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Archive for the ‘Christmas’ Category

Because Christmas fell on a Sunday this year, I was afforded the rare opportunity to have the day after Christmas off.  And though I mostly spent the day cleaning up from our holiday festivities and running a few errands, I noticed a few things along the way that struck me as strangely symbolic of the current state of our culture.

 

The first of those observations came as I got out of bed and gazed out my window.  Just the night before, my neighbor’s house had been a glow with all sorts of blinking lights; along with lighted candy canes aside the walk-way, a robustly decorated tree in the front window and multiple inflatable’s in the yard.  Judging from the number of cars that surrounded the house just a night earlier, it would seem that there had been quite a celebration there.  But in the mid morning hours of December 26th, the only shred of evidence that remained was the dead carcass, of the now bare tree, which lay lifelessly along the roadside.  Though I guess that I can admire my neighbor’s efficiency, it struck me as rather sad that we’d be in that great a hurry to usher in the end of the Christmas season; but that’s how things work in today’s high tech society.  We’ve been there, done that and got the colorful holiday tie to prove it.  No reason to linger, after all we’ve got BCS bowls and late night parities coming up next weekend; and heck Valentine’s Day is practically upon us.  We move on in the name of progress, but I can’t help but feel that we’ve somehow missed the point.

 

Later, as I was driving along, I heard the headlines about what a good shopping season that retailers had; and the radio commentator interpreted this to be a sign that people had become generally more “hopeful” for the future.  I couldn’t help but be taken aback at that notion.  Is “hope” really what running up our credit cards at Christmas represents?  I just read an article last week, where economists estimate that household debt in America has now surpassed the national debt and yet, this man suggests that there is hope in the idea of people spending money that they don’t have?  God help us if this is how we’ve come to express our hope.  In truth, the guru’s of our cultural continue to perpetuate the myth of the consumer based economy, which purports that America is going to somehow consume its way back into economic prosperity.  It is an idea that runs right along the same lines as losing weight without changing your unhealthy diet or doing any exercise; it has a certain curb appeal, but it doesn’t really work.  Indeed, I couldn’t help but notice that the stores were packed for after Christmas sales, but I also noted that the lines to return unwanted items were wrapped around the building in some cases.  Unlike the positive sounding voice coming from my car speakers, I interpreted this as a sign of our disillusionment with all the “stuff” that we thought might make the coming year more palatable.  As I watched people, I didn’t see anything that looked like optimism in their faces; and to me, it seemed that maybe they were realizing that they still hadn’t found what they were really looking for.

 

I know that I have a strangely non-linear way of looking at things, but somehow all of these things seemed connected to me.  It has been suggested that most people lead lives of “quiet desperation” and I would suggest that the collective volume of that particular emotion is steadily increasing here in America.  We’ve even taken to the streets this year, to protest the disparity in our collective prosperity.  Though pundits and politicians and philosophers have all promised us that our clearly eroding way of life is going to rebound any day now, there is the nagging sense that they really don’t know any more than we do.  We keep hoping that someone or something is going to come along and fix our unraveling ways of thinking, but no one has emerged.  Christmas presented a fresh opportunity to find something hopeful, but we’ve largely traded in the true message of Christmas (i.e. John 3:16) for a new iPad and a 60” flat screen TV.

 

But now, just one day later, our Christmas trees lay dead on the roadside and we’re taking back all that stuff that we couldn’t afford in the first place.  It’s a shame that our culture holds nothing sacred anymore, because there is no more hopeful message than the one’s the angels delivered upon Christ’s birth.  “Fear not; for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which will be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a savior, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you, you will find a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”  It is a timeless message that was meant for a people who seemed to have little to hope for.  If ever we needed to embrace the true meaning of Christmas, this was the year.  I know at my house, it’s a message that is still resonating and one that I hope to carry into the new year.

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The days between Christmas and New Years are often a time when we reflect on both the year that is passing on and the one that is in front of us.  As we look to the beginning of another year, we often try to stir up some resolve, so that “this year things will be different”.  A decision to make this kind of change is commonly referred to as a “New Years Resolution” and while I’m not necessarily a big fan of such things, I thought of a few that really could make a difference. 

 

1.     Resolve to love your spouse the way that Christ loved the church and gave His life for her:  Though this scriptural mandate is well known, it generally seems to be ignored based on the idea that it is somehow unattainable.  But regardless of whether we ever perfectly execute this directive, there is excellent fruit to be bore out of the sincere pursuit of it.

 

2.     Resolve that your “yes” will always mean “yes” and that your “no” will always mean “no”:  Though many of us would likely claim that this is already the case, some careful self examination will often reveal otherwise.  What we tell the officer who pulls us over for speeding, how we handle the paying of our debts, what we put on our timecards when we’re 10 minutes late for work, what will we decide to report on our income taxes, how will I handle those Sunday mornings that I don’t feel like teaching Sunday school…  Though the truth can be painful at times, living by it will ultimately set us free.

 

3.     Resolve that you will devote some amount of your prayer time listening for the voice of God instead of speaking.  “My sheep know my voice; they listen and they follow.”  “Behold I stand at the door and knock; if anyone ‘hear my voice’ and open the door, I will come in and dine with them.”  God is speaking and what He’s saying to us is far more important than what we have to say to Him.  Let him who has an ear, hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.

 

4.     Resolve to literally invite God in on a daily basis and to ask that He make Himself more real to you:  The problem for most of us is that our problems and fears and wounds are more real to us than God is; but God promises that if we’ll seek Him, we’ll find Him and be found by Him.  We simply need to step toward Him and He promises to step toward us.  Even those who’ve walked with Him for a long time need to move closer to Him this year. 

 

5.     Resolve that you will find a new and tangible way to express the love you have for God, your spouse, your kids, your family, your friends, your neighbors and anyone else that you claim to love:  If faith without works is dead, than what is the value of love that is never truly expressed.  Too many times we wait until we’re preparing someone’s eulogy before we search for the words to say what they have meant to us and by then it’s much too late.  If we are ever to become a people known for the way that we love each other, we’ve got to become more expressive with the love that we have.

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I’ll never forget that day, even though it was long ago.  All of heaven reverberated.  It’s the only time that I remember the Master sending us all down together; normally we go one or two at a time.  He also let everyone see us, which doesn’t happen very often.  I was a little surprised by how startled the Shepherds seemed; I mean didn’t that star let them know that something special was happening.  I’ve been around stars for a long time and I’ve never seen anything like that one; it lit up the sky so bright that it shone like day.  I’ve seen the moon like that before, but never a star. 

As we gathered together the song just rose up out of us.  It was something that we’d never sung before; something that we’d never practiced.  It was as though the Master put His hand on each one of us at the same time and the song just came spilling out.  It was glorious, even by heavens standards. 

I have to admit that I was surprised that the Master would send His Son down as a baby, especially to such a humble place; but that’s why He’s the Master and I’m just an angel.  In the years that followed that night it got even harder to understand the Masters’ plan; but the day He brought His Son home, we all understood that He had changed everything and that the world would never be without hope again.  When the Son took His place at the Fathers’ right hand, the heavens shook with the celebration. 

The first time that I got sent down after that, I expected there to be great celebration in the world, but I was disappointed to find that most people still chose to live in darkness.  I guess it’s just hard for an angel to understand that.  Even all these years later, I still find myself confused by it.  I remember something that I heard the Master tell one of His servants long ago, it went something like – Who has believed our report and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?  That’s really the question isn’t it?  Jesus did it all so that no one ever has to live in darkness again; but who has believed it? 

We’ll gather together again this year, like we have every year since the Master sent His Son and once again we’ll sing that glorious song.  They won’t see us, but those who’ve believed our report will have ears to hear.  To them the words will be loud and clear, “Glory to God in the highest” and “on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests”.  It is a song that the world desperately needs to hear. 

Up here in heaven, we’ve been preparing for a wedding feast and the Master has promised that it will be a day like no other.  He hasn’t told us what day it will be, but I sense that it will be soon.  We’re going to sing especially loud this year, because I don’t know how many more Christmas’ we have to send the report of what Jesus did for the world.  I sure hope someone is listening down there.

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Emmanuel

Throughout the Christmas season I repeatedly find myself drawn to the phrase, “Emmanuel, God with us”.  For me, it is amazing to ponder the reality of God, the Creator of the Universe, coming to earth and living as a man amongst His creation.  The heralding of the name “Emmanuel” reveals His motivation for coming; which was to be “with us”.  As joyous as that news was on the day of Christ’s birth, relatively few people actually experienced the reality of those words in His lifetime.  But ultimately, God didn’t just come to be “with us” for the thirty-three years of Jesus’ life.  In the scripture He says, “lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” and through the indwelling of His Holy Spirit, He is “with us” even today.  There are some who seem to feel as though those followers, who walked with Jesus during His time on earth, had some distinct advantage over the rest of us; but scripture would seem to indicate otherwise.  During the years of Jesus’ ministry, the disciples often seemed confused and unsure of themselves.  It wasn’t until the day of Pentecost that they began to step into consistent truth and power.  Arguably the disciples accomplished more on that day, than in all of their days with Jesus.  Christ Himself told them that it would be better for them that He go, so that the Holy Spirit could come.  This is the same Holy Spirit that powered Jesus’ ministry and the same Spirit that is available to us today.

Before the manifestation of Jesus on the earth, those believing in Jehovah God could only look to the sky; hoping that He was up there and that He was pleased with them.  They clung to their lineages, their traditions and to the stories of what God had done for their ancestors.  It wasn’t a personal relationship, because they had no way of access to Him; and they largely looked upon their circumstances for evidence of how He viewed them.  The coming of the Messiah changed all of that.  Through His perfect sacrifice and by the gift of the Holy Spirit, Gods people need never live that way again; but sadly, many of us continue to exist in much the same way those ancient believers did.  We often live as though we lack some essential ingredient for the victorious life that Jesus attained for us; looking toward the sky and praying that He will send something more, when the very power of God dwells within us.  Just as it was then, we allow our sense of well-being to be dictated by our circumstances, instead of by the Word of God and/or the witness of His Spirit.  Now more than ever, it would seem that we are in desperate need of a greater revelation of “Emmanuel”, the God who is “with us”. 

For those who apprehend the truth of “Emmanuel”, the contrast is startling.  In the 3rd chapter of the book of Acts, Peter seemed to understand that while he didn’t have money to give the crippled man at the temple gate, what he did have was even better.  When that man was miraculously healed, Peter made it clear that it wasn’t him, but the power of God that dwelled within in him.  When difficult times came (e.g. disciples imprisoned, shipwrecked, snake bit, stoned…), the early believers often appealed to their Heavenly Advocate, who often responded with miraculous intervention.  The power of God was tangible to many of them and through those followers it became tangible to the world.  Those same resources have now been placed upon our door step, though many of us step over them on an almost daily basis; forsaking them for more tangible and less viable tools.  Maybe in this Christmas season, instead of organizing yet another boycott over the use of the phrase “Happy Holidays”, we’d be better served pursuing a fresh revelation of the phrase, “Emmanuel, God with us”.  After all, unless the Lord builds the house, we labor in vain.

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Mary’s Song

In these days leading to our celebration of Christmas, I find myself drawn to the words of “Mary’s Song”, from the gospel of Luke (1:46-55).  Within this passage Mary is responding to her cousin Elizabeth’s extraordinary greeting as she exclaims, “my soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God, my Savior”.  As I’ve meditated on those words, their profound nature has become more apparent to me.  I find myself wanting to understand exactly what it is to “magnify the Lord” and to truly abide in His joy.  While I’ve certainly walked with the Lord long enough to give a passable explanation of these things, I have to wonder if I’ve ever actually experienced them first hand. 

The Bible says that the joy of the Lord is our strength and while few of us would consider ourselves to be deficient in the area of joy, how many of us have complained about our fatigue (e.g. stress, burn out, exhaustion…).  It is unlikely that we as Christians would describe ourselves as joyless, but that seems to be a common adjective used by Non-Christians to describe us.  I believe that part of this can be attributed to the fact that we generally mistake happiness for joy; but happiness is a fleeting emotion that is driven largely by circumstance and is easily changed.  Joy on the other hand is experienced in our spirit and is rooted in our response to God as opposed to our circumstances; this makes joy more profound, transcendent and sustaining.  Happiness is generally something we pursue, while joy is found in our surrender to Gods plan.  Mary had surrendered to God’s plan and the joy that she was experiencing caused her own cousin to view her in a totally different light.  Undoubtedly this would be the effect on our family, friends and neighbors if we similarly succumbed to the joy that the Lord has afforded us.

Arguably the concept of “magnifying” the Lord is even more vital than that of partaking of His joy.  The scripture tells us that our destiny is to be transformed into the image of Christ and that He is faithful to complete the good work that He has begun in us.  Based on these verses it would seem that the committed Christian should expect to grow more Christ-like with each passing year of their journey, but from my experience that is rarely true.  As I ponder the reasons for this, I wonder if this is even one of our goals and I shudder at the thought of what our souls are magnifying if it is not the Lord.  The idea of magnifying is that a clearer, more defined picture will emerge from our interaction and that begs the question of what picture is emerging from the worlds interaction with the church.  Jesus is the “light of the world” and He’s called us to reflect that light to a fallen world; but how will that ever be accomplished if His light cannot be seen in us.

Mary understood that something of heaven had been deposited within her and that Gods intent was not simply for her to enjoy the sensations of the baby in her womb or to bestow upon her honor amongst women; but that it was to bring forth that life when the time came.  The same is true of believers today, as the Lord has once again deposited Himself within us, not just for our own edification, but so that we will allow Him to come forth at His appointed times.  This Christmas I pray that His people everywhere will respond as Mary did when she told the angel, I am the Lord’s servant, let it be as you have said.  I pray that we will truly magnify the Lord and genuinely rejoice in Him.  God bless you and your family this Christmas.

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It’s amazing to realize that “Thanksgiving” is already upon us.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed that while the days don’t pass any quicker, the months and years seem to fly by.  This year has moved by so rapidly that I feel as though I’ve missed much of it.  As we come into what ought to be a special season, I can already sense the dread that many people feel during this time of year.  On the surface it all seems bright and shiny, but in recent years I’ve begun to notice how few people really seem to enjoy it.  Though our calendars fill up with “special” activities, I don’t sense much “peace on earth”, “goodwill toward man” or “joy to the world”.  Even within the church, I don’t see a lot of genuine excitement at what should be, for Christians, a time of worship and celebration.

Sadly, we all tend to get caught up in the busyness (e.g. cooking, baking, shopping, holiday parties, traveling, guests, holiday programs…) and miss much of the richness this season has to offer.  While we’ll be the first to proclaim that “Jesus is the reason for the season”, He doesn’t always get a place of prominence in our holiday activities.  So as we launch into yet another holiday season, God put it on my heart to stop long enough to gain some perspective.

I believe that at the root of much of the seasonal angst is unfulfilled expectation; whether that comes in the form of past disappointments or the present dissatisfaction with where we find ourselves.  The inherently nostalgic quality of the season can often stir up more painful memories than warm thoughts.  Those who grew up in dysfunctional homes often come face to face with that dysfunction again, whether it is gathering with their families or intentionally avoiding the pain of such a reunion.  Those who are in the midst of difficult situations often feel more isolated in this time, because presumably everyone else is full of holiday cheer.  Those of limited means struggle, because we’ve all come to believe that Christmas cannot be complete unless it comes with boxes and ribbons.  Many of us wrestle with the notion that if we can’t give our kids what all the other kids have, we’ve somehow failed them.  For others, it can be the uncertainties of a new year that keep them from partaking of the joy set before them.  Ultimately, if we are dreading the holidays, we will almost certainly have a dreadful holiday season.  For those who are in the world, these are simply the seas which toss souls about; but what about the children of God?  Are these the forces that should be shaping our perspective?

If we could look at the reality of where we are today, apart from the disappointments of the past and our fears for the future, we might see that we are a genuinely blessed people.  Regardless of our situations, God has provided for us and continues to sustain us.  We may feel as though we have lack, but if we can see past what we don’t have, we will likely find that we have unnoticed abundance all around us.  The Psalmist spoke of how God wants to teach us of His ways and he beseeches that we not be like the horse or mule, which must be controlled using a bit and bridle.  That picture is one of needing to use pain as a way to get our attention.  I believe that if we will look for the blessings He’s laid aside for today, we will find them; if not, we often must suffer a painful lose before we can understand how truly blessed we were yesterday.

Do we really have to become homeless before we can be thankful for a warm house; even if it isn’t as big or as nice as we’d like.  Do we really have to lose someone we love before we can be thankful for the other people in our lives?  Do we really have to get sick before we can be thankful for our health?  Do we really have to become fugitives or prisoners before we can rejoice in our freedom?  Sadly, most of us tend not to appreciate what we have until we lose it, but this season offers us an opportunity to live differently.

Truthfully, this season was never really meant to be about us anyway.  We’ve unconsciously allowed the world’s thinking to distract us from the central issue, which is Jesus.  While some might regard that as rather obvious, I would guess that most of our holiday attitudes don’t reflect it.  When we talk about the sacrifice that Jesus made, we most often speak of the cross.  Rightfully so, but before His sacrifice on the cross, Jesus sacrificed His deity; not only to become a man, but to become a man of sorrows, who was acquainted with grief.  He sacrificed His perfect fellowship with the Father to come to this earth as a sacrificial lamb.  He sacrificed the glory of heaven for a manger, the rejection of man and a cross.  Make no mistake; the sacrifice Jesus made at Christmas is no less profound than the one He made at Easter.  It was the day that our redemption was set in motion and it certainly warrants a seasons worth of rejoicing.

So as we step into this season, I feel the Lord challenging our motivations and asking what will drive us in this time.  Will it be the hurts and disappointment of seasons past; will it be the struggles that we’re facing today, or maybe our fears about what awaits us down the road.  Maybe it will be the vain hope that if we just find the right combination of songs & gifts & food & people & decorations, we’ll find the joy of the season.  I’d submit that the Lord would like this season to be a season of awe and wonder at the love of our Father in heaven; a season of gratitude for all that He is and all that He’s done for us; a season of renewed relationship with Him and those He’s brought around us.

Who knows what the New Year will bring, but as I stand here today, I am blessed and thankful.  He has given and done more than I ever deserved and more than I ever could have hoped for.  I pray that you and your family will find His joy and have a wonderful holiday season.  God bless you

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This story is something very special to me, as the premise for it came from my 11 year old son Patrick.  As he described his idea for the plot, I could clearly see the main characters, Bill and Tommy, in my mind.  Of course, I embellished significantly on his original storyline, but at the core of it you’ll still find Patrick’s heart.  It didn’t occur to me until after I’d written it that maybe Bill and Tommy were really just a parallel for Patrick and me.  He knows that I’m concerned about losing my job in the next few months and he’s struggling through his first year of middle school.  I wouldn’t at all be surprised if this story, which is essentially about a man and a boy finding hope in the midst of a difficult season, isn’t just a by-product of the battle he see’s going on in our lives.  That’s a battle I pray we both win.  I also pray that this will be the first of many creative endeavors we are able to collaborate on.  I hope it is a blessing to those who read it.  It’s already been a blessing to me.

Bill quickly logged off his computer and grabbed his jacket, hoping to get away from his cubical before the phone rang again.  As he made his way through the lobby, Janet – the receptionist at the front desk, called out to him playfully, “leaving a little early aren’t we?”  Since he was now a safe distance from his desk, Bill decided it would be alright to take a minute to chat. 

“Yeah, I’ve got a thing down at the church I volunteered for” he replied sheepishly. 

Janet smiled at his apparent embarrassment and asked, “What kind of thing?” 

“We do a little Halloween carnival for all the kids in the neighborhood” he replied.  “They get to wear their costumes and we have lots of games, prizes and candy.  I promised to help setup.” 

“That sounds really nice.  I think it’s great that someone who doesn’t have kids would volunteer to help with something like that” she replied.

“Well, Missy and I have always enjoyed working with the kids at church” Bill said.

Again, Janet smiled, “So when are you guys going to have some kids of your own?” she asked.

“We’re holding off for a little while” Bill replied, as he turned toward the door.  “I’d better get going; see you on Monday”.

“Have a good weekend!” Janet chirped.

As Bill made his way through the parking lot, his conscience began to itch, as he’d not really answered Janet’s question honestly.  The truth was that he and Missy had been trying to get pregnant for the last few years and they were highly frustrated and discouraged that it hadn’t happened.  Though both of them had been checked, doctors could find no medical reason for their inability to conceive.  As much as they loved each other, it had begun to drive a wedge between them; as their imaginations desperately tried to conjure the source of the problem.  Bill noticed that as their discouragement grew, Missy had begun to withdraw from the kids at church and that she seemed to be almost resentful of his continued involvement with them.  They had talked a lot about pursuing adoption, though neither of them seemed to find much solace in that idea.  And as these thoughts swirled in his head, that familiar knot in the pit of his stomach began to tighten.  Knowing that he’d eventually make himself sick, Bill decided to push the whole issue out of his mind.  He reminded himself that tonight was about the neighborhood kids and he focused his thoughts on the things that needed to be done to get ready for that.

Bill pulled in behind the church, as the main parking lot was to be fully engulfed with games and carnival booths.  He immediately busied himself with a host of tasks, as he and the other volunteers raced to have everything together before the kids started arriving.  Within a couple of hours, the transformation was complete and he grabbed an apple from the bobbing for apples booth, before he headed to the bathroom to change into his costume.  He was grateful to be a cowboy this year, as opposed to the clown he’d been last year.  He smiled at the thought of how hard it had been to get all that face-paint off and at how some of the little kids had been afraid of him.  Later, as he headed toward his game booth, he ran into Phil, who was wearing the clown outfit and had a roll of tickets in his hand.

“Hey cowboy Bill, how bout buying a 50-50 raffle ticket from your old buddy Phil” he said.

Though Bill wasn’t much on raffles, he felt really sorry for Phil.  Getting stuck with both the clown get-up and raffle ticket duty had to be the pits.  He dug into his pocket and found a couple of dollars, as Phil wrote his name on the back of the tickets; eventually sticking them into his brightly colored clown bag.  As Bill got to his game booth, they starting letting the kids into the carnival area and within minutes the lot was jammed with people and activity.  Bill’s game simply required the kid’s to toss a ping-pong ball onto a table full of colored jars.  If they got three balls into any of the jars, they got a piece of candy and if they got three balls into the same colored jars, they got a prize.  Since the chances of winning a prize were very small, Bill only had a few stuffed animals and some brightly colored trucks to give out. 

As he bantered with the kids and their parents, his eye was drawn to a little boy, who was dressed as an Indian and was waiting in the line for his booth.  He guessed that it was the rather serious expression on the boy’s face that made him stand out.  As he moved closer, Bill recognized that it was one of the kids who attended church there.  Though he hadn’t ever spoken directly to him, he knew that the boy’s name was Tommy and that his father had been killed in Afghanistan about a year and a half ago.  The whole church was aware of this family’s story, as the young widow was left raising her three children alone.  Tommy was the oldest and appeared to be about 8 or 9 years old.  There was also a little brother who was around 5 years old and a baby sister who must have been between 2 & 3 years old.  The mother was a pleasant woman, who barely spoke and who always looked tired.  Tommy was almost always accompanied by his little brother and was often holding his baby sister as well.  Bill’s heart broke every time he saw them and that pain seemed especially acute as he noticed Tommy’s rather pitiful homemade costume.  Though Bill tried to stay engaged with the other kids, his eye kept drifting back to Tommy.  Finally he made his way to the front of the line and Bill got the chance to speak to him.

“Oh my, an Indian!  I sure hope you come in peace” he said with a grin.

Tommy’s business like expression didn’t change, as he said, “Yes, I come in peace.  I’ve got to hurry up a win that toy truck, before my little brother gets here.”

Bill was a little embarrassed that his attempt to make Tommy smile had failed and so he quickly explained how the game worked and handed Tommy the ping pong balls.  The first ball dropped almost directly into a red jar, but the second ball bounced multiple times before rolling into a blue one.  Bill tried to console Tommy that he could still win a piece of candy with the next ball; but it bounced off the lip of a green jar and fell harmlessly to the ground.  Bill’s heart sank and he offered to give Tommy a piece of candy anyway; but Tommy refused saying, “No thanks, that wouldn’t be right”.  Tears welled up in Bill’s eyes as he watched the dejected Tommy walk away.  A few minutes later, Bill saw him leading his little brother by the hand to one of the games for the younger kids.  He found himself wanting to reach out to this boy, but he didn’t have a clue on how to do that.  Under his breath, he prayed, “God please help him”.

It took several minutes, but Bill eventually got caught back up in the festivities, which were scheduled to last for a couple more hours.  As the carnival reached its final fifteen minutes, the kids seemed to have grown tired of the games and were congregating around the booth that was distributing treat bags.  Bill was just about to take his booth apart, when a breathless Tommy suddenly reappeared.

“Please sir, my mom’s taken my little brother to the bathroom and I want to try this again!” he gasped. 

Though Bill quickly handed him three ping-pong balls, he was braced for disappointment, as no one had been successful in winning a prize all night.

Tommy’s first ball bounced into a yellow jar and then his second one dropped into another yellow jar on the other side of the table.  Bill allowed himself to be excited at the thought that this kid might finally catch a break, but once again, the third ball rattled off the table.

As Tommy’s eyes lowered, Bill pleaded “Please try again!”

Tommy’s eyes rose back up in a blank stare and it occurred to Bill how absurd it was to put this kid through yet another failed attempt.  Under his breath, he prayed “Please Lord!  Please!” as he handed Tommy the balls. 

Once again, the first ball bounced into a red jar, as did the second one; and Bill could barely catch his breath as Tommy let the third ball go.  It seemed to stay in the air for a long time, before finally dropping directly into yet another red jar.  Bill jumped higher than he had since his childhood and excitedly hugged Tommy, who seemed genuinely startled by his sudden display of affection.  Bill snatched the toy trucks from the table and thrust them toward Tommy, “Which one do you want!”  Tommy’s face broke into a satisfied smile as he said, “He’ll want that blue one”.

A look of confusion washed over Bill’s face as he asked, “Who’ll want that one?”

“My little brother Harry” he replied with a smile.

Tears once again pushed against Bill’s eyes as he realized that all of this hadn’t been for Tommy, but for his little brother.  Out of the corner of his eye, Bill saw Tommy’s family walking in their direction and he said, “Here he comes now”.

Tommy’s eyes darted their direction and then back to Bill.  “Please don’t say anything to them and just keep the truck for a few minutes.  I want to give it to him for Christmas, so I don’t want him to see it yet” he said.  Tommy bounded off, intercepting them before they got too close to the booth; and as they walked the other direction, he turned, giving Bill the thumbs up sign.  Bill’s tears began to spill over as he considered the amazing heart of this little boy.  He stashed the truck with his personal stuff and thanked God profusely as he began to dismantle his booth.  He had only been working a few minutes when he heard Phil’s voice behind him.

“Hey cowboy, you won” he said.

“Won what?” Bill replied as he turned to his clown friend.

“The 50-50 drawing” said Phil.

“You’re kidding” Bill said.  “I’ve never won anything like that in my entire life.”

“Well you have now” Phil said, as he began to count out the money.  Since it was mostly one dollar bills, it took awhile, but Phil finally concluded with, “One hundred & nine dollars & forty eight cents”.

“Wow, that’s a lot of money; but how do you get forty eight cents when the tickets were a dollar?” Bill asked.

Phil smiled and said, “That’s what happens when you let a clown run the raffle and someone is a couple pennies short of a full dollar.”  Bill laughed and thanked him, as he stuffed the wad of bills and change into his pocket.  And as Phil turned to leave, Tommy once again came racing up to the booth.  “OK Sir, my mom’s got my little brother again; can I get that truck now” he said breathlessly.

As Bill grabbed the truck, it suddenly occurred to him that he might be able to bless little Tommy even more.  As he turned back to him, he said “You know, nobody else was able to win these other prizes; you could take one of the other trucks for yourself and maybe a stuffed animal for your little sister.”   Tommy looked at him thoughtfully and said, “It wouldn’t be as special for Harry if I got a truck too, but I would take one of those bears for Becca”.  Bill was amazed that a boy Tommy’s age would pass on a free toy, just because it might diminish the value of his gift to his little brother and he felt good that at least Tommy had accepted the stuffed bear for his sister.  As he handed them over, Tommy quickly stuffed them under his Indian costume, thanked Bill and began running back toward the carnival entrance.  As Bill watched him go, all of his fathering instincts were stirred; but as he resumed taking down his booth, the exhilaration of his interaction with Tommy began to drift into a familiar sense of grief at the thought that he might never actually become a father.

As Bill got in the car to head home, he noticed how late it had gotten.  He thought about calling Missy, but wondered if she might already be asleep.  Not wanting to take the chance of waking her, he decided just to get home as quickly as possible.  When he walked through the front door, he immediately knew that he’d made a mistake.

Missy glared at him, as she said “I thought this thing was over at 9:00 PM!”

“It was” Bill retorted, “It just took longer than expected to get everything torn down and cleaned up.”

“I’d say that it did; it’s almost 11:00 PM.  You couldn’t have called me and let me know you were going to be late” she said angrily.

“I’m sorry, I was busy working and didn’t notice how late it had gotten” he said defensively.

“So I shouldn’t be upset that you didn’t care about the fact that I might be sitting here worrying” she said, as tears filled her eyes.

“Come on Missy, what’s this really about.  If you were worried you could have called me.  Are you mad at me because I’m late or are you mad that I even did this thing tonight?” he said.

“I just don’t understand your need to volunteer for everything that comes down the line” she cried.

Bill had an answer for Missy, but he understood that it would only make things worse.  So he took off his jacket and knelt beside her.  Cupping her face in his hands he said, “I’m sorry that it got so late.  I love you.”

He could tell that Missy still wanted to be mad at him, but instead she began to sob.  He wrapped his arms around her and stroked her back, as she released the wave of emotion that had overtaken her.  Bill wondered if their relationship would ever get back to normal or if their collective barrenness would always be a wall between them.  After several minutes, Missy’s crying seemed to ebb and they headed off to bed.  While Missy seemed to almost pass out when her head hit the pillow, Bill laid awake, thinking about all the kids he talked to that night, especially little Tommy.

The next morning Bill was up early, sitting in the kitchen with his coffee and thinking about the night before.  He knew in his heart that he and Missy were meant to be together and he could clearly envision them with a family.  Somehow, despite three years of failure, he still had hope that it was going to happen at some point, though he wondered if that wasn’t just denial on his part.  He thought about the powerful feelings he’d had for Tommy and he considered the possibility that God was trying to show him that he could be a father to a child that didn’t come from him.  Even so, he didn’t sense that adoption was the answer for them.  After several minutes of wrestling with his thoughts, Bill finally quieted himself and prayed a simple prayer.

“Lord, I invite You into this day.  I ask You to come and help us to find the place You’ve called us to be and to help our hearts accept Your will.  Help Missy to feel You close to her and help Tommy’s family know that You will take care of them.  Lord, apart from You, we can do nothing; but through You, all things are possible.  Have Your way in me Lord.  In Jesus’ holy name – amen.”

The next few weeks went by pretty quickly and in the midst of all the activity, Bill had pretty much forgotten his interaction with Tommy’s family until the Sunday before Thanksgiving.  That morning, Missy was asked to help out in a Sunday school class and she reluctantly agreed.  Bill cringed at the thought of what her state of mind might be like afterward, but he was pleasantly surprised when she emerged with a quiet smile.  He was hesitant to say anything about it, but eventually his curiosity got the better of him and he asked her what had happened. 

Missy explained, “The kids were making these little macaroni bracelets and necklaces as stocking stuffers for Christmas.  As you’d probably guess, the girls were all very excited about it, while the boys mostly just threw the pieces at each other.  But as I was working with some of the girls, I noticed one little boy, sitting by himself and working very diligently on three different necklaces.  I noticed that he was painting each piece a different color and I figured that he’d run out of time if I didn’t help him; so I went over to do that.  He was so polite, and he explained that he wasn’t going to paint the third necklace because it was a gift for his baby sister and he was sure she’d put it in her mouth.”

Tears began to stream from her eyes as she continued, “I thought what an amazing little boy to recognize that the paint might be a problem for his little sister and as I talked to him, I realized who he was.”

With tears welling in his eyes, Bill nodded, quietly saying, “Tommy”.

“Do you know him” she asked.

“I meet him at the Halloween Carnival” he replied.

Missy continued through her tears, “As we talked, he said that last Christmas had been the first one since his father was killed and that everyone had been so sad.  He said that he didn’t want this Christmas to be like that.  He told me that he’s been trying to teach his little brother and sister Christmas carols, so they can sing them for their mom.  He said that he just wants to see her smile for Christmas”.

Bill reached over and stroked Missy’s shoulder, as she tried to regain her composure.  After wiping her eyes and nose, she went on.

“You know, as I listened to him, I realized that I’ve been feeling very sorry for myself.  Here’s this little boy, who has every right to be sad and maybe even mad, but instead has chosen to find the joy in Christmas.  And here I am, a grown woman, who’s been blessed with a wonderful husband and a great life; yet I’ve chosen to be miserable because things aren’t working out like I’d planned.  I think God wanted me to meet that little boy and to see his heart, so that I would see what He wants for my heart to be like.

Bill pulled Missy into an embrace and whispered, “I love you so much.  I’m so proud of you.”

Missy melted into his arms and said, “I love you too and I’m so sorry for how I’ve been acting.”

Stroking her hair, Bill replied, “We’ve both been hurting; but let’s try to set aside our disappointment and find the joy in this season.  We can decide what to do about a family after the New Year.”

Missy nodded her head in agreement.  After getting in the car, Bill told her the story of his encounter with Tommy at the Halloween carnival and both them once again marveled at the selfless heart of this little boy.  In the days that followed, things were indeed different with them.  It was as though the curtains had been opened in a dark room.  They still had their moments, but the heaviness of their hearts seemed to lift off.  Both of their families noticed the difference at their Thanksgiving gatherings and Missy’s father even told her that “It’s good to have my girl back”.

The one part of the Halloween carnival story that Bill had intentionally left out was the fact that he’d won the raffle.  He decided that since their budget was so tight, he’d use that money to surprise Missy with something nice for Christmas.  Since getting married, they’d not bought gifts for each other at the holidays; choosing instead to spend their money on things they needed or wanted for the house.  He knew that there was a part of Missy that would be upset with him about the gift, but he hoped that a bigger part of her would also be genuinely touched by it.  He felt in his heart that God had given him that money for a reason and doing something special for Missy was the first thing that came to his mind.  About a week before Christmas, he slipped out to the store while Missy was at choir practice.  Though he was excited about the idea of buying a gift, he soon found himself wandering the aisles aimlessly.  As he turned a corner he saw Tommy’s mother standing by the bicycles and as he moved closer, he thought he saw tears in her eyes.

Not wanting to startle her, Bill lightly touched her arm and softly said, “Are you alright ma’am?”

Despite his efforts, she jumped and violently spun toward him.  The alarmed expression on her face quickly eased, as a flicker of recognition seemed to spark in her eyes.  Before she could respond, Bill broke in breathlessly, “I’m very sorry to have surprised you like that!  My wife and I go to the same church as your family and I just wanted to make sure that you’re OK.”

She exhaled deeply and quietly said, “Yes, I remember seeing you at church before and I am OK.  Thank you for asking.”

Bill extended his hand to her and said, “My name is Bill Eldridge.”

Returning his handshake, she said “I’m Tammy Johnson, it’s good to meet you.”

“I had the pleasure of meeting your son Tommy at the Halloween Carnival; he’s quite the young man” Bill said.

A fresh wave of emotion seemed to roll over Tammy’s face, as she choked on her words, “Yes; yes he is.”

Bill saw her eyes shift back to a bright red bicycle, with the words “Street Tornado” emblazoned on the frame.  He had a strong sense that this was what was upsetting her.  Without thinking about what it might sound like, he said “Is that bike something on Tommy’s Christmas list?”

Tammy’s eyes lowered, as tears crept from the edges, “No, Tommy would never ask for something like that.  He knows we can’t afford it and at nine years old, he’s already too practical for something as frivolous as a bicycle.  I guess if I’m honest, it was on my Christmas list for him.  I know I can’t undo what’s happened, but I feel like he just never gets to be a kid any more.  His daddy told him when he left for Afghanistan that he was now the ‘man of the house’ and that’s exactly what he’s become.  As much as I admire the strength God put in that little boy, I want so much to see him get the chance to be carefree; even if it’s only for the amount of time it takes to ride to the end of the block and back.  When I saw this bike, I knew it was the one, but it costs almost $200.00 and for us, that’s out of the question.  I prayed that God would make a way and I’ve been saving a little since Easter time.  The man told me that they’d eventually go on sale and sure enough, they’re half off.”

“So what’s the matter?” Bill prodded.

Tammy’s expression was filled with frustration, as she said, “Our hot water heater went out yesterday and it took all of the money that I’d saved to get it taken care of.”  She tried to hold back her tears, as her voice cracked “I know that I should be grateful that God provided for us once again, but to be totally honest, I’m really disappointed and discouraged.”

Bill’s heart was wrenched for this family and all that they’d already endured.  He wanted desperately to make everything alright for them and he said, “You know, there are lots of people who would gladly help your family out.”

Tammy’s head immediately began nod, “No, I don’t want my kids growing up with the idea that they are victims.  The truth is that God has taken good care of us.  We get some money from the government and with my job; we should always have a roof over our heads.  I want them to understand that God is our source and that you reap what you sow.  I don’t want them to be looking for other people to take care of them.”  

Bill couldn’t help but admire Tammy’s mindset, but it also seemed kind of crazy not to let someone help at this point.  As he looked at the bike, he wondered if maybe winning the raffle was just God’s way of allowing him to help her.  He wanted to blurt that out, but he could see that she wasn’t in the right frame of mind to have that conversation.  He felt certain that God was up to something, but he didn’t have the words, so he simply said, “I know that God is with you and your family”.

He was embarrassed at how trite that must have sounded, but Tammy nodded her head in agreement saying, “I know that’s true”.  Bill gave her a business card with their home phone number written on the back and asked her to call them if there was anything they could do.  Tammy thanked him and quickly moved on.  He stood there staring at the bike and eventually a sales person approached him.  He asked how much the bike would cost with tax and everything included.  Chills ran down his spine as the salesperson said, one hundred and nine dollars and forty eight cents.  To him, that was a sure sign that God had given him the money for this, but after talking to Mrs Johnson, he wondered how he could get the bike to Tommy without undermining the lessons she was trying to teach her children.  As he stood there, wrestling with his thoughts, his cell phone rang.  It was Missy telling him that choir practice had ended early.  He could feel his heart start to race as he said, “Honey, I need you to meet me at Wal-Mart; there’s something I need your help with”.

It was almost twenty minutes later when Missy arrived to find Bill pacing by the bicycles.  When he saw her, he quickly made his way to her and gave her a hug.  She could tell that he was very excited and maybe even slightly agitated.  As she questioned what all this was about, Bill breathlessly told her the story of winning the raffle, of his decision to spend the money on her Christmas gift and of his encounter with Mrs Johnson.  He then told her about the price of the bike and of his belief that he was supposed to buy it for Tommy.  As he finally slowed down enough to take a breath, he asked, “So what do you think?”

Missy smiled at him and then punched him in the arm, saying “I think I ought to beat you for not telling me about the raffle and for thinking that you were going to buy me a gift on the sly.  Do you know how mad I’d have been at you if you had a present for me and I had nothing for you?”

Bill’s face became flushed and he shrugged his shoulders.

“You’re such a man sometimes” she added with a grin.

“OK, OK, I confess” he replied, “but what about the bike?”

“Well, it seems pretty obvious to me that God wants us to get it for Tommy” she said.

“But what about Mrs Johnson’s thing about not wanting her kids to think of themselves as victims; I mean she’s right about that” he said.

Missy shrugged and said, “I don’t know yet, but if He wants us to get the bike, let’s do that and trust that He’ll show us how to go from there.”

Nodding in agreement, Bill said “You’re right, that’s the way to go”.

The salesman seemed genuinely relieved to finally get Bill away from his department, as he helped him load the bike into the trunk of his car; and for the first time in a long time, Bill found himself genuinely excited about the idea of opening presents on Christmas morning.  As he followed Missy home, he imagined Tommy’s expression of surprise, which brought a smile to his face.  At the same time, he conjured images of Mrs Johnson’s face, filled with disapproval and nodding her head.  In his heart, he believed that what Missy had said was right, but he also found himself wondering whether they’d just made a mistake.  As those conflicting feelings roiled within him, he began to pray that God would help them to understand what they needed to do.  Knowing he couldn’t resolve it by worrying, Bill clicked on the radio and tried to push these thoughts out of his head by loudly singing Christmas carols.

In the days that followed, both Missy and Bill prayed about what to do next and they both found excuses to go into the garage, secretly sneaking peeks at the bike.  Despite their continued excitement, the pressure began to mount as Christmas Eve rapidly approached.  Every time Bill thought he had a way, he’d hear Mrs Johnson’s voice in his head saying, “I don’t want my children to see themselves as victims” and he would become discouraged again.  On the morning of Christmas Eve, he and Missy were in the living room, doing their daily devotions, when Missy read aloud, “you reap what you sow”.  Though Bill clearly heard her, there was a strange resonance to her words and he said, “What?”  Missy repeated herself and looked at Bill strangely; saying “Isn’t that what Mrs Johnson said she wanted to teach her kids?”  A spark of recognition flicked in Bill’s eyes and a broad smile broke across his face as he said “that’s it!”  Confused, Missy said, “What’s it?”  “You reap what you sow” he replied as he jumped from his chair.  As Missy jumped from the couch to follow him, she said “I don’t get it?”  “You will” Bill said excitedly, “You will!”

That night, after the Christmas Eve service, Missy and Bill made it a point to run into the Johnson family.  Bill asked Tommy if he was excited about Christmas, but before he could answer, little Harry broke in with an exuberant “We sure are!”  Tommy smiled knowingly at Bill, clearly excited that he had great gifts for his family.  Missy pressed even further when she asked if they opened gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, to which Tommy’s grandma said, “Oh we always wait until Christmas morning”.  “At seven o’clock sharp” Tommy added with a smile.  Mrs Johnson smiled wistfully and said, “That may be a tradition we should consider changing at some point”.  After exchanging holiday wishes, they headed for the parking lot, where Bill and Missy finalized their plan for delivering the bike to the Johnson’s.  Though both of them had a hard time going to sleep that night, both popped awake immediately when the alarm went off at 5.00 a.m.  After sneaking the bike onto the Johnson’s porch, Bill and Missy went home for hot chocolate and donuts.  Both agreed that this had been the most joyous Christmas that they’d had in a long time.

At the Johnson household, Tommy was the first one up.  He quietly made his way to the living room, first slipping the colorful macaroni necklaces into his mother’s & grandmother’s stockings, then the unpainted one into Becca’s stocking.  Finally he stuck Harry’s truck and Becca’s bear, both of which he’d wrapped in tissue paper, under the tree.  He stopped to stare at the nativity scene for a minute and as he looked at the statue of Joseph, he thought he saw his father’s face; from his expression Tommy could tell that he was proud of him.  This made him feel warm inside and in his heart he felt certain that this was going to be a great Christmas for his family.  Tommy then made his way into the kitchen, where he setup the coffee maker to make a fresh pot of coffee for his mother and grandmother.  It was the gurgling sound and the smell of coffee that awoke his grandmother, who then managed to wake up everyone else.  There were several packages under the tree, though most were practical gifts like clothes, underwear and socks.  There were also a few inexpensive toys, which seemed to more than satisfy the kids.  Tommy looked on with great anticipation as each person in the family received his gift and beamed with pride as his mother put on her macaroni necklace. 

Mrs Johnson and her mother laughed until they were in tears, as Tommy led Harry and Becca through a precious rendition of the “Twelve Days of Christmas”.  As Tommy and his mother made their way to the kitchen to get breakfast going, Grandma led Harry and Becca to the front porch to see if it had snowed overnight.  When Grandma opened the front door, she saw the bike parked on the porch, with a big green bow and a note taped to the handlebars.  Tears filled her eyes as she called to her daughter, “Tammy Jo, you’d better come see this!”  Not knowing what to make of her mother’s words, Tammy rushed to the front door and froze at the sight of the bike.  Before she had a chance to react, Tommy came around her and saw what everyone was staring at.  He looked up at his mother blankly and she nodded to him.  Slowly he crept to the bike and pulled the note from the handlebars.  As he opened it, he read it aloud.

Dear Tommy Johnson

 

I want you to know that God gave me the money to buy this bike for you and that he told me to give it to you for Christmas.  I believe that the reason He did this, was because He used you to remind me and my family about the hope and joy that He brought at the very first Christmas.  Things were very hard for his family in those days, just as they are for yours now, but His coming made all the difference.  This year, he used His light, in your heart, to warm our home and He wants you to understand that the things you plant in the lives of other people are the things that He’ll grow in your life.  Just like you wanted to see your mother smile this Christmas, He wants to see you smile.  Please never forget that this gift was from Him and that His joy will always be your strength.  God bless you Tommy and have a great Christmas.

Tammy’s heart nearly burst as she listened to her nine year boy read those beautiful words; and she wept tears of joy as she clutched her precious family to her.  Despite all that had happened in the last couple of years, she couldn’t imagine being any fuller than she was at that moment.  As the emotion of the moment ebbed, she saw Tommy staring at the bike in awe and said, “Do you like it Tommy?”

With a confused look on his face, he said, “How could I not like a bike that God picked for me?”

Tammy smiled and replied, “Then why not take it for a ride?”

“Now?” Tommy asked.

“Absolutely, baby” she answered.

Grandma grabbed their coats from the hooks by the door and Tommy pulled his on over his pajamas.  They all shuffled from the porch to the sidewalk, as Tommy’s still slippered foot lifted from the curb to the peddle.  Harry danced along the sidewalk as Tommy rode away and Grandma bounced Becca, trying to keep her warm as they watched him go.  As Tammy watched his hair blow in the wind and saw the expression of utter joy on his face, she once again began weep.  “Thank you Lord Jesus!” she gasped, “Thank you so much!”

Not far from there, Bill and Missy’s house was quiet, as they’d gone back to sleep after their early morning delivery.  Sometime later, Bill awoke and realized that Missy wasn’t in bed anymore.  As he lay there, he heard her in the bathroom and it sounded like she might be getting sick.  Bill felt bad for her and was a little disappointed that they’d probably have to miss Christmas dinner with their families; but the joy of their mission for Tommy was still resonating deeply within him.  He closed his eyes and began to pray for Missy and for the day ahead.  A few minutes later, Missy appeared in the bedroom door way, steadying herself against the frame.  She had big tears in her eyes and what looked to be a thermometer in her hands.  Bill rose up out of bed to help her and said, “Oh baby, are you sick?”  As he moved toward her, she held the thermometer out for him to see.  As he took it in his hands, he realized that it wasn’t a thermometer, but a home pregnancy test.  He looked back at Missy to see if this meant what he thought it meant and as he looked into her eyes he could see that it did.  “Are you sure” he gasped.  “Oh yes!” she cried, “I’m sick as a dog and I’ve tried four of these things and they all say that we’re going to have a baby”.  Bill wrapped his arms around Missy and lifted her feet off the ground.  Their bodies shook with tears and laughter, as year’s worth of disappointment evaporated into a haze of joyful anticipation.  “I love you so much” he said, as he finally lowered her back to the floor.  “I love you too Bill” she said tearfully, “but I really need to lay down now”.  Bill smiled as he helped Missy to the bed and covered her with the blanket.  He kissed her on the forehead and said, “Merry Christmas baby”.  Missy beamed back at him, “Merry Christmas Bill”.  And as he came out of the bedroom, Bill could see the nativity scene in the living room, as his eyes gravitated toward Mary & Joseph, gathered around little baby Jesus.  Once again tears of joy began to stream down his face, as he gasped, “Thank you Lord Jesus!  Thank you so much!”

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