Sunday, December 20, 2009

"Maybe Christmas doesn't come from a store..." I typed the quote from the Christmas movie I'd watched over the weekend in to the computer and hit the "enter" button. Once the words appeared correctly at the top of the page I scrolled down the read the live feed of comments below. Facebook chatter that morning seemed to center on the difficulty of finding an outdoor nativity scene to display in the yard. Every other aspect of the holiday season, from blow-up snow globes to reindeer on roof tops was readily available for holiday decorating purposes, but a display depicting the birth of Christ was hard to find. Friends suggested various stores in the area that might have such an item and posted ideas on other ways to bring a more spiritual tone to the neighborhood light display in an effort to honor the holiness of the holiday.

I came to the end of the comment listing and sat before my computer lost in thought. My mind went back to the movie I'd watched days earlier. I could hear Cindy Lou Who singing, "Where are you, Christmas? Why can't I find you?", and I was reminded that people all around me are looking for meaning this time of year that they can't seem to find in shopping malls, holiday parties or the mad rush to cross every item off a too-lengthy to-do list. Suddenly God seemed to whisper, "If you can't find in in the store, you might just have to be it yourself."

My eyes popped open at the thought. The words "live nativity display" began to take on a whole new meaning. Truly our lives depict what Christmas means to us this time of year more than we think. I suddenly wondered what message I was offering to a watching world. I reviewed my actions of the last couple of days, and sadly didn't find much meaning in the red snowman purse I gleefully pulled off the top shelf of my bedroom closet, the dangling Christmas tree earrings I hung from my earlobes as I headed off to work, the Santa socks I slipped on my feet, or even my excitement over drinking my coffee from the Christmas mugs I use just one month a year. These trappings and traditions are fun and fine in their own way, and surely they have a place in our Christmas experience. For some people, this is all the Christmas they know, and for them it is enough. But others of us know that there is more to Chrsitmas than what can be bought with a credit card or conjured up by feel-good movies, holiday food, seasonal decorations, and nostalgic memories from days gone by. There is a Christmas for today that offers the warmth, hope, peace, and love that our souls are looking for.

Live nativity scenes are popular because they move the Christmas story from mere words on a page to our own flesh and blood experience. Suddenly the story comes alive and we can believe ourselves to be a part of the drama. And perhaps that's what God is getting at as He causes me to wonder what a "live nativity display" should look like in me. He wants people to know that a Baby can truly be born in a heart as well as in a bed of hay. The story of that event would be told by my changed actions better than angel song or any words I could say. There should be a Light in my life that welcomes wanderers to the One Who has the answers for the problems they face every day. And they should see me worhsipping that King with gifts that cost me in terms of love, time and effort as well as just a portion of my weekly pay.

But perhaps what God would most like them to see is the human connection that Christmas is really all about. God reached out of His world into ours, and perhaps now He's looking for us to do the same - to reach beyond our own thoughts and wants and wishes to concern ourselves with the life struggles of those around us. How that looks in your own life is between you and God. It could be something as simple as offering a smile or holding a door for a weary fellow shopper at the end of a long and exhausting day. Perhaps it's a hug from the heart to a seldom-seen friend you happen upon in your comings and goings. It could be moments of laughter and togetherness with those who need your love, stolen from your busy holiday schedule. Or it could be donations of time, money or help to someone who's just trying to make it through another day.

Christmas doesn't come from a store, and maybe God wants us to do more than just put it on display. If it lives in our hearts, we'll imitate His actions and look for ways to give His love away.

"For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life." (John 3:16 KJV)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Woodland Wonder

Today I said goodbye to the woods for the year.

When we first moved to Ohio so long ago now, God planted us just a few miles away from one of His great treasures, Hueston Woods State Park. After four treeless years in a suburb of Dallas, I rejoiced to be living so close to forested acres once more. From the time the first wildflowers pop up in the spring till the last leaves drop off the trees in the fall, I go there on a regular basis to have my spirit refreshed and my soul restored, to sip coffee by the still waters of the lake and hike through my favorite stand of trees, conversing with God all the while. My enjoyment builds from the beauty of the wood violets early in the year to the refreshing green canopy overhead in the summer, till I’m exclaiming with wonder at the splendor in the treetops in the autumn months.

My route to the woods this morning began with a stop at the local Starbucks, where for some reason I was blessed with an extra shot of espresso in my pumpkin spice latte, perhaps just to celebrate the day. As I came to the stop sign that marks the park’s boundary, I looked down the road and saw that it was flooded with sunbeams streaming through the trees. Standing in the midst of them was a deer, grazing on the berm. The view held me spellbound until the doe bounded away at the sound of an oncoming car. I carried my donut and coffee treat to my favorite seat at the picnic table at the edge of the lake. The fish were jumping at this early hour, their scales reflecting the rays of the rising sun, resulting in flashes of light all over the body of water. Off in the distance a rainbow was captured in a patch of morning mist that lay over the lake. A loud squawk heralded the arrival of a great blue heron that flew lazily away in front of me, completing a scene of exceptional peace and beauty.

Coffee gone and donut consumed, it was time to hike in the woods. Leaves rained down upon me on a trail already invisible under a carpet of their yellow offerings. I never leave the woods on this last hike of the year until I’ve caught one in mid-air, a task usually much harder to accomplish than it sounds. So I was surprised when this morning it happened almost too easily and a leaf simply landed in my waiting hands. Normally I would’ve just dropped it when I got to my car and then driven on home. But this one seemed to have a message attached. I felt impressed to take it with me, and soon God told me why.

In recent years my “farewells to fall” are all the more poignant because I know what follows. I simply dread the onset of bitterly cold temperatures, the difficulties of navigation on roads made slick by ice and snow, and the constant worry about the weather. Even the joy of the holidays and the beauty of the season are diminished to some extent by my distaste of the dark and dreary days of December, January and February. I’m simply not a fan of the winter months.

The wonder that I found in the woods this morning was not the beauty of God’s creation surrounding me so much as the revelation that God is very much aware of the cares of my life, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem to others. In His plan to deal with my distaste for this coming time of year He told me to take the leaf home with me, keep it in the pages of my prayer journal and then bring it back with me to return to Him on my first visit back in the spring. As I move through winter I was likewise to move the leaf through the pages of this book I open daily, its passage reminding me of God’s presence in my dark times and His promise of an eventual end to them. It’s a visual reminder of other times when a specific word from God that I found in the leaves of another Book I likewise refer to daily carried me through the difficult days of my husband’s radiation treatments, the turmoil of my sons’ teenage years, and trouble in changing church relationships. Having that hope to hold on to is what made the difference each time in my getting through the difficulty to the joy and peace on the other side.

Surely God doesn’t need the leaf I would return to him, and likely it will be little more than a crumbling mass of cellulose by that time. But I need the promise of an end of the season to look forward to; hope that I can hold in my hands. Likewise many people struggle with situations so much more serious than a mere dislike of the colder months of the year. And they likewise need to know that God cares about what they’re going through, that He’s willing to walk through the dark days with them, His Word a hand they can hang on to each step of the way.

If you don’t have a forest outside your door as I do, know that God will come to your neck of the woods, wherever that may be. Whether you’re the caregiver of an aging parent who no longer remembers your relationship, a mother on a sleepless night watch with a colicky baby, or a lonely widow navigating the first days and weeks of life without your spouse, He’s no farther than the mention of His Name. God will drop hope into your heart as easily as that leaf fell into my waiting hands this morning. The trick, however, is to catch it… to wrap your belief system around it, tuck it away in your innermost being and then carry it with you until you reach your spiritual springtime on down the road. On the stormiest days in your struggle, pull it out and remind yourself that sooner than you think you will be rejoicing with me as we repeat the words of Solomon, “See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come…” (Song of Songs 2:11-12 NIV).
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