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A Christmas Eve Showdown

The dark figure, crouched in the entryway of the Duane Reade, was becoming a deterrent for last minute Christmas shoppers, until Rick, the store manager, roused him and told him to move along.

“Hey you! You’re scaring away all my customers. There’s a shelter two blocks over on Bleeker. They should be able to take you in for the night and give you a hot meal.”

Dennis got up and steadied himself for a minute. The day’s ration of second-hand burgers and booze from the garbage had left him with nothing more than a faint buzz and unsteady gait. He stumbled his way down Lexington past the shoppers and the carolers to see if the shelter would take pity on him one more time; it was Christmas Eve, after all. At least that’s what he’d heard one of the shoppers say as they complained about how all the stores were out of everything on his kid’s Christmas list.

“Sorry Dennis, we’re all full up,” explained the night manager of the shelter. “I told you before, you have to make sure you’re here by noon or you forfeit your bed.”

Dennis didn’t respond. He pulled his dirty blanket up over his slumped shoulders trying to block the sleet from pelting the back of his neck and continued walking towards downtown. The city appeared colder somehow in the glare of the Christmas lights and displays. As daylight gave way to darkness, the streets became quickly deserted, as if everyone was fleeing a showdown.

Dennis sat down on the steps of the Canal Street Subway station to rest. He watched as the near vacant 4 train departed with no additional passengers. Tears pooled in the corners of his eyes as he watched the end of the train disappear into the dark tunnel.

“God, are you really there? I really don’t think you are, but if you are, I need your help. If I just had enough money to buy one subway token, I would use it to jump in front of the next train and put everyone out of their misery.”

Dennis looked up from his prayer as he heard the next train approaching. He got up to get out of the way of the commuters, but then noticed only one person getting off the train and walking in his direction. It was Rick from the drug store.

“Can you spare change for a token?” Dennis begged. Rick looked over and recognized the beggar. He kept walking but then hesitated.

“Hey, weren’t you the guy asleep in front of my store earlier today? Didn’t you go to the shelter?” Rick asked loudly, as the train left the station.

“Yes sir, I went to the shelter but there was no room,” Dennis explained.

Rick tried to find a good reason to move on, but couldn’t. The two of them stood there in the silence of the subway station that Christmas Eve. It was a holy moment.

What would you do in this holy moment? Have you had a holy moment like this during the Christmas season?

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When Did “Happy Holiday” Become So Offensive?

I’ve heard all the ranting and raving on talk radio. I’ve witnessed numerous talking-heads bloviate against the extremities of political correctness. I’ve even done some of the sermonizing myself.

“By golly, if the majority of Americans have been celebrating Christmas for the past few hundred years, why should we have to kowtow to the overly sensitive minorities of outsiders who don’t and start saying ‘Happy Holidays’?!”

“Why should I have to say ‘Happy Holidays’ if what I really mean is ‘Merry Christmas’? Am I too ashamed to admit I’m a Christian?”

It can be challenging to live in any kind of healthy balance these days. It seems we run the risk of offending someone, no matter what we do.

But I’ve become convicted of something recently which has helped me settle this issue in my mind once and for all. In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul admonishes us to live lives of true godly love; love that is patient and kind.  In verse 5 he tells us that love “is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” (NIV)

If I am to live in that kind of love, then I must put other’s first. When I am tempted to take offense in someone not recognizing one of the most hallowed of holy days in all of Christianity, I need to remember that to love as Christ loved means to not seek my own preferences. Christ never led his disciples to revolt against the culture in order to get their own way. Instead, he taught about humility and grace and justice for those who were struggling under heavy burdens.

As a Christ-follower, I am giving the opportunity to practice grace every time someone wishes me a “Happy Holiday.” When I respond with the same, I’m offering grace to those who worship under the heavy burdens of other religions, including the religion of political correctness. I realize forcing a “Merry Christmas” on them as a form of proving my point, or of taking offense, is not an act of love or grace. I know that the happiest of holidays can only occur when I offer Christ-like love to those with different beliefs, living in grace and mercy and sharing the love of Christ through word and action.

“Happy Holiday” is just a greeting, a salutation. In my mind, when I say “happy holiday,” I recognize the recipient of my greeting as someone dearly loved by God. If I want to love them as Christ does, then I need to move past my offense of this two-word greeting and start putting my efforts in building bridges with them. I pray that God will use me to turn their “happy holiday” to the happiest of Holy Days, the Birth of our Savior.

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Dreaming of the Nightmare before Christmas

The door bell rang, but when I answered there was no one there; just a mysterious package. To my delight, the package was a Christmas gift. Even more delightful was the fact that it was just the beginning of a series of twelve drive-by giftings; all committed by a secret Santa.

2002 was promising to be one of those Christmases that every romantic fantasizes about. A living Currier and Ives mashup of Rockwellian proportions. I was the romantic who dreamed it was possible to have the perfect Christmas; complete with scenes of caroling children bunching and crunching in the snow-laden streets of my hometown. Having a secret Santa was a wonderful lead-in to my perfect Christmas fantasy. But we would soon to get a phone call that would rock the very foundation of my perfectly assembled Christmas village.

“Mrs. Wideman, we see something on your mammogram and need you to come in for more tests.”

This did not fit into our plan for a perfect Christmas. The fact that the doctor wanted the tests performed before the holidays only increased the probability that my Christmas fantasy would remain just that; a fantasy. How I wished Sally hadn’t answered the phone, then I could have lived in my fantasy and continued to deny the reality of any problem.

But cancer doesn’t take a holiday, so arrangements were made for a lumpectomy the day before Christmas Eve. It was also the day we had originally planned to travel fourteen hours to be with Sally’s family. But that would have to wait, there were more pressing issues than having the perfect Christmas family gathering. By this time I had accepted the reality of our Christmas dream-turned-nightmare.

“It’s definitely cancer,” was the only thing I heard the surgeon say. The floor shifted causing me to fall back against the waiting room wall. I was told I could go see my wife in recovery and tell her the news; the bad news. Wasn’t Christmas supposed to be about the Good News? Christ came to earth to bring us hope, peace, love and joy; not cancer.

I gazed into her eyes when I told her. I thought about how I hadn’t done enough eye-gazing and vowed to do it more. Time froze on that cold winter morning in the recovery room. As our eyes locked, few words were spoken, but many were received. Tears flowed as dreams melted. Hearts were fused in renewed love and desperation.

When we got home, we gathered the kids and told them the news. I remembered thinking how young they were to have to experience the dashed dreams of their own Christmas fantasies. They wouldn’t have as many years to get to live in the denial of the existence of pain and suffering during the holidays.

It wasn’t long before the call rang out at our church that Sally indeed had breast cancer. Over the next few hours, the church ladies did what they did best; they showed up. Some of them brought prayer quilts and lotions and comfort food casseroles. They hugged, they cried, they sat, they prayed. There was also a circle of breast cancer survivors who immediately adopted Sally into a sisterhood she had hoped never to join. They were a big source of encouragement and comfort to both of us.

We decided we needed to be with family, so we loaded up our ’98 Explorer for our cross country trip. A major snow storm was bearing down on our area, so we planned on driving with as few stops as possible in an effort to avoid getting snowed in, snowed out, or snowed under. Sally took her pain meds, lowered her car seat straight back and fell asleep with her head in our daughter’s lap who was sitting directly behind her. We only stopped for gas; Sally sleeping the entire fourteen hour drive.

There is healing power being with family, at least there should be. It certainly was for us; maybe not physically, but emotionally for sure. We told stories, sang songs, watched movies, ate meals, baked cookies, gave gifts, hugged necks and prayed prayers during our week together. It was as close to Norman Rockwell as one could get while still facing a deadly disease.

As we said our final goodbyes and headed back home to face more surgery and chemo, I thought about how different this Christmas had turned out compared to my perfect Christmas fantasy. The sound of jingle bells and sleigh bells had been replaced with the music of a different kind; a Christmas carillon.

I looked up “carillon” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It read, “A set of fixed chromatically tuned bells sounded by hammers controlled from a keyboard.” When I read that, I realized that’s exactly what we experienced that Christmas. In my fantasy to have the perfect Christmas, I thought I had to have a set of events align in perfect tune and sequence. The only problem, life doesn’t work that way. The carillon cannot be played without being pounded by some hard knocks. But thank God, when we allow him to control the keyboard, he has always had a way of making beautiful music with the pounding of a hammer.

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Advent: Becoming a Peacemaker, Not a Peacekeeper

… His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.                                                                                     Isaiah 9:6

We’ve all heard the crazy stories about the mayhem on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving when we turn into greedy lunatics shopping during the wee hours of the night for bargains. Don’t get me wrong, I like bargains as much as the next guy, but come on people; workers getting trampled to death and shoppers getting pepper-sprayed, all for what? A bargain? How ironic this happens the day after our national holiday where we remind ourselves to be thankful for what we already have.

Envy and greed sneak up on all of us. I know I struggle with it. And I also know that when I do, I become miserable to be around. I’m never happy, never satisfied and always whining about how great everyone else has it. I have no peace in my life.

The second week of Advent, we focus on PEACE. Jesus came as the Prince of Peace and he calls each of his followers to be peacemakers. I’ve realized that’s much easier said than done, especially if I’m harboring envy. The best I can do sometimes is to try and be a peacekeeper. But that’s not the same thing as being a peacemaker.

As a peacekeeper, I’m more motivated by my selfish desire for my own comfort. It’s too uncomfortable to make peace in some situations, so instead of making peace, I just keep it by stifling necessary conversations that promote true reconciliation.  Instead, I just “agree to disagree” and then avoid that person or topic from that point on. That’s not real peace.

Christ was the ultimate peacemaker. He came to bring us peace with God and with one another by modeling his life and death as the way of reconciliation. But many of the Jews in his day didn’t really want a peacemaker, because that would be too hard and take too long. Making true peace requires giving up your power and position. What many of them thought they wanted was a Rambo-type messiah who kept the peace through power and force, sort of like a military peacekeeping force armed with weapons.

If we are to follow Christ this Advent as peacemakers, we need to put to death our greed and envy and do the hard work of making peace with God and one another through reconciliation.

For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.
 Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.
    James 3:16-18

For an online Advent Devotional Guide go here:http://www.d365.org/followingthestar/

For another great Advent resource, check out http://adventconspiracy.org/

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A Prayer

God, why do I insist of trying to wrap my brain around you? It is an exercise in futility. You cannot be fully known on this side, and yet I find myself seeking definitive answers to infinite questions regarding an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent God. Forgive me for seeking answers and explanation instead of resting in your presence. Lead me to embrace your MYSTERY.

Lord, strip me of my pride and pretense. I confess my tendency to posture myself in humility, all the while taking pride in it. Lead me in your ways. Help me to be a reflection of you and your image only. Help me to stop gazing on myself and my shameful nakedness and to start seeing a purer reflection of you. I must decrease, you must increase. Lead me to embrace your MAJESTY.

But Lord, please protect me from my pride that seeks to make this about me and my reputation and my ministry. Help me to stop defending myself and my standing in the church. Help free me of a critical spirit. Lord, there is so much work in me to be done, but please help me not to become self-obsessed and self-focused. I want to focus on you and your story. I give you the freedom to do your work in me. Lead me to embrace your SOVEREIGNTY .

Thank you for the tools you have giving me to become more like you: the Bible, the church, even the 12 Steps, but most importantly, your PRESENCE!


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n.   1. The coming or arrival, especially of something extremely important

The Christian church is in the first week of the Advent season. The Western church calendar observes Advent for the four Sundays before Christmas. The period represents the coming or arrival of Christ. Before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there was a spiritual famine in Israel, as the Jews waited for the fulfillment of the prophecies. They believed the Messiah was coming and they prayed anxiously for that day when he would come save them.

That day finally arrived. The Light came into the darkness and salvation was at hand.

But many people missed it. Many lost hope along the way, because God didn’t act on their time table. Other’s missed it because they were too busy fighting wars with one another, looking out for their own wants and desires. Still others missed out because they had lost their first love. They were more interested in loving themselves instead of loving God and their neighbor. Yet others missed it because they were deep in despair. They had lost the joy they once knew and decided it was better just to seek temporary happiness instead.

The church still observes Advent today. We light a candle each week as we recognize the arrival of something, make that someone, extremely important. But we can miss it as well. Perhaps we have lost all hope in life, or we have become too preoccupied with fighting wars and fires, existing with little or no peace in our lives. Some of us have become so self-absorbed that we too have lost our first love. Or maybe you’re one of those who try to be faithful but there’s no joy in your life, only sporadic bouts of fleeting happiness.

I want to encourage you to observe Advent this year, ushering in the Light of the world.

Celebrate the HOPE we have in Christ.

Make PEACE with God and one another.

Experience LOVE in its truest form.

Find the JOY of your Salvation.

Come, Thou long-expected Jesus, Born to set Thy people free;

From our fears and sins release us; Let us find our rest in Thee.

Israel’s strength and consolation, HOPE of all the earth Thou art;

Dear desire of every nation, JOY of every longing heart.

“I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; …plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with HOPE.” Jeremiah 29:11

For an online Advent Devotional Guide go here:http://www.d365.org/followingthestar/

For another great Advent resource, check out http://adventconspiracy.org/

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