This Christmas was different. We did all the traditional family stuff: put up our tree and the family momentos, made gingerbread houses and sugar cookies, and drove around to look at Christmas lights. It’s always been one of my favorite times of year, and it was again this year. But it was still different, with a whole new layer of meaning I hadn’t experienced before in my 50 years.
You see, I’ve never really understood Christmas. I can recite the familiar story about as well as anyone can. I understand its theological meaning: that God Himself chose to walk among us, suffer for us, and in so doing, save us from ourselves. I understand all of that, but I still feel like I don’t really understand. It’s always been just a story to me, no different than other stories unrelatable by the great distance of time and an element of the miraculous. I’ve long understood the story only with my head, but never my heart.
But this year was different. For a lot of reasons, this year I came into Christmas needing hope. I needed to believe, that in spite of all of the dark and pain and ugliness, there will be a happy ending. I desperately needed hope…I was looking for it. But the funny thing is that the Bible says that that’s all we really have to do: to look for it. There’s no magic key to life or to peace, only to have the desire to seek God. This year, simply by seeking Hope, I actually found it, and in so doing, I also began to understand the true meaning of Christmas.
“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone that asketh shall receiveth; and he that seeketh, findeth; and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened.” –Matthew 7:7-8
I find the older I get, the better I seem to see. I’m not talking about my eyesight…I finally had to get bifocals last year. What I’m talking about is real vision: how I see the world, and what I believe that I understand about it.
I don’t remotely have it all figured out; I still feel like I’m picking my way through life in a dense fog. But each year the fog lifts a little, and I feel like I see a little more clearly. And those things that I can now see better may seem obvious to many, but they’ve been hard-won lessons for me:
• Nothing is more important than my relationship with others, except my relationship with God.
• Most people are good.
• Dogs are love.
• Exercise and brush your teeth religiously.
• Material things mean nothing except for the memories that some of them help us hold onto.
• Grow a garden.
• Eat at home.
• Prayers are answered.
• Miracles happen.
• I’m worthy of love.
What do you now see more clearly?
“Worship is a way of seeing the world in the light of God.” –Abraham Joshua Heschel
My pastor recently shared a story from a mission trip to Guatemala. The group had decided to tell their personal stories of accepting Jesus to the local children in hopes of inspiring them to do the same. As they began sharing their stories with each other, a teenager with them brought instant clarity, saying “I thought I was saved when Jesus died on the cross.” That simple shift of perspective, away from our actions and toward God’s, is profound.
It seems to be human nature to make ourselves the center of the universe, even when we’re specifically focusing on others. It’s easy to point to biology and evolution and the need for focus on individual survival behind this phenomenon. Christianity simply labels it sin…either way, the net effect is the same. For my part, I’ve learned that my relationships suffer when I focus one sided, on me, but they flourish when I manage a healthy balance on both parties. I know this, yet I somehow regularly “forget”. It is a constant battle to push myself out of the center of the universe.
At least for me, I fight this battle the hardest when I feel misunderstood. We all know our underlying intentions, and we’re wounded when others don’t see them as we feel them. I need to continue working on how others perceive me, but I think I can also move the needle by flipping that perspective and working on how I perceive others. I just found this quote from one of my favorite philosophers…it has given me a new personal goal.
“I believe that appreciation is a holy thing–that when we look for what’s best in a person we happen to be with at the moment, we’re doing what God does all the time. So in loving and appreciating our neighbor, we’re participating in something sacred.” –Fred (“Mr.”) Rogers
My earliest memories are from when I was less than two years old. They say we don’t have memories at that early an age, but they are wrong. I was hospitalized with pneumonia at 18 months. I have only two snippet memories from that stay: they are few, and they are short, but they are vivid.
My old-fashioned hospital room was straight out of Curious George Goes to the Hospital…a large room with 4-6 cribs and a play area. My very first memory is of my parents, grandparents, and aunt in that room bringing me an amazing gift–a stuffed bear as big as me! I loved that bear all through my childhood. I still have him, packed away in a plastic tote in the garage. He’s much smaller than I remember him, and he’s threadbare from love. Getting that bear, in that strange room surrounded by my family, is vivid memory number one.
The next thing I remember was waking at night in my crib in that strange room. My family was gone, and I was alone among the other sleeping children. I was scared and began to cry…I just wanted to go home. Except I wasn’t alone. A man was there, sitting in a chair beside a sleeping girl. He heard me cry and brought his chair over next to my bed. I remember him talking gently to me, though I don’t remember what he said. I only remember that him sitting there talking to me made me feel better. The memory then stops. I don’t remember waking the next morning, or leaving the hospital, or anything else until I was three. Just the bear and the man, both small comforts at a child’s time of fear.
I always tear up a little when I remember the man; this stranger’s kindness has stayed with me for nearly 50 years. I’ve since wondered if his daughter was ok…I’ve certainly hoped so. I now know that a parent doesn’t sit in a chair in a hospital through the night when everything is ok. I’ve also wondered if he remembers that night, whether he knows that his small gesture is remembered and appreciated. It’s a reminder that we all have the ability to make a difference in the life of another. But it’s also a reminder that even when we feel alone, Someone is always sitting next to us, ready to bring us comfort. We are never really alone.
“As a body everyone is single, as a soul never.” –Hermann Hesse
After the time change last week, my morning commute now begins in the dark. I don’t much like it…my drive is on curvy country roads, and I have to concentrate more in the dark. But as the sky began to brighten one morning this week, I remember feeling grateful, not just for that day’s daybreak, but that we can count on them coming every day.
When I was younger, I took the cycles of life for granted. As I’ve gotten older, I appreciate these repetitive rituals which come like clockwork. It’s actually pretty amazing if you think about it: the cycles of our world are so predictable that ancient peoples could learn them and pass them down to future generations with only the tools of observation and language.
I’m specifically grateful that the Earth’s daily rotation on its axis–a trait not every planet in our solar system possesses–gives us the gift of daily rest. I’m grateful for the cheer of watching the world reawaken from its annual slumber. The daffodils, now fading by the thousands in ditches along my daily commute, were the first bright sign amidst the brown grass of the hope of spring. They have been replaced by the exploding purple of the red bud trees and the majestic white of the Bradford pears, the new stars of this Great Show. I find myself spontaneously smiling as I drive…anybody who spots me, driving alone to work and grinning like a Cheshire Cat might be suspicious of my mental state. But the rhythms of life make me happy, they make me smile. And they make life reassuring and comforting, reminding me that Someone great and good has always been in charge.
“There was never a night or a problem that could defeat sunrise or hope.” –Bernard Williams
There’s an old joke about a man on his roof in a flood, who prays for God to save him. Soon, some people come by in a boat and offer him a seat, but he refuses, saying God will save him. A little later, rescue workers in a hydroplane attempt to pick him up. Again he refuses, firm in his belief that God will save him, even as the waters rise. Finally a rescue helicopter arrives, again turned away, though the water is now nearly over his roof. A short time later, the man drowns. When he gets to heaven, he exasperatedly says to God, “I prayed to You, and I had faith that You would save me. Why didn’t You?” God simply responded, “Well, I sent you a boat, a hydroplane, and a helicopter…”
I got a visit this week from a helicopter.
A friend sent me a note which…somehow, from hundreds of miles away…hit the bullseye on a struggle I’m having. Her aim was so dead on that it took my breath away. How did she know, from such a distance, what I was going through and just what I needed to hear? Wondrously, that note was followed the very next day by a note from another distant friend on the same subject. The first note was uncanny; two must be a sign.
It remains to be seen if I can muster the courage to allow these caring nudges to be enough to take the step forward that I’ve known that I need to for awhile. We spend much of our lives wishing for signs to tell us what we should be doing. On the rare occasions that I’m blessed enough to get them, I’d be crazy not to listen. Yet the status quo is a powerful thing. I once read that we only make a change when we’re uncomfortable, whether that’s shifting in our seat or changing our lives. But I got a visit from a helicopter…I’d better hop aboard.
“Chance is perhaps the pseudonym of God when He did not want to sign.” –Anatole France
We love Easter. Easter is a time of hope and rebirth. Spring is in the air, the weather warms. But this Easter is especially poignant for us.
Last September, Megan had passed through the valley of the shadow of death. The chemo had done its job of arresting what only a decade ago would have been an inevitable, tragic conclusion. The worst danger had passed, yet all was not well. Her disease markers indicated remission had not happened. We packed the car with provisions for at least six months and drove to Cincinnati, the doctors telling us a bone marrow transplant was next.
In what I will always believe was a miracle, the doctors were wrong. We checked out only a month after we checked in, with Megan suddenly improving. In the best possible circumstances of transplant, we would have been coming home only now. With any complications, we’d have been there for months longer. A little girl and her mother that we met have been there for two and a half years. We are beyond blessed.
As spring and Easter have arrived, I’ve been remembering what could have been. We’d have gotten through it, as people do when they have no choice. Instead, we will dye eggs and decorate Easter cookies and plant our garden. We will laugh and eat a ham dinner together just like it’s supposed to be. But I will also remember those still fighting, still separated from home and family. And I will pray for them to receive the Miracle that we celebrate today.
“And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.” –Luke 24:2-3