Smoky Mountain Christmas 

She had blond hair, a beautiful smile and a pretty red dress. She was a little tentative at first, but eventually took my hand and let me lead her to the table where the crafts were being put together.  

He was a teenager, not really sure if he belonged at a party with all these children. Headphones in place, listening to his music, his eyes looked at little haunted if you looked deeply. 

Another woman walked in the door, 4 small children in tow and expecting another one soon. She looked at little tired, as all moms of young children do, but there was a tentativeness to her smile. It was as if she was trying hard to capture some holiday spirit for herself and her children. 

These faces and about 50 more had all gathered at a Pigeon Forge restaurant for a Christmas Party. They also are in the midst of rebuilding their lives after the devastating wildfire that hit Gatlinburg on November 28. The 15 families are employees of Johnson Family Restaurants and they represent a small fraction of the people who literally lost their homes and possessions the night of the fires. 

The gathering started a bit subdued. It was hard to know exactly what to say or what to do, both for the hosts and the attendees. It didn’t take long, though, to discover a simple marshmallow game could reduce a few girls to genuine giggles. (Especially when they convinced Jonathan to put a marshmallow in his mouth that had been on the floor!) Who knew green crepe streamers and bows could be wrapped around each other to make a Christmas “tree”! Quickly, the room erupted with the voices of children, eager to participate in a craft or decorate a cookie. Slowly, you could see parents start to relax just a little bit and the time quickly flew by with the party festivities. 

The little girl in the red dress found a handmade bow in her stocking to exactly match her dress. 

The teenager who wasn’t sure if he belonged, opened a gift that was carefully sought after just for him and those haunted eyes twinkled for just a moment when he watched a special video. 

The young mom still looked a bit tired at the end of the evening, but her smile was no longer tentative. It was genuine and she took great satisfaction in the happiness of her children. 

These families have lost so much, but they are constantly looking out for each other. As I approached another woman with a crate of homemade goodies and gift cards in my hand, she proceeded to take one small bag of goodies out and thank me. I told her the whole crate was for her and her family. She shook her head no and said, “Please share with everyone else, this is too much.”  As I explained there was a crate for each family, tears streamed down her face and she put down the crate and hugged me. She kept saying over and over that we had done way too much. 

An evening Christmas celebration won’t go far in replacing the needs of these people. Most will have a lifetime scar long after the mountains have healed. They will remember fleeing their homes. They will be haunted by memories and images most of us will never see. They will have uncertainty in their lives for a long time to come. Hopefully, though, for just a brief little while, we gave them joy instead of sadness and light in the midst of darkness. Hopefully, they heard the good news that God’s love never fails and hope was born on Christmas night. 

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  When was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? When was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” The king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  Matthew 25:37-41. 

Selah. 

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Skipping Christmas

Several years ago. author John Grisham penned a book titled, “Skipping Christmas”. It is a fun story about a couple, the Kranks, who have just become empty nesters. Early in the holiday season, they come to the conclusion that if they forgo all their holiday gift giving, decorating and charitable donations, they can give themselves the gift of a tropical cruise, departing on Christmas Day. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but they find it is difficult to escape the hustle and bustle of the season. They find out just how great the expectations are of those around them, and they have some pretty hilarious encounters. 

I’m sure there are times for all of us when we would prefer to just “skip” Christmas. For some, these days bring the reality of loneliness and heartbreak a little closer to the forefront. Grief and loss seem somewhat more profound this time of year when memories of brighter Christmases come to mind.  We can certainly find ourselves feeling a bit more melancholy than holly-jolly. 

So what is the answer? Can we just “survive” until the season is past? Do we burrow ourselves in our grief and pain until the new year and hope no one notices?  How do we get away from the stress and pain and celebrate instead?

I believe in these times, we grasp on to the HOPE that is always within us. Sometimes we hang on to HOPE by a small thread and other times we might feel as if it doesn’t exist at all. The reality is, HOPE IS ALWAYS THERE.  Somewhere, in the depths of our souls, hope resides. 

The reason we celebrate, gather together, worship is because HOPE was born on Christmas. In a dark place, on a difficult night, in a moment of deep dispair and suffering for so many, HOPE was born. “And they called his name, Jesus, because he will save his people.”

Let’s not “skip” Christmas. Let’s embrace the HOPE it brings to us all and allow the light to envelop our dark and hurting souls. I have a feeling that like my fictional friends, the Kranks, we will find that even if Christmas looks a bit different, there is always reason to celebrate. 

“Unto us a child is born; Unto us a Son is given. And His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6

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A Prized Posession

Anyone who knows me, probably is aware of my fondness for Charles Schulz’s Peanut characters. I have loved them since I was a small child. As an adult, I have learned that Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy and the rest of the gang can teach us some important life lessons. 

If you are familiar with Linus, you know he is never without his trusty blue blanket. It is certainly a prized possession for him. It brings him comfort in trying times, makes a great slingshot and can even be useful on the skating rink to pull someone along.  Linus relies on his blanket and he is somewhat lost without it in his hands. 

While watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” I  learned something else about my friend Linus. He was not afraid to put his most prized possession to use to help out a dear friend. 

This is the scene….. Linus has just finished reciting the Story of Christmas from the book of Luke and saying those famous words, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”  His friend, Charlie, bolstered by the promise of God found in Jesus, takes his pitiful Christmas tree, vowing to make it something beautiful and wonderful to honor the meaning of  Christmas. For Charlie, though, what happens to him is the same thing that happens to many of us on this road of life, when he places the first heavy ornament on that fragile tree, the limb droops. The ornament is too heavy a load for the tree to bear. Charlie walks off despondent and disappointed. His plan failed. 

Along comes Linus with his trusty blue blanket. He takes it and carefully wraps it around the base of the fragile tree. Giving it a sturdy foundation. Immediately, the dropped limb, with the extra support, pops back up and proudly displays the pretty red ornament. Linus used his most prized possession to give his friend Charlie a beautiful gift. 

I certainly have Charlie Brown moments in my life. Times of dispair and failure. Days where I feel like my best efforts are never enough. It is one of the reasons I believe so strongly in being linked in a community of believers.  There seems to always be a friend willing to wrap their blanket of love and protection around my tree to give me the confidence I need.  The best part is, they not only make me stronger, but just like Charlie Brown’s tree, they make me beautiful and whole. 

Yes, to all the Charlie Brown’s in this world, that’s what Christmas is all about……

A new branch will grow from the stump of a tree; so a new king will come from the family of Jesse. Isaiah 11:1n

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A Lesson in Ministry

I am currently on a tour with members of the Knoxville Choral Society. We are visiting towns in Belgium and France. At this moment, I am sitting on a bus, driving through the French countryside on the way to Bayeux, France; a town, not too far from Normandy and the D-Day beaches. 

This past Friday, we found ourselves in the City of Brussels, Belgium. A city still on a high level of alert after the terror attacks in March. Everywhere we went, there were armed guards with their assault rifles at the ready, diligent in their task to protect their city and citizens. Honestly, it was quite sobering.There is light in this town, though, and we found it in a small Catholic parish, quite close to the city square or as they call it, “Grand Place.” The church was the Church of Saint Marie-Madeline. A 13th century church with beautiful stained-glass windows, and filled with people possessing warm smiles and a Priest with a heart that far exceeds the size of his parish.  

 
When we arrived for rehearsal that morning, the Priest greeted us heartily and began to tell us the story of a refugee family they had been housing at the church for a few days. They were in process of finding permanent housing for the family and you could see on his face that he was very burdened with the physical and spiritual needs of this family. My thoughts immediately turned to “Family Promise” and my own church’s participation in a ministry devoted to ministering to homeless families. 

The Priest mentioned they would be taking an offering that evening after the mass and our concert to help with the needs of the family. The translation wasn’t lost on these generous Tennessee Volunteers that I travel with, and we were taking up our own offering on the way to the service to present to the Priest. I use the words generous, because these 50+ souls I am traveling with are some of the most gracious, loving and generous folks I have ever had the pleasure of being associated. 

I had the honor of presenting our offering to the priest after the concert. His eyes were filled with such thankfulness and surprise. I shared with him about the Family Promise ministry “back home” and how I knew this must be a daunting task for a small parish church to take on. We exchanged hugs and wishes for continued ministry and blessings. It was a moment that will be engraved on my heart for many years to come. 

As I was reflecting on it later, I realized ministry and love for our fellow man exceeds the boundaries of religious affiliation. As I sat in the mass that evening, the liturgy and rote of worship was quite foreign to me. So gratifying though to see the lifting of prayers to God, the love shared in that small church and the language of music was experienced and understood by all.  

Selah. 

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How beautiful……..

There is an old adage that says “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?”.  The underlying thought being if there is no one around to acknowledge an event, does it matter?

Look at the old adage from this perspective.  If I give my all at my job and my supervisor never acknowledges my hard work, does it matter that I am a diligent worker?  If a person devotes themselves in service to others and is never told ‘thank you’, is their service in vain?  If an artist paints a beautiful canvas that is never appreciated, is the canvas less beautiful? Why would a singer want to sing a song when no one comes to listen?

For people of faith, there is always the answer that our loving God sees, hears and knows all that happens with each of us.  His unfathomable loves envelopes and encompasses us and has the ability to fill us with His perfect peace.  Scripture says He delights over us with singing, and  I believe that to be absolutely true.  I also believe God put us on this earth together to be a source of encouragement for one another.  As fellow believers, we need to lift up one another on this bumpy road called life.

Take a look around you.  If you are surrounded by more than 3 people, chances are one of those 3 folks feels insignificant.  On at least an occasional basis, they wonder if there is any purpose to their life.  They will think during their darkest times that if they weren’t around, it might go unnoticed. They may be hungering for someone to love them and appreciate them; they want to know that if they “fall”, someone “hears” them.  Everyone deserves to feel as if they are important to someone else.  No one should walk alone in this lifetime.  To think that there is no one out there who loves and appreciates you for who you are is a lonely and depressing existence.

phontoYou might think your kind
word, heartfelt thank you or words of appreciation are just a small gesture. Chances are, though, they could be just the words a co-worker needs to hear to motivate them today.  Your quick thank-you note or email to someone might be the catalyst for them to continue their acts of service.  Your smile or encouragement could be the difference to an artist or musician to continue on their creative path.  YOU CAN CERTAINLY MAKE A DIFFERENCE FOR SOMEONE TODAY.

Stop.  Take a moment.  Look around.  Who around you needs a word of encouragement?

Selah

 

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That Old King James

I heard a country song the other day (yes, there is some country music I listen to) and the lyrics made me take notice for just a brief moment.  The singer is reminiscing about his beloved grandfather and how he acquired a brand new King James Bible when he was 8 years old.  The song goes on to talk about how the Bible is passed down through a couple of generations, what it means to each recipient and the faith each one of them had in “that Old King James.”

My own copy of scripture is starting to show some signs of age.  No, it isn’t a King James translation, but this particular Bible is becoming well worn.  I’ve had it for several years now and it has been with me through joys and triumphs, tears and gladness.  The parchment paper is becoming thinner, some of my handwritten notes have started to fade with time and the binding is starting to fray in places.  The Book seems to open without effort to the familiar and favorite scriptures I have been to time and again.

imageAs I was reading one of those familiar passages this morning, my thoughts turned to my Dad. He had one of those “old King James” my country crooner sings about. It wasn’t a fancy Bible, certainly not a study edition like mine. Just a simple red-letter copy of scripture.  I could picture it in his hands each Sunday as we went to church.  I remembered it on Wednesday evenings when we would go to Bible study.  He used that Bible to prepare Sunday School lessons, and no doubt he turned to it countless times for comfort and strength.  It is certainly well-worn.  There are numerous notes in the margins, all in my Dad’s meticulous handwriting.

You can learn a lot about a person by picking up their favorite Bible. My Dad was a man of deep faith; his faith was firmly rooted in his knowledge of scripture.  He could point the way to salvation in Jesus on the “Roman Road” with his small Bible.  And he studied Revelation – a lot! He walks the streets of heaven now – all scripture fulfilled for him. How glorious that must be!

I hope someday my Bible might, too, be a journal of my faith. Perhaps my children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews will consider it a legacy. At the very least, I hope they can look through the pages and know that “my faith found a resting place.”  I pray, like my dad’s old King James, my Bible can be a lasting Ebenezer of faith, hope and love.

And…..by the way…… I have some well-loved hymnals, too. 🙂

“You’ll find on every other page yellow lines or tear drop stains;
Every chapter of that good book, been through cancer, war and crazy kids
and all the stupid things I did.
Now the cover’s torn and the leather’s worn on that Old King James”
From “That Old King James”  by Philip White and Mark Nessler
as sung by Scotty McCreery

Selah

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The Joy of the Lord is My Strength

I Choose Joy……….

I choose joy in the face of unanswered prayers. imageI choose joy in the midst of an uncertain tomorrow. I choose joy in my loneliness. I choose joy when the darkness of grief and unhappiness overwhelm me. I choose joy when the world around me chooses violence and hate. I choose joy when others choose to hurt with their words and their actions. I choose joy when I feel the sting of rejection. I choose joy when I just don’t understand.

Why do I choose joy?

Because by making the conscious choice, I do not rely on the circumstances of my life to dictate my happiness. By choosing joy, I follow the commandments of my Lord to point others to Him. By choosing joy, I show love, mercy, respect, grace. By choosing joy, I live in the light rather than the darkness. By choosing joy, I walk by faith and not by sight.

Most of all, by choosing joy….. I trust there is a God who is greater than whatever I am facing at the moment.  I say to those around me, I believe in His unconditional love, and I will live in the midst of that love – JOYFULLY!

The Lord is my strength……. My heart leaps for joy, and with my song I praise Him. Psalms 28:7

Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.  Nehemiah 8:10b

Selah

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