Darkening America, Illuminating Light

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” Charles Dickens

When I was a radio news reporter, I wanted to do a special Christmas feature for the morning drive program.

I wrote a poem to record to music but wanted another voice along with my own on the piece. So I went to my kids’ elementary school and interviewed six first graders. I asked them, “What is Christmas?”

Three of them talked about Jesus. But the other three made no mention of Him. To them, Christmas was all about Santa and presents. Nothing more.

My sample was small and young. Hardly a statistical representation of first graders, let alone Americans in general.

But my results actually came close to how Americans view Christmas today. Pew has issued a study showing that only 55 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. That’s down from 59 percent as recently as 2013.

Many of us bemoan such news. It’s the War on Christmas!

But our complaining about the de-sacralization of the holiday hasn’t changed the minds of those enjoying a holiday they deem secular. All our griping has not turned a tide toward keeping the day holy.

The Pew study investigates not only what bothers us–or doesn’t– about the growing secularization of Christmas. It also investigates belief (or disbelief) in the assertions of the Christmas story: Jesus’ virgin birth, the shepherds, and angels.

Belief in those details, of course, reflects faith in who Christ is. To deny the details of the Christmas story is to deny the deity of Christ. Those details hold great meaning.
He is sinless because He had no human father. God as His Father means He is perfect God as well.

When Christ was born, God the Father sent angels to the socially lowest of people–the disregarded, the outcasts–the shepherds.

The presence of shepherds within walking distance of Bethlehem indicates that Christ was not born in December. Shepherds typically did not keep their flocks near villages because of the odor they caused. They would be nowhere near Bethlehem except during a 30 period before Passover–a period of preparation for the yearly sacrifice.

The shepherds outside Bethlehem were Levitical shepherds. Ironically, they were ritualistically unclean. They walked through feces. They touched dead things.
The angel told them to find a baby lying in a manger and wrapped in swaddling clothsTo shepherds raising sheep for Levitical sacrifice, swaddling cloths would be vastly significant. For a lamb to qualify for sacrifice it had to be perfect, without blemish.

The shepherds swaddled lambs intended for sacrifice–they wrapped them in cloths to protect them. The angel saying that they would find the infant wrapped in swaddling cloths indicated that the baby would be a sacrifice. That baby was the Messiah they had long awaited.

Many would have expected a Jewish king to be born in Jerusalem–the city of the king–not Bethlehem. But Bethlehem was the City of David–a keeper of sheep.

God’s choice of a birthplace for his son wasn’t just a fulfillment of prophecy–which it was. It was also a symbol that Christ the King would be the fulfillment of sacrifice on our behalf.

Christ was the sinless Son of God, the perfect Lamb to be sacrificed for the shepherd’s sins–for our sins.

Most of the world isn’t interested in investigating the Christmas story. The trinkets, toys, and glitzy lights of Christmas are enough for them.

They try to fill the empty spaces of life with the clutter and noise of a secular Christmas. When we complain about society’s treatment of Christmas, we merely add to the noise. We can’t fill the empty places of their hearts. Only Christ can do that.

So aside from complaining, what else can we do? We can keep the true Christmas in our hearts. We can heed the angels’ message of “Fear not.”

“Don’t take this sobering news [of the study] as a reason to rend your garments and wail. Use it as reason to make your family’s celebration of Advent and Christmas more religious.” Rod Dreher.

As we do, we recognize that, on that first Christmas, God invited the unclean to see His Son. Those who reject Him today are yet among the invited.

People seek purpose and meaning today. But they cannot find it without Christ. One of those children I interviewed understood what so many fail to see today.

“What is Christmas?”

“It’s Jesuseseses’ birthday.”

He brings peace on earth–within our hearts. He is the perfect sacrifice for us.

When we celebrate Him, our silence can overwhelm the noise and darkness.
Embrace His peace. Celebrate Him. Shine the true light.

Revised from 2017

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The Unexpected Expected Baby King

“Our God who breathes stars in the dark–He breathes Bethlehem’s Star, then takes on lungs and breathes in stable air. We are saved from hopelessness because God came with infant fists and opened wide His hand to take the iron-sharp edge of our sins.” Ann Voskamp (138).

First there was the oppression of Egypt, then the captivity of Babylon, then the occupation of Rome.

For quite some time, Israel had been imagining a conquering Messiah. Perhaps on that silent night before the angels’ announcement, the shepherds were dreaming of the day when they would be free from Roman rule.

The magi–-scholars debate where they came from-–were religious. They came to worship. But they may have also had a political motive. They came seeking the new King. They brought gifts befitting a king who may someday want to conquer.
They did find the One to worship. They gave their gifts. Returned home. And we never heard from them again.

I wonder. Did they expect to meet a humble king in a humble home?
How could they know what to expect of His Kingdom?

The song asks “Mary, Did You Know?” Were there moments when she wondered when she would wake up from this strange dream? But it wasn’t a dream.

He would turn water into wine at her request.  He would, as the song says, walk on water, give sight to the blind, still a storm, and raise the dead.

How could she know what to expect from His life?

Reverberating in the back of her mind through His growing up years rang the prophecy of Simeon the priest: “[A]nd a sword will pierce even your own soul.”

Simeon had a glimpse at least of what was ahead. But perhaps even he did not understand that Christ’s incarnation was not to be political.

From Voskamp: “The Light never comes how you expect it. It comes as the unlikely and unexpected” (139).

Ace Collins writes, “Christ was the king who came not to take, but to give” (101). In the ancient world, that concept may have been the most unexpected of all. A King who would utterly give Himself rather than extracting tribute. A King who would suffer on behalf of His servants. He takes us beyond expectation.

We bring our expectations to our daily lives. We bring them to our churches every week. Reaching beyond expectation to ministry with other Christ followers opens doors of fellowship. Reaching beyond the expectation of the manger takes us to the love of the cross.

Wrong expectations limit ministry. The love of the cross has no such bounds.

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The Light of Christmas

“[T]he light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,” John 1:5.

“When we do this, I know Christmas has begun,” my granddaughter says after packing boxes for soldiers.

She and her cousin are my helpers in this yearly task. Gifts and donations loaded into cardboard. Home-made sweets for troops, many serving we know not where.  A box to light, and lighten, Christmas in dark places.

One year, the night before box packing, the cousin and I set up my nativity–porcelain figurines with a light glowing behind a suspended angel.

This past Sunday at church, someone lit the first two purple candles and the pink candle of Advent. I light them at home.

The candleflicker of Christmas. Little lights for darkening days.

Through Advent, every day gets darker until we arrive at the cusp of Christmas. Winter Solstice is December 21st–the longest night of the year. By Christmas Day, light is increasing each day.

But Christ’s birth is most likely to have happened in autumn. Shepherds are not in the fields in December. Even tyrants don’t mandate a census in December. So Christmas is a tradition–not an actual birthday.

Christmas comes during the time of year pagans marked the winter solstice, the darkest day–but the end of encroaching darkness. A feast to celebrate light that overcomes darkness.

Christmas comes near Hanukkah–the Jewish festival of lights. To commemorate victory over an effort to eradicate Jewish civilization. To memorialize one day’s worth of sanctified oil fueling a light that hung on for eight days. Eight days to celebrate light that overcomes darkness.

Christmas proclaims the coming of a King who is the light who overcomes darkness.

“Jesus spoke to them again, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life,’” John 8:12.

There is a Christmas light to light the world–Christ Himself.

“And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth,” John 1:14. 

Christmas is coming. Let His light shine.


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Merry Christmas from Jude

What follows is an excerpt from a book–as yet unpublished–I’ve written with the assistance of some of my grandchildren. The main character and narrator is nine-year-old Jude who hates to sit still. But he loves his grandpa. The two built a treehouse the summer before–and they look forward to climbing the nearby mountain together next summer. But in between, comes Christmas.

That month between Thanksgiving and Christmas is longer than any other month in the year. All us kids kept our teacher Mr. Norman busy trying to distract us from looking out the window and dreaming of Christmas presents.

At last, Dad, Mom, and I made our way to Grandpa’s house on Christmas Eve. While the older folks talked over some hot cider, I sneaked off to search for presents. I peeked under the beds, in the closets, up in the attic, down in the basement, and behind the sofa. No luck.

We brought the tree in—a real one from Grandpa’s hillside. Grandpa guided the tree into the stand as Dad and I held the trunk.

“More to the left,” Grandpa said. “Now, just a bit to the right.” We made the adjustments until the tree stood straight. Then all of us started decorating.

The year before, Grandpa had packed the lights with care to keep them from tangling. So that part was easy.

I picked a wad of tissue paper out of a cardboard box and unwrapped an ornament. It was one I made in Sunday school when I was little. I painted a mom, dad, grandpa, and myself on a cardboard circle. I was about to put it back in the box, embarrassed at my artwork, when Mom said, “I love that one, Jude. Put it right here.” And she pointed to the center of the tree.

When we were done, we helped Mom make stuffing. Dad and Grandpa cut the celery and onions, and I watched the butter in the frying pan to make sure it didn’t burn.

Mom had brought tons of cookies she’d baked. My frustration at not finding any presents melted away as the smells of fir and stuffing filled the house. For supper, we ate toasted cheese sandwiches. The feast would come tomorrow. After a cinnamon cookie for dessert, I climbed the stepladder next to the tree so I could put the star on top.

Mom said, “It’s the best tree ever.” She says that every year, and every year she means it.

Then we headed down the road in Grandpa’s old Buick toward the big stone church. We got there just as the congregation started singing “O Holy Night.”

Being still in church on Christmas Eve is tough. Candles and music help. After the service, a man Grandpa called Mr. Bob stood at the back of the church handing out candy canes to the kids.

Each cane came with a note explaining its meaning and the beginning of the cane tradition. Hold it one way, it makes a J for Jesus. Hold it the other way, it’s like a staff to remind us of the shepherds.

The best part is how the canes came to be. A long time ago, a children’s choir leader had them made to keep his young singers from moving around and making noise during a long church service. I wished Mr. Bob had passed them out at the beginning of the service instead of the end. 

Back home, we celebrated with hot cider and cinnamon chip cookies.

Then Dad said, “Time for bed, Buddy.”

I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t . . .

I woke to light glaring through the window.

“Merry Christmas!” I yelled. Everybody! Let’s go!”

I say that every year, and every year I wait while Mom, Dad, and Grandpa go downstairs, put the turkey in the oven, light the tree, and turn on the radio for Christmas songs. Mom says mood sets memories in stone. She says that every year too.

When they finally came back upstairs, Grandpa read about the shepherds and angels. I read the part about the kings who came to see Baby Jesus.

When I was younger, this waiting tortured me. Now, Christmas wouldn’t feel right without the stories, lights, and music.

After I finished reading, Grandpa talked a bit as he did every year, but not for too long.

“Jesus was a surprise to the world. He astonished the shepherds. The world didn’t know what to do with Him. He bewilders folks today. He’s a present we didn’t expect. A present that can surprise us any time in life.”

 He quoted Isaiah: “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us.”

Beside the tree was a blue Huffy bike for me. We covered the floor with wrapping paper.

Grandpa gave everyone the usual—books. I got The Genesis Trilogy and Whalesong.

 “These books look great, Grandpa. Thanks!”

Mom, Dad, and I hung around a few days that year. That was different. We usually headed home a couple days after Christmas. Not that year.

Two days after Christmas, we were still there. The weather warmed turning our spaceman snow alien into a pitchers’ mound.

That evening, Grandpa and I headed for the treehouse with s’mores cookies.

“Y’know, Jude, every year, you look for your presents, but you never find them.”

“I can’t figure that out, Grandpa. They hafta be somewhere.”

“There’s a reason gifts are supposed to be a surprise. They’re like life. Ya have t’let life unfold. Ya can’t push ahead of it. Ya can’t rush it. Spoiled surprises ruin things we need to wait for.”

“I know, Grandpa. Every year, I just wanna know. I can’t figure out where you guys put everything.”

“When you get old enough—and when you stop lookin’—maybe we’ll let you in on th’ secret.”

Christmas is always slow to arrive, but over too soon. When we were getting ready to leave, Grandpa seemed sadder than usual to see us go. But then an idea lit up his eyes.

“Next summer, Jude, we climb the mountain!”

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The Parasite of Peace

“Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased,” Luke 2:14.

There’s a battle between peace and war. It seems unnecessary to say so. But this season is when peace is to prevail and war is to fade away–at least for a time.

That worked once, at least, but only briefly. In 1914, French, English, and German soldiers called a Christmas truce and even sang in unison. It was a “Silent Night” with harmony in multiple languages.

I remember my mother telling me the story.  For a night, Christmas night, there was peace. “And then the next day, they were out there killing each other again,” she said.

She was born after that war had ended. It was a war intending to end them all. But it only set up the next one. The next one killed even more. Many more.

We look at war and shake our heads. But so the world has been since Cain killed Abel. There will always be those who seek to upend peace to secure their own power, to have their own way.

Into such a world came a baby Christians call the Prince of Peace.

It’s hard for us to reconcile this Prince of Peace with something He would later say: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword,” Matthew 10:34.

Those at war with Him will be at war with us. But He is at once the Lion of Judah and the Lamb of God–a sword-wielding Lion and a sacrificial Lamb who gives peace and life.

We mark His birth when angels sang, when shepherds and visiting kings worshiped. But a fearful king, trying to stomp out prospective competition, killed young innocents.

Fear waged war with a baby king. So it was in the season we celebrate now.

Mistletoe is a symbol of this season. Its association with peace comes from its pre-Christian roots. Scandinavian soldiers who found themselves battling under its branches dropped their arms and made peace–at least temporarily.

Mistletoe was a haven of safety. A sacred place of peace.

But it is a parasitic plant. Mistletoe bores through the bark of a host tree and grows up and down through branches. Once it has established its root system in a host, it’s almost impossible to kill. Any tree mistletoe claims will die prematurely, but slowly. Yet the dead tree will spring forth with life.

A mistletoe-infested forest may produce three times more cavity-nesting birds than a forest lacking mistletoe.”

Like a king who brings both a sword and peace, mistletoe is its own paradox. It’s poisonous but also medicinal. It can bring sickness or wellness–death or life–depending on what we do with it.

War is the norm for humanity. It’s the tree that grows in every forest throughout the world. Peace is the enduring element that seeks to infest it, to overcome it. Our yearning for peace never ends.

The Lion of Judah is the Lamb who comes with peace. This Lion-Lamb will overcome death and war. And there will be peace within and among those who please Him.

We will have death or life–depending on what we do with Him.


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Revised from 12/19/16

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Emerging from the Cave

Humans, history says, emerged from a cave. We drew pictures of animals on the walls around us.

A great thinker, Plato, told a story about a man in a cave. This man is bound. Unable to see anything except the shadows cast upon the wall in front of him. He perceives these shadows to be the sum total of reality.

As Plato’s story goes, the man one day escapes his bonds, leaves his cave, and goes out in broad daylight for the first time in his memory. The bright sunlight blinds him. He needs a guide to discern this place, this reality.

The man’s eyes adjust to the sunlight. He finds his way. And he decides to reenter the cave and tell the others still in bondage there what he has discovered. They are only looking at shadows.

They are missing all that is real.

But they are content. They call him a lunatic. They know what is real. It is right in front of them. Plain as day. They stew in the darkness of the cave.

Emerging from the cave makes a difference. We move from darkness into light. Into a blinding light to which the eyes of our souls must adjust.

British writer G.K. Chesterton pointed out that one man who was born in a cave grew up to an unjust death. Then He emerged from his cave tomb. At no point did his eyes need to acclimate to the light. He had created it. He spoke it real and it became reality. The man’s birth in a cave, and His emergence from another, marks a division in the history of humanity. In this “second half of history”:

“There is even a shadow of such a fancy in the fact that animals were again present; for it was a cave used as a stable. . . . It was here that a homeless couple had crept underground with the cattle when the doors . . . had been shut in their faces; and it was here beneath the very feet of the passers-by, in a cellar under the very floor of the world, that Jesus Christ was born. . . . God also was a Cave-Man, and had also traced strange shapes of creatures, curiously coloured, upon the wall of the world; but the pictures that he made had come to life.”

We are all creatures of a cave–a cave in which we hide from truth or an empty cave from which we have emerged. Every person we encounter is someone who has discovered reality, or is still in a cave, or has come out but cannot yet fully discern through blinding light.

Chesterton again: “Man is the microcosm; man is the measure of all things; man is the image of God. These are the only real lessons to be learnt in the cave, and it is time to leave it for the open road.”


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Reposted from December 15, 2016

Cookies as Threads of Memory

I’ve been making them for five decades. I began when I was ten. And I’ve probably eaten more than my own weight in raw dough. Ever since my mother first let me loose in the kitchen.

It’s what she did when I was young. It’s what I did as a tween, then teen. What I did when my children were young. What I still do now.

My repertoire has expanded and contracted over the years to include peanut butter blossoms (chocolate kiss cookies), anise pizzelles, nut puffs (a harkening back to my children’s Italian heritage), buckeyes, haystacks, cocoa cookies with peanut butter chips, and just added a few years ago, a gingerbread cookie with peanut butter and butterscotch chips (a personal invention).

Primarily, though, there is the chocolate chip cookie. It is the one where I began. It is my mainstay recipe.

In the hard days of single-motherhood, I clung to tradition. I refused to settle for less than real vanilla extract.

I tweaked the recipe over the years. Switching from half margarine and half butter to all butter. From half granulated, half brown sugar to all dark brown sugar. The recipe is now my own.

As baseball was for Terence Mann in Field of Dreams, so the cookie has been a constant throughout my life. Cookie baking is thread in the quilt of my years. It connects seasons of anticipation, yearning, trial, fulfillment, and joy.

When I was a novice baker, my older brother was in the navy, out to sea in the Mediterranean. I sent him some cinnamon coated cut-out cookies. He told me that, if I ever shipped that recipe again, be sure to include a spoon.

Another year, I baked and baked and baked. And my other brother and his crowd of friends ate and ate and ate. My mother frowned at noon on Christmas Day as someone ate the last cookie.

Then I was a young wife experimenting with cookie recipes. Some fell off the list; others remained.

The year I had a new baby, my third. I learned that baking early and storing everything in the same container just makes all the cookies taste the same–none of which was good.

As a single mother, there was a year I hardly baked at all because money was so tight and time too pinched. A family unfriendly job provided little money and ate my time.

Then there have been years when Christmas cookies were on our table and in the mail to a son overseas. None were of the cinnamon crumbly type.

My mind can still return to the kitchen of my youth. Mother’s old cabinets that went from floor to ceiling. An old porcelain sink with its own drain board in the pantry. My Easy Bake Oven–miniature pies and cakes. The cinnamon cookies in a box of hope to please the recipient.

Mental snapshots of subsequent toddlers milling around my own tiny kitchen waiting to taste. Years flashing by in technicolor. Handfuls of hope and pleased chocolate-smeared faces.

What were once Tupperware containers in the freezer are now individual cookie trays for each household. A taste of memory from Mom to grace their tables, evoke their memories, and form new ones.

Trays of hope to please the recipients.

Sweet memories and happy baking as you anticipate the celebration of Christ’s birth!

Edited from December 22, 2016

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Holiday Anticipation

“The way my family anticipates Christmas feels different from the way we look forward to almost anything else. For other things, we’re excited about learning, seeing, or exploring something new. But Christmas is different. We look forward to it all year. We count down the days, just to experience it nearly exactly as we always have.” Joanna Gaines, Magnolia Journal, Issue 9~

Every year, the stores seem to decorate earlier. Santa arrives earlier. Online shopping decreased the hustle and bustle–at least in public. The early decorating seems to be a quest to set the mood–to draw buyers into stores.

Last year, the stores in my locale weren’t crowded. I shopped in the traditional way–but without the crowds. 

It was great. But I wonder if online shoppers felt like they were missing something–if something about their Christmas experience seemed incomplete. 

Last week–one week before Thanksgiving–we received 10.6 inches of snow. 

Thursday and Friday were snow days–closed schools with some businesses following suit. People stayed home and stayed inside except to clear their sidewalks and driveways. Those who had to went to work on Friday. But anyone who could did not venture far. 

Saturday was different. On Saturday, the snow had done its magic and there I was digging out Christmas music and lighting a balsalm fir candle. 

Then I went shopping (after extinguishing the candle) to discover the crowds had returned. Lines weren’t too bad. But traffic was heav.

The snow (and perhaps some early retail discounts) called us back to a time when shopping was an adventure requiring movement, planning, navigation, and socialization.  

The forecaster I married assures me the snow will be gone before Thursday and may not return for Christmas.

No matter. The weather has evoked memories of white days and glowing trees in years past. We are drawn to the season of peace–a respite from the world of bitter politics and bad news.

We anticipate, count the days, and wait. We work, buying, wrapping, cleaning, decorating, cooking, and baking to relive and recreate a day to carry with us through the year.

Our lives are threads tying generations together. Holidays are exclamations.

Proclaim God’s goodness. Happy Thanksgiving. 

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The Magic and Wonder of Traditions

The wonder of Christmas includes traditions we pass down to our children. We relay to the next generation what came down to us from previous generations. We tweak traditions to suit us. And our kids tweak them to fit their families.
My parents altered a Christmas custom when I was young. They changed midstream, even while I–and perhaps one of my brothers–still believed in Santa. In my very young years, Santa had not only brought all the presents, he also put up the tree. All on Christmas Eve.
It was magical. We went to bed with our house in its regular state. We woke up to glowing lights and presents that seemed to have materialized overnight. Continue reading “The Magic and Wonder of Traditions”

How Much is Enough?

[G]ive me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, Proverbs 30:8b. 
For five years, I was an English teacher at Grace Prep High School in State College, Pennsylvania.  Every year, the school participates in Air School—learning outside the classroom.  In 2009, Air School consisted of a long weekend in an Amish community in Virginia.
My husband Paul and I and three students stayed with an Amish family—mother, father, and their three remaining, as yet unmarried, children.  Seven other children had grown up, married, and established their own homes, so there was plenty of room for us.
No electrical lighting, no microwave, no television, no radio, (I-pods and phones were verboten to ensure the authentic experience), and no computers.  There was a propane powered hot water tank (Yay!) and we cooked on the woodstove (in May!).  We washed dishes by hand in the sink and dried them with a linen towel.  I tried to milk the goats. Continue reading “How Much is Enough?”