Friday, December 23, 2011

God's Intervention

Dec 23 God’s Intervention

Have you seen the YouTube video …when dancers or singers step out of a crowd and perform in the park or a train station or on the street? I am captivated by this phenom, happening world-wide and described by a performance group at Central Station in Stockholm as, “A short fun event to create presence in the moment and with other people, having fun, creating happiness.” I’ve seen Handel’s Halleluiah Chorus and 1950’s dancing, with sometimes hundreds of performers who simply show up for the fun of it!

It’s a planned intervention. Folks are coming and going. Minding their own business in a world worried about wages, wondering about tomorrow, about this possibility and the latest tragedy. Then, out of nowhere, comes music and some in the crowd begin to dance and sing and draw together in routines until it’s obvious, this is a PLAN! Dancing in Union Station or at the Denver airport or on the street, STOPS people in their tracks, whisks them away, lifts them out of their troubles for a few minutes. It’s a power break that puts a spring in their step. Reactions vary from wide-eyed wonder to tapping feet and swaying bodies! People turn to strangers and point and comment as they take pictures.

Maybe I find this so enchanting because it takes me back to the Christmas I wanted my children to experience giving without getting. I took my 5,6, 9 and 11 year old Suzuki violinists, dressed in their Christmas best, to play for a few shut-ins. We headed for Anita Kubant’s upstairs apartment, in a U shaped building with an upstairs deck and railing and a courtyard below. I’d arranged with Anita’s caregiver to open her door so we could surprise her. My last minute reminder to the kids that true giving from a loving heart expects nothing in return, seemed to sink in as we approached the building.

The door opened to a small space. No problem, we stood outside and played a 10-minute repertoire. The three girls watched my conducting, but my son, Brooks, while on the correct notes, was looking at a moving object I caught out of the corner of my eye. Whenever he would look back at me, the fluttering would resume and I’d lose him again! After recital bows, I turned to face a smiling audience of residents lining the balcony. A man waving paper money had caught Brooks’ attention!

On all of our minds was the mantra, “something for nothing!” As the children walked past the clapping adults, I heard the moneyman’s plaintiff, “Please, I WANT you to have this. You’ve brought us such a wonderful Christmas tonight!” I quickly realized that to ignore his heartfelt response could be hurtful. I thanked him and said it would go to the Christ-child. Brooks was all eyes!

With instruments tucked back in their cases, we drove to the next “something for nothing” opportunity. We decided to give 90% of the man’s money to the children’s Christmas Eve service and spend 10% on the instrumentalists. It wasn’t the lesson I’d planned, but then some of life’s best lessons aren’t!

The next performance that evening was at the house of Augusta, an elderly woman who was literally “into” the bells and whistles of Christmas. She had more blinking lights in her windows and front room than you could take in without doing brain damage! And what didn’t blink, whistled, sang or popped out of a box or nest. She was delighted to show off her collection. The kids were wide-eyed over it, except for the youngest who jumped every time a new gadget rolled across the floor or ceiling. This performance lasted only 5 minutes and we were on our way, but not before Augusta disappeared and reappeared with a wrapped box. Same thing…we HAD to take it or she would have melted or maybe it would have been lights out, I’m not sure. We buckled up and opened a re-gifted box of chocolates. And most of them were still in there!

What SWEET things happen when you give something and expect nothing!
My planned intervention with little ones playing violins wasn’t of the same caliber as the YouTube variety around the world, but it made a lovely difference in people’s lives, for a few moments anyway.

Let’s consider another kind of intervention. A HEAVENLY one. What if angels appeared in Union Station or the Mall singing and then said, “Don’t Be Afraid. We bring you Good News of great JOY that will be for all the people. In the City of David a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2: 10,11 Would people stop in their tracks, take pictures? Would smiles replace frowns? Would it be as described at the Stockholm surprise dance in the station…an event to create a presence, to create happiness?

Well, actually, a planned intervention 2,000 years ago DID bring an overwhelming response to the Presence of the Babe of Bethlehem Who came to save us from our sin. The angels didn’t perform in a mall or a train station or airport. They lit up the night sky and sang to shepherds who stopped in their tracks. They didn’t get out their cell phones and take pictures and call home. But the Bible tells us they headed to the manger to see this Baby Who was the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. WHAT an intervention! Has it happened to you? Has God’s Great Gift of Christmas stopped you in your tracks yet? If so, I rejoice with you as we celebrate Christmas. Oh, come let us adore Him! If not, His intervention is a gift, a present. It’s an invitation to receive Him. There’s no time like the present! Merry Christmas!

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Friday, December 16, 2011

Personalize The Christ Child

With Christmas 9 days away, you still have plenty of time to personalize the Babe of Bethlehem. The other day I asked a friend who lost his dad last year how it was going. He said, wistfully, “I wish I could hide somewhere and let Christmas pass by and come out when it’s over. I’d just like to skip Christmas this year. I think about him every day.” This man of strong Christian faith is normally upbeat, but he’s been socked with loss and grief. This got me thinking about how God comes to us in celebration, amidst our losses.

On the “Woman to Woman” show, produced by Lutheran Hour Ministries, when I interviewed guests about loss they insisted that The Lord of Life can use that very situation as an opportunity to experience His power and peace in a whole new way. John the Baptist, a major Biblical voice, calls out of the wilderness for people to repent of their sins to prepare the way of the Lord. What about the longing in our hearts for someone who’s no longer with us? Can that prepare the way of the Lord? Since God is not distant, since He is at hand, Matt 28:20, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age" …the answer is YES, our loss, any loss, can prepare the way of the Lord. Keep that awesome reality in mind. God will use the emotions you’re experiencing through your loss to give you what you won’t get any other way.

As you try to celebrate Christmas best you can, a few tips from Dr. Susan Zonnebelt-Smeenge, a clinical psychologist in Grand Rapids, MI and co-author of the book THE EMPTY CHAIR.

About the one less place setting at the Christmas table this year, one less chair where HE or SHE always sat. Holidays usually raise us above the humdrum of life to renew and revive us! Grief is tough enough, but when Christmas comes it can be even more difficult. Grieving the loss of a loved one can turn your holiday into a painful time that robs you of happy memories of past celebrations.

Certainly, the holidays will never again be exactly the same for you, Dr. Zonnebelt-Smeenge says. With the death of a loved one, things change. That doesn’t mean, however, that you’ll never again be able to join in the celebration or experience a full richness during holidays. You’re on a journey, she advises, with these ways to find peace in your pain and hope in your hurts.

Remember that Grief not a passive process

Have a Plan in your head. To avoid the “elephant in the room” that everyone tiptoes around, give people permission to talk re. him, how he always lit the candles, or her favorite dish, how the person lived their life.

Holidays like Christmas are emotionally charged and it probably doesn’t take much to throw us off from having a great time to having a horrible one. Dr. Zonnebelt-Smeenge says, “full resolution of grief is possible through a combination of time and intentional grief work.” You don’t come out of it and find your old self again. You come out a different person.

She calls it “Sorting through the ashes” which includes accepting the loss. Admit you’re frozen inside like the ground, that you cry when you look at your gift list. Your holiday spirit has been broken by death, maybe nothing sparkles but your tears. “What about a less than ideal relationship with the deceased?” Her advice was to keep the finest of your loved one alive to pass on. Celebrate the joy he brought into your life. Thank God you loved and were loved by this person. Her point is that Grief can be one of the great deepening experiences of life.

To get “control” over our emotions, be intentional about this grief work. If it’s your first holiday without your husband or child or parent, it can be overwhelming. Take care of yourself physically. Don’t scrap the whole thing and deny yourself pleasure in obligation to the deceased. Instead, buy a gift for him and give it to someone needy.

If you live alone…visit a soup kitchen or a nursing home. Make new bonds out of shared losses in a grief support group. Above all, find a time of peace & reflection. The person IS there in a sense. He or she is part of each of you. It could be lovely for people to share that. Lower your expectations of the holidays. Be kind and gentle with yourself. Plan ahead so you’re not overwhelmed at the last minute. It’s hard to concentrate when you’re grieving, so make lists and simplify your to-do list this year.

My dad’s been gone for 4 Christmases, my mom for 8. I still have moments when I stop and in tears, thank God for all the ways they focused Christmas on The Christ, the Giver above the gifts.

What about you? Prayerfully consider what we’ve talked about and invite God’s grace to reach in and transform your grief from an ending into a beginning.

No matter what your loss, you needn’t be at a loss over what to receive.
The 14th century German melody [author unknown] “Now sing we, now rejoice”, 2nd verse, speaks to this. “Come from on high to me; I cannot rise to Thee, Cheer my wearied spirit, O Pure and holy Child; Through thy grace and merit, Blest Jesus, Lord most mild…Draw me unto Thee! Draw me unto Thee!”

Christmas Traditions

Dec 9

What are your favorite Christmas traditions? Maybe watching classics like Charlie Brown’s Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life and White Christmas? Anybody go caroling in the neighborhood or the retirement community or hospital wards? One year a group of us was allowed to sing carols in ICU at the local hospital. I kept thinking, oh please don’t let this cause a code blue on my watch! But the staff and the patients were misty eyed over that one! They LOVED it.

Then there were the Christmas cookies with the kids. We’d roll, cut and bake and then sort by shapes. Stars here, bells there, angels in this tin, please! Next we’d mix the icing, add colors and get out the brushes. We had 76 cooky cutters, much to the delight of those on the receiving end of this tradition! My friend Marcy saved some, like the beautiful male Mallard Duck. She couldn’t eat it. It looked so real!

One of my favorites was a church with a steeple. Maybe you have that one, too. The year Jennifer invited her BF, Phil, to come over from Washington U and join us, he not only pitched in, he painted stained glass windows on the church cookies! I think that enthusiasm carried the relationship to a new level! Then he had fun inventing shapes, like a toothbrush and a Grinch, still part of our traditions, BTW! Jennifer and Phil eventually married and now lots of folks in NJ benefit from the way they and their children shape Christmas with cookies, delivered in baskets, often accompanied by caroling! Perhaps you make your own Christmas cards or toffee? What about the traditional advent calendar to help count the days? There’s the Advent midweek service at church and choir rehearsals and the children’s Christmas program! And aaah… for sacred and classical music on “Holiday Wrappings!”

There’s something very grounding and peaceful about traditions, whether they’ve been passed down through generations or you start them yourself. It’s NEVER too late to start a tradition!

AND THEN there are the RULES! One rule in most families -- no one peeks in the gift closet before Christmas!

The Christmas Brooks was four, he forgot our family “rule” about eating breakfast BEFORE going into the family room to open the gifts around the tree. I heard the pitter patter of feet in the wrong hallway outside the kitchen door, just in time to hear his hushed little voice giving his peek away. "I remember what I wanted for Christmas. An edow (yellow) tractor!" I called ‘round the other way for breakfast and then, Of Course, he had to fake surprise when he saw the yellow tractor next to the tree as we walked in together!

How many of us want to hear this Christmas, "It's JUST what I wanted!" Whether you're scurrying from one mall, cataloge or website to the next, or creating your own gifts this season, you want the PERFECT gift for each person. 540 Most people on your list are WAITing in anticipation, having been notified that Christmas is just 16 days away. Some, expecting nothing, will be surprised!

In anticipation of the birth of His Son, God notified people for centuries that the Messiah was coming. No date, so they couldn’t count the days, but the faithful tried and longed for it to happen. Three hundred times the Bible predicted and promised the Birthday of the Savior of mankind. And still when it happened, only a few believed. Some were surprised, like the shepherds in the field that night. Then there was faithful old Simeon, impressed somehow by God that he would not die until he actually saw the Christ Child. Luke tells us in Chapter 2 that Simeon was moved by the Spirit to go into the temple courts one day. When Mary and Joseph brought in Baby Jesus, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying he could now die in peace because he’d seen with his own eyes God’s salvation to be revealed in this Child. “Lord lettest now Thy servant depart in peace!”
The familiar refrain from

We have the advantage of the Bible to read the documentation of all that followed to enhance our Christmas celebration. Whatever your traditions, whatever your rules, receive the Perfect Gift, the free gift, from the Great Giver, God Himself delivered through faith in His Son! That gift is just your size, shape and color to face any situation and to open every day the rest of your life!
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
With that in place, you’ll have a Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Are You Ready?


Now that the Thanksgiving Day Retail sales experiment appears to be a success and Black Friday and Cyber Monday are past, we learn Christmas sales are up a LOT over last year at this time. So I guess we’re all set for Christmas. Or at least MORE all set than we were last year at this time? What about you?

”Are you ready for Christmas? My "ready" lesson occurred the year I wrote our Sunday School Christmas play. Weeks of rehearsals and 150 children later, this one night stand was attended by 600 loving parents, friends and staff. There would be lines rehearsed and parts forgotten. Dancers were ready. Cast members sat in the school auditorium, sparkle eyed in anticipation of coming forward as part of the act. Everyone was ready, from pre-service carolers who looked like they’d stepped right out of Charles Dickens to the last tiny preschool choir. The time had come to join the celebration of the biggest birthday party in the world. Music began and the huge stage curtain parted. In that moment it hit all of us.

This was for real. Christmas was here. This was the night. Ready or not, Here He Comes! By Act III there were few dry eyes in the house. Everyone left with a birthday balloon and a piece of the huge Birthday Boy's cake, fresh from Kruta’s bakery in Collinsville. Young and old seemed to understand this party was for the real birth of a real boy who would grow up to really die for our sins. The Spirit of the Christ Child had touched the hearts of those open to Him. Ever since then, when Christmas comes, I remember it’s for real, just like the night of the play.

You're ready or you're not....but He Comes. I'm invited to the party and so are you. I hope you'll say yes. Ready or not, here He comes. The Virgin Mary had nine months to get ready for Christmas. Once the initial shock became reality, Mary pondered the incredible wonder of the Divine conception of her Son. Martin Luther, the 16th Century reformer, reflecting on Mary's situation, said the Virgin birth appeared to him a trivial miracle compared to the Virgin's faith. It might help our preparation to ponder the thought from Luther that it was not such a big deal for God to make a spectacular star, but rather that the Lord of the universe should care enough about ordinary people like you and me to take our flesh and share our woes. When we don't find ourselves naturally caring for each other, why should God humble Himself to lie in a feed box and hang on a cross? The time had come for the promise of God to be fulfilled. God was ready to send a Savior into the world.

It may not take us nine months to prepare for Christmas, but where to begin? How about with the message of a man who wore rawhide and ate honey and locusts in the wilderness? John the Baptist called people to repent to prepare the way for the Lord. Repentance gets us ready. It shows what needs to BE readied. Feel that grudge? Any unconfessed sin lurking in the corners of your heart? The tree may be up, the shopping finished, but you're not ready for Christmas. We need the medicine of the Christmas story, the Good News to clean our sin-sick hearts. In the words of Luther's Christmas hymn, "Ah dearest Jesus, Holy Child, make Thee a bed soft undefiled; within my heart that it may be, a quiet chamber kept for thee."

Prepare the way. Whose way? Yours? Mine? His? “Prepare” reminders surround us; days left, wish lists and the Tree of Lights. Lights remind us Jesus came to light up a dark world. He was the LIGHT the world could not put out, and still cannot. We deck the halls, get all charged up, literally. One store delivered its holiday catalogue three weeks before Halloween to help us get ready. We decide between the electric motor driven whatchmacallit, the mechanical thingamajig or the fourseat - you name it. Once we have it, we think we're ready. But are we?

A tender "are you ready" moment occurred when our Jennifer was six. I asked what she would give Baby Jesus. Without hesitation she said, "I'll give Him my violin." We decided Baby Jesus could not use the violin, but she could play it with the talent God gave her. That inspired the first Musical Offerings at church, continued for decades, when children offer their musical gifts back to the Giver on Christmas Eve. What will you give the Christ Child this Christmas? Mary was ready. John the Baptist was ready. All it takes is a place for the Christ Child to lay, within our hearts, in a manger of faith. Are you ready?" This Advent season is a perfect time to ask God to ready us. Welcome His Light into your bits of dark….at midweek services, through music, personal devotions…and see how ready you’ll be to celebrate Christmas!