tree.

“He’s a terror,” Misty complained to the staff.

“An absolute menace,” Isabelle agreed.

 “But doesn’t he have an innocent looking face?” Aunt Lucy said lovingly.

All animals and staff turned to regard Wilbur.

Wilbur playing golf , (more in a later update)
“Okay, so he looks guilty as can be. But he’s still my nephew,” Lucy said defensively.

 Lucy wasn’t so forgiving however when she got into trouble with the staff for repeatedly turning over the inside water bowl.

 “I’m telling you I didn’t do it,” she said.

 “Who else is big enough to turn over the water bowl?” a staff member asked.

 Turns out, Wilbur is.

  “I was just trying to get that cat out of the bottom of the bowl,” Wilbur said.


 The Ringing Bell staff has cleaned up a veritable Niagara in the days since Wilbur noticed a feline in his water bowl.

Evidently, the word “reflection” does not translate well into cat.

Everyone at Ringing Bell is standing by with mops and rags.

It looks like it’s going to be a very wet winter.

Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all ocean depths, lightning and hail, snow and clouds, stormy winds that do his bidding...wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds, kings of the earth and all nations...Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his splendor is above the earth and the heavens.(Psalm 148:7-13)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Mercy and the Sea

It was great to meet folks in Fernandina Beach, Florida during a book signing at Books Plus. Glad to be on beautiful Amelia Island again.

Just before our departure from the island, I walked to the shore to give the sea one last goodbye. It’d be months before we returned, and I wanted to firmly log in my experience now, so that deep in January on some icy cold morning, I could remember the sound of lapping waves and the feel of warm wind against my face.

The expanse of blue spread from horizon to horizon, and words memorized long ago surfaced in my thoughts:

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea…

It was the first line of a hymn I hadn’t sung in years.

Webster says that mercy is “the disposition to be forgiving and kind.” I turned right and then left and saw great arms sweep from North to South spreading compassion and kindness.

When I returned home, I had an "aha" moment when I read the last lines of the hymn. I’ve quoted them often through the years but had forgotten their origin:

If our love were but more simple, we should take him at his word;
And our lives would be all sunshine in the sweetness of our Lord.

I know that in the months ahead, it won’t be so much the sound of the sea I’ll remember, but the breadth of those arms of mercy. Oh, to wholly believe God's promises, and live in his luminous light even on the bleakest of winter days.
"The Lord is full of compassion and mercy" (James 5:11).

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