Thursday, December 19, 2013

What is Peace on Earth?

Sitting on a shelf in my little bathroom (the one closest to my desk) is a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. Last year I found a plush Linus, dressed as a shepherd with his blankie on his head. I was so excited when I placed him next to the tree and squeezed the “press here” sticker on his foot. Every time I visited my little bathroom, I smiled at the scene and squeezed his foot to hear the familiar voice tell me the real meaning of Christmas.

Now, I understand the memory available on these little guys is limited and they couldn’t record the entire scene, but the more I listened, the more troubled I became. The edited version of the entire scene, something all writers must deal with, seemed to change the focus of the message.

“For behold, I bring you tidings of great joy which will be to all people and on earth peace, good will toward men. That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

Do you see what I mean? They left out the part about the baby Jesus and focused only on the peace on earth part. The more I pressed his foot and listened, the more I realized how like our world this is. The masses are eager to spend their money on gifts, decorate their homes lavishly for holiday parties, and maybe toss some loose change into a Salvation Army bell ringer’s bucket as their good deed for the season. But, they leave out the baby Jesus. 

Peace on earth sounds like a good thing. However, the peace spoken of at Christmas is possible only because of the baby. Don’t let the Christmas lights blind you to the Truth. God sent His Son on Christmas, as a baby. He is God and man. He is the Prince of Peace.

We can only find peace by accepting his promise to forgive all of our sin. We only need to believe he will. That’s faith. During his ministry on earth, Jesus healed many people of physical sickness. All they had to do was believe he could do it. It’s the same with our spiritual sickness, sin. Just believe the Savior Jesus has the power to forgive our sin and bring us peace. Peace is healing from sin.
Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall 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; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
(Luke 2:10-14)

Do you have peace this Christmas season? Would you like to have the peace that defies human explanation and is oblivious to the confusion and tumult of the world around us? What do you think peace really means?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Why Bother to Deck the Halls?

Why do we celebrate Christmas? Why do we go to the trouble to deck the entire house, inside and out? Why do we drive ourselves nuts attending every concert, play, church program, and party we can fit into our already overbooked calendars? Why do we spend more money than we have budgeted, driving us into debt, just to buy gifts we don’t like, so how can the recipient possibly like them? We’re stressed, overextended, depressed and miserable—and it’s all so we can say Merry Christmas!

Decorating and shopping have become a burden for me as my health issues limit me. However, I love both. I love the colors of Christmas, the smells, the sparkle, the music, and the snow (even if it has to be fake here in Atlanta). I also love the programs and parties. Again, my health makes attending them a hardship.

The Christmas season is emotionally devastating to many people. It is the season of depression as we face the realization that our Christmas is not the perfect Christmas. It’s also the season when the loss of loved ones smothers us in pain. Stress, loneliness, anxiety, depression lead many suffering souls to the brink of suicide.

So, again I ask, why do we celebrate Christmas?

Most Christians would heartily say it is the season to celebrate Jesus’ birth. I agree. It is the main reason many of us honor the season. But what about all the other trappings of the season? Surely, there were no ornament encrusted trees and decorative items filling the stable. There was no rendition of “Jingle Bells,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” and “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” wafting through the hay-filled stalls.

This morning, I found myself regretting the fact that instead of taking care of my “Christmas To Do” list, I was sitting in the waiting room of my mechanic. 

When I entered a beautifully decorated lobby, with an electric fireplace, one thing was immediately obvious. The only Christmas decoration was a tiny USB-powered tree on the counter. 

Amusingly, he mentioned something about not being in the mood to put up the tree, especially since it was stuffed into a closet, blocked by pallets of antifreeze. He also mentioned that he’d had a lot of negative things going on in his life this year and he just couldn’t “feel” it.

I waited as they checked why my air conditioning wasn’t working (on a 31 degree morning). As I waited, my mind wondered as to why we SHOULD decorate for Christmas. After all, with my recent back injury, my decorations were still swimming around in the back of my van, waiting for a helpful elf to carry them into the house for me. Thoughts of being satisfied with a tree without the ornaments and a front door wreath was almost palatable--and sensible. And then it hit me.

The reason we should decorate is the same as the reason we don’t feel like decorating. It's because there are so many people experiencing suffering right now that we need to do that one little thing that can get their attention—even if for only a moment. For in that one moment, a seed of hope can be planted. In that one moment, a spark of meaning can ignite. In that one moment, a person who might not have survived otherwise can be distracted from their desire to give up. In that one moment, we might direct one lost soul to the real reason we celebrate Christmas. 

I walked over to the counter and told Dave I thought he should put up the tree. Then, I told him why. A couple of minutes later, he took a flashlight into the storage area, moved the antifreeze out of the way, and dragged out the Christmas decorations. When he came into the lobby with the boxes, his face beamed, “Yep, I need to put up the tree.”

So, as you get out there and run yourself ragged, don’t forget. One tiny act of celebration can save a life. So, smile, pass out a piece of chocolate to a stranger, wear a ridiculously overly decorated sweater, put a jingle bell on your jacket, switch your phone's ringtone to a Christmas song, wear a Santa hat, pay for the order behind you in a drive-thru, put glitter on your face and see who notices, or look someone in the eyes and tell them...

Monday, October 14, 2013

Unexpected Destiny

The Maple Trail, Campbellsville University, Campbellsville, KY

The maple leaf danced furiously in the cool autumn breeze. No matter how hard he tried to break free, he clung fast to the mother tree. A poof of cool air smashed against him, snapping the grip of his weakening stem. The breeze lifted him and carried him wildly around the tree - thrilling him with the excitement of his dreams.

 “Ah, I’m free! I’ve waited so long for this day. I held on to mother tree from the day I was a mere bud of a leaf. I hung on as I soaked up the spring rains and grew into a perfect maple leaf of bright green. I even hung on during the days of summer when there was no moisture for me. What little rain fell was shared with my millions of brothers and sisters. Then, finally, the days began to cool and I transformed into a work of art. All who saw me as I became a rich combination of green, orange and yellow adored me. Here I am. Look at me.”

As the leaf stretched in the breeze to reveal his colors to the world, he glided toward the ground below. He anticipated becoming a part of the colorful carpet. There was no doubt everyone would revere him as the most beautiful maple leaf in the world – especially compared to his inferior brothers and sisters below.

Just as he relaxed to enjoy his brief flight, an antenna of a passing car attacked him from behind, “Ack! What was that? Help! Help me, someone, I’m stuck.”

His brothers and sisters ignored his cries as they floated past him, lifted and carried far away by the breeze. He thought he heard a few chuckles.

Trapped by the antenna, he called out as he was whisked away, “Don’t laugh at me you inferior leaves. Help me!”

Realizing there was no escape, he wrapped himself around the evil needle and hung on as he flapped and fluttered in the wind. He clung to the antenna as it went faster and faster.

“This isn’t fair. Stop. Stop, now, I say! You have kidnapped me from my intended destiny. You’ve stolen away my glory. Let me go. Please, let me go.”

The antenna did not listen to the perfect maple leaf. It merely traveled faster and faster. The leaf wrapped itself even tighter around the antenna and sighed.

“I’ve failed. I had such glorious dreams and now they are dashed. Woe is me. I’m a failure.”

The depressed leaf clung to the safety of the antenna, “I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t have a clue how long it will take. I only know I must hold on just as I did to my mother tree. I hope I have the strength to make it.”

As the journey took him further away from his home, the leaf relaxed just enough to observe his surroundings, “Oh, look at all those trees. My tree was much more colorful than they are. There’s one that’s red. There are some still green. Look at all those trees with shriveled, brown leaves. They should be embarrassed.”

The leaf thought, “I never knew there was such a large world beyond my tree. I hate to say it, but it’s actually quite beautiful. Maybe this wasn’t such a bad thing after all. Well, except for the fact that this stupid antenna took my life’s dream away from me. Actually, I was taken away from my dream. I was meant to be the most beautiful leaf in the world. Now I’m misshapen, flapping in the wind and drying into a shriveled remnant of my perfect beauty. I’m depressed.”

The antenna slowed to a stop. The leaf, tired from his journey thought, “I wonder what will happen to me now. I can’t even move enough to fall off onto the ground.”

A creature approached the antenna, giving the leaf a start. The creature reached out and carefully removed him from the antenna, being careful not to hurt him. Then the leaf heard the creature say, “Oh, you beautiful maple leaf. You held on all the way home. You came to me from the most beautiful tree I have ever seen. I will take you with me and preserve your beauty forever and you will remind me of this wonderful day for the rest of my life.”

The leaf perked up slightly in her hand as he thought, “Maybe I have found my destiny after all,” and smiled.

Monday, October 7, 2013

A Few True Words

Fear. Trepidation. Sadness. Miles of unfamiliar countryside drew me toward a reunion I dreaded. My mind had made excuses for months—no, years. I would have to face a major part of my growing up years that I wasn’t sure I could face.

Why did I hesitate? Was it because I had devoted so much of my time, tears, and fears in an effort to be her salvation all those years ago? Did my anxiety over her choices, my sleepless nights as I worried about her, and my fears about her safety make me avoid facing her now? Was it because I doubted I have the strength to relive it. Or did I fear I would need to be the support system again, after all these years? With my own health issues to deal with, did I have the strength to be strong enough for both of us again?

As I followed the directions from the emotionless voice of my GPS, I chatted with God about my concerns. Jonah had nothing on me. My mind cranked out excuse after excuse as to why this was not a good idea. With my mobility issues, I brightened at the thought that perhaps her house had steep stairs I could not navigate and then I could pull back out of her driveway and go home with a clear conscience. I hadn’t called her first to tell her I was coming. That made it easier to back out. She would never know I was this close.

My GPS announced in its familiar non-committal voice that I had arrived at my destination. I pulled into a graveled driveway that circled around an oak tree with leaves in the beginning throes of fall color. A ramp led to the front door. God had removed my excuse for leaving.

I sighed, grabbed my cane, and trudged across broken quartz stone that sparkled in the autumn sun. At the top of the ramp, I breathed in a prayer for strength and knocked on the red door. No response. Another knock, louder. Still no response. I pulled out my cell phone and called her. No answer.

I turned with a sense of relief, navigated the ramp and then crossed the field of sparkling rocks to my car. Surprisingly, relief changed to regret by the time I turned the key to leave. The realization that I needed to see her one last time, before it was too late, squeezed my heart. Tears welled up and then overflowed as my tires crunched on the gravel. I wouldn’t have the chance now.

My phone rang after about one minute of driving. It was her. I pulled to the side of the road and answered, “Hi, Medelle. Are you at home?”

“Who is this?” a wobbly voice asked.

Tears welled up again, “It’s Karen Nolan” I gave her my maiden name—the one she knew so well.

“Oh, Karen. Where are you?”

“I’m about one minute from your house. I came to see you.”

Only the sound of sobbing came through the phone. As she calmed the tears, she said, “The door is unlocked. Just come on in when you get here. Can you give me five minutes to get dressed?”

“Sure. I’ll see you in five minutes.”

I spent three of the minutes sopping up tears and wiping away mascara from my cheeks. Then I turned my car around and headed back.

 The oak tree hung over my car as shadows danced in the cool breeze. My cane clacked on the ramp. I rapped a rhythm on the door and turned the handle to enter the domain of my dear childhood friend who had increased my prayer all those years ago. I called out for her. A now unfamiliar voice, weak but lyrical, replied, “I’ll be right there,” from the end of a dark hallway.

As I waited, I browsed the photos of her family that filled the living room. She had always wanted children. Now she even has grandchildren. I smiled at each beautiful face, grateful the Lord had blessed her to overflowing in spite of everything. In her kitchen hung a sign that said “Medelle’s Kitchen.” I remembered how much she wanted a home of her own, even at the age of 12.

A door creaked, and there she stood. The teen-aged girl with short-cropped blonde hair, the girl who had a special knack for getting into trouble and sending me to my knees, now stood a little jagged, holding tightly to a walker, and smiling at me.

 All I could think to say was, “We’ve gotten old!”

She replied, “Who’s gotten old?”

She reached out for me and we hugged, and cried, our arms stretched across the walker. We hung on for dear life, a life we once knew. Our hearts melted and we were one again.

The walk down the hallway required effort, but she made it to the sofa and dropped her tortured body next to me. We reminisced, talked about our families, and then she broached the subject that froze my heart.

The approach of death is obvious when the disease is brutal. Her condition left no doubt about the severity and progression of the process. In spite of the weak, trembling voice, I still saw the sparkle in her icy blue eyes—the same eyes that changed to green when she secretly drank alcohol at the age of thirteen. Even though her hands lacked the strength to pull herself up from the sofa, she clung tightly to mine as I told her how much I loved her and how important she had been to me back then.

When her healthcare aid arrived, Medelle cried as I bragged on what a fabulous pianist she had been. As a freshman, she was accompanist for the choir and even played Handel’s Messiah for their performances. When I said she was the best pianist at the school, she sobbed and said, “Nobody has ever told me that before.”
We all had to have tissues then.

Why hadn’t I told her that before? Just a few truthful and honest words--words that could have made a difference in the life of a troubled young girl. Who knows, maybe a few of those words would have kept this day from being necessary. Perhaps a few more words of affirmation and encouragement would have kept her focus on God and not the ways of the world that destroyed her body.

Her death will be the result of sin. But whose sin caused it? Was it a troubled girl who needed comfort, love, encouragement, and validation? Or was it because of the rest of us who did not give her what she needed.

I prayed for her back then. I attempted to keep her out of trouble. I gave her friendship, mixed with mentoring. But I waited forty-five years to tell her the words that made her cry.

When I stood to leave, she asked her aid to help her stand up. She wanted to pray with us. We stood together, encircling the walker, hands tightly in her grasp as she prayed.

She thanked God for answering her prayer and sending me (I had no idea she was praying me there). She thanked Him for our friendship and asked for protection over my family and me. She thanked Him for the good and the bad in her life, and that there was much more good than bad. She thanked Him for the gift of forgiveness for her mistakes. And then, she told God that she was ready to come to Him whenever He was ready.

After more hugs, I returned to my car a changed person. I thanked God for lessons He is still teaching me. I thanked Him for pushing me to come and face my friend’s impending death and then blessing me with her increased faith. I know now that even if I never see her again on earth, we will be together in Heaven some day.

A few true words. I promise to say them more often. It may be those few words that change a life. I know three words that would have changed my life during my childhood-I love you.

What few words would have made a difference in how you lived your life?