The shepherds were amazed at the angels in the sky. The three wise men read about him in a book and were curious. Herod was unwilling to give up his power. The innkeeper didn’t have room for him. Elizabeth was overjoyed while John in her womb was excited. Zechariah laughed in disbelief that his son should prepare the way. Joseph was fearful, duty bound, and humbled. Mary was obedient.
It is amazing to me how each one had a different reaction to the news of the coming messiah. And each, in their moment of encounter, made a choice to believe and accept or scoff in disbelief. The shepherds found the manger and knelt before their king. The wise men followed the star and presented their gifts to the king. Herod tried to manipulate the three kings into telling him where the child was so he could kill him. The innkeeper treated them as vagabonds and sent them to where the animals slept. Elizabeth was overcome with joy when she saw Mary while her husband laughed at the thought of having a son of his own who would prepare the way for the messiah and was muted for his unbelief. Their son John leapt with excitement when his mother and Mary embraced. Joseph was afraid but comforted by the angel and Mary was obedient from day one.
We are so like them. We each have our own encounter with the Almighty and we each make a choice. We are all confronted with truth and decide whether to accept it or reject it. Some of us are just curious and want to see what it is all about and others become angry and are unwilling to give up control. Some of us have read all of the books and know all of the promises and have an intellectual understanding of the Good Lord but will not truly give in till we see him with our own eyes. There are others who meet him and then brush him aside…we just don’t have the time or room for him in our lives right now. Some of us laugh and scoff that the Good Lord would do things in such strange and impossible ways and are quickly silenced when we realize the truth. There are many who are fearful and doubt but follow anyway because the truth leaves no other choice. Some cannot contain their joy and would swing from the chandeliers if they could reach them and then there are others that are quietly obedient, fully accepting the responsibility and honor of knowing the King. Often our spirits are quickened even before we meet him.
We have all been each of these people at one time or another. I know I have leapt for joy in one moment and then scoffed in disbelief in another. I have been obedient and then refused to give up control. I have read many books, given in to fears, ignored the obvious, and even seen an angel. I’m sure many of you know what I’m talking about and would have your own stories of encounter. We all, like sheep, have gone astray. Christmas is a time for coming back; a time for accepting the impossible. A gift was wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger offering salvation for all who would believe. It’s your choice, what are you going to do?
Nestled beneath the branches of the big blue spruce were packages and presents of all shapes and sizes. Some were wrapped in shiny foil and others in brown paper tied with brightly colored ribbons of red and green and gold. Scattered among the gifts were baggies with tissue spilling out the top and smaller trinket sized boxes hinting at the hope of big things coming in small packages. Each one had been shaken and squeezed in a vain attempt to figure out what was wrapped inside. A good guess could be made for some but most would have to wait until the grand unveiling on Christmas morning.
The wait had been long – nearly a month already – and I could hardly sleep the night before. I went to bed early on Christmas Eve thinking that the sooner I could get to sleep the quicker the morning will come, but it didn’t really work out that way. I spent an hour or two tossing and turning thinking about the day ahead and then the rest of the night waking every half hour or so and checking the clock to see if it was too early to get up. At around five in the morning I decided that I had been in bed long enough and could wait no longer. This was it! The time had finally come! Christmas morning was here at last!
I made my way down the hallway into the den where the big blue spruce with all of the presents was waiting. No one else was awake yet so I reached behind the end table to plug the tree lights in hoping to sit and look at the tree and all the gifts one last time before everyone else woke up. This is a once in a year moment and it lasts for a very short time. All too soon the neatly stacked presents will become a massive pile of torn paper and scattered bows and empty boxes. I cherish this calm before the storm.
The lights came on and as I turned to sit on the sofa I saw something unbelievable. There was not a single present under the tree! Each and every package was gone! There were no big boxes, no baggies, and no trinket boxes. I looked behind the tree and behind the sofa and found nothing. I walked back down the hallway and peeked into each room on my way and then went into the garage but they were nowhere to be found! I walked back to the den think I must be missing something, rubbing my eyes as I went hoping I had just not seen the gifts. No such luck…they were indeed gone. I stood there for a moment in disbelief and then slumped down onto the sofa wondering what in the world could have happened.
I lifted my hands to my face and leaned my head back rubbing my eyes one last time. Through my fingers I caught a glimpse of something high up in the branches. I stood up and noticed an ornament that I had not seen before with a little card attached. I took a few steps forward and leaned in to see what it was and tears began to flow as I realized that not all of the gifts had been taken away. What my eyes beheld was a long rusty old nail tied with a red ribbon with a card attached that read…
I woke with a start, sitting straight up in my bed! I looked at the clock to see what time it was and it showed 6:30. It must have been all a dream, I thought at the sound of little feet running down the hallway and giggles in the air. I sat for a moment then put my slippers on and wrapped myself up in my robe and made my way down to the den. I was the last one awake and the unwrapping had already begun. I smiled a sleepy smile at my wife, reached down and tussled each of the kid’s heads then, as I stood up I spied an ornament that I had not seen before. I took a step forward and squinted as I leaned forward. There, hanging on the tree for all to see was a long rusty old nail with a red ribbon and card attached that read,
“The greatest gift you will ever receive was hung on a tree for all to see.”
Over the years I have received many gifts, some great and wonderful and others not so useful and then a few that even though not what I had expected or would have chosen have great sentimental value because of who had given them and why. These are the kinds of gifts that keep on giving. You come across them in a drawer or on a shelf somewhere, inconspicuous and out of the way, and they bring to mind that person or that event and bring a smile or tear as you receive the gift once again. I love these kinds of gifts.
There are other gifts that seem to keep taking…taking your time, taking your money, taking your attention. They may be useful and even necessary at times but they always seem to take you away from the more important things in life. I’m thinking about all of our gadgets and toys, computers and video games, phones and tablets. These things are useful but more often than not the isolate us from each other and take from us those things necessary for strong and lasting relationships. They take our time and attention and thoughts away from each other…constantly.
The second thought that has been on my mind is the idea giving gifts. At Christmas time we all think about what to give to whom and what we’d like to receive. We go to parties and bring a gift for the host or share goodies and treats with our coworkers. We do this because over 2000 years ago some kings brought gifts to a baby in a manger, hailing him as the King who was to come. We remember and celebrate this event by doing the same for each other. But this event was not just three kings giving gifts to a babe, there was an exchange happening. The child in the swaddling clothes was a gift from the Good Lord to all mankind. Each were offering to the other the very best that they had. The Lord of creation offering salvation to all of mankind and mankind as represented in the three kings offering what was most valuable to them as a gift for the true King.
Wouldn’t it be great if each of us received the gift of salvation, (the gift that keeps on giving), and gave back to him our time, energy, talents, love, attention, consideration…the very best of ourselves? If we did, I believe that a few more of the gifts we give each other would be the kind that keep on giving as well, rather than the kind that keep on taking.
And yet another false-start to winter here in mid-Michigan! I woke again to rain this morning and bare, brown, wet yards and trees. The snows that the mini storm from last weekend deposited are gone again, replaced by a dreariness and a longing for winter to settle in. I know some of my friends to the North and West would probably appreciate a bit of a reprieve from the feet of snow they already have on the ground but I don’t know if they would much like this back-and-forth weather either. There is almost nothing more depressing than a half-melted snowman, buckled over and weeping from every pore into his black silk hat lies on the ground next to his carrot nose two eyes made out of coal.
The changing of the seasons this year is not unlike some life changes. We have all gone through false-starts and spurts of excitement only to stumble on the starting line of something new. We second guess our choices and our motives then hesitate and take a step back. We do not always have the perseverance to press on in the midst of doubts, fears, and naysayers. Like the melting snowman, we fall over and loose our vision and convince ourselves that things will never be different; we will never get to where we need to go, become who we need to be, or accomplish what we set out to do. We defeat ourselves before we even begin.
I have learned over the years that set-backs and struggles do not necessarily mean you are on the wrong path. In fact, they often mean the opposite. Fears and questions do not necessarily mean you should run away. They could just be a warning to be careful. Despair and doubt do not necessarily mean you’ve failed. Often they indicate that your breakthrough is near…and you need to get up just one more time!
Eventually winter will set in for good this year and I’ll be out nearly every day moving snow and salting the sidewalk. Sooner or later there will be another snowman perfectly perched in the backyard who will make it through till spring, as all snowmen should. Someday our ‘try…again?’ will become ‘DONE!’ and another challenge will present itself. Hopefully our experience now will help us keep going then…
The holiday season is fast approaching and as memories are remembered and time is shared throughout these next few weeks, let us not forget to be thankful for the small things. I’m sure we can all think of people and things and events that we are thankful for – our spouse, children, parents, brothers and sisters; our wedding day or our first day on a new job and signing the papers on our first home. Those are the big things that most, if not all, of us are thankful for each and every day. But there are smaller things, little events that have as much of an impact, maybe even more, on our lives that we often take for granted.
If you’ve been following this blog you know that I have recently started a new job. I have been in training for the past 4 weeks and Monday will be my first solo day. There has been so much information to assimilate and policies and procedures to become familiar with that keeping my head on straight has been quite difficult. My prayer each day has been, “Lord, just help me to remember what I need for today and remind me tomorrow of what I need to know then”…and he has. There have been moments – moments of clarity and understanding – that have given me hope that I will be successful. Maybe someone was praying for me or perhaps someone cleared away something that would have made things more difficult for me to learn…I’m almost sure many were granted great patience! It is these small things that I am thankful for.
Over the weeks I have shadowed several people doing the job that I have been hired to do. They each have their own style and method of getting to the same place and I have realized something quite profound – for me at least – that reminded me of the whole reason I began writing here just over a year ago: “It really is all about the journey”. We are all headed to the same place; we each have the very same final destination. We will all meet The Maker one day and nothing will change that fact. The real issue at that time will not be whether we made it there or not, but what did we do along the way.
Did we reach out to that one in need? Did we pray that prayer when no one was listening? Did we encourage each other? Did we remove stumbling blocks from someone else’s path? Did we love with our whole heart? Did we believe the best or expect the worst? Did we forgive…and then choose to forget? These are just some of the small things that are often unknown to those who benefit from them but have the potential to effect significant changes in the lives of those around us. The Good Lord has done – and is doing – these things and more in each of our lives. He moves like the wind but the brush of air as he moves is often un-noticed in this busy world. He is reaching to us when we are in need and praying for us at the Father’s right hand. He is encouraging us and clearing our path. He is loving with his whole heart and believing for the best in us. He forgives and our sin is remembered no more.
I do so very much appreciate all of the great and wonderful things that I have in my life as, I’m sure, most of you do as well. But it is the little things – the whispered prayer, the slight impression, the few dollars slipped into someone’s pocket, the simple smile or the loving hand slipped into another’s trembling fingers – these are what I am truly thankful for. These are what the journey is really all about because it is these that make the big things possible.
Much of my though life has been about change recently. My wife is headed back to school, I am almost done with my master’s degree, I’ve got a new job after being a stay-at-home dad for the past 7 years, my son just started driver’s training, my daughter is beginning to look at colleges – and yesterday the power steering belt shredded on our Escape and I had to spend 3 hours at the mechanic’s! As if life changes were not enough, the seasons wait for no one to be ready! With winter slowly creeping in the ground does not freeze before the blanket descends so the ground becomes a sloppy, slushy, muddy mess that gets everywhere! Ugh! And then we have to let the dogs out to do what they have to do and they come in looking like a used old rag mop that won’t dry out! I can’t believe I’m going to write this, but I cannot wait till the ground freezes and winter sets in for good so the mud and mess will go away…(at least till spring)!
This has been a difficult and stressful few weeks in our household but I know beyond a shadow of any doubt that on the other side of the struggle is a place of greater freedom and better opportunity. I know this because I have experienced this process of change a few times before in my life. My wedding day 18 years ago, the birth of our kids 14 and 16 years ago, a year of dealing with lung cancer 9 years ago, our move from Upper Michigan to Lower Michigan 6 years ago, all came with the same kind of messiness that we’re in right now…and the Good Lord got us through them all and I know he will do it again! Let whatever is around the corner become a lesson learned and wisdom gained. There are often obstacles and hindrances when we follow God’s leading and all of that difficult stuff can make us want to quit, but he is there in the struggle making a way through.
Let’s just face it head on – change can be messy! The process of letting go of the past and grasping for what lies ahead is usually a mix of emotions and a jumble of confusion and series of spits and starts as you find your way forward. That is the important part…the forward movement…it really makes no difference how badly you falter or how unsteady you may feel as long as when you fall you fall forward. Don’t lean back on your heels and by all means don’t turn around and go back. Just stand tall, lean into the change and press on. You’ll get where you need to go…you may create quite a mess in the process but that is all a part of it. There will be mud!
Oh, and now I have a half-baked loaf of bread in an oven that decided to quit working! What a hot gooey mess….good Lord!!
Sometimes winter comes in like a lion, roaring upon us and thrashing us in its icy jaws till we finally give in and accept our fate. Other times, like this year, the season slowly creeps in in spits and spurts while we relax and enjoy the changing of the scenery. The leaves are all fallen and the fields are dressed in an earthy, sullen garment, mottled and withered and wet. It is sometimes difficult to find beauty in the dreariness of late fall, but this morning I woke to a sure sign that this malaise will soon turn to joy – snow on the rooftops.
Each and every home is white with fresh fallen snow and all their little chimneys are spewing whiffs and wafts of smoke from furnaces and fireplaces heating the homes within. Spots of white in a sea of gray and brown litter the countryside like poke-a-dots and remind us that while winter may be slow in coming, it is on its way. On some morning soon I’m sure I will wake to a freshly dressed landscape all decked out in a new heavy white coat studded with diamonds and sparkles clinging to every tree branch.
While I’m not one who enjoys winter very much, I do appreciate the seasons and how they change from one to the other. I cannot imagine living in a place without them. I like the constant reminder that change is inevitable and necessary for new growth to happen. The Good Lord has created an incredibly descriptive metaphor within the cycle of the seasons – of life and growth and dying then living again. Tales of change and struggle and re-creation are told before our very eyes, and hidden within the very heart of winter is the story of new life and hope to a world in desperate need.
It was a very chilly 18 degrees here in Michigan when I got up this morning and with the first snow of the season that came along yesterday it is really feeling like winter wants to settle in. This weather is rather early for us here in the Lower Peninsula but for my homeland in the Upper Peninsula, this is par for the course. When I was a kid we would often find inches of snow covering well frozen jack-o-lanterns during Halloween – Lake Superior can bring on a winter chill quite early some years!
For the next few weeks the weather will probably be quite a mix as the cool of autumn gives way to the crisp of winter. Seasonal changes can get pretty messy as we learn to let go of the past and deal with the present while preparing for the future. The winter coats get hung on the hooks with the boots underneath while the slickers and galoshes are stuffed away. The garage gets cleaned out from all of the summer honey-do projects to make room for the cars, and the snow-blower and shovels replace the lawn mower and rakes at the front of the shed. And yes, there will be mud as the new snow falls on not quite frozen ground…and that mud will find its way into the house.
Finding a new normal is a process. You can’t let go and hold on at the same time…it just doesn’t work. Each and every season of our lives requires that we release what we have become comfortable with and grasp the next rung on the ladder – and then pull ourselves up. Sometimes it is not simply a step on a ladder but seems more like a leap from one swinging trapeze to another over a grand canyon with no net beneath. Letting go can be tough but if you don’t, eventually you’ll just stop swinging and be left hanging and losing your grip.
When it comes right down to it, there really is no change without some bit of unknown. Every change we are presented with has an inherent element of faith required. We do not really know the outcome of each and every choice we make or transition that comes our way. Will winter finally set in before Thanksgiving or wait till Christmas this year? Will I make it through training in my new job in time to be a benefit to the company? Will my car start this morning? Even the smallest things can make us doubt our choices. For example, on my first day of work at my new job I wore a white shirt and it was a bit chilly out so I put on my fleece jacket that I had not put on since last winter. When I took it off my crisp white button-down was covered in black lint from the inside of my fleece and I spent the day wondering if my new boss and co-workers had noticed. No one said anything about it and all went well, but I learned virtually nothing that first day except to never wear a fleece with a white button-down again! The next day came and then the next and I’m beginning to get a handle on things, but it is going to take some time and I am sure there will be some other things along the way that trip me up…and that is OK…change is a process.
This is what faith is…believing in what can be even though the evidence may say otherwise. I will learn this new job and learn it well even though it seems overwhelming right now. I will make it through this class even though I’m having trouble understanding it right now. I will get my honey-do list done, (at least started), before the snow flies for real this year. Winter will set in even though it is muddy and mucky and sloppy right now. And most importantly – the Good Lord will be there to catch me if…and when…I fall or fail.