Lifeline For Doubters

There is a line in one of my otherwise favorite hymns that I am not able to honestly sing exactly as the hymn writer wrote it. It goes, “If you trust and never doubt, He will surely bring you out…”

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Thankfully (and mercifully), I have been rescued by another line.  This one was spoken by our Lord himself, and it was spoken to the most famous doubter in the New Testament whose very name has come to be a synonym for doubters —Thomas.  This line turned out to be the last beatitude, and it was not spoken in the “sermon on the mount”, but to Thomas himself where the disciples had barricaded themselves after the crucifixion. Jesus has appeared alive to several of the men and women disciples, but Thomas wasn’t buying their story and had said so in no uncertain terms!  “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”

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Then in spite of the locked doors, Jesus showed up.  Not only Thomas, but also the others were there as well, but after greeting them with “Peace!”, Jesus turned his focus to Thomas. Thomas must have hoped that what he had said hadn’t gotten back to Jesus.  He probably expected condemnation.  But Jesus instead held out his hands to Thomas, reaching all the way to the core of Thomas’s doubts: “Put your finger here; see my hands,” he said.  “Reach out your hand and put it into my side.  Stop doubting, and believe.”

Thomas did believe.  “My Lord and my God!” he said as he embraced the evidence with his heart.  But that wasn’t the end of this episode.  Jesus then threw a lifeline to me and to all of us who can’t stop our minds from asking questions.

“Because you have seen me, you have believed,” Jesus said to Thomas and the others in the room.” (Now comes the last beatitude.) “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

Those outstretched hands tell me that whatever it takes, Jesus will lead us to the place where we can honestly trade in our questions and doubts for faith — even if we never see until He comes again when we can trade all doubt for certainty.

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Meanwhile, we are not condemned for our questions; neither is God intimidated by them.  He created the minds with which we are questioning, and I’m convinced we can’t come up with any questions He hasn’t heard before. 

I have a feeling that those who never have big questions may not have very deep faith, and sometimes the bigger the price we pay for our faith, the stronger that faith is to withstand the hard times that inevitably will come to test our faith into the next rung of spiritual maturity.

I still love the old hymn, but I sing the more honest words these days: “If I trust Him through my doubts, He will surely bring me out.” Now I’m working on the next phrase: “Take your burdens to the Lord, (I can do that) “and leave them there.” (Now, that is not so easy!)

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I Can See

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       Easter week has passed and I am living in the glory of the resurrection.  This is the week of glimpses of the risen Lord – the confirmation that he is alive in the daily of our lives. 

       We are walking home from work and he catches up with us – just some guy who wants someone to walk with.  We are intent on our own conversation but we pause just long enough to acknowledge Him, then go on talking.

       “We’re discussing the assassination,” we say. “We’re sure you’ve heard about it, how strange it all was.  This man called himself the Son of God, the King of the Jews, and the government ruled he was a blasphemous heretic.  But he quoted the prophets while he was dying and told the criminal beside him he’d see him later that same day – in paradise.  He forgave his executioners because of their naivety and made sure some man was given the responsibility of taking care of his mother.”

       Then our walking partner begins to point out things about him we hadn’t noticed ourselves, drawing parallels to what the prophets had said about the Messiah.  We were drawn to this fellow pilgrim like one is drawn to a child telling the truth.  We invited the guy home for dinner. 

       Then, at the table, our table, he stands up and takes the loaf of bread we’ve baked the night before, breaks it into pieces and serves it to us.  We both have this wave of déjà vu, like we’d been here before, and then he is gone.

       A bunch of our friends are hiding in a room because the inner city street vibe is very unsettling.  We are discussing again all we have heard him say and seen him do in the last few years.  The door is bolt-locked.  Someone even shoves a bench against it.  Then, all at once, he is there – with us.  Tom has no more than gotten the words out of his mouth, “Not me!  I’m not a sucker for rumors and tricks. I won’t believe he’s alive unless I can jam my fingers into the gashes in his hands and side…”  And there he is with us. 

       “Go ahead,” he says.  “If touching helps you believe, then touch.”

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       Upset by the grief and exhaustion of the whole execution thing, a bunch of us decide to go fishing.  Fishing always seems to get things into perspective.  We leave in the evening when the fish are usually starting to bite, and we stay out in the boat all night, talking and being still by turns.  When the light of dawn starts to break over the horizon, we start in with our catch.  There on the beach we can see a fire and someone hovering over it, cooking breakfast.  As we get closer to shore, the figure stands up, and we recognize the Lord. 

       “Come, have some breakfast,” he hollers when we get close enough.  It’s just like old times, like nothing ever happened on Golgotha.  He is grinning and laid back. 

       Then he has a very interesting conversation with Peter, asking him if he loves him.  Because of Peter’s behavior the night of the crucifixion, Peter is taken back at first with the questions and eager to let Jesus know he’ll do anything to make it up to him.  But Jesus just gives him responsibility for leadership and then hands him some hot fish and fresh bread, as if he wants to erase all the bad memories from Peter’s mind and make him know that he is still in.

       There are other times, too.  All of them involve doing regular things:  walking, talking, grilling, eating, fishing.  I think it is important that we all know that the risen Jesus is a part of our regular lives, so we won’t make some fantasy or legend of him, some religion or fable. No, this is the week of the real Jesus in real places.

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       For me, I see him walking across the yard laughing, helping the little ones find Easter eggs.  I see him in a long conversation about choices and options over coffee with our college graduate grandson.

       I sense him with me when I am trying to prioritize our schedule, choosing what to say yes to and what to eliminate.  I feel his wisdom when I am trying to wrestle into words ideas that can’t be said in words.

       I sense he is speaking when I am listening to two friends whose faith has been damaged by charlatans and feel him assuring me that all I have to do is to love them and be real.

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       He shows up alive and in person when I feel too afraid to trust him with my fears.  I give him our children – now grown – once again.  I give him Benjy’s anxieties about his film project and his excitement about recent auditions; I give him Suzanne and her many faceted writing.  I give him Amy’s acting and her trying to hold in tension all her loves—her husband, her professional choices, her almost-grown children, her heart.

       And Bill.  I trust this Christ to walk with him, too, and to lean on him when there’s no way to talk, to love him better than I can when he hurts.

       “Do you love me more than these?” I hear him ask.  “I do, Lord, even more than these.”

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Everyday Sacraments

The hot sun bore down on the holiday beach-bathers lined up on their oversized designer towels.  The smell of seaweed and ocean tides mingled with the sweet aroma of coconut oil and piña colada tanning lotion.  The breeze was welcome, but not quite enough to cool the bottoms of feet baked by walks in the hot sand.

            I was one of these overtired, over-scheduled escapees to the island.  I was lying on my stomach reading a book when I felt a gentle sensation trickling over my feet.

            “There,” said Jesse.  “I’m getting all the sand off, Mamaw.  I’m washing your feet.”

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            A quick glance over my shoulder and I saw my five-year-old grandson dipping water from a little green pail with his sand shovel, then pouring each measured portion over my sandy, burning feet.

            “All clean, Mamaw.  Now doesn’t that feel better?”

            The cool baptism was more than sacred to me.  It had been only 48 hours since Jesse had been rushed by helicopter to Boston Children’s Hospital.  Suzanne had been the only one allowed to travel the 30-minute trip with Jesse, her sweet boy confined in a neck brace and taped to a body board.  I had followed by plane with Jesse’s daddy, Barry.

            It had happened so fast.  Suzanne and seven-year-old Will had gone on to the hotel from the beach on their bikes; Jesse and Barry were to follow giving Jesse a bit more time to play in the waves.  Riding home Jesse got hot and thirsty and asked to stop for a drink.  After waiting for a safe place to leave the bike trail to cross the busy road, they started across to the small store.  “Come on, Jesse, let’s go.”

            But for some reason Jesse was distracted and didn’t follow right away.  By the time he had started across, a car appeared around a curve going too fast for the busy holiday weekend.

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            Barry had watched in horror as the car struck his child.  Like slow motion in a bad movie, Jesse’s little body had been thrown into the windshield then hurled about 12 feet to land face down on the pavement.

            “It’s Jesse,” the shaken voice had said on the phone when Bill answered the call.

            “What is it, Barry?  What’s happened?”

            “I think he’ll be alright.  Come to the hospital.  Bring Suzanne.  I couldn’t get her on the phone.”

            Now we were moving like a bad slow-motion movie.  Down the stairs, into the car, to get Suzanne and Will, through the tiny vacation-crowded streets, through the hospital corridors.

            “It’s routine.  We have no pediatric unit here.  We always life-line children to Boston.”

            But the reassuring tone in the nurse’s voice wasn’t nearly reassuring enough.  We awaited every X-ray, every blood test, every CAT scan with an anxiety we weren’t able to put at rest.

            I stood with Will and Barry and Bill to watch helplessly as our daughter and her little son lifted off in the helicopter.  She waved weakly from the window — a wave reminiscent of the one she gave as a child herself through the window of the tiny commuter the first time we all said good-bye to this island.

            Over the years our family had kept up a love affair with this magical place, and now we had returned with a new generation to make memories.

            But this was not the sort of memories we had hoped to make.

            “Please, God.  You go with them.  Go with us all.”

            In a short time that seemed like an eternity we were waiting with Suzanne for more test results.

            “Because of the mechanics of the accident, we need a few more pictures.”  We listened to that sentence over and over.  With the return of each piece of film, each scan, each test, the doctors would shake their heads.

            “You are a fortunate little boy,” they would say to Jesse.  “Tell all your friends to always wear their bike helmets like you did.”

            The doctors had wanted to keep him overnight, so we kept a vigil.  He slept like a very exhausted boy would and awakened wanting something to eat.

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            By noon the next day we had landed back on the island and were walking across the tarmac to meet Will and his Papaw Bill, overwhelmed by the miracle of legs that move, eyes that blink, a giggle that escapes from a mischievous little grin, and a wide little hand holding tightly to ours.  The next day we were lying on the beach again, and a little boy was baptizing my feet.

            “Do this in remembrance of me.”

            Jesse hadn’t come to quite understand those words yet.  But I understood what Simon Peter must have felt when the pure heart of God knelt to wash his feet.

            “All clean,” said Jesse.  “You’re all clean now.”

            And by some miracle, I was.

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Prisoner of Hope

       I woke up this morning humming “Whispering Hope”.  Where the quaint old song came from in the storage bin of my memory is anybody’s guess, but, there it was working its way to the surface of my consciousness as I opened my eyes.  Its presence in my mind surprised me. 

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       I’d gone to sleep somewhat discouraged with myself and by the expectations of others, certainly not the psychological breeding ground where one would expect to find hope.  And the old song itself had always seemed rather bland and shallow to me as a maturing, young questor.  Not enough edge to it, I thought, not enough content.  I’ve spent today revisiting those old lyrics and repenting for the hasty judgment of my youth, and my lack of attention to what I now realize is a profound and life-sustaining truth. 

            Soft as the voice of an angel whispers a lesson unheard,
            Hope with a gentle persuasion whispers her comforting word. 

            Wait till the darkness is over; wait till the tempest has past. 
            Hope for the sunrise tomorrow, after the shower has past. 
            Whispering hope, oh how welcome thy voice,
            Making my heart in its sorrow rejoice. 

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       A few years ago my friend Peggy lost her 34 year-old son, a tall, handsome, funny, strong, outdoorsy young man, who was about to turn out.  No one quite knows what happened, but, what began as a hiking expedition into one of his favorite places in the hills of Tennessee turned into the nightmare of a forest ranger on Peggy’s front porch with the news that Tom’s body had been found at the bottom of a slippery cliff. 

       Bill and I have a strong, funny, grown son who is as dear to me as Tom was to Peggy.  I try to imagine how Peggy could have ever climbed through the despair of such an unfathomable loss.  I’m not sure I could.  All the kind words, sympathetic letters, arms around the shoulders, assurances of continued prayer, admonitions to trust it all to God, all the good advice in the world would not make it possible to crawl out of bed another morning and face another day full of other people’s children and other families’ joy.  Yet over these years since I first heard the song I woke up singing this morning, I have seen the amazing power of the hope that is within us.  I saw it in Peggy, and I am coming to know that some of the most quiet, unassuming truths are the most life changing and the most healing. 

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       I am learning that things like hope are not to be conjured up by our will and grit.  No, hope, like faith, and love, and patience, and forgiveness are gifts from God.  As trite as this may sound, it’s more like waking up in the morning to the sound of hope whispering in your ear.  “Come with me, you can go on.”  Hope is a vision, a dream, an inspiration that is projected on the screens of our souls from somewhere else.  Hope – the fragile, gentle, whispering, tough, enduring, awesome stuff dreams are made of – is the gift of God to every fainting heart. 

       “Return to your fortress, oh prisoners of hope.” (Zechariah 9:12)

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Girlfriends With Grandmother Faces

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Sometime in the 90’s I came across a book called Girls with Grandmother Faces, encouraging women to stay connected, curious, and active after being widowed, having the kids leave home, or transitioning from the busy career years.  It was an interesting book, but it is the title I most remember because when my closest friends first entered my life, we all sort of still considered ourselves “girls.”  We were young women with little children; most of us had college degrees, and were married to men with more entrepreneurial ideas than anyone could ever realize in a lifetime.  We, too, had dreams—some of which we shared with those creative men and some we only discussed and shared with each other.

We met because we were all connected in one way or another with the music business.  We all had to learn that “home” was portable, as we traveled a lot with babies and small children.  Peggy taught me to check an extra suitcase so I could set up “home” wherever we landed—in hotel rooms, busses, backstage dressing rooms, or locker rooms of sports arenas.  A soft throw, a candle, an electric hot-pot for coffee, tea or instant soup, a picture of grandparents or pets, a bouquet of Queen Anne’s Lace picked from behind the parking lot—these could turn a sterile (or not so sterile!) space into “home” in no time, because, as our family discovered, home is wherever we could all be together.

Joy confirmed and encouraged my passion for books—books for the children and for myself.  Sue made us all laugh at ourselves and at life.  Lois took us on adventures and was the only one we all considered “a lady.”  She lived in California, so we all went to the desert to write our first book together because she offered us a place “away” to write.  Lois’s boys and the Gaither kids were and are to this day good friends.

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Over the years we shared laughter, pain, secrets, disappointments, betrayals, the death of spouses, and some great vacations with our families in tow.  We prayed each other’s kids through gains and losses, tragedies and triumphs.  We walked with Sue through breast cancer and the death of her precious redheaded and creative daughter to the same disease that Sue survived.  We held on to each other when Peggy’s Bob, Lois’s Fred, and Joy’s Robert slipped from our grasp into eternity.  We cried together when Peggy lost her handsome, outdoorsy son and when Sue’s beautiful Mindy was gone for a decade and we didn’t know if she would ever be found.  She was!  And we all treasure every precious minute with her now.

We’ve traveled together speaking for “Friends Through Thick ‘n Thin” week-ends and spent many an hour on each other’s porches talking about whichever one of us happened to not be present.  All of our daughters at one time or another have said to us, “I hope I can find friends that are as fun and as interesting and loyal as your friends are!”

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Gradually, we all got “grandmother faces”, but we were still the same “girls” we’d always been—only better.  Better because we’ve known and loved each other through more than four decades and have been the Keepers of each other’s memories.  We all knew how important this well-earned trust would become in the coming days, for we knew there was a good chance some of us would be losing some memory of our own.  

Sweet Peggy is gone now. Joy has moved to the west coast to live near her daughter Shana and her precious only grandchild.  Lois just went with us on the Alaskan Homecoming Cruise, and what a sweet time we had!  Sue and I keep in touch through email, text, an occasional phone call and breakfast together whenever I happen to be in Nashville. Our friendship has seasoned like vintage wine, and we treasure our children together and the times we steal to giggle like the girls we still are at heart.

They say the things we learn to music are the most lasting, so when we all lose our memories and maybe even our lives, I am believing that we will always be able to meet each other in the music!  God gave the song!

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The Golden Invitation

       The summer before Bill and I were married, I went home to Battle Creek, Michigan, to work at Kellogg’s to earn enough money to return to Anderson University that fall. On weekends Bill would drive up to see me. When I got out of work at midnight on Friday, he would be waiting for me in the Kellogg’s parking lot. I’d come out in my ugly green uniform, a few cornflakes still stuck in my hair, and climb into his red convertible.

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       One night when I came out, he handed me an engagement ring. It wasn’t much of a ring, because he didn’t much like diamonds. But I wanted a ring so my friends in Michigan could see that we were engaged.

       When we got married in December, he gave me the matching wedding band, but he never liked those rings. He would always say something like, “Those are the dumbest-looking rings! Now, what I really like is a plain gold band. A plain band looks so . . . married.”

       One evening, after we’d been married two or three years, we were at Kmart. Bill went to the recording department, as he always did, while I shopped for what we needed. That night I saw they were selling plain gold bands at the jewelry counter for $13.95-- a “blue-light special.” (That was a long time ago!) I had some grocery money left, so I bought a plain gold band, took off my other rings, and put the band on my finger. I didn’t say anything about it until we got to the car.

       Bill pulled out his new recording and said, “How do you like this?”

       “Fine,” I answered. “How do you like this?” I held up my hand with the plain gold ring on my finger.

       “I like that!” he said. “It just looks so married.”

       So, for seventeen years I wore the plain gold band I bought myself at Kmart for $13.95. (I don’t even know if that’s legal!)

       In 1982, our group took a trip to the Holy Land just after Thanksgiving. The next February, one night when our family sat down for supper, instead of praying the blessing on our food, Bill said, “I want everybody to be quiet. I have a presentation to make.” He took out a small blue box and handed it to me. I opened it and found inside a most unusual gold ring with Hebrew writing engraved around it.

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       “I had that made for you in Jerusalem,” Bill said. “It is eighteen-karat gold and says, ‘Arise, my love, and come away,’ from the Song of Solomon.”

       I couldn’t believe it! He had thought of this all on his own. He even paid for it! Of course, I don’t read Hebrew. It could say, “Go away, my love,” for all I know. Or it could say, “Kmart.”

       But I believe him and I love my ring. I put it right on and have worn it ever since. Now, he didn’t say I had to wear it. I could have said, “I can’t believe you really want me to have this ring” or “I don’t know what you’re trying to pull. I paid $13.95 for this ring on my finger, and you’re not going to get me to take it off. No siree!”

       But that would have been crazy, don’t you think? Especially when I had an eighteen-karat-gold, hand-engraved invitation to be loved by this wonderful man who knows me pretty well. He knows all my failures and my shortcomings. He knows what I can and cannot do. He knows all my bulges and figure flaws . . . and he loves me anyway.

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       And Jesus says to us, “I come that you might know life abundant.” He wrote His love in His own blood on a cross. Then we say, “What will I have to give up?” We hang on to our little Kmart lives; we’re so suspicious, so fearful of letting go, while He holds out His arms and invites us to share in His “unsearchable riches.”

       If only we could all believe that it isn’t about our being worthy. It’s about our being loved. If we could dare to believe that we are loved, it wouldn’t matter what degrading thing anyone else had ever said to chip away at our self-esteem or to tear down our sense of worth. If we are loved, if we are valued by the God of the universe Himself, no one else’s opinion matters. Being loved by Him who knows us best--this is the opinion that matters most.  Accepting this Lover gives us the security to risk loving too, even loving ourselves.

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Love Like I'm Leavin'

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It is nothing new to be told to “live in the moment” or to “embrace the Now”.  Wise sages have been saying this for centuries, including the Psalms 90 account of the prayer of Moses that reminded us that our whole life span is like grass that is growing one day and mowed down the next, and the apostle James who observed that “life is just a vapor”—fog that burns off with the first bright ray of sunshine.

We know life is short and we should pay attention.  But why?  And how?  Why focus on right now?  Why live today as if it were your last?  What about the hurts and betrayals of the past that reach their nasty tentacles into this morning and disturb tonight’s sleep with nightmares of the days we thought we had buried.  And how can we live in the Now when the future looms like a colossus before us?

This may sound obvious—maybe even simplistic—but I believe the answer is because it is the only day we can affect.  “THIS is the day the Lord has made; I will rejoice and be glad in IT.” And how about the advice from Matt. 6:34 as paraphrased by Eugene Peterson in THE MESSAGE?

 Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked     
 up about what may or may not happen tomorrow.  God will
help you deal with
whatever hard times come up when the time comes.

You have to love that!

When Moses was trying to obey God by leading his enslaved nation out of bondage and into a yet unseen land of freedom, he found himself on one given day facing the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army in chariots pounding down on him and a whole tribe of adults, teen-agers, and children hauling their possessions and expectations with them.  On that day, God gave what seemed like a ridiculous command: “Go back and make camp between Migdol and the sea…. Pharaoh will think the Israelites are wondering around in the desert.” 

So, on that day the people went camping, fixed supper, and loved their kids.  In the night it got really windy.  Second guessing the provision of the Lord, they started blaming instead of trusting. “Moses, did you bring us out here to die in the desert?”

But Moses had heard from God.  He told the people, “Stand firm, and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring today…. The Lord will fight for you.  Just be still.” The Israelites must have thought “Oh, right!  Stand still.  Really?”

But Moses said, “Break camp and let’s head for the sea.  When they got there Moses lifted what he had in his hand—his well-worn walking stick—over the water, and the unsettling wind from the night before began to stack up the water like a brick wall and to dry the exposed sea floor.  A whole nation walked on through, and when Pharaoh’s army followed in hot pursuit, the sea closed behind the Israelites destroying the force that had held them captive.  (See any metaphors here?)

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Maybe, just maybe, the only way to redeem the past and change the future is to live with all we have THIS day.  By living well today, we can change the past for our tomorrows. And, as someone has so well stated, “Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday.”  By noticing and celebrating the blessings of this moment and piling up enough moments of joy and grace, we can alter the history we will hand to our children tomorrow.  By focusing on the beauty of this day, by making right choices this day, by purging negative energy this day, we can, over time, live ourselves into a fresh attitude-climate for tomorrow.

There is no grand formula for changing our own homes, our neighborhoods, our regions, our nation—no politic, no party, no legislation that will fix the problem or heal the illness of a home or nation or the world.  There is no social program or quick fix, no pill to swallow to fizz away past resentment.  There is no magic wand to wave to bring hope for the future.

There is just this moment, this precious, fragile, beautiful moment to fill with something powerful:  seeing, feeling, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting this vaporous gift of today.

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Valentine #1: When Did I Start To Love You?

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One Valentine’s Day in the 70s, I found myself at an arena parking garage in our tour bus without a Valentine for Bill or any way to get one. The children were little then, so I had their stash of art supplies—construction paper, scissors, glue, markers—in the bus.  I decided to make a Valentine and write him my heart.

We were in the thick of life with three children, traveling on week-ends, writing songs, and growing a publishing company.  It seemed I was wearing a different hat every day.  I was running kids to music lessons, cheering ball games, watching dance and piano recitals, listening to poetry contests, and going to play rehearsals and performances, while writing lyrics, writing books, cooking supper, packing for and unpacking from concert week-ends, and doing endless laundry.

Keeping romance fresh (or even breathing) and stealing moments for Bill and me to be alone together was demanding much more than a box of chocolates and a few long-stemmed roses. These lives we were juggling was the “fine print” of the marriage commitment. So, I wrote him this Valentine message in that construction paper card:

Does love have a beginning that a meeting’s measured by? 
Does it happen in a moment like white lightning from the sky? 
Can you tell me its dimensions—just this wide and just this high? 
When did I start to love you?

Tell me just how many dates it takes for love to really start? 
And just how many kisses will turn “love” into an art? 
When does the magic moment come to give away your heart? 
When did I start to love you?

Was the day we talked of Browning the beginning of it all? 
Or the time we walked the meadow and the fields of corn so tall
That we felt like naughty children hiding from their mother’s call? 
When did I start to love you?

I remember just how timidly your first new song you shared—
And by the way you grinned I knew that you were glad you’d dared,
Although my evaluation wasn’t worth much, still you cared.
When did I start to love you?

Was it when I went to meet you in a gown of snowy white? 
Was it when we signed the license and drove off into the night? 
Was it when I gave myself to you and felt that it was right? 
When did I start to love you?

When I feared you wouldn’t love me if you knew how I’d been wrong,
And I spent a week in mis’ry, but you’d known it all along,
And you loved me ‘cause you love me, and not because I’m strong!
When did I start to love you?

Was it when we knew for certain ‘bout the baby on the way? 
Did it start the day you told me I looked pretty—shaped that way? 
Or did something special happen as we waited that last day….
When did I start to love you?

Did it happen when we held her in our arms for the first time? 
Was it later when I nursed her, this creation—yours and mine? 
And I knew compared to what we held the world’s not worth a dime!
When did I start to love you?

There were nights we stayed and prayed by babies, fever burning hot, 
When we really didn’t know if they would make it through or not—
Then we’d face the dawn’s beginning, thanking God for what we’ve got—
When did I start to love you?

Was it rushing to the clinic with a bone in Amy’s throat? 
Was it nights you saw me shivering and wrapped me in your coat? 
Was it when I cleaned your bureau drawer and found you’d saved my note—
When did I start to love you?

Was it when I saw you showing Benjy how to be a man? 
How to sheath his strength in meekness—
How to gently take a stand—
How that only strength of character can salvage this old land?
When did I start to love you?

When you held me close in silence when there were no words for grief—
When the line of empty caskets gaped at all I called “belief”—
When the “amen” was so final.  I had you, and dared to leave—
Was it then I came to love you?

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What is the stuff love’s made of that can cause the world to glow?
Is it that you made the segments that I brought you, well and whole?
Was it when I came to recognize the poet in your soul
That I began to love you?

It’s not of lace and chocolate that valentines are made—
All such things are lovely but disintegrate and fade.
But love—when once it grows to be—is richer far than jade—
I only know—I love you!

Gloria

      

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Collections

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I came from a long line of throw-away-ers, not collectors.  My Scottish Grandmother Boster on my mother’s side was a practical pioneering woman who actually sewed the muslin covering to stretch over the ribs of a covered wagon before she and my grandfather lit out across the prairie from Missouri to homestead in Wyoming.   There was no place for a “collection” hobby in a covered wagon or in the sod house they lived in once they got there.  When I was a child I do remember her collecting string, which she wound into a great ball for tying bundles wrapped in paper or feed sack cloth.  She also used the heavy cotton string to replace broken shoestrings, to attach to the kites she cut for us out of butcher paper, and to tie the trunk of the car down when it was full of suitcases or furniture.  She taught me to play cat’s cradle with it and to use it to make a big circle on the sidewalk or wood floor for playing marbles.

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My mother didn’t collect things either, and gave away anything she didn’t need and some things we did.  To this day I wish she had kept the service for twelve of Eva Zeisel Town and Country dishes, which by now would have been worth a fortune.  She also used what she had and was not one to “keep it for good.”  She used her Nobility quadruple plate silverware, her china, her Miracle Made cookware, and her best linens. She lit candles and used real napkins on regular days, because she didn’t believe there were any regular days.  She didn’t save things, including herself.  She often said, “If I’m half-way through, I should be half used up—and if I’m not, what in the world am I saving myself for?”

Maybe from them I inherited the deep belief that “we have this moment—today,” and that God’s will for my life is God’s will for this minute.  Mother often told me while I was growing up, “Do what you know to do today and do it with everything you’ve got.  That’s God’s will for your life.”

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If I have collected anything, it is art glass.  This may have started when I was in grade school and my Grandmother Sickal, my father’s Irish mother, gave me a set of very thin and delicate lime green sherbet glasses.  Since then I have collected some beautiful pieces of art glass, including a piece in sea colors Bill got when we visited the island of Murano in Venice, and two matching pieces (a heavy vase and huge platter) in all my favorite shades of yellow and gold that the gals in our Monday night Bible Study got me for Christmas one year.

But really, what Bill and I have collected together over the years has been people: funny quirky people, faithful friends, broken hearts, innocent children, the seasoned and wise, hopeful college kids, old farmers, dear widows who have survived enough pain to bend a weaker soul to the ground.  Our lives have been so enriched by the folks who have crossed our path, sat at our table, ridden on our bus, been in our classes when we taught high school and college, and worked with us over the years.  This collection is eternal, for only relationships will survive this life and open like a blossom into the next.

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Prayer: Just Do It!

Much has been written, taught, preached about prayer and why it does or doesn’t work.  By “work” most people mean “work to our advantage” or “get the sought-after result.”  There are prescriptions, prayer guides, and instruction manuals on prayer with tidy lists of what those who pray must do—and in what order—if they are to see results or, if not followed as prescribed, reasons why the desired result is not seen in good time.

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There are prayer requests sent out by mass mailings or social media blitzes rallying a power-prayer bombardment to sort of “gang up on God” to get Him to change his mind or to clear the way for some project or political objective.

I will readily admit that I don’t understand prayer.  I don’t know why sometimes we seem to “get what we want” and other times we don’t.  I don’t know why the God who breathed (and continues to breathe) galaxies into existence chose to penetrate our tiny planet with the seed of the Divine and make us “vessels unto honor,” promising never to leave us or forsake us and assuring us that He knows our needs before we ever ask.

I do know that if the walking-around definition of His character and being, his very flesh and blood persona—Jesus—is to be believed, God loves us and is moved to compassion by our issues, even when they are the result of our own unwise choices.

If I read the story of Jesus rightly, it’s more about our getting on God’s page than about God getting on ours.  After all, isn’t that why Jesus came? To let us know that God was on our page from the beginning, from the “foundations of the world”?  Didn’t Jesus come to let us know the true character of the Father and clear up any confusion about how "one" He wants us to be with Him and with each other?

And doesn’t every story Jesus told (parables, we call them, because they parallel life’s great truths) tell us that there are two systems in operation—the system of this world and its powers (both political and ecclesiastical) and the Kingdom of God?  And didn’t Jesus plainly teach that we will never accomplish Kingdom work with the earth’s systems?  So ganging up on God to get our candidates elected or defeated or our empires expanded doesn’t seem to be in line with what Jesus taught and exemplified.

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As I think back over my life, recalling the great people of prayer that I have known, the people I would call if I were at a hard place, they seem not to be all that visible to the masses, but instead have been those “embedded” in the fabric of regular life.  Come to think of it, the great Believers I have know have been “embedded”, too.  And that is what the media and the public seem to miss.  Doesn’t that sound a lot like metaphors Jesus used for those who would follow him, metaphors like “yeast” and  “salt” and “light”?

As I said before, I don’t really understand why this great cosmic all-powerful, all-knowing God would invite us into a co-op with Him, but He does.  I am so amazed at that and so grateful.

And about methods and systems and protocol for prayer, let me just say this:

Our three kids are as different as three can be.  One will plan your sox off and can think circles around us both, but hates being in the public eye.  One leads with her heart and absorbs everyone else’s pain, joy, and dreams.  She is amazing to watch when she works with people.  One gets everything on a visceral level and is seldom wrong about the internal character or motives of even the roughest character, though he may not always be able to tell you how he knows.  One writes, one dances and one makes music all day and all night.

When they walk into our farm kitchen, we don’t stop them at the door and keep them there at arm’s length until the thank us for our parenting  skills (or lack of them), give us due credit for all the meals, parties, cook-outs, vacations, homework help, sick-care, college tuition, deposits on first apartments, weddings and baby gifts we may have contributed to their lives.  We don’t withhold affection until they create the perfect atmosphere of praise for us to inhabit.

We are just so glad to see them that we run half-way to the drive-way to meet them and help shoulder their baggage, collect their children, kiss their sweet faces, hug their spouses, and pull them into this comfortable old place where the soup’s already on, the fire is crackling in the kitchen fireplace, the candles are lit, and the chill-down music is playing.

We’re just so glad they’ve come home again and hollowed out some time to just BE together, we can hardly stand it.  Conversations about anything and everything flow easily around our old oak table while I slice the hot cornbread and pass around the steaming bowls of soup.

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Sooner or later someone is bound to drift to the piano and someone else uncases the guitar. Songs they grew up singing start filling the house while little ones spread out their favorite puzzles and super heroes across the floor, content to bask in the noise and music and conversations so familiar.

Our kids are always our kids, and in between actual visits we keep in contact pretty much daily by phone, texts, emails and, well, prayer.  The relationship is long-standing and trusted.  But Bill and I love it when they come home and we can just be together. On purpose.

This God we love doesn’t lose track of us, either, for “in Him we live and move and have our being.” He just wants us home. He wants us present. We are always on His mind, and the minute we turn our full face in His direction, we find He’s already facing us.

So what is the secret of prayer? If this cosmic, yet personal God invites us to hang out with him and not be shy about it, as NIKE says about exercise, “Just do it!” You have to love Psalm 139, and I love it best in Living Bible:

O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me.  You know when I sit down or stand up.  You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.  You see me when I travel and when I rest at home.  You know everything I do.  You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord.  You place your hand of blessing on my head  Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand!  I can never escape from your Spirit!  I can never get away from your presence! If I go up to heaven, you are there; If I go down to the grave, you are there. If I  ride the wings of the morning, if I dwell by the farthest oceans, even there your hand will guide me and your strength will support me….You saw me before I was born.  Every day of my life was recorded in your book….How precious are your thoughts about me, O God.  They cannot be numbered!  I can’t even count them; they outnumber the grains of the sand!  And when I wake up, your are still with me! …Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. (New Living Bible)
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Holy Meltdown

It breaks my heart, and it must break the heart of God, that for the last couple of decades the church has been preoccupied with what the popular press has called “The Worship Wars.”  Even that the two words “worship” and “wars” should appear together describing what is going on in the “ body of Christ” contradicts what Jesus said was the two greatest commandments:  love God with all our hearts and love each other because we have come to love the deep core of ourselves.

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On the surface this “worship battle” seems to be over musical stylist preferences.  Lines have been drawn and walls built right down the middle aisle of our churches (and thus dividing them in two—or more), lines between old and young, traditional and contemporary, hymnals and screens, choirs and worship teams, for and against the musical instruments we use.

But these arguments are only a symptom of a much deeper issue.  These are symptoms of a lack of true worship, a falling on our faces before an awesome and present God, for in His presence hearts are melted, passion for purity of motive and expression is ignited, and compassion for each other in and out of the church drives us to respond with practical action.

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How I long to be struck dumb because the “glory of the Lord fills His holy temple” and in the presence of the Almighty I find myself on my face saying, as did the prophet, “I am undone!  Nothing I say is pure!”  And how I long for coals of fire to touch my lips and to know my guilt is gone—taken away!  How I want to hear my own voice moved by something in the core of my being, volunteering to be the messenger God needs for this hour and to hear Him say, “Go. Go and tell.”

In the overwhelming presence of the Lord our petty squabbling over stylistic preferences are silenced.  We won’t be able to find enough ways to praise him!  We’ll be scrambling for instruments, pouring our revelations of His character into all kinds of songs, dancing our way into the streets, scooping up cold water to serve the thirsty, baking bread for the hungry, ripping the clothes out of our closets and off our backs if we have to warm those shivering from loneliness.

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It won’t be “our way or the highway” in our worship committee meetings, and we won’t be haggling over whether we are addressing all our songs directly heavenward or giving personal testimony to how in the world we know that He is Lord and living out our praise in how we treat each other.  It will be all of the above and more.

Worship is an ego meltdown, and rising like a phoenix from the ashes of our shriveled old selves will be an awesome pillar of light that the sick old world can see a thousand miles away and will be drawn to like a magnet.  There will be music!  There will be joy!  There will be grace and forgiveness!  There will be mercy!  There will be Life!

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Forgiveness and a Fresh Start

I wonder how many times the Lord has looked at us from the cross and said to His Father, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  As hard as it is to ask forgiveness when we know we have broken someone’s heart, violated a trust, hurt someone’s reputation, or taken our piece out of the middle at someone else’s expense, it is even harder to think we’re “in the right” and find that our attitude has destroyed a relationship.  Being right is of little value then!  Our ignorance or insensitivity has caused damage that only the grace of God can repair.

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Forgiveness is a central theme of Jesus’ principles of life.  It is the pivotal point in what we call “The Lord’s Prayer.”  Actually, Jesus intended the prayer to be our prayer, not His, and it was given by Jesus himself as a model of how direct and simple our prayers should be.  “Forgive us,” He taught us to say, “as we forgive.”  Then, making sure we got the point, Jesus reemphasized that our being forgiven was in direct proportion to our willingness to forgive others. This was not because God was unwilling or unable to forgive infinitely, but because our shrinking hearts would narrow and narrow until we could not receive or internalize such forgiveness.

Life has proven this to be true.  We desperately need to be liberated from the prison of guilt by the grace of forgiveness and, conversely, we need to let go of the bitterness that will eat us alive if we don’t find the grace to forgive others for the pain they have caused us.  

Confession is a necessary component here.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “Confession before another is given us by God so that we may be assured of divine forgiveness.”  The truth is, sin will be revealed.  It will eventually come to light.  “It is better,”  Bonhoeffer writes, “that it happens today between me and another believer, rather than on the last day in the bright light of the final judgment.  It is grace that we can confess our sins to one another.  Such grace spares us the terrors of the last judgment.” (from Life Together)

But forgiveness is not an easy thing.  It takes an admission to ourselves of how much we, too, need forgiveness.  We have to be sick of the bondage in which a transgression holds us; only forgiveness can free up our souls to give and receive love, both from God and from each other.  Forgiveness unties God’s hands to work in our lives.  It removes the obstruction that robs us of our joy.  When we refuse to forgive, we build a dam in the stream of God’s liberating spirit to our lives.

There is, however, a difference between forgiveness and trust.  When a trust has been broken by betrayal and transgression, we can choose with the grace of God to forgive.  Forgiveness is our responsibility.  Trust, on the other hand is the responsibility of the one who has violated the trust.  It may take a long time before trust is restored, and things may never be quite the same again until eternity.  Forgiveness is a choice; it can be immediate.  Trust is a result of trustworthy living, and it must be restored over time.

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Often confrontation is a necessary component in the process of forgiveness and restoration in order to clear the record and achieve understanding between two people.  According to Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 18, we are to go to the one who has sinned against us and “show him his fault, just between the two of you.   If he listens to you, you have won your brother over” (Matt. 18:15) But if the person refused to listen one-on-one, then take a couple of trustworthy witnesses to talk to him/her.  If the person still will not listen, tell it to the church; if the church can’t reason with him, “treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

That, on the surface, may sound very final, until we stop to think how Jesus treated the pagan (outsider) and the tax collector.  He loved them and went after them, “to seek and to save that which was lost.”  In other words, we never give up on trying to restore a broken relationship and bring about reconciliation.

Now, in regard to our own need to ask forgiveness, we are told to “bear one another’s burden and so fulfill the law of Christ,” the law of Christ was to bear the cross for the remission of sin.  “The burden of my brother and sister which I must bear,” Bonhoeffer once wrote, “is not on their outward lot, their natural characteristics and gifts, but quite literally their sin.  And the only way to bear that sin is by forgiving it in the power of the cross of Christ in which I now share.” (from A Testament to Freedom)

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Finally, C.S. Lewis says that when we ask God to forgive us, we need to examine our hearts to see if, in fact, we are asking Him to excuse us.  “But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing.  Forgiveness says ‘Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology.  I will never hold it against you and everything between us two will be exactly the same as it was before.’  But excusing says, ‘I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it; you weren’t really to blame.’  Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin… without any excuse… and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it.” (from The Weight of Glory)

Forgiving and being forgiven – these are the necessary principles of the sacred journey. Until all that is negative is removed from our lives by the finished work of the Savior, these are the dual avenues of grace, the life force of relationship with each other and with our God.

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Christmas: Pure and Simple

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In our complex, hype-filled, spin-ridden world, Jesus comes as a naked baby—pure and simple.  It is His first and lasting message to us:  life is good enough, beautiful enough, powerful enough.  Without embellishment the Word—the Message—is enough.

The Good News started with a resting, newborn infant full of joy and life and peace.  And the final message was the same:  “My peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”

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Joy and rest have always been the marks of those who truly follow Jesus.  The great issues of life are laid to rest in Him.

This joy and rest does not require perfect surroundings or easy circumstances.  They are not at the mercy of situation or environment.  This life, pure and simple, is portable and present in the harshest of conditions.  It can make its presence known in stable or palace, hamlet or metropolis. It does not need a scepter, badge, or medallion.  It’s purity and simplicity is its own defense.

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But we must never mistake the pure and simple for the weak or ineffectual.  True courage, power and strength are only weakened by distractions and embellishments.  True greatness always seeks to sharpen its focus, pare down accumulations and strip away impediments.

From the womb to the tomb, the power of Life—pure and simple—has had one piercing focus:  to bring that Life to every person who will receive it.  Life unencumbered by all that would weigh it down or slow it down has come to set us free.  Pure and simple!

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Tasting Our Heritage

America is truly the great melting pot.  The foods of all our various heritages have marched right onto the Christmas table, bringing us back to our roots, while, at the same time, making each family’s celebration unique.

Italian families may add pastas and fabulous sauces to the Christmas menu, while Swedish families insist on including gubbröra (an egg and anchovy mixture), vörtbröd (a rye bread) and lutfisk to the traditional ham and potatoes.  For Irish descendants, potatoes are not optional, and soda bread will be a staple as well.  A breakfast favorite of the American south that has made its way to us via France is “chocolate gravy” over homemade biscuits.

Whatever our family histories might be, food is a vital part of Christmas, and kitchens are the place to gather as fruitcakes, Christmas cookies, cream pies with meringue, mince, tarts, turkeys, hams, roasts, winter vegetables and special breads are pulled from the ovens or simmer on the stove.

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Some of the best gifts of the season are those from the kitchen:  baked goods wrapped in colorful boxes; jars of homemade jellies, jams and chutneys; delicious breads and pies—all are sure to get grateful responses from neighbors, mail carriers, teachers and business associates.  

Some of my favorite tastes of Christmas are those sipped steaming hot from a mug or glass cup:  hot chocolate, wassail, rich coffees, chai, Christmas teas, warmed fruit juices and punches. At our house we have a golden yellow earthenware pitcher and a set of gigantic matching cups and saucers lettered on the sides with the French word chocolat.  This special set is saved for one purpose:  hot chocolate with a melting marshmallow for children who come in half-frozen from sledding on the hillside.

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It is the tradition in our family to have homemade biscuits (my mother’s recipe) and dried beef gravy (my version) for breakfast on Christmas morning. I serve it with a chilled bowl of fresh mixed fruit and a thin glass of sparkling grape juice.  We have this hardy breakfast after we have read the Luke 2 story of the birth of Jesus and taken turns opening our gifts to each other.  

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Later in the day, I perk a giant pot of wassail so we can sip it all through the afternoon and evening and offer a steaming cupful with a slice of lemon and a stick of cinnamon to those who come in to join the music, games, and Christmas dinner.

As I think of it, Christmas is a giant, season-long tasting party.  The tastes and aromas are avenues to the loves we have known that have become a part of who we are. The tastes and smells of Christmas are much more than traditional family foods; they put us in touch with the Love of a God who came to eat with us, sit at our table, hear our stories and tell us His.

The traditional tastes our families share remind us that God never was and will never be apart from us, but, instead, is as close as breath, as near as, well, the wonderful welcome-home smells coming from the kitchen.  He is the gift we give and receive.  He is the light that shines through the window of our souls.  He is the fire in the fireplace, the warmth to draw us in, the food that feeds much more than our bodies.

It is the Mass of Christmas.  Christmas! Taste and see!

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(Some of our favorite Christmas recipes along with lyrics and stories behind many of our Christmas songs are in He Started the Whole World Singing and Homecoming Cookbook. Both books may be ordered from Gaither Family Resources or the Gaither.com store.)
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Sensing Christmas

I like to think of the mind as the center city into which flows five major highways:  sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. It is by way of these thoroughfares that we experience life in all its complexity.  It is by the senses that we learn, gain insights, and internalize all that is true and helpful for life.

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If ever there were a truth that needed to be internalized in every way, it is the amazing story of a God who spoke all things into existence and continues to sustain creation with His breath, yet who loved His creation so much that He himself came as a helpless baby to touch us at our point of need.  When we weren’t understanding the immensity of His love for His creation, He spoke His love in terms we could comprehend:  the sound of a baby’s cry on a cold night, the smell of a lowly animal-filled stable, the rough texture of a feeding trough filled with coarse straw, the brightness of a new star in the dark night sky, and the taste of the Bread of Life to feed the souls of us all.

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Since that night more than two millennia ago that divided time itself into B.C. (before) and A.D. (after), those whose lives have been changed by this baby boy have created dozens of symbols and traditions in their efforts to express an event both human and divine.  All the senses have been called into play by the deep longing to share the very personal experiences of a cosmic and eternal change point.

Light, warmth, belonging, satisfaction of deep unnameable hungers, fresh and eternal life, spiritual pilgrimage, the divine gifts, the return of the Song of Life…all these need the ladder of symbol to even begin to approach and express the depths of redeeming Love.

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Each of us has been the recipient of a rich heritage of traditions and symbols given by others so that we can experience and in turn communicate to our children the unfathomable love of God, the God who came to walk with us, to touch us where we are broken, to feed us the true water and bread of the spirit, and to be His love made visible.

As we celebrate Christmas, let’s use all the senses, every avenue we have—to embrace this amazing Story.  As we do, let’s remember to always tell and retell the reason for every tradition, giving thanks for the reality we celebrate!  Let’s promise each other that every highway to the soul will never become a bypass.
 

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Pilgrims and Wisemen: Two Journeys-- Toward and Away From

Passion for something more: it is the strong magnet that pulls the human spirit out of the habitual and mundane into the realm of the unsafe and unknown.  It is the fuel of valor and discovery.  It is for want of passion that the world is dying.  It is the murder of this longing for the heights that strips the roots of hope from the seedlings of promise, leaving children passive or frantic, adolescents “leaden eyed” and adults accepting of the status quo of mediocrity.

But somewhere buried in the soul of us all is the deep knowing that there is more—that freedom and joy and peace and forgiveness and grace and mercy are more than platitudes of the pious.   Somewhere in our ground of being we know that these, yes, these are the rock-solid foundations of real life—not the fantasies of fiction. 

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When dissatisfaction with persecution or just pointless routine reaches the lip of our container of tolerance and breaches the limits of our endurance, the longing for raw and pure life breaks the dam, and we are driven out and empowered by the gushing currant to cut a new path.

Thus, we come at some juncture of our circumstances, to become pilgrims, leaving what once imprisoned our souls and held us back, and, at the same time, becoming wise enough to follow the star of better aspirations.  We dare to bite off eternity.  We are driven by a pioneering of the spirit to follow God himself into the frightening unknown, for, as Aslan said, this One who calls us is not safe, but he is kind.

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This is the seeker’s season, the season to trade the lesser things for more.  It is the season for turning flat-bed trailers into covered wagons and striking out for a territory yet unclaimed.  It is the season for setting sail in spite of possible rough seas for a place where prayers are released, not legislated, and where children can dance in the promise land of creative work and opportunity.

This is the season for studying the heavens and hanging our hopes on a star—not just any star but the star that announces One who came to tear down partitions between the dream and the reality, between here and there, between now and forever, between mortality and eternity. 

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Will we dare?  Will we take the risk of losing the transient to win the lasting?  Will we risk dying to be reborn? Will we cut anchors for the open sea, or set off across the desert in pursuit of the new star?  Will someone ever read about us in the journals of Pilgrims and Wise Men?

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Finishing Something

There is something about harvest time in Indiana that makes me feel that I should finish something.  Perhaps it is the threshing machines cleaning up the rows of wheat and spitting the swollen ripe kernels of grain into the waiting grain trucks to be taken off to storage bins in preparation for winter.  Maybe it is the wide plows that turn the traces of corn stalks and dry soybean plants under, leaving the fresh, black earth like a velvet carpet laid in neat squares against the kelly green sections of newly sprouted fields of winter wheat. Or could it be the squirrels skittering around the yard stuffing acorns and walnuts into their cheeks, then racing off to bury their treasure before the snow falls. Or maybe it’s the last of the apple crop being pressed into fragrant cider or baked with cinnamon and brown sugar before the frost comes.

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Whatever the reason, this is the season to finish things, to tie up loose ends, to save and store, to harvest and be sure there is enough of everything that matters to last us through the hard times.

And how does one finish a season of the heart? How may we harvest and store the bounty of the spirit and save against the elements of fruits we cannot see?

The Pilgrims knew the answer.  They said “Thanks.”. They knew there must be a taking of account, a time to stop and be aware of the beauty that fills our lives—a time to realize and verbalize and celebrate the things that have been growing all along. Yes, gratitude is the instrument of harvest. It ties the golden sheaves in bundles. It plucks the swollen kernels from the chaff and cuts the fragrant grasses to be bound in great round bales.  It picks the crimson fruit and digs the rounded roots that sometimes have made the difference between life and death.

And I am thankful!  Thankful for plenty—plenty and more—of things to eat and wear, of beauty like art and colors and textures, of means of transportation like cars, bikes, vans, busses, planes…and feet.  I am thankful for things we cannot buy like tenderness and inspiration and revelation and insight; I am thankful for ideas, words, songs, discussions, and silent messages of the heart.

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I am thankful for health, health that we take so for granted that we schedule our lives, assuming that things will be normal, that legs will walk. That eyes will see—to read, to experience, to learn. That ears will hear-- the music, the instruments, the warnings the blessings, the sounds of nature.  That bodies will function—that food will digest, energy will be generated to perform daily tasks. That minds will comprehend—the beauty, the concepts and ideas, the dangers, the failures.  That hands will work—to reach, to hug, to write, to drive, to rake leaves, to sweep floors, to fold clothes, to play instruments like pianos, flutes, violins, drums and oboes.

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I am thankful for family, family with individual personalities, gifts, needs, and dreams—for family immediate and family extended, all feeding into what I am and what I will become, even family departed who have lived out their part and left their heritage of hard work, integrity, grit, love, tenderness, faith, and humor.

I am thankful for friends, for stimulating, vivacious, provoking, disturbing, encouraging, agitating, blessing, loving, forgiving friends.

I am thankful for hope and love and a deep assurance that God is in control of our lives, an assurance that is not threatened by fear of nuclear annihilation or national economic failure.

I am thankful for children who give us new eyes to see, new ears to hear, new hands to touch new minds to understand all the old things.

I am thankful for courage to go on trusting people, risking love, daring to believe in what could be, all because of the confirming experience of daily trusting God and finding Him utterly trustworthy.

And because the seasons are built into the very fiber of our being, I am thankful for harvest time, a time for finishing what’s been started, a time to be aware, to pay attention, and to realize the life we’ve been given. Because I know that if we harvest well, there will be seeds for planting in the spring.                              

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Telling the Story

Was it the farmhouse smelling of wood smoke and pumpkin pies?  Was it the sound of the pump organ or guitar; piano or harmonica?  Was it the crunch of snow underfoot or the corn shocks leaning into each other in the fields?  Was it the candles in the windows or the happy voices of the whole clan playing dominos, Rook, or Pit around the kitchen table after supper?

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Was it using mother’s best sewing scissors to cut pink, red, and white hearts out of construction paper or snowflakes out of tissue? Was it carving jack-o-lanterns, stringing cranberries and popcorn, cutting bunny-shaped cookies out of fresh sugar dough, or sitting around a bonfire, giggling at wisecracks and singing songs, silly and serious, to the strum of a guitar?  What made home the place to which your heart needed to return?  What made Christmas or Easter or Thanksgiving?  Or maybe, for you, all the seasons and holidays are just a hungry longing for something you had only heard about in other people’s songs and other children’s stories.

Memories have to be made good and precious on purpose.  The holidays may be printed on the calendar but you have to make them meaningful and sacred by being truly reverent and actually present and intentionally joyful.  “Meaningful” can't be printed in calendar ink.  Treasured memories don’t necessarily result from declaring a national holiday and they can’t be abolished by eradicating them, either.

“Going on holiday” isn’t the same thing as celebrating Christmas.  Having “turkey day” is not the same as truly celebrating our national heritage and giving thanks.  Easter is not the same as spring break.  Symbols are symbolic of something.  Easter eggs, Christmas trees, Seder candles, the American “stars and stripes,” the Thanksgiving pilgrims and turkey are only meaningful if we parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles make them so and keep them so by never tiring of “telling the story.”  It’s all about the story and your special telling of it.  Without that, sacred moments will crumble into, well, merely trinkets and a day off.

To tell the story of both the history of our country and the faith that shaped it, I can’t think of a better way to spend Thanksgiving evening together as an extended family of all ages than to watch the DVD of Circuit Rider.  This historical musical pays tribute to the early carriers of the gospel across the rugged territories of what would become America’s states. Lyrics and narration were written by Suzanne Jennings to music mainly by Woody Wright, and acted and sung by many of the favorite Homecoming artists.

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For our family, Thanksgiving is the holiday for everyone to come home. This gathering becomes dearer as our family grows and spreads to other parts of the country and even abroad. It is also the time to bring around our table those who may not have their families close. This often includes college students who can’t go home and those who have lost family through death or separation.

After the food is displayed on the big island in our farm kitchen, we all pull chairs into a big circle around the room. The youngest child is chosen to pass a small basket of Indian corn kernels around the circle. Someone tells once more the story of that first Thanksgiving and the winter that preceded it when many died and those who survived were given, finally, just a ration of a few kernels of corn and some water.  We tell of the natives who, when spring finally came, taught the immigrants to plant seeds that would survive in this adopted land and how that year at harvest, the pilgrims and the natives brought their crops and wild game like turkeys and venison to eat together and to give thanks for survival in this new land.  Often, we then read the Felicia Dorothea Hermons poem, “The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers” and Abraham Lincoln’s original declaration of Thanksgiving.

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Still holding our kernel in our hand, the tiny basket is passed again, and returning our corn, now with new meaning, we each take our turn at telling what we are most thankful for since we were last in this special circle. Laughter and tears always punctuate this Thanksgiving ritual, which ends with a prayer of gratitude from one of the older generation—now, usually Bill or me, since our parents are all gone now.

I’m sure there have been times over the years when a teen-ager in the circle has thought, “Do we have to do this again?”  The answer is, of course, “Yes, we do, because the reason we do anything is as important as the doing of it in all of life.  Being certain of the “why” will take us through the hard times.”

We all need a ground zero, a true North, when the world seems to be shifting beneath our feet like sand sucked away by the receding tide. For us, here are some things we can hold to:

 --There is a God who is way bigger than we can comprehend whose love spoke everything into existence

 --You can always go home, home to God, home to family, home to your true identity

 --Always ask why before asking what and how.  What and how must always be in service to why.

--Guard your heart and keep your joy!

This Thanksgiving let’s tell the story—our national one and our personal ones.  This Christmas let’s tell the Story.  Be sure even the smallest child knows what every symbol stands for and every practice means. And let’s live the story together, for the telling of it brings us home—to each other, to God, and to our true selves.

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All of It!

Our children are grown now.  They have families of their own.  They all have creative vocations and are making a difference in ways that make Bill and me proud.  If you would see these adults, you would see them as they are now, and that would be good.

But when I see them, I see more than just this present image of lovely young adults.  I see the babies I held, the children who tumbled down our hillside into the piles of fall leaves or drifts of winter snow.  I see their first piano recitals and hear the junior high rock band practicing in the basement.  I see the poetry contests, the opening nights of community theater productions, the first recording projects.  I see fireworks on the 4th of July, kids fishing in the creek or horseback riding at the 4-H fair.

I see an involved father creating a film project, a seasoned writer researching a musical she’s writing on the early circuit riders, an accomplished actress and authority on Shakespeare hosting a closing night party for the cast.  I see a graduate, a bride, a new mother, a songwriter, a kid shooting hoops in the drive-way, a teen-ager on a first date….  I see all this when one of our grown children walks down the mill-stone walk under the grape arbor and through our kitchen door.

If you ask me to describe what heaven will be, I think it will be “all of it.”  All the seasons, spring blossoms, summer fruit, fall harvest, winter rest—all going on simultaneously.  It will be the big picture, the full content, the total vision.

It will be the ultimate expression of our gifts and abilities using everything we’ve ever learned and experienced with total freedom to create, think, enjoy, comprehend, assimilate, and celebrate.  Our loved ones will be beautiful beyond anything here, so beautiful it will take our breath away.  Yet they will be uniquely themselves in ways which this life could only limit.  

All the perfect will be there—of foods, sounds, sights, tastes, insights, experiences—and none of the ugly, negative, frustrating, or limiting.  Yet all will be infused with the possibility of something more with no sadness, no pain, no disappointment in ourselves or disillusionment with others.  No lying, no deception, no violation.  Everything and everyone will have dimension.  Heaven will be “all of it.”
 

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