There’s a Little Mary in All Of Us

Each Christmas I attempt to find something in Luke’s Christmas story that is meaningful and sometimes glossed over.  This year I am drawn to the verse in Luke 2:19 that reads “…Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart“. I would guess that many who read this simply believe that Mary was content and peaceful with all that has happened, having reconciled it all and found it to be good.  I might suggest that is not at all what this passage means.

Ponder, from the Greek word ponderare means to weigh.  Defined it means to carefully consider, to examine, specifically, something that is not completely understood or determined.  Remember, the passage records that everyone around her was rejoicing over the good news, but Mary was pondering, contemplating, perhaps partly in personal reverence but also partially in great confusion.  Her first words upon hearing from the angel gives us a clue, when she replied, “why me?”  We refer to her as bless nd she is depicted as this Holy, saintly mother of God, when in fact she was a teenager at best, never married, never sexually active, and now the mother of someone being hailed as the Messiah.  I personally feel she pondered because she was perplexed and a bit less than confident.

How many of us actively seek God’s will or purpose in our lives but become confused at the events He causes or allows to invade our world?  Even for the rare few who can say they heard God’s voice, there is still trepidation when it comes to being obedient to something when we don’t fully understand the purpose or know where it will lead us.  When Mary was told by the angel that she would soon be pregnant, she must have pondered how Joseph and her family would receive her. When she and Joseph hear the words from Simeon that “a sword will pierce your soul too“, she must have pondered those words as well.  When she and Joseph had to flee to Egypt with full knowledge that all infants under the age of two years  were about to be slaughtered because of her son, she must have pondered these things.  When Mary witnessed the brutal beatings and stripes her son bore she must have been pondering.  When she wept at the foot of the cross she surly pondered all these things.  In fact she may have spent thirty-three years “pondering these things in her heart” until the time her son was resurrected from the grave and she finally understood!

I’m fifty-six year old and I ponder things and events all the time.  Why would God allow this event to shatter my world?  What purpose is there in going through this particular situation?  What can possibly be worked out for my good from this impossible situation? If we are to be honest, we all have seasons where just like Mary, we ponder these things.  And guess what?  It doesn’t upset or Father in the slightest that we have honest questions, so long as at the end of the day, like Mary, we have a servant’s heart and can honestly say, just as she did, “very well, let it be unto me just as you have spoken“.

This Christmas many are in an unfamiliar situation, missing loved ones, suffering diseases, enduring trials unknown to others, and may be pondering, weighing, contemplating things for which there are no apparent answers.  My prayer is that you find peace, hope, joy and love in the Christ Child we celebrate with full knowledge that His purpose in our lives is clear and perfect, even when we are left pondering.

To all my followers, let me say again how humbled I am that you read and subscribe to papaswords.com. I wish all of you, from the bottom of my heart, a very Merry and Blessed Christmas.

book cover 3    my soul cries out  Available on Amazon Kindle.

 

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The Simplicity of the First Christmas

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It has become part of the holiday tradition, finding the perfect gift and then the perfect wrapping paper.  Gift wrapping is an art to some, a science to others.  Some spend as much time looking for just the right paper as they do the gift.  Of course with paper comes the right coordinated ribbon, bows and for the really serious wrapper, silk flowers or other accessories.  And when we present that gift with all it’s adornment we expect to hear how lovely the wrapping job is, almost as much as we want to receive appreciation for what’s inside.

I recall when the boys were much younger and even now with grandkids how the fun of watching them open our presents was temporarily sidetracked as they tore off the paper and played with it as if it were the present.  Even our pets got a bigger thrill out of the paper than what the paper covered.  In many ways this is us at Christmas time. We become so engaged in the “wrappings” of Christmas, the parties, the shopping, the decorating, the shows and concerts-all the traditions that surround the actual gift, the reason we stop and commemorate, that many of us discard the gift with the paper and completely miss out on the intended present, the Child born unto us.

When we read the accounts of the first Christmas in the books of Matthew and Luke many details are left out of the story.  For instance, we don’t know for sure if Christ was born in a stable or a cave dwelling or a lower level of a home.  We don’t know much about the shepherds.  We aren’t exact on the date of His birth.  We aren’t really told how many magi traveled to see Jesus or when they actually showed up. Hollywood producers have used artistic license to fill in the blanks for us to make movies more marketable and all of us have a sense of what the real scene may have been like, but the truth is these details were kept from us.  Why? Because we get too caught up in the wrapping!  We want to know things that have little significance in light of the real event and its purpose. Even within our worship we tend to seek approval for our church production or our operatic performance of Oh Holy Night when all the glory and attention is to be focused on the gift.

The first Christmas was incomprehensibly simple. In the beginning, Christ was.  He created all that is created.  We messed it up as we always do.  We needed a perfect sacrifice in order to be reconciled to God the Father.  Christ put off his glory, His Kingship and became flesh, His creation so that as a man he could die as a man once and for all.  His coming was proclaimed as great tidings for ALL people. In one selfless act He became our King, our redeemer, our eternal bridegroom. God loved the world so much He gave us the perfect gift sans the trappings and distractions that would make us glory in the surroundings but lose sight of the gift. One Holy Night, one perfect sinless child, one act of unmatched love, one eternal hope.  That is as simple as it can be if we would but accept it as it was intended.

In a world of hate and bigotry and finger pointing it would serve us all well to revisit Bethlehem and insert ourselves into the story as humble observers of a blessed event that would change mankind forever; to feel and see the love, to hear Heaven sing and to experience the forever healing and completion of our souls. Peace on earth, good will to all men, all ethnicities, all countries, all religions.  I wish you the very best this Christmas season with a prayer that you will not miss the gift because of the wrappings, and that you will find it in your heart to carry this good will to all those you encounter in the coming year.

 

 

Grandma’s Shiny Christmas Pin

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When I was but a boy I delivered flyers for a local grocery store in Indianapolis-I was paid a penny per flyer.  I made about $3.00 per week and loved doing it. On most weeks I would take some of my money to Long’s Bakery where I could buy second day donuts for half price as my reward.  The grocer is long gone but the bakery remains. However, whenever Christmas rolled around I looked forward to taking my two or three dollars to the local G. C. Murphy or Kresge store to buy my grandmother a shiny colored pin for Christmas.  She loved her collection of costume pins and wore them to church each Sunday. These stores would have tables of little white boxes each containing a different pin they brought in just for Christmas.  I would be in there for hours picking out just the right pin for her.  The funny thing, it didn’t really matter which one I selected-she would love it just the same.

At age fifty-five this remains one of my favorite Christmas memories.  It was a simplistic time, the pride of buying a gift for my grandma with money I earned, the thrill of the search for the perfect pin, the joy of giving it to her on Christmas Eve and the love she showed when opening it.  I could have given her a purple hippo pin with orange ears-she would have never said a word but would have loved it and worn it proudly.  In my grandmother’s eyes, I could do no wrong.  Simple, loving, cherished, pure!  How times have changed.

I’m all grown up now.  I live in a world where acceptance and approval is sometime difficult to acquire. It’s almost as if our lives are lived as an obstacle course full of hazards and opportunities for failure, lined along the way with our share of naysayers telling us we didn’t study hard enough, we didn’t work hard enough, we haven’t earned enough, we haven’t given enough, we haven’t loved enough. And all along the course we are looking for grandma in the crowd to give her unconditional approval but she’s long since gone to her reward and no one really cares for our shiny pins anymore.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at Christmas time.  The intensity of the season serves as a natural amplifier for all emotions and feelings, good or bad.  For the lucky ones whose lives are balanced and in order Christmas is a magical time where love and hope abounds in volume. But for those who have been beaten down by failure, by rejection, by battles unknown to others, Christmas can be a lonely, dark and empty time that only reveals to us the desperation of our current state.

It is during this season that we are compelled to look beyond what Christmas may have become and instead consider the divine purpose of the Holy Incarnation of that special night when God became flesh to show us an unconditional Grandma type love that would lead to us being called children of God. The arrival of that baby Christ-child was not trumpeted in the courts of kings or revealed to the religious leaders and holy men.  It was instead heralded to the lowliest of the low, the shepherds, society’s outcast, those whose lives were expendable, unwanted, invisible. Christ came to give all men equal status and acceptance into a new kingdom where worth and value are not placed on income levels, educational degrees or corporate titles, but rather on who you know, specifically, Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. When we come before Christ and lay down our lives in surrender and sacrifice with all our sins, our failures, our bad decisions, our regrets He doesn’t look upon the darkness of our status or see the obvious soil on our robes.  He sees shiny Christmas pins, full of color, sparkling in the light as if they were Lennox or Swarovski crystal. We are received and set at the same table next to kings and royalty as VIP guests of the highest honor with full access and privilege to the King of all kings, the Christ, now wearing our shiny pins as His badges of honor.

My grandmother has been gone almost twenty years now and I still miss her at Christmas.

An update; in September I wrote a post entitled A Tale of Two Brothers about the differences  and lessons to be learned from our two beagles, Peyton and Romo, emphasizing Peyton’s carefree approach to everyday life even though he had terminal cancer.  Sadly, we said goodbye to Peyton a week ago but know he has gone to that place where our furry kids go on the Rainbow Ridge. He will be missed terribly.

 

 

 

Recapturing the Lost Wonder of Christmas

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The tree and its collection of unique ornaments that would rival a Macy’s window creation remains packed away in boxes.  The lights and animated reindeer that was part of a Griswold-esque lawn display is hibernating in storage. Except for a Hallmark movie or a rerun of an old holiday classic on TV, there is little evidence that Christmas is just a couple weeks away.

There is an unexplainable magic and wonder that ushers in the Christmas holiday. It takes us back in time to when things were simpler, more genuine-where Peace on Earth seemed attainable and the very best of human nature surfaced ever so briefly so that all the world was better because of it.  For many this annual euphoria still exists and is eagerly anticipated and welcomed like an old friend you only see once each year. But sadly for others the season is anything but joyful.  Silent Night becomes just that, silent. Old carols become seasonal haunts leftover from Halloween like the Ghost of Christmas Past except unlike the Dickens story there is little hope of redemption given to its chosen victims. While there is no real evidence that the rate of suicides is elevated during the holidays, it can’t be denied that depression is all the more apparent and intense when you are alone or coming off a particularly cruel year of trials. The hope is that like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life we can find our way through the muck and mire of mental games just in time to celebrate but many will carry their depression on into the new year. Just like the Grinch, someone snuck in during the night and stole our Christmas.

Christmas is the ultimate time for sharing-a dance to a familiar carol, a gift to someone not expecting it, your love with that special someone, memories of past years with old friends, the celebration of an Incarnate baby savior. However when those opportunities to share are removed due to loss of income, loss of health, the death of a spouse or loved one, divorce or separation, the vehicle used to share the holiday is rendered useless, out of order, incapacitated, leaving one feeling lonely and nothing resembling Merry. It is during these times that we as believers in Christ, the Christmas miracle, have to rely on the true focus of the Christmas celebration and recreate our own miracles. It is only through our ability to see and recall the Babe in the manger that we have a chance of recapturing the wonder we so long for at this special and holy time of year.

I have always believed in my heart that the reason Christmas is so wondrous is that God opens up Heaven and releases just a little bit of the holy residue that covered the earth those two thousand years ago on that special night when Christ the Son became flesh and stepped into the world He Himself created. It was the ultimate gift, the epitome of love that the Son of the Most High would enter this world through extraordinary means on a journey He knew would end on a cross. He didn’t come here to turn water to wine, to feed thousands with a few fish or to leave behind quotes that make for good wall plaques. Christ the Christmas miracle came with the objective and divine plan to willingly lay down His life as a once and for all sacrifice that afforded us redemption, reconciliation to the Father and a blessed hope of eternal Christmases in an everlasting Kingdom where sadness, loneliness and depression are forever banished. It is a kingdom according to Revelation where “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for these things will have passed away-forever!”  It is a miracle beyond our human comprehension or explanation. It is the truest essence of Christmas! It remains the wonder of Christmas, if we can but set our sights above the trials and despair of this troubled world.

It would be a bit cruel to identify the problem without offering suggestions on where to go from here.  Lest I be like the TV commercial where I just monitor a problem (“there’s a problem”) here are some things that work for me. I love holiday lights.  There is something about colored lights glowing in the dark that just make you feel good inside.  I recall as kids my brother and I counting light displays on our way to church-a great memory. So now, I go out of my way to take in light displays.  And instead of the same old TV fare I switch over to an old Christmas show or a Hallmark Movie.  Yes, I still watch Frosty, Rudolph and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. It takes me back 50 years to an innocence I cherish, even if there are those days when I resemble Bergermeister or the Grinch. And who doesn’t enjoy the classic holiday songs that accompany Christmas.  Whether it is taking in a concert by Trans Siberian or a local church production, you can’t possibly walk away without at least a tinge of Christmas spirit. One more great remedy for holiday blues is to find a cause, a charity, a need you can adopt to help bring a little Christmas wonder to others who may be feeling just as left out.  It is amazing the healing properties of adopting a family at Christmas or providing a tree or a dinner or a few unexpected toys.  Their joy is infectious and you can’t help but catch the bug if anywhere near. But perhaps the greatest therapy of all is to seek out Church services billed as Christmas celebrations so that the heart, the meaning and the purpose of our celebration is driven home into our depleted spirit so our focus can be redirected to the source of all wonder, the Christ Child, The Prince of our Peace, God with us, the perfect gift for all occasions that like the Jelly of the Month Club from Christmas Vacation, just keeps on giving.  Let the peace of God, which according to Philippians 4 “transcends all understanding”, all hurt, all depression, all loneliness, guard your hearts and minds in the Christ Child.

If you are hurting and not looking forward to the holidays this year, I encourage you with these words and the sincerest of prayers to kneel before the manger and ask for the peace, the comfort, the healing from the source of all celebration and the subject of our reverence, Jesus. Christmas this year may look a little different than in years past but our Father Who is the same yesterday, today and for all Christmases to come will rekindle the holiday flame that may be extinguished so that you can once again warm up to that lost wonder that is Christmas.

 

 

 

 

The Hope That Heals All Christmas Pain

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Its almost time for Christmas, one of the holiest days of the year

The world for a moment stops spinning to send tidings of love and cheer

But for some this day’s a challenge as they try to find some gladness

For each one has a story that for them gives way to sadness

Seems everywhere they cast their glance they’re reminded of the reasons

Why they just can’t find the simple joy of this yearly Holy season

For some a dated ornament, the first Christmas spent together

A love to last the storms of life the two of them would weather

But one storm showed no mercy as it tore the two apart

Leaving nothing good of Christmas and instead, a broken heart

For others there’s and empty chair a loved one used to fill

Though gone, they’re not forgotten and their seat is empty still

They spent their lives united, gave their all to one another

But failing health and extended years claimed one but left the other

Some approach the season just a few weeks unemployed

And find it hard to celebrate being robbed of all their joy

They can’t afford the usual gifts that bring their children laughter

Feeling like they’ve failed again with no prospect of work hereafter

While for some there sits a present wrapped in true anticipation

Of the joy when finally opened at the family’s celebration

But something unexpected, a life so quickly taken

Leaves a family asking questions and the day completely shaken

There’s bitterness and anger as we wrestle with God’s purpose

Trying hard to hide the obvious pain that lies beneath the surface

Why now, why me, what good can come from allowing us these tests

And how do we now reconcile that God still knows what’s best

Yet, in the corner, hardly noticed, a nativity scene displayed

In the center lies the Child of peace, born that Christmas day

His entrance ushered hope and peace for all who would believe

A hope that heals the deepest wounds when to Him we humbly cleave

He understands how hard it is for some to find their cheer

And offers us eternal hope that will last beyond our tears

The cure for all that ails us entered earth that Christmas night

It’s His hope that brings a lasting peace and His love that sets things right

It heals all wounds, fills all voids, brings comfort to ease our pain

And chases tears and sorrows so that love alone remains

We all have things we’d wish to change to make our lives more pleasant

And questions we would pose to God if He stood within our presence

But He knew our pains before our birth and addressed them from above

When He sent His Son to heal all hurts in the ultimate show of love

So we’ll gather on this Christmas day to commemorate His birth

The Christ child come to soothe our pain, the greatest cure on earth

It comforts loss and covers scars if we’ll but humbly kneel

To worship Him who heals our hearts with a peace we each can feel.

 

My Life as a Christmas Tree

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For nineteen years now I’ve been putting up our Christmas tree.  It’s a daunting and physical task and it takes the better part of a day, sometimes two days to complete it. Yet each year it’s a ritual I truly welcome and look forward to for many reasons, but I think this year something occurred to me while putting it up.  I think me and this old tree are a lot alike, I just never saw it before now.  Allow me to elaborate.

When people see our tree for the first time they are moved-it’s a beautiful creation. But being the one who puts it up each year I see the things no one else sees, the flaws and imperfections that are covered by the decorations. Only I know the work it takes to cover or make up for these imperfections so that they will not be noticed by others.  First, some of the limbs are getting old and are difficult to bend back into place. A few of the hinged limbs have fallen completely and are held up by wire I used that no one else can see. The tree has also lost many of its bristles.  Having nearly two thousand tips it’s hard to notice bald spots but when you put the tree up and then take it down you can fill a vacuum bag with fallen bristles.  I can relate.

Ours it a pre-lit tree with  built-in lights. However, through the years many of the lights have faded and some don’t work at all. This year there was a new section void of any light at all and I had to insert a new string of lights to compensate for the dark areas. I replaced the fuses of the bad lights but nothing I did seemed to be enough  to get the old lights working again. Yet with all that is wrong with our tree the base in which the tree stands remains sturdy and secure and the tree is safe from total collapse for now. Again, I think I can relate.

The ornaments used to dress up the tree are a plethora of pieces collected during the nineteen years of the tree’s existence and represent quite the array of diversity and change. The  plain, simple but sentimental ornaments from that very first tree as well as the strands of colored beads are still displayed on the tree now and are among the first things placed on the tree each year. They may not be as appealing or noticeable as some of the newer or more expensive ones, but they will never be replaced because of what they represent and the memories associated with them. Some of the ornaments are imprinted or engraved with certain important dates from years past for our recollection. Some are one-only ornaments, hand-crafted by artisans as unique and irreplaceable. Others are a bit more common but necessary in helping to maintain the theme of the tree. Some of the ornaments we picked out together and we can recall when and where we acquired them, and others I chose myself along the way to enhance the appearance and add to the creation.

Then there are the silk florals, the “never die” roses. There must be close to one hundred of them, and they are the last things to go on the tree. I use them to fill in the bare spots where no ornaments exist. I take a few steps away from the tree so I can get a better perspective.  Any area I deem as void gets one of these roses to help cover the otherwise bare branch. There are some years when it’s hard to find those void areas and there are a few years when the bare spots are quite obvious. The simple insertion of a rose makes the tree much fuller.

The last thing to go on our tree is our angel who we named Hope from the onset. The tree isn’t complete until Hope takes her place on top, surrounded by a host of smaller angels just below her.  And just like the rest of the tree Hope has had to be restored through the years. One year she lost her harp, her music. Another year it was her wings that had fallen off and had to be restored. Although the tree is sturdy and straight, some years it is more difficult to get Hope to remain upright without leaning or falling off all together. Because she sits so high on the eight-foot tree she is the hardest thing for me to reach and maintain-it’s a real stretch for me touch her at times and straighten her, but the tree isn’t complete until Hope is established and secured.

At this point our tree is finished and ready to be enjoyed once again.  There is just one final step in the process. You see, as pretty as the tree is, the true magic doesn’t happen until I flip the switch and the lights come on. It is the light that brings the creation to life. Each ornament, simple or ornate changes under the glow of the lights. All the shadows of the tree are chased away by the light. All the imperfections and flaws that only I know about and work so hard to make up for, a seemingly impossible task at times, are hidden once again as the light reflects on the good parts of the tree to such an extent that the bad areas are barely noticeable. It’s the light that transforms the dark spots into a magical wonder fitting for the cover of a high end catalogue, a wonder that is the envy of many who view it.

So now you can see my life as a tree. Our tree has changed significantly over nineteen years.  It’s not the same tree it started out as, though much of what made the first tree so special remains on it today. And it’s likely not the same tree it will be years from now as we continue to add things to it, but it’s our tree, full of memories, imperfections and light. Just like the little tree in Charlie Brown’s Christmas, it may not seem like much at first, but with a blanket of love and some well placed lights it has become a holiday legend.  My life, our tree.  I think I’ll keep it a little longer.

 

Blessed Art Thou Among….Men?

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Even if you were not raised Catholic you are most likely aware of the Hail Mary prayer, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.  Blessed art thou among women…” The Christmas story centers largely around Mary, the Theotokos, the Mother of Jesus, as it should. The virgin birth of our savior is a key element of our faith and belief. But little attention is given to Joseph the man charged with being the earthly father and protector of young Jesus.  The New Testament doesn’t mention Joseph again after Jesus debuts in the temple as a young boy.  The Western church gives him little attention while the Catholic and Orthodox churches venerated him as a Saint. Joseph holds a very unique place in the story of the Incarnate birth, one that is rarely mentioned or considered, a privilege that is hard to fathom.

The Gospels record that Joseph was commissioned by an angel to take charge of young Mary.  The two of them make their journey to Bethlehem while Mary is in her last stages of pregnancy.  On that night in the holding area for livestock Mary gives birth to Jesus. There is no recording of anyone being present with her except Joseph.  So what special privilege does Joseph hold that no other human can boast?  Having witnessed the birth of all my sons and my granddaughter and understanding the birthing process, there can only be one conclusion.  As he is the only one present to assist Mary with her birth, it is Joseph who is the first to behold baby Jesus as He enters into our globe, and it is Joseph who is the first to touch and hold our incarnate savior before he presents Him to Mary. Wow! Scripture records that the angel told Mary she was highly favored, but that same favor must have surely rested upon Joseph as well as his was the first human encounter with the eternal lamb.

Each Christmas I try to imagine the story from the perspective of some of the other characters mentioned in scripture.  However, I’m not sure how one could adequately capture the emotions of the realization through the Holy Spirit that you are holding in your hands your own creator and creator of the universe.  Did Joseph swell up with joy, did he cringe at the thought of being God’s earthy protector? Did he have a clue to the mission and divine plan set into place by this birth?  One can only speculate.

Little else is recorded about Joseph in scripture.  We know that he is not present at the wedding in Canaan. Nor is he present at the crucifixion.  Had he been alive it would have been his responsibility to take custody of the body of Christ and arrange the burial, but that wasn’t the case.  The fifth century apocryphal biography of Joseph gives us some interesting clues as to the life of Joseph that answers questions the story poses. The biography lists the birth of Joseph as being 90 B.C. and his death about 18 A.D. These dates throw a curve into our western perception of a young couple in Bethlehem as often depicted in our nativities, but largely supports what the absence of scripture may suggest. These dates would make Joseph ninety years old when betrothed to Mary, and he would have died at the age of well over one hundred years, before Jesus enters into His ministry. The biography records Joseph as being a widow with children, which would account for the step siblings of Jesus. It is not recorded that Joseph and Mary had any children. This too is important in the theology that Mary was a perpetual virgin. Tradition has it that Joseph died near or in the arms of Jesus and Mary, and in the ministry of heaven’s angels.

Whatever conclusion your personal research may lead you to, one can’t deny the unique privilege Joseph holds in the  Christmas story. To find favor in the sight of God, to be charged with the earthly paternity of God’s Son, to be the first human eyes to behold Jesus, the first rough but blessed hands to touch and hold Him-who among us can attain such favor! There is every good reason for Joseph to be venerated as a Saint for his role in this blessed tradition we call Christmas.