Finding Gratitude at Thanksgiving

In just a couple of days we will once again be gathering with friends and family to celebrate a day of Thanksgiving, an annual tradition.  For many this is merely the first official day of the Christmas season, but for more traditionalists, it is its own unique and timeless holiday.  It should be a time when we reflect on all we have, and to be grateful for our provisions and blessings.  But we live in a culture of hurt, brokenness and loneliness, and even with the most gracious of attitudes, can find it difficult to count the positives in our lives when weighed against the negatives.  For those who have lost loved ones though the year, this may be the first holiday without their presence and they may be revisited by the grief they thought had been fully processed.  Some may find themselves alone after failed relationships.  Many will have difficulty preparing enough food or the family due to loss of income or jobs.  The weight we place on the hardships in our lives will often overwhelm the positive in ways that make it challenging to recognize our blessings.

As I grow older I have developed an appreciation for the older hymns we sang in church and the timeless integrity of sound doctrine they contain.  One of those hymns is appropriate for Thanksgiving as it addresses the state of the human condition some of us deal with, but yet gives encouragement that there is always good and hope to be found in every situation.  The hymn is Count Your Blessings and the lyrics follow:

When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

Refrain:
Count your blessings, name them one by one;
Count your blessings, see what God hath done;
Count your blessings, name them one by one;
Count your many blessings, see what God hath done.

Are you ever burdened with a load of care?
Does the cross seem heavy you are called to bear?
Count your many blessings, every doubt will fly,
And you will be singing as the days go by. (Refrain)

When you look at others with their lands and gold,
Think that Christ has promised you His wealth untold;
Count your many blessings, money cannot buy
Your reward in heaven, nor your home on high. (Refrain)

So, amid the conflict, whether great or small,
Do not be discouraged, God is over all;
Count your many blessings, angels will attend,
Help and comfort give you to your journey’s end.

It’s easy to fall for the mind games our adversary likes to use against us, because unless you are narcissistic you always question your worth.  I know this well.  But if you really want to, you can turn this game into a tennis match where the last volley wins, something like this:

I wish I had more money/I’m grateful I can buy those things I need when I need them.

I wish I owned a home/I’m grateful for shelter, a warm bed and a controlled climate.

I wish I weren’t so heavy/I’m grateful to live where there is plenty of food and I never go to bed hungry.

I wish my car was newer/I’m grateful for transportation to come and go as I please.

I wish I wasn’t in pain all the time/I’m grateful for mobility and agility and that I’m not confined to a wheel chair.

I wish I had a companion/I’m grateful to have known love and that I have good friends who watch out for me.

I’m sure you get the idea here.  None of us have perfect lives, and few of us have the lives we thought we would in our advanced age.  Life is full of detours, road closures and washed out bridges.  When the easy paved road we were on disappears, we need to learn how to four-wheel our way through the rough until we find the road again.  This can only happen with a determination to remain grateful and find blessings among the trials.  If you are reading this blog, then things could always be worse!  There is always hope within despair.  Count your blessings even in the rain.

If you find my writing encouraging and would like to read more, please consider buying my book, My Soul Cries Out, available on Amazon and Kindle.  You will find many very transparent articles about holding fast to hope and faith in the midst of life’s darkest hours.  And if you do buy my book, reviews on Amazon are always appreciated!  Happy Thanksgiving.

 

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“He Will Wipe Every Tear From Their Eyes”

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It’s a beautiful sunny afternoon.  It’s Valentine’s Day and your shift is just about over.  Your thoughts are on sharing some simple tokens commemorating the day with your family and reading the hand-made cards your kids always make for you each year. It’s one of those simple traditions that you embrace and hold dear. But then, the unthinkable-that phone call you always heard about but hoped to never receive.  There has been a shooting at your child’s school and you need to pick them up at a designated safe place as soon as possible.  You leave without even clocking out and rush to the scene while battling the invasion of images from similar events that have played out before, and praying with all your might that your child is safe and waiting for your arrival.

The first bus of students arrives at the designated rendezvous sight and you anxiously wait for your child to exit.  They aren’t on this bus but that’s ok-it’s a large school and it may take several busses to vacate them all from campus.  The second bus arrives but they aren’t on that one either.  Then the third, the fourth, and so on until all the students have been located and reunited with their families…except your child.  There must be another explanation, you tell yourself-maybe they escaped into a local neighborhood or retail store and are on their way home.  But, there is no response to your calls or texts.  Perhaps in a panic they dropped their phone-it’s ok-surely they are safe someplace and just need to be picked up.  You wait-you pace-you talk to your child’s classmates to see if they know anything.  One of them breaks into uncontrolled sobbing as they try to utter the words, “they are still in there”! Your day, your life, your entire universe just changed forever. Your child isn’t coming home today.

I have tried to put myself in the shoes of a parent living out this nightmare as yet another tragic school shooting unfolds.  I can’t comprehend the emotional trauma of losing a child to such a senseless act of cowardice and evil at the hands of a person who is less than human and has no business carrying a weapon onto a school campus.  Whenever possible I strive to use my blog to encourage others with positive words of hope as we all deal with real-life challenges and tragedies we can’t adequately explain.  But on days like today, even a writer and artist of written expression has no words that will make any sense or remove any of the thousands of tears that will be shed over the coming days.  As a resident of Las Vegas and witness to our own similar mass shooting just last October, my heart goes out to the families, the friends, the first responders and all who are and will be forever changed by yesterday’s malicious and hateful act of evil.

I’m haunted and troubled by the early reports that the unnamed gunman had been reported to authorities on more than one occasion prior to yesterday’s attack.  I’m haunted and troubled that social media posts from this person showing guns, hate symbols and red-flag signals were ignored or unreported by the usually vigilant social media police.  I’m haunted and troubled that in an age where we have already seen 18 school shootings since the beginning of 2018, not even two months, that anyone could have walked onto a school campus in any city America with an AR-15 Assault rifle, entirely unnoticed and unchallenged.  And I’m haunted and troubled by a society whose cries for tolerance and rights and political correctness are given more consideration than the cries of grieving parents or their lost children, who although born with the same rights, will never appreciate or experience their individual liberties because we adults did a poor job of protecting the defenseless.

I don’t want to use my blog for this purpose-there is enough sadness and grief in our world to have to stop and address this, but today I am compelled to lend my small voice to advocate for my grandchildren, your children and grandchildren-our kids.  We will have our moments of silence for the departed, we will offer our “thoughts and prayers” like a “God bless you” after a sneeze-we will pretend to hold special meetings behind closed doors in an appearance of real concern or policy change, but nothing – absolutely nothing will be done to protect our children.  Profit trumps controls; rights trump accountability; civil liberties trump common-sense safety measures; lobbyists trump grieving family members; fear of being labeled as a hater trumps fear of loss of life due to inaction or alerts, and the beat goes on.  If the blood-bathed bodies of dead first-graders resulted in non-action, we have become no better than the worst third-world terrorist country.  God helps us.

And yet there must be some words we can cling to in these times of senseless tragedy.  In the Biblical book of John, Jesus is called to the tomb of his departed friend Lazarus.  Jesus knows that he held the power of life and death in his divine hands and that his friend was going to miraculously live again.  And yet we are told in the passage that when Jesus saw the sorrow and the tears of friends and loved ones mourning over the death of Lazarus, he too wept with them.  Jesus was deeply moved at the brokenhearted cries of mourning that resulted from earthly death.  I am convinced that he still mourns with us and indeed is shedding tears even now as he welcomes many of these victims into paradise but sees and hears the tears of those they left behind.  There is little else we can hold onto in times like these when words and expressions are woefully inadequate and ineffective.  We are to mourn with those who mourn, and to comfort those with the same comfort we have received, and we are to fervently pray for all who are affected by this, another unexplainable tragedy.  The peace and solace that these grieving families need today and over the next few difficult weeks can only come from God, who sees our tears and mends broken hearts.  But, it’s time we force our leaders to hear our cries for radical change.  If I have to go through a metal detector to go to a club, a government building, an airport or even a local high school football game, our school campuses where our children attend each day should be no less safe and monitored.  We need to scream over the voices that would silence us so that we can look forward to and expect the safe return of our kids at the end of any school day in America.  We need to put names and faces with the victims so that they are more than just a meaningless statistic.  We need to view these victim lists as if the name of our own children are among them and act and respond accordingly.  It’s not someone else’s problem-it doesn’t happen just in Detroit or Chicago or Vegas or LA.  Please, please, stand up for our children-the lives we save may be those who share our own last names!

Father, we humbly and sorrowfully implore you today to comfort the grieving families and friends of all affected by yesterday’s events, and to compel us to take action in protecting your children.

 

Giving Thanks When Feeling Not So Grateful

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How does one offer thanks when they are in the midst of less than thankful circumstances?  How can someone sing praise when everything inside them screams for help?  Tomorrow across America most families will come together in what has largely become the first day of the Season of Consumerism, yet some still set it aside as a day to reflect on the many blessings they have received.  For believers it is just one more occasion to acknowledge the never ending provisions we are granted as children of God.  But for many it may be difficult to find a grateful heart due to personal situations or circumstances for which they are anything but thankful.

It’s hard to gather around a table that first time when one chair sits conspicuously empty due to a recent death.  It’s difficult to act gracious when the latest medical report was anything but positive. It’s hard to enjoy the day when you are wondering how you are going to get your bills paid, let alone shop for Christmas presents.  It’s hard being single for the first time around friends and family after a broken relationship.  We are falsely led to believe by some that Christians should give thanks for any and all of their circumstances like zombies on an acid trip as if nothing can touch us because of our faith when in fact most would be shocked to know the pains and concerns our Christian siblings harbor secretly.

1 Thessalonians 5 tells us to give thanks in all circumstances, not for all circumstances. To this day I cringe whenever I hear someone say that everything happens for a reason. That is simply not true!  God is not the author of disease, calamity, broken hearts, unemployment or loneliness.  It is His desire that we avoid these things when possible.  And yet it is correct to say that He can make magic from a mess, wholeness from brokenness.  Only He can truly turn our sorrows into dances of joy but our approach to God has to be one of a grateful heart.  Sounds a bit contradictory.

The heart of gratitude is something that goes much deeper than the surface circumstances. In one of my favorite movies, National Treasure there was a map on the back of the Constitution that was not visible on the surface but could be seen with a special pair of reading glasses.  Those who successfully maintain a grateful heart have learned how to read the whole of their lives with special glasses that see and understand things hidden from all outward appearances.  They understand the old but proven cliché that bad times don’t last but good people do. They know the meaning of “count it all joy” when considering present situations in light of the much bigger eternal picture.  They realize the temporal nature of this earthly life and set their minds on a much higher reward.  I can’t say that I am quite there yet, but I know how to get there.

This Thanksgiving Day I want to offer words of hope, comfort and encouragement to those who are struggling to find any spirit of gratitude. This may come across as a bit lecture-ish but as you gather tomorrow, consider the food that thousands of others only dream about. Look across the table and see the smiling faces of your kids, grandchildren and family and be grateful for their presence and safety. As you bless the gathering, take a moment to consider where you might be if not for a loving Father who provides all that we could ever need if we sincerely seek and acknowledge Him. Consider the dwelling you are gathered at in light of the thousands of homeless families with children right in your own communities. I know, it sounds easier than it really is, but there is a peace that comes from an earnest attempt to come before God with a heart and a spirit of Thanksgiving even in the midst of life’s troubles.

The following is just a compilation of various Psalms written by a man named David even as he was in the desert running for his life.  His comfort was his knowledge and recollection of God’s goodness.

“I will give thanks to the Lord due to His righteousness and I will sing praises to the name of the Lord most high”.

“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will recount his wonderful deeds”.

“I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify Him with thanksgiving”.

“Let us come into His presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to Him with songs of praise”.

“And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving and tell of His deeds in songs of joy”.

“Give thanks unto the Lord for He is good.  His mercies are everlasting”

I hope and pray each of you have a wonderful, meaningful and grateful Thanksgiving Day.

 

 

 

 

Sleeping Through the Storm

barn-in-rain-2I have fond and vivid memories of our Summer visits to my grandparents farm in Mississippi when I was a young boy. Of all the stories I could tell and experiences my kids will never know, one of my favorites was crawling up into the loft of one of the old barns where they stored some of the peanut crop and resting during a southern Summer rain storm.  There was something incredibly peaceful, relaxing and almost hypnotic about listening to the rain hit the old tin roof.  As much as I love the ocean, if I could make a sleep sound mode machine of my choice, it would be that familiar sound when raindrops collide with rusty tin.

I wish I could tell you that metaphorically speaking I can always sleep with such peace in the midst of storms. More times than not the sound of the rain and the chill of the wind leaves me more on edge than at rest.  Even though I’ve lived through and survived my share of life’s storms there is still an uncertain but familiar tension that arises and remains until the storm passes.  When I lived in Florida I recall during the monsoon season that the sun would be out and the skies would be clear and in mere seconds the sky would open up with a torrential rain storm seemingly out of nowhere.  Life for many is much the same-smooth sailing, sunny skies and kaboom-instant thunderstorm, dry one minute and drenched the next, warm and cozy to bone-chilling gusts before you knew what hit you.

There is a story recorded for us in Matthew Chapter 8 that most are very familiar with:

” And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24 And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 25 And they went and woke him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” 26 And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. 27 And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”

I can almost hear readers making the obvious observation because it’s the same one that I made.  “Yeah but He’s Jesus and I’m not”.  Of course He did have a bit of an unfair advantage as He was the creator of the seasons and the storms and was undoubtedly not in any peril. But how easy it is for us to automatically displace Christ when we are in these storms, forgetting that “this same spirit” remains in us and consequently the same peace also resides within us.  I’m fifty-five years old and have known the Lord as my Savior since I was seven, and to this day I have to be reminded that I always survive, that God is always in control and that the spirit of Christ is always at my side.  It’s ironic how we as a people can be wronged and we may never forget it but when we are “righted”, rescued and restored, time and time again, we have such short memories.  No matter the severity of the storms we face we must as believers find shelter in the words left for our comfort and encouragement:

Psalm 107:28; “when they cried out to the Lord in their trouble He brought them out of their distress.  He calmed the storm and its waves quieted down…”.

Nahum 1:7; ” The Lord is good, a stronghold in days of trouble; He knows those who take refuge in Him”.

Isaiah 25:4;” For You have been a strong place for those who could not help themselves…and a safe place from the storm and a shadow from the heat”.

Isaiah 44:6; “There will be a booth for shade by day from the  heat, and a shelter from the storm and rain”.

When I first met my wife I took her to meet some friends of mine in Dana Point, CA who had a thirty-nine foot schooner.  This was her first experience on a sailboat. There was a red flag warning out that day, meaning the winds were too high for sailing, but they subsided just long enough for us to take a quick cruise to the Newport Harbor and back.  Although the warning had been lifted the seas were still choppy and rough.  My friend asked me if I wanted to take the helm for a bit and I jumped at the experience.  After just a few minutes he said I looked like I knew what I was doing so he and everyone on board went below deck for a nap and left me at the helm with instructions to let him know when were close to our harbor. At no time was I afraid or timid.  It remains one of my most precious memories. Alone at the wheel of a boat surrounded by sea with large swells, and I was having the time of my life!  My approach to life’s storms should be equally undaunted, knowing that Christ has placed me at the helm of something He knows I can handle and he is taking His siesta, asleep but close by if needed.  He has given me instructions, set my compass, and provided me with coordinates that I need but follow so that even on a stormy sea, I can hold and follow a true course through the waves.  How easy that sounds through keystrokes.

 

 

You Are Not Alone

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This week our worship team performed a song entitled I Am Not Alone by Kari Jobe. It was immediately evident by the response and facial expressions how many people in the congregation were identifying with this song.  Perhaps they had gone through a lonely period in their life and could look back and see God’s engagement in their solitude.  Or maybe they were in the midst of the darkness at present and needed to hear words of reminder of our ever present Father.

Consider these moving lyrics:

When I walk through the deep waters-I know that you will be with me

When I’m standing in the fire-I will not be overcome

Through the valley of the shadow-I will not fear

I am not alone, I am not alone

You will go before me-you will never leave me

You amaze me, redeem me, you call me as your own

The feeling of loneliness or solitude is an awful feeling.  Most of us have at some time in our life experienced times of dark loneliness.  We most likely worship each week with other parishioners who appear to have it all together but only come to church for the few minutes they receive of fellowship before returning to their lives void of companionship. Loneliness has many faces-the elderly person who has outlived all their relatives, the recently divorced man or woman who struggles to find joy in anything, the young person who is socially different and isolated, the recent widow, the homeless outcast, the forgotten incarcerated.  Solitude is tangible-it’s heavy, it’s dark, it’s endless and it can crush a person’s will and spirit.

There are a host of online services for matching up people who are dating or looking for a mate-eharmony, Match, Christian Mingle, Our Time and others. Savvy (or totally insensitive) business people are making millions off of people’s desire not to be alone. But these only cover one demographic.  I’ve yet to see a website called Prisoner Visit, Convalescent Companions,  A Day Under the Bridge or any other site that addresses the many faces and situations of loneliness in our society.

I know from my own experiences that it’s hard to find comfort from scripture when you are in the darker times of your life.  And yet, as a believer in Christ His words are often the only source of hope and encouragement we can cling to in times of trouble and solitude.  We are reminded of God’s presence in dark times in Psalm 94:17-18;

“Do not be afraid-I will save you. I have called you by name-you belong to me. When you pass through deep waters I will be with you; your troubles will not overwhelm you. When you pass through the fire you will not be burned; the hard trials that come will not hurt you.  For I am the Lord your God. ….because you are precious to me and because I love you and give you honor, do not be afraid.  I Am With You!”

Sounds like the perfect lyrics to the perfect song to remind us that God is always near.  Wish I had beat Kari to it!

 

The Dark Side of Hearts Day

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December 26th-shelves filled with Christmas products just the day before have been reduced to a single 50% off Clearance aisle.  In their place, the newest assortment of red heart-shaped boxes, stuffed furry animals and oversized cards, the annual commercial tribute to Valentine’s Day. And although given almost two full months to select the perfect gift, most will wait until just days before, some out of true love and others mere obligation. The Valentine’s Day holiday is a thirteen billion dollar annual event (that’s $13,000,000,000.00). More than 180 million cards will be exchanged, 480 million roses and more chocolate than any of us need. Ironically, while it’s the best time for a man to buy that card once a year that says the things he can’t articulate, one study says 85%of these cards are actually purchased by women.

While many joke that the day was created by Hallmark, it’s romantic roots can be traced back to a 13th century poet named Chaucer who in essence wrote that all creation comes together in love and harmony, etc. etc. etc.  Simply stated, it is a dedicated day each year that gives most an opportunity to freely express or reaffirm their love for their significant other, accompanied by many passed down traditions and gestures.  In Europe for instance some still exchange Valentines Day keys that signify an invitation to unlock the heart of their lover. But sadly for just as many, this day only serves as a reminder that the locks to the hearts of their special love have been changed and their keys no longer work.  A day that brings joy to those in love brings severe pain and isolation to those who bear the scars of broken hearts.

Statistics may not prove that suicide rates are higher on Valentine’s Day than on others but many studies support that depression brought on by broken relationships is a leading trigger for suicide attempts. When asked of those who survived such attempts, they responded that they didn’t necessarily want to die, they just simply had no reason to live. I can speak from past experience-there is no greater pain than to love someone with all your heart only to know they no longer love you in return. The feelings of loss, hopelessness and loneliness resulting from a severed relationship are no different than those feelings of mourning the sudden death of a loved one.  All of us, if breathing, have experienced it at least once in our lives.  The brave dare to love again, some more than a few times, but others shy away from the vulnerability necessary to love again for fear of the possibility of yet another broken heart already scarred by past loves and the pain associated with it that can bring even the strongest to their knees and turn their world upside down.

I wish I could offer words of healing or a fix-all solution for a quick recovery for those who feel the sting of rejection while witnessing others exchange their flowers and chocolates on this day of love.  If I could I wouldn’t be writing a blog post but a multi-million copy best-seller.  The pain of rejected love can be found in the earliest recorded writings in existence. It is a timeless tragedy that all will eventually suffer.  Some may bring calamity upon their love due to their own indiscretions-some due to apathy or just being oblivious to symptoms of trouble, and others will simply be innocent victims of a heart gone astray. Whatever the reason, the euphoric feelings that many celebrate on Valentine’s Day are the daggers that re-wound broken hearts haunted by abandonment and rejection and lingering memories of past loves that play over in their minds like an old movie projector with no Off switch.

If there are words of hope to offer, they must be found in Holy scripture.  I know that curling up with your Bible on a lonely night may seem to offer little in the way of comfort or companionship but there are words that can serve as a salve to help ease pain until such time as the heart can begin to recover.  Here are but a few to consider;

Psalm 34:18; The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.

Psalm 147:3; He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.

Psalm 73:26; My flesh and heart may fail but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

1 Corinthians 13:7; …love endures all things

2 Corinthians 12:9; My grace is sufficient for you and my power made perfect in your weakness.

Lamentations 3:22; The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, His mercies never come to an end.

Til death do us part…”. Apparently some die more than once in their lifetime.

For better of for worse…”. And some must be beyond “worse”.

Time is the universal healer of brokenness and Christ is the accelerator of the healing process. The feelings of loneliness felt by widows, divorcees and others on Valentine’s Day are natural and can’t be avoided without crawling into a hole and coming out when the stores start stocking for Easter. But there is no reason to feel totally unloved or uncared for.  There is another simple verse that reminds us if we will take heed…

cast all your cares on Him for He truly cares for you..

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.