Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room

In a church where we served, Ken and I endured a steady stream of criticism from a small group of members, concerning worship music.  They believed older hymns and choruses to be far superior to anything written after 1960. We disagreed. So did much of the congregation. Some Sunday mornings, one or both of us might be verbally assaulted/lectured after a service about the spiritual viability of some of our choices.  Loudly. In the narthex. With guests and other members nearby.

Planning our first Christmas Eve service in that church caused no small amount of anxiety for the two of us.  We pictured a scene erupting after one of the best attended services of the year (so we were told), with a narthex full of out of town guests and visiting community members.  We knew we needed to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, but we questioned our ability to hear him.  Our music list and worship order went through several overhauls before we felt locked down.

The week of Christmas I felt rounds of nervous nausea.  Always, before, I eagerly looked forward to Christmas Eve services as wondrous, candlelit events, gathered with family, worshipping together with joy.  This year, joy went missing, and I prepared for a holy war.  I couldn’t imagine our critics going quietly, if we “messed up,” Christmas as one of them predicted we would.

The service itself went off flawlessly. Trios, duets, congregational singing and solos all wound their way around the sanctuary, like a large Christmas ribbon, tying us all together into this special moment.  Even our antique sound system, for once, didn’t scream feedback at us. From my limited sight line behind the piano, all the faces I could see wore expressions of peace and appreciation.  I couldn’t see any of our negative commentators.  Were they sitting as they usually did, arms folded across their chest, scowling at everyone on the platform?  My stomach clenched at the thought.

After the service, dozens of people spoke to Ken and I, and the other participants, expressing love and appreciation.  Maybe the judging team didn’t come?  Oh wait. Trapped in a throng of folks all jostling to wish each other “Merry Christmas,” while finding their coats, I spied a man pushing his way through the crowd towards me.  A loud, large man.  A man who usually only spoke to me or Ken to lodge complaints.

Helpless to move out of his range, I imagined the beautiful atmosphere of love and fellowship torn apart like a toddler with a Christmas package. I braced for impact and asked God to help me respond rightly. He wedged himself in between several people to plant himself right in front of me.  Whatever wind blew, by now my mouth felt desert dry and my throat so tight, I felt no confidence in my ability to say anything back.  I’m pretty sure my jaw dropped when he looked me in the eye and said, “Nice service,” then just as abruptly, turned his back on me and pushed his way back through the crowd.

I’d love to tell you we developed a marvelous relationship with this man, but we didn’t.  He criticized until the day we left, but that’s not the point of this story.  Here’s what I think happened that night.   I’ve seen this phenomenon occur since then with lost people, skeptics, critics and the like.  Sometimes folks come into Christmas with skewed expectations and unbelief, determined to remain aloof or critical of certain environments.

Location doesn’t matter whether it’s your home, church or any other place believers gather to celebrate the birth of Christ. Something supernatural happens when the Christ child is worshipped and people love freely. Even the hardest heart can be softened in that moment as perhaps God reminds them of Christmases long ago before their hearts formed into concrete. Or maybe he shows them a glimpse of what life could be like without all the negative emotions they carry daily.  I think that’s the theme of Charles Dicken’s Christmas Carol. Thanks to the three spirits, Scrooge is given the gift of new sight and clearly understands the choice that every human must still make, whether to walk in The Light or live in eternal darkness.  Sadly, some will forever choose the shadows. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pray, expectantly with faith, that your Scrooge will choose to see the radiance of Christ and want to live within his glory and wonder.

As you gather together, Christmas week, you may be expecting critics, skeptics, and such to squirrel up your events also.  Some of you might be estranged from family members so they won’t be showing up for Christmas dinner, but instead leave a huge ache in your heart.  Some families are divided along the line of those who believe in Christ and those who don’t.  All of this can make this time of year tough if you are not armed and ready.

Remember, the whole Christmas story is one miraculous heart-change after another.  Sometimes our familiarity with the various details causes us to brush over the deep, inner work God performed in the hearts of key players in this drama using highly abnormal circumstances.   Joseph’s logic and human reason must be overridden to believe his little fiancée carried God in her stomach.  Mary, a young obscure girl, must accept God’s message that, here now, SHE is the prophesied, chosen one.  Shepherds, the outcasts of society, must believe they didn’t hallucinate and then act on what the angels instructed, to go find this baby inside a town that certainly didn’t welcome them.

God is performing heart surgeries every day, and Christmas is still a season of miracles.    He chooses to partner with our prayers of faith to move over the most unlikely specimens one can possibly imagine.  Ask him relentlessly, to prepare and make room in the hearts of those in your world who are lost or backslidden far from his love. Trust that the same love that compelled Jesus to set aside perfection to enter our dysfunctional, damaged world, is still in play today.

 

 

O Christmas Tree

My mother elevated Christmas tree decorating to an art form long before it became cool to do that.  Each year, her process began when my father brought home a Douglas fir, purchased from a lot near his job in downtown Philadelphia.  Dad took his role in our Christmas tree traditions seriously. He measured, pondered then measured again before buying.  After he arrived home, he’d saw off a portion of the trunk to ensure that the tree could take in fresh water. Once he secured the tree in its stand, the yearly battle of the lights began.  In those days, most homes didn’t boast several outlets on every living room wall.  Therefore, a complex system of extension cords snaked in and out of our tree to accommodate all the multicolored strings of lights.

Now the time for my mother to perform her decorating magic began. First, she hung our collection of mercury glass ornaments, spacing them perfectly all over the tree by color and size.  My brothers and I were not allowed to handle these fragile keepsakes until we reached late elementary school. As the oldest, I became my mother’s first ornament assistant when I turned ten, a great honor.

After the glass balls, she and I positioned all the paper creations we made at school, careful to keep colors from clashing.  We finished our decorating with tinsel.  This final touch took the longest as my mother insisted that it be put on strand by strand, evenly, precisely. When the last piece of tinsel hung in properly, my Dad ceremoniously plugged in the lights, and Christmas filled our living room. The lights and ornaments, shimmering through the silver tinsel, added a sense of wonder and the anticipation of gifts soon to appear under bottom branches.

When I turned thirteen, we moved to Michigan, next door to my father’s parents and the family business. We made some mild alterations to our tree routine.  Since my Dad now worked next door at our family’s florist and greenhouse business, we all piled into the business’s delivery van to cut down a Christmas tree together, at a nearby farm.  After that, all routines remained the same, old traditions carried into a new home.  By now, I knew all strategies for designing a beautiful Christmas tree.

One evening, close to Christmas, I wandered over to my grandparents’ home, as I frequently did, and came upon an appalling sight, my grandmother, perched on a couch arm, chucking handfuls of tinsel onto her Christmas tree.  Handfuls.  Throwing them.  She heard me come in and laughed at the shocked expression on my face.  “Not quite like your mother does it, eh Sharon?”  she cackled.

I couldn’t make sense of this scene.  I spent most Saturdays, the previous summer and fall, working side by side with this woman, well-known in our community as a premiere floral designer.  Her creativity and attention to detail for every design from bridal bouquets to funeral arrangements, made her much in demand. Many times, I needed to rework a corsage or remake a bow to fit her high standards.  Who in the world was this crazy, tinsel-tossing woman before me now?

“Sharon, maybe you could reach the top of the tree for me and finish this up?  I’ve got some baking to do.”

“Suuuuuure……” I said hesitantly.  Not only the tinsel needed a rescue.  Ornaments didn’t seem to be arranged by size or color or any discernible plan at all.  Many remained in the boxes. Overall the tree looked as if someone upended a box of decorations onto it.  “Who puts on tinsel before they even get all the ornaments on?” I wondered to myself.

She read my expression and said, “You’re welcome to rearrange the ornaments too and put some more on if you want.” And with that, she climbed off the couch, handed me a clump of tinsel and disappeared into the kitchen.

I stared at the tree, momentarily overwhelmed. Then, every bit of training I’d learned in my mother’s Christmas boot camp kicked in.  Every ornament and clump of tinsel came off, and I started from scratch.  Two hours later, I felt pleased with my results and my grandmother praised my efforts. It became a tradition for me to decorate my grandparent’s tree every year until I married and moved away.  I beamed when our entire extended family gathered at their home and folks oohed and aahed over the tree while she and I shared knowing glances.

As a teenager, I never understood why all my grandmother’s design expertise and passion didn’t extend to her Christmas tree.  As an adult at the age now that she was back then, I get it.  My grandmother worked anywhere from 8-12 hours a day in the shop, doing all the design work herself, except for weekends when I helped.   I easily understand now, with adult perspective, her exhaustion.  I’ve worked in other floral shops since then and I know what it’s like to stand for hours at a time, designing and arranging.  As far as your legs are concerned, it’s not unlike factory work.

As a teen, I could only see the haphazard Christmas tree. I completely missed the weary person next to it.  I don’t know which end of the spectrum you are on today, so I’m offering encouragement in two different directions.  First, if you’re in tinsel-chucking mode, give yourself some grace.  Preparing for and celebrating Christmas with friends and family is like a part-time job.  If you’re already working at another job, Christmas is a lot.  Ask God to help you prioritize and let go of expectations that are too high.  People don’t need six different kinds of Christmas cookies nor does your house need to look like a Martha Stewart photo shoot.

Those of you whose schedules are more flexible, is there someone who needs your time and energy resources? Is there a young, working mom whose children you could watch for a few hours while she Christmas shops? How about sharing coffee and a Christmas cookie with someone newly widowed struggling to celebrate their first Christmas alone?  Take a restaurant gift card to a family with a loved one who will be hospitalized over the holidays or just recovering from a surgery or traumatic event.  Accidents, illness and injuries are no respecters of Christmas.

All around us are people barely getting through their ordinary days, let alone Christmas, if we will but open our eyes to truly see them, the way Jesus does.

 

 

 

 

A Thrill of Hope

The first Christmas after my mother’s death felt dreamlike, specifically the kind where you’re drowning or trying to run from something awful, but your feet won’t move. We lit our Advent wreath, decorated trees, baked cookies, shopped on Black Friday and carried out our other Christmas season traditions, but it all felt empty.

I first noticed the knifing pains of her absence on Black Friday, a shopping tradition she relished every year until the last few of her life.  The only significant memory I carry from that day is the large ball of choked back tears in my throat.  At one point I almost bawled in the endless check-out line in Kohl’s Department Store, reminiscing about the times I’d stood in that line for her, (sometimes with a snarky attitude) with a heaped cart of her carefully selected gifts.  Her back, deformed from childhood polio and a car accident, couldn’t tolerate long periods of standing, so she’d move on to the next store with other family members while Ken and I waited to check out.

I remember one year she spent in the hospital over the Thanksgiving holiday.  She still poured over all our family Christmas lists and made detailed notes for Ken and me about what to purchase, from which stores and what coupons to use.  I brought all our purchases to the hospital.  We laid everything out on top of the hospital bedding, for her to examine and be certain it met her standards.

While Mom spent her first glorious Christmas in heaven, we struggled to plan our extended family Christmas at “my Dad’s house.”  I felt sick simply saying that phrase, instead of, “Mom and Dad’s house.”  My sweet brother and sister-in-law, and their children, put up a tree and some of the decorations my mother collected and loved so dearly, around the too- quiet house, for my Dad. I believe that they chose wisely when they did this, but for me, seeing all her decorations without her, felt ghastly.  Some that she’d owned since my childhood sent me to the back bedroom to compose myself and not add to my Dad’s grief.

That whole year turned out to be a season of loss for me.  In April, my principal informed me that due to a very low student enrollment, my teaching job needed to be eliminated.  Two weeks after that blow, in May, my mother entered the arms of Jesus, somewhat unexpectedly.  The staff at her rehab center had scheduled her to return home within a few days but pneumonia struck suddenly, swiftly, lifting her to glory within 48 hours.

In the beginning of December, our dog, Kobi, left our lives, after fourteen years.  The accumulated sorrows of the year made this third good-bye so poignant.  I contracted bronchitis shortly afterwards and deeply missed the sweet presence of furry friendship during those long, quiet hours of recovery.  The pain of our parting set me in the same frame of mind I’d been in many years prior, when our last Labrador, Edwards, entered his well-deserved rest.  “No more dogs,” I declared again.  It’s ridiculous that I still didn’t understand my own nature.

At least this time, I caved, with no outside pressure. Now that I no longer worked outside the home, the quiet there felt unnatural, lacking.  Ken and I began a new search, wishing someone figured out how to breed a miniature Labrador.  We found the next- best thing in a little rescue dog named Bella.  Part beagle, part yellow lab, she fit the bill perfectly, weighing in at only 32 pounds with a lab shaped body topped by expressive beagle-eyes.

Two weeks before Christmas, we brought her home and began the painstaking process of re-training and re-orienting her.  Removed from animal hoarders, she was at first, high strung, suspicious of everyone, particularly men, and not at all housebroken, even though she was a year and a half old.  We couldn’t attempt to leave her home alone or at a boarding facility so soon after coming to our home and determined that she’d make the two-hour drive with us to “Dad’s house,” for our Christmas celebration.

Everyone did their best to share love and laughter that day. We tried to make it a good day for my Dad, but understandably, he remained quiet and withdrawn.  Inwardly, I decided we simply needed to get through this Christmas as best we could and hope next year dawned more brightly for my Dad.

We alternated between putting Bella in her crate and taking her for walks, concerned that she not cause any “accidents,” or stress for Dad.  Late in the afternoon we decided to tote her into the living room with us for a while, making her always sit next to one of us. Everyone fussed over her, except for my Dad who simply said, “Cute pup.”  Then, a remarkable thing happened.

Seated near my Dad, she walked away from me, to him, and rested her chin on his lap, gazing up at him with those soulful eyes. Before he could say anything, in one nimble leap, she jumped up and coiled herself up on his legs, heaved a sigh and laid her head down as if he was a comfy dog bed. Shocked, I started to get up to lift her off him, but he waved me away and bent his head towards her while he stroked her ears, saying things like, “Well, aren’t you just something.”  A genuine smile creased his face and he looked like himself again.  Everyone’s eyes looked a bit soupy in that moment.

Bella’s never done anything like that with him, or anyone else, since that day. Why did she approach this unknown man so peaceably? I believe it’s because God knew that he could restore some joy back to my Dad by nudging a little dog onto his lap.  He directed her to do that and assured her my Dad meant her no harm. (Six years later, she still cowers a bit around any strange man.)

Maybe you’ve got some empty spaces in your Christmas get togethers this year.  Death, broken relationships, geography and such can separate us from those we long for the most.  Some of you probably struggled to put up decorations or make holiday plans at all.   Expect God to do some “dog-in-the-lap moments for you too.  He is a master of creating unexpected joys in the least likely circumstances, if we keep our hope fixed on him.  He is the answer to every cry of the heart, our Emmanuel, our God with us.

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks, a new a glorious day…” (excerpt from “O Holy Night”)

 

 

 

Comfort and Joy

One dark, Thanksgiving Eve, we lost my daughter’s year-old puppy, on 40 acres of woods and fields behind my parent’s home. For one full year, Jennifer saved her money and dreamed of this dog.  In one unguarded moment, the pup disappeared.

Prior to owning this puppy, which Jennifer named Kobi, ( a Japanese word that means “joy,”) our family lived with Labradors and a German Shepherd/Collie mix.  The pain of eventually saying a permanent good-bye to our final lab, Johnathan Edwards, occurred about nine months after we changed jobs and homes, during Jennifer’s thirteenth year.

We adored Edwards, who prevailed with us through some difficult life transitions, steady, constant. When life is hard, there’s nothing quite like a peaceful, sizable dog, who isn’t frightened when you sling your arm around his neck and sob into his fur. When we discovered that our beloved boy suffered from congestive heart failure, and felt a great deal of pain, we needed to let him go.

His loss came on the heels of several other significant ones, and I decided, after three doggie good-byes, I couldn’t face it again.  At the time, Ken’s 70-hour work weeks left him little time to be with Jennifer and I, let alone a dog and he deferred to my wishes to end our season of dogs.

Jennifer disagreed passionately. As an only child, she missed Edwards dearly.  This became a source of contention between us until one day I said, “If owning a dog means this much to you, then pray and ask God to change my heart, and while you’re at it, save your money to buy one with a strong blood line.” (We lost a lab, young, due to a poor bloodline.)

God changed my heart. Jennifer saved her money, and we bought a new dog. Since we now lived in a much smaller home and yard, I insisted we downsize by at least 70 pounds yet find a breed not afraid of its own shadow and every fluttering leaf.  This describes the breed of Shiba Inu to a tee. Diminutive in size they are still fiercely independent and courageous.  Bred as small hunting dogs for the mountains of Japan, they are highly intelligent and frighteningly cunning.

Kobi entered our lives, and we realized that not only was her appearance nothing like our previous dogs, neither was her temperament.  In the United States, you must possess a fenced in yard for this breed and NEVER let them off-leash outside a fence as they will chase down a scent or a sight of a woodland creature until they are so far gone as to not be able to ever return home.  (Honestly, I don’t know how that all works in Japan, but this is what every Shiba breeder in the states will tell you. Hundreds of them wind up missing every year.)

Her quirky personality endeared her to us and we loved her whimsical ways once we learned how to reshape and manage her natural inclinations.  Shibas believe that anything within their reach belongs to them and act accordingly.  Therefore, Kobi snatched homework from the printer as soon as it came out the feed.  If guests left their purses or briefcases on the floor, she pilfered the contents and carried items around the house like prized chew toys. Her first year with wrapped Christmas gifts didn’t entirely work out well.  Even her bark didn’t fit with anything we ever knew about dogs, sounding more like a strangled yodel. Kobi made us laugh everyday and although her independent nature made obedience training more difficult, (some obedience schools will not even accept Shibas) she became a lovely little dog and fun companion for all of us.

Now, we come to the night we lost her on my parents’ property, which is bordered by miles of fields, woods and a busy country road.  She slipped away as we entered the house, halfway in the back door, when we removed her leash.  In that split second, she spied a rabbit in the cornfield and leaped away into the darkness.

Jennifer’s look of shock and fear expressed what we all knew.  The chances of ever seeing Kobi again registered somewhere between slim and none.  Ken and I sprinted into the field, hatless, gloveless, with no flashlights, for fear we would lose track of the sound of her jingling dog tags, which grew farther away by the second.   The thick clouds that night, made it impossible to see anything beyond the circle of light emanating from the backdoor, including all the dips and rolls of the recently farrowed cornfield. Our pursuit became a series of stumbles and tumbles while we desperately tried to stay within hearing range of her telltale jingle.

Another significant trait of Shibas is that they are virtually uncatchable.  They are one of the fastest dog breeds on earth. When speed is combined with an impish nature, these dogs interpret your retrieval attempts as a wonderful game of keep away. Obedience training is vital.  Your only hope with a loose Shiba is that they will choose to come to you.  Only a year old, the command, “Come,” still meant zippo to Kobi.

I don’t know how long Ken and I ran around that field but at some point, Ken, ahead of me by now, could see the outline of the woods, along the river, coming at us as we ran.  Sheer panic filled him as he contemplated all the woodland creatures within, just waiting for a lively game of tag with a little dog.  Finding her in deep woods that ran for many miles would be nearly impossible.

Ken plunged into the dense trees, still following Kobi’s sound. Throughout the time Ken and I ran around the field, we both kept crying for God to help us, protect us and stop Kobi which helped us keep track of one another.  As I came to the end of my strength, my frozen hands and ears started to voice opinions and despair overtook me. I stopped to breathe, pull up my hood, and warm my hands in my pockets. I listened for Ken but heard nothing at all, no sound of Ken or Kobi nor even the sounds of cornstalks blowing in the cold, North wind. All previous noises simply ceased.

I fell to my knees, part exhaustion, part prayer, and cried out to God one more time. Just as I heard a crashing sound in the woods ahead of me Ken’s voice rang out in the silent night.   “I’ve got her! I’ve got her!” “Head back to the house and let Jennifer know I’ve got her, okay?” He shouted, breathlessly, joyfully.

Only when we re-united at my parents’ home did we hear Ken’s miraculous story of how he came to catch Kobi.  When he plunged into the woods, he could hear her tags jangling, changing directions at a high speed.  He presumed she’d found a nest of some hapless rabbits or woodchucks to chase around the woods. Then, abruptly, the same silence I experienced, fell on the woods also.  The lack of Kobi’s jingle convinced him that she’d run out of his hearing and we’d most likely never see her again.

In that desperate moment, the moon broke through the tree canopy like a searchlight, illuminating a small clearing.  Kobi sat motionless, in the center of the moonlight. Disbelieving, Ken inched towards her.  She sat peacefully, staring at him with a quizzical expression, until he reached her and picked her up, tucking her under his arm.  As soon as he did, the moonlight disappeared.

In the ensuing 14 years of Kobi’s life, never again did she sit so still off leash and allow someone to pick her up as Ken did that night, not even when she became blind in one eye. He is certain that God sent an angel to detach her from whatever she’d been chasing and hold her tightly until Ken arrived.  Instead of a holiday season tainted by a loss, it became enriched by a miracle.

I don’t know what or whom you’ve lost that you are grieving this Christmas season.  God doesn’t always perform miracles the way we’d like, judging by the empty seats around many holiday tables this year.  The sorrows of this world sometimes threaten to eclipse one of the primary truths of Christmas; Jesus came as a babe to be our Emmanuel, God with us. He cares passionately, about everything that matters to us, even little lost dogs.  Just as he stayed by my side and Ken’s in the field, helping us to get back up, fall after fall, he will do the same for you. He may send a miracle your way, to restore a prodigal child, lost job, broken relationship, etc.  as he did for us, but even if he doesn’t, his love and compassion for you remain constant and sustaining.

You might feel like life has become a farrowed field of upheaval, strife, disappointment, heartbreak and unwanted changes.  He is with you. He is with you. He is with you, always.  He will take you through your challenges, sending goodness and mercy to dog your footsteps. God is always about redeeming what’s been lost.  That’s why he sent Jesus, our Emmanuel.