The Ghost of Christmas Past

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Yes, this is a totally unscheduled post. But I thought there might be a few of you out there who might be encouraged by this. Once in a great while I get inspired to write a little poetry. I certainly don’t claim to be a poet, but sometimes these things will just come to me and need to be written down. This year a song about Christmas Past stirred my heart. As you know, this has been quite a year of transition for me. I feel things deeply and so change comes hard for me. But as I have been processing my feelings about my new kind of Christmas (so quiet with just one college student who likes to sleep in on Christmas morning) I have realized that if we aren’t careful we can allow our thoughts about Christmas Past to cast a shadow on Christmas Present. And so this poem is for any of you who have had this same struggle with change–any type of change. While this is based on my own experience, I hope that it will turn your thoughts to your own Christmas Present and all that is good there. That it will encourage you to be present in Christmas Present with its joys and blessings. Because, all too soon, this Christmas Present will be Christmas Past.

The Ghost of Christmas Past

I hear the sounds of Christmas past
A giggle, a laugh, pure glee
And in my mind’s eye, I see them
The children around the tree

How can it be that time has flown
So quickly by for me
Sadness fills my heart sometimes
When the past is all I see

The Ghost of Christmas Past has come
And heartache comes with it
The children are all grown now
And life has changed quite a bit

But then a little voice I hear
And the past begins to blur
The present calls to me
And wakes me with a stir

I see him, this little grandchild
He is my Christmas Present
He calls me from my doldrums
Reminding me of all that’s pleasant

This little man will soon be grown
Christmas Future calls to him
But right now, here today
Our joy it will not dim

So I will enjoy Christmas Present by being present
In the here and now
Loving and rejoicing with those around me
Joy and peace upon my brow

 

Meeting Ella (Part 5)

An Unexpected Family

MeetingElla

This is the final part of this year’s Christmas story. I hope that you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it! I have included some author notes below, so hopefully you will take time to read them, as well. Merry Christmas!

PART 5

      The next morning, I was awakened by the little patter of feet. I lifted my head and saw Ella enter my room, carrying the Christmas storybook. Charlie lifted his head and wagged his tail against the comforter. (Against my better judgment, he had ended up on my bed last night. I just couldn’t resist those big brown eyes!)
      I had slept so much better than the night before but I wasn’t quite ready to get out of bed so I patted the spot beside me and told her to climb up next to me. She was soon snuggled in between Charlie and me, paging quietly through the book. I tried to close my eyes again, but the strangeness of having a little girl beside me kept me from sleep. In only a moment, I opened my eyes and sat up.
      “Are you hungry?” I asked.
      “Yes! Can you make pancakes?” She hopped out of bed with enthusiasm and started out the door, Charlie following close on her heels.
      I followed after her, trying to reconcile this bright, talkative girl with the somber, quiet one from last night. She obviously had started to feel comfortable around me.
      Suddenly, I realized that it was Christmas Eve. With everything going on, I had completely lost track of the days. I tried to think of a course of action for Ella. The first thing I knew I had to do was to find out if her mother was still alive, no matter what day it was.
      I made some pancakes and we ate them amidst her happy chatter. After breakfast, I sent Ella up to get dressed. Meanwhile, I pulled out my laptop and tried to locate Melanie. Ella had told me that her last name was Erikson. Putting “Melanie Erikson” into the Google search box, I found a home address as well as a short article about a charity project she was part of at a Baptist church in her town. I called the church, not really expecting an answer because of the holiday but was pleasantly surprised when the pastor picked up with a warm greeting. As I explained to him what had happened, he listened quietly and then told me that Melanie was in a local hospice facility and didn’t have very long to live. And then he said sadly that when he had stopped by to visit Melanie yesterday, she was in terrible sorrow over not knowing if Ella was ok. She was heartbroken over not being able to say one final good-bye. He was amazed that I was calling so shortly after he had had this conversation with her, as he had been praying just this morning about finding Ella for Melanie.
      I knew what I had to do. I thanked him for the information and turned to Ella, who was now dressed and quietly playing on the floor with Charlie.
      The living room, with the twinkling tree lights and the cozy fire, set a nice atmosphere for us to talk about her mom. Ella, her arm around Charlie, listened intently as I explained that her mother was growing sicker every day but that she had changed her mind and really longed to say good-bye to her. Could she be brave and strong?
      Ella’s face grew pale but she sat up a little straighter and her eyes brightened at the prospect of seeing her mother, “When do we go? And what happens after that? Can I stay here with you?”
      I knew that question was going to come and I had thought of little else since I had found Ella the evening before. I had decided that if Ella wanted to stay with me and if her mother was in agreement, I would offer her a home with me here at the farm house. This was a big part of my reason for finding Melanie. I knew that Ella would be thrown into the state foster system if I couldn’t get some kind of signed, legal document from her mother.
      “Ella, would you like to stay here and live with me at the farm house?”
      “Oh, yes! Please!” Only three little words, but the passion in her little heart glistened through her amazing blue eyes.
      “Okay, then. I would love to have you here with me. Let’s see if we can make that happen,” I smiled at her as the ramifications of what I had just said filled my head. Instant motherhood. Was I really ready for this? But I knew I had to take care of this dear little cousin of mine. She had no one else in the world. And then it dawned on me—neither did I. We were perfectly suited for one another.
      I put Charlie in his crate and we started out. Ella was mostly quiet on the drive, probably thinking about her mother. In a little over an hour, we were pulling into the parking lot that stood in front of a pretty stone building with wreaths in the windows.
      A kind lady directed us to Melanie’s room and we were soon at her door. I took a deep breath and knocked.
      “Melanie? Are you up for visitors?” I hesitantly pushed the door open.
      I am not sure what I was expecting but it wasn’t this shell of a woman who looked like she weighed less than 90 pounds.
      I could see the question in her eyes and then she saw Ella. Her eyes, dull and lifeless a second before, suddenly lit up the whole room.
      “Ella? Is that my baby? Am I dreaming?”
      Ella walked over to her mom and leaned over to gently kiss her.
      “No, Melanie, you aren’t dreaming. Ella is here to say good-bye.”
      “Oh, my baby, my baby,” Melanie moaned, “I can’t believe you are here. I didn’t want you to see me like this, but I am so glad you are here.”
      I quietly moved back to a dark corner of the room to let them have a few moments alone.
      They talked in low tones for a while and then I heard Melanie, with a desperate note in her voice, ask, “Ella, are you okay?”
      “Yes, mom, I am fine. Libby is taking good care of me.” I was so glad that she didn’t expand on all she had been through.
      “Who is Libby? Where is your grandmother?” The question was expected and I stepped up to explain.
      “Melanie, I am Libby,” I introduced myself and then continued, “I am Ella’s cousin. Gus was my mom’s brother and my uncle. Our grandmother died a few months ago and, of course, you didn’t know that. But no need to worry, I can care for Ella. Would that be okay?”
      I recognized even as I spoke what a vulnerable place Melanie was in. She didn’t know me at all. She didn’t know if I was telling the truth. She was literally putting her daughter in the hands of a stranger. And she didn’t have the strength or the resources to even check my story. With this in mind, I gently held Melanie’s hand and looked her in the eye.
      “Melanie, I promise to love Ella as my own. I know you don’t know me but I want to assure you that you can trust me. I will care for her.”
      I saw two tears make a path down Melanie’s cheek and then she breathed out words I wasn’t expecting.
      “I have regretted my decision to drop off Ella every minute since I left her. I knew her grandmother would take care of her–I had no doubts about that—but I should have stayed. I should have asked. I wasn’t thinking. I was scared. I couldn’t think beyond the pain and desperation.”
      “It’s okay. You don’t have to explain,” I could see how difficult this was for her, both physically and emotionally. Every word seemed laborious. But she continued.
      “No, let me finish. Now, as I approach the end, I mostly sleep. But any moment I am awake, I have prayed, begging the Lord to assure me that my baby will be okay. You are the answer to that prayer. I am sure of it. I know that God has sent you here with Ella as an answer to my prayer. And I am so grateful.”
      Right at that moment, I was in awe over God’s sovereign plan for all of us. I knew God would work out every detail somehow. But I also knew that I had something that had to be done.
      “Melanie, do you feel well enough to sign a letter that would give me custody of Ella?”
      “Yes, yes, of course, it must be done,” she struggled to sit up.
      “No, no, not yet. I am going to go call a friend of mine. Ella will stay here with you and visit. I’ll be back.”
      I went out to the nurses station and asked for paper and a pen and then lost no time in calling Kate.       Mrs. Miller had only said that Kate was in grad school, but Kate told me yesterday that she was actually in law school. She had laughingly said her Grandma could never remember that. I knew she could help me.
      Soon I had a letter drafted that would hopefully hold up in court. Melanie gladly signed it and, with tears streaming down her face, said her final good-bye to Ella. I offered to bring Ella back for another visit but she lifted a weak hand in protest and said, “I won’t be here much longer now. I’m going home soon.”
      As we prepared to leave, she reached for my hand and said the words I will never forget, “Thank you, Libby, for taking care of my little girl. Please teach her to love Jesus with all of her heart.” And then she dropped her hand, exhausted, and closed her eyes. I could see she was spent. We probably had stayed too long. We were all crying but Ella was sobbing almost uncontrollably. I put my arm around her as we slowly walked away. I am not sure I have ever done anything so hard as leave that room.
      I asked a nurse to check on Melanie as we left, letting them know that she may be upset. The nurse smiled and told us that we were the best medicine she could have ever had. Apparently the nursing staff knew her story and had been praying, as well, for a miracle. One nurse had even started a search for Ella and had planned a trip to our town tomorrow in order to find her.
      It was pretty amazing to be part of a miracle.

      A few hours later, Ella and I were sitting alongside the Millers in a church pew. I think we both were overwhelmed at the changes in our lives over the past few days. There was so much to take in. Both mourning and joy were part of what we were feeling. All that we had lost was competing with the newfound joy of having found each other. What a Christmas! As the congregation started to sing “Joy to the World”, I grabbed Ella’s hand and squeezed it. She looked at me with a bright smile and I knew we would both be okay. We had both found a family this Christmas. An unexpected little family that we both had needed so desperately. God had taken such special care of both of us and I knew He would continue to do so. I moved my thoughts back to the service and joined the singing with gusto. Joy to the world, the Lord is Come!

 

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Author Notes:  I started this story without knowing the ending. I spent what felt like hours trying to come up with a plausible plot. Finally, one day, I shared my dilemma with my mom and she helped me sort through it all. I want to publicly thank my mom for her help!

Also, I want to talk a bit about the spiritual lessons of this story. In some ways, I struggled because I know that in real life, the knots and bumps of our own stories don’t always work out so neatly. Sometimes–ofttimes–there is no happy ending. But, on the other hand, sometimes we watch God work things out in ways that are far beyond anything we could have ever dreamed. It was my hope to remind you that we serve a big God and He does sometimes work things out in amazing ways. But, more importantly, I wanted to remind you of two things–

1. We were lost and alone, without hope, and God made a way for us to be reconciled to Him. Like Libby giving Ella a home, God took in the poor orphan (me!) and gave me a home–a citizenship in heaven. I found safety, security, and rest in Him. If you aren’t saved, I hope that this story may be used to encourage you to read the Bible and find out more about the God who loves you so much that He sent His Son to die for you so that you, too, might know that you are eternally safe and secure in God’s sovereign hands.

2. And I hope that this story encourages you to open your heart to whomever God puts in your path. There are so many lost and lonely people in this world. Let’s be encouragers! Sometimes that means giving them a home for a few months and sometimes that just means giving them a warm smile. But let’s open our eyes and intentionally reach out to the lost and lonely this year. They are everywhere, waiting to be noticed.

Thank you so much for reading this story. I hope that it was a joy to you this Christmas. Enjoy the holidays!

p.s. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments about this year’s story! Comment below or email me at leslie {at} growing4life {dot} net.

This Little Light of Mine

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Do you remember singing “This Little Light of Mine” as a child? Perhaps you still sing it with your own kids or grandkids. I love watching toddlers sing this song. Seeing them hold their chubby little finger up and blow on it during the verse “Don’t let Satan blow it out” is a delightful thing to watch.

But have you ever thought just how profound the words are in this children’s song?

This little light of mine
I’m going to let it shine

Hide it under a bushel? No!
I’m going to let it shine

Don’t let Satan blow it out
I’m going to let it shine

Shine it all over {your town}
I’m going to let it shine

Let it shine ’til Jesus comes
I’m going to let it shine

Even though this song is simple, it shares a message that we should all heed, no matter how old we are.  John MacArthur says this–

In 2 Corinthians 4:6, Paul says God who first ordered the light to shine in the darkness has flooded our hearts with His light. We can now enlighten men by giving them the knowledge of God’s glory that comes through the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are lights. We are children of light. *

There are several scripture passages that refer to believers as light. We see that Jesus tells us we are the light of the world (Matthew 5:14) and that Paul and Barnabas were called to be a light for the Gentiles (Acts 13:47). In Romans 13:14 we read that we are to put on our armor of light. Paul tells us to walk as children of light in Ephesians 5:8. There are more.

We are children of light.

So what does this mean, practically speaking?

If we look at the song verses individually, we can gain some insight–

1. This little light of mine. First we must recognize that we are just a little light. In actuality, we are just a reflection of God’s much greater light. We must stay humble and remember that God doesn’t need me or you to accomplish His purposes. We are not the origin of the light. We can do nothing without Him.

2. Hide it under a bushel? No! A hidden light is a useless light. If we aren’t willing to stand for Jesus Christ and His Word, we become ineffective as a witness for God. When we hide our lights, we meld in with the world and make no eternal difference at all in the lives of others.

3. Don’t let Satan blow it out. Satan would like nothing better than to render you ineffective for God’s Kingdom. Once saved, we are eternally saved. But He can–and does–do things that keep us tied up and fruitless. Some of the things that come to mind are distracting us with worldly things, deceiving us with false doctrine, convincing us that busyness is the same as holiness, encouraging us to be fearful and anxious… and so many more. Satan has many different tactics he uses to keep a Christian from furthering God’s Kingdom.

4. Shine it everywhere. There is no where that the light of Jesus can’t go. His light–the light that we are reflecting–shines even brighter in the darkness. As believers, we are called to shine that light in every and all situations and places. No exceptions.

5. Let it shine ’til Jesus comes. Our lights are to shine for Jesus forever. We take no breaks from being a light. Until we are called home or Jesus returns to take us home, we are to shine.

Being light should encompass every area of our life. Think about this in light of your upcoming week. Most of us will meet with family and friends over the holidays. It is important to ask ourselves if we are shining our light or hiding our light. To ask if we are encouraging people to walk more closely with Christ or to move away from Christ.  F.B. Meyer puts this better than I ever could–

These thoughts press on one’s heart that one can never speak a word, never transact a piece of business that one’s face is never seen lighted up with the radiance of God or clouded and despondent without it being made harder or easier for other men to live a good life.  Every one of us every day resembles Jeroboam the son of Nebat who made other men sin, or we are lifting other men into the light and the peace and the joy of God.  No man liveth to himself and no man dieth to himself, but the life of everyone is telling upon an increasing number of mankind what a solemn responsibility it is to live.

So as we enjoy (or dread, depending upon your circumstances) our upcoming festivities may we remember that we must shine our little light. May we shine with gusto, exhibiting the fruits of the Spirit. May we have courage to speak truth with great love. May we be the peacemakers and the joy-bringers. Bringing the light of God anywhere we go so that we are encouraging and inspiring those around us to be transformed by God’s power.

I will close with this from John MacArthur–

You are light. You have been called to light the dark world. And the quality of your life is the platform of your personal testimony. You have to understand that. By the kind of life you live, you build a platform on which what you say is made believable. If you have no platform because of your life, your message isn’t believable. And a murmuring discontent, grumbling, griping, complaining Christian is never going to have a positive influence on others. You can’t be talking about the gospel, forgiveness, joy, peace, gladness, comfort, and be moaning and grumbling and complaining all the time. People are not going to believe the gospel will do what you’re trying to say it will do. That’s why the philosopher Heine in Germany said, “Show me your redeemed lives and I might be inclined to believe in your Redeemer.”

Amen! Jesus came as a baby to bring light to the world. We are a reflection of that light! May we shine brightly everywhere we go!

 

*Both of these quotes are from the sermon Stop Complaining, Part 2. I highly recommend both parts!

 

Christmas Wreaths (9)

PLEASE NOTE:

Tomorrow I will present the final part of this year’s Christmas story, “Meeting Ella”. And then next week I will present the 2018 Bible Reading Challenge. I will go back to regular posts on January 4th. Wishing you a wonderful Christmas and a blessed New Year! Thank you for being a reader this past year. It means more than you know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meeting Ella (Part 4)

Ella's Story

MeetingElla

On the Monday after Thanksgiving I presented Part 1 of this year’s Christmas Story, “Meeting Ella”. Look for the final installment (Part 5) of this story in a special post on Friday. Today, I present Part Four–

      Ella sniffed a bit and then stared at me with her bright blue eyes. I felt completely out of my element. I had little experience with children and even less experience with such unexpected happenings like this. I gave her hand another warm squeeze and then dropped it and told her to follow me upstairs. Soon she was sitting at the table with a cup of hot cocoa and some of Mrs. Miller’s cookies.
      “So, Ella, how did you happen to choose my house to visit?” It seemed like a silly question but I didn’t even know what else to ask. I didn’t want to be too blunt, but I have to admit that curiosity was just about killing me by now. And she was so quiet. This did not look like it was going to be easy.
      Should I call someone to help me? Should I take her somewhere? What does one do in a situation like this? I told myself to just relax and give her a moment.
      She sat there a few more minutes, drinking cocoa and petting Charlie.
      “What’s his name?” she finally asked, ignoring my question.
      “His name is Charlie. It suits him, I think. Do you agree?”
      She soberly nodded and went back to her cocoa.
      “So how did you get here, Ella?” I tried again.
      With a catch in her throat, she started. She finally seemed ready to share and, with a few questions from me, she told me her whole story. She had grown up with her single mom, Melanie, in a little town about an hour away. When Melanie had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, she had finally shared the story of Ella’s father. She had told Ella how she had been lonely and sad, working in the office of a local mechanic. Thoughts of marriage had long since departed and her life was unexciting. One day, a handsome, older man had come to have his pick-up truck serviced. The two had hit it off immediately and were soon spending lots of time together.
      Marriage was promised and so Melanie had let her guard down and soon became pregnant. But before she could let the man know he was going to be a father, he had disappeared out of her life, making it clear that it was over. She had resigned herself to her new life as a single mom and had made the best of it. Little Ella had filled Melanie’s life with love and sunshine, despite the circumstances of her birth. Melanie had always hoped deep down inside that the man would return and they could be a family but then a few years ago she had found out that the man had died. Melanie had cried when she told that part of the story to Ella and then had grown very serious as she had explained that she was not going to recover from her illness and Ella was going to need someone else to care for her. And, although Ella’s father was no longer living, his mother—Ella’s grandmother—was still alive and residing in a great big farmhouse all by herself.
      Melanie, feeling alone and desperate, told Ella she was going to take her to her grandmother’s house to live. She had met the woman a couple of times and she was quite confident that this was the best and safest place for Ella. Uncertain of what welcome she would receive as the mother of Gus’s illegitimate child, Melanie had decided to carefully draft a note of explanation and had tucked it in an envelope along with Ella’s birth certificate. Trying to spare her daughter the horror of watching her mother die and assuring her that her grandmother would be overjoyed to have her there, she had given Ella the envelope and simply dropped her off at the farm one Tuesday, without even so much as a knock on the door and drove away.
      Unbeknownst to Melanie, Hattie Barnwell had passed away several months earlier and so Ella had been greeted by an empty house rather than the warm hug of her grandmother. Not quite knowing what to do, she had walked around the house until she had found the open basement window. She had climbed in and had been eating from Gram’s full pantry and sleeping in the tiny sewing room ever since. From what I could gather, Ella had arrived only three or four days before I did.
      She was finished and expecting my response. I was still reeling from the fact that Gus had a child he had never met. Serious and shy Uncle Gus. It just didn’t seem possible. But Ella’s eyes were all the proof I needed. There was no doubt that she had Uncle Gus’s distinct, cobalt blue eyes. How did I not notice how much she looks like him?
      “So I guess we are cousins!” I said, trying to inflect a happy tone into my voice in the midst of my bewilderment.
      She gave me a tired, tentative smile.
      “Well, there isn’t much we can do about this situation tonight, so how about I tuck you into bed?” I gave her a warm smile as I tried to remember something about little girls and bedtimes. The only thing I could recall is that Gram had always read to me. Was Ella too old to enjoy a story? It couldn’t hurt to ask. “Would you like me to read you a bedtime story? I am sure Gram has some storybooks around here somewhere,” her eyes lit up at these words as she nodded her head.
      An hour later, she was sound asleep, her blond hair fanned out against the pillow and a fisted hand next to her cheek. I was completely unprepared for the maternal feelings that had welled up in me as I had helped this small, defenseless girl prepare for bed. Snuggling together while reading to her from the red-covered book of Christmas stories had given me unexpected joy and pleasure. I had never even thought about children before. I had alway been driven by my career.
      As soon as I walked into my bedroom, I realized that my blankets were still outside on the wash line. I sighed and turned to Charlie, “Come on, boy, we have one last thing to do before we can go to bed tonight.”
      Charlie wagged his tail and followed me.
      “You know, it’s been quite a day for you, hasn’t it, boy? Lots of adventure. I can promise you that every day won’t be like this one,” I leaned down and petted his head as we walked out into the beautiful night together to pull the blankets from the line. Gram’s light spring jacket that I had grabbed from the hook in the mud room wasn’t keeping me very warm against the chill in the air, but I had to stop for just a moment to look at the stars, twinkling and shining in the black sky. You sure didn’t see such a sight in the city. There were far too many man-made lights for that.
      “What do you think, Charlie? Maybe this is where we are supposed to stay for good,” I stood there praying for a few moments, asking the Lord to give me direction and wisdom, not only for my uncertain and murky future, but maybe even more importantly for the future of the sweet little girl that had literally been dropped in my lap.
      “Please show me what to do,” I whispered.
      Grabbing the blankets, I headed inside.

Find the beginning of this story here.

Meeting Ella (Part 3)

Charlie

MeetingElla

This is the third installment in this season’s Christmas story. Hope you are enjoying it!

      Morning came far too quickly after my restless night. Dragging myself out of bed, I got ready for the day and then made myself some toast. Last night’s events played through my mind as I ate my breakfast and, thankfully, my fears were considerably diminished in the bright morning sunshine. Of course, houses make strange noises—especially hundred year old farm houses. I would just have to get used to it.
      Perhaps a dog would help. It was so disconcerting being in this house completely alone—especially at night. I put my dishes in the sink and grabbed my coat, excited for today’s adventure.
      The first stop was the local Walmart to buy some pet supplies. The brightly colored collars and leashes drew my eye. I picked out a medium-sized, green polka-dotted collar, with a leash to match. That seemed to be the safest selection, as it could be used for a male or female medium-sized dog. My cart was soon loaded with dog food, dog treats, bowls, pet shampoo, and a big, over-sized dog bed. I walked by the crates and realized that this was probably going to be a necessity, as well. Who knew how well-behaved this dog would be? And so a medium-sized crate went in on top of everything else. I carefully wheeled my cart to the front and through the checkout. I watched as the the items began to add up to an exorbitant amount. Shopping sprees like this would have to be extremely rare these next few months.
      A half hour later, I was walking through the concrete hallways of the local shelter. There was certainly no dearth of dogs from which to choose. There were big ones and small ones, ferocious ones and friendly ones. How would I ever choose just one? And then I saw him. He sat calmly in the corner of his cage but as I approached his tail started wagging fiercely. He greeted me like a perfect gentleman—happily but without that over-the-top excitement that some dogs have. Short brown hair with a small white patch on his chest and medium-sized, I knew he was just right for me. His name was Charlie and it suited him perfectly. Charlie it was.
      Soon all of the paperwork was signed, the small fee was paid, and we were on our way home. Charlie was amazing right from the start. He sat quietly in the car looking out the window.
      As the car pulled into the driveway, Charlie’s tail started wagging as if to say “What an adventure!” He hopped out and excitedly started to explore his new home. He followed me into the house and happily continued his exploration. Finally, he flopped down beside me in the kitchen to watch me prepare my lunch. His brown, soulful eyes silently asked me to share.
      “Oh, alright!” I laughed as I threw a bit of cheese down to him.
      After lunch, I decided to decorate for Christmas. Sure, only Charlie and I would really appreciate it, but somehow it just felt like the right thing to do. And so, turning the switch on at the bottom of the steps, up to the attic I went. Charlie followed me up the narrow stairway, sniffing all the way. It was clear that he was overjoyed with his newfound freedom. I found the Christmas decorations in the back right corner of the attic, just where I had put them last year and the year before that and, well, for forever. There were boxes upon boxes. Gram sure had loved Christmas.
      I opened the first box and found the tree decorations. I pushed that box towards the staircase. The second held Christmas-themed linens and tablecloths. Deeming them unnecessary, at least for this Christmas season, I pushed that one to the side. Continuing on in this manner for another thirty minutes, six boxes were soon waiting at the top of the stairs.
      One by one, I lifted them and carried them downstairs to the dining room, almost tripping over Charlie a few times as he followed on my heels. But he was such a welcome addition to the house that I just couldn’t grow angry with him so I just laughed and gently scolded him.
      After all of the boxes were down, I made myself a cup of coffee and decided to sit down for a few minutes. My rough night soon caught up with me and I found myself dozing off. At least, until Charlie started barking at the sound of the doorbell. Who could that be? I peeked out the front window. Mrs. Miller stood there smiling, holding a candy-cane striped tin. Beside her stood a young woman with brown hair wearing a navy pea coat.
      Opening the door, I welcomed them inside.
      “Hello, dear! I hope we aren’t bothering you. I just couldn’t wait for you to meet my granddaughter. Katie, this is Libby. Libby, Kate. I am just sure you two will get along fabulously,” She gestured from one to the other as we gave each other tentative—and rather awkward—smiles.
      And then she continued, “And I just happened to do some baking this morning, so we brought some cookies along. They are the peanut butter kind with the Hershey Kisses on top. They are Jim’s favorite,” She winked as she handed me the tin and then started to look around, “Oh, so many memories here. We used to come and play games with your Grandma. I sure do miss her.”
      And then she spotted the boxes of decorations in the dining room, “Oh! Did we interrupt you?”
      “Well, I actually didn’t get very far yet,” I glanced at my watch and saw that it was already 3:30pm, “I will do what I can today and then finish tomorrow. There’s really no big hurry. Can I get you some coffee?”
      I saw Mrs. Miller turn to Katie and ask her a question before she turned back to me with a surprising question, “Libby, darling, could Katie and I help you decorate? We’d love to help and, besides, decorating by yourself is really not near as much fun as decorating with friends!” (She had such a warm and rather loud enthusiasm as she said this), “Kate assured me that she has a few spare hours. So why don’t you go make coffee and put on some Christmas music and we will have ourselves a wonderful time. What do you say?”
      Truth be told, I really wanted to decorate alone. I wanted to take my time going through the old, familiar things and I wanted to be able to cry if I felt like crying. But Mrs. Miller was a force to be reckoned with and so, hiding my disappointment, I pasted on a smile and told her I’d love to have their help. I put on some Christmas music and then went to the kitchen and made three cups of hot coffee and put a few of the cookies from the tin on a plate. Charlie quietly stared at me and rubbed his nose on my legs as if to tell me he understood and was sorry for how things had turned out.
      But, surprisingly, the next three hours flew by in a flurry of activity and merriment. First, we set up and decorated Gram’s three artificial trees–The old-fashioned one in the living room; the formal one, bedecked with gold and silver, in the dining room; and the smallest one, decorated with simple bows and silk poinsettias, in the foyer. Next, we filled the banisters and mantel with green garland, white lights, gold stars, and tiny crocheted angels. I pulled Gram’s collection of porcelain angels from their careful wrapping and set them around on every possible surface. Finally, we worked outside to put the garland and lights around the door. Kate had even helped me pull Uncle Gus’s manger scene out of the old shed. I stood back with a great sense of satisfaction. Mrs. Miller was right—it had been so much more fun to accomplish this with friends.
      Throughout the whole afternoon, Mrs. Miller was so wonderful—both sharing snippets about Gram and also letting me reflect in silence at times. And she was right about Kate and me. We hit it off immediately—like we had been friends our whole lives.
      As I waved good-bye to them, I smiled, so thankful for them. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad here, after all. Kate and I had already made plans to go Christmas shopping together. It was as I stood with my back against the door, thanking the Lord for His kind mercies to me, that I spotted it.
      I squinted to be sure I saw it correctly. Under the dining room table was a small red mitten.
      Where had that come from?  It had definitely not been there when I vacuumed yesterday.
      Picking it up and turning it over, I saw that it was a little girl’s left mitten.
      Startled, I began to suspect that the owner of the mitten and the owner of the purple sweater upstairs were probably the same little girl. And now I was beginning to wonder if the little owner might be in this house. That feeling of not being alone yesterday came to my mind. And, too, the odd open window last night. On a sudden hunch, I ran up the stairs to Gram’s sewing room.
      I was right. The purple sweater was gone and the rumpled covers on the bed were pulled up towards the pillow as if someone had tried to make it in a hurry. It became clear that I was not alone in this house.
      As I stood there for a few moments wondering what to do, Charlie was wildly sniffing around the room, as if to confirm my suspicions.
      My tummy growled, reminding me that it was long past dinnertime. I prepared a ham and cheese sandwich and put it on a plate with a handful of potato chips, all the while my ears listening for any possible sound. She had to be around here somewhere.
      After dinner, I decided to go on an all-out hunt for this little person. I checked in closets, under beds, and behind dressers. Overcoming my fear, I looked in both the cellar and the attic, moving boxes and crates. I couldn’t find anything. I didn’t even see any more clues that would verify her existence. Perhaps I was just dreaming this all up. I remembered Mrs. Miller saying she taught Sunday School. Perhaps she had had the mitten in her coat pocket for some reason, I rationalized.
      Feeling rather silly, I sat back down into the comfortable blue chair and turned on the TV. Soon I was engrossed in Christmas in Connecticut and forgot about my musings and speculations.
      That is until Charlie started barking like crazy.
      “Charlie! Stop!” Maybe a dog wasn’t such a good idea, after all. It was a little frightening to have a dog madly barking in an old house and having no idea why. I grabbed his collar and looked him the eye, “Stop!”
      He didn’t listen to me. In fact, he wriggled out of my grasp and ran to the cellar steps, growling and barking all the way.
      I opened the door and he rushed past me, down into the darkness. Flipping the switch, I saw that the basement window was open once again. How had that happened?
      And then I saw her. Standing at the bottom of the steps. She looked to be around nine. Soft, wheat-colored hair and pale skin. She had on a red wool coat that was stained and ripped at the hem and one red mitten. Tears welled up in her startlingly blue eyes as Charlie rushed at her.
      “Aw, honey, don’t cry,” I shushed Charlie away and then sat down on the steps, helplessly uncertain as to what to do. A million questions danced through my mind, begging to be answered all at once.
      I grabbed the girl’s cold, mittenless left hand and gave it a warm squeeze, before softly asking, “What’s your name?”
      She took her mittened hand and rubbed it across her face to remove the tears that had started a quiet trail down her cheeks. She took a deep breath and then said faintly, “I’m Ella.”
      Ella. So this was who I had been sharing my house with for the past couple of days.

Find Part 4 of this story here.

Serving All, All the Time

Serving All

This is the time of year that we focus on giving. Much of the giving is focused on children. We fill shoe boxes and purchase toys to give to local charities. It is rewarding to watch our children’s excitement as they walk with us through the store and help to pick out toys and toothbrushes and socks for children across the world or in their own neighborhood. It is truly a wonderful opportunity to touch the world with the love of Christ.

Giving to children is so special. There is something especially delightful about it. And Christmastime is such a fun time to give. There are so many different opportunities available that it doesn’t take much work for us to be part of something greater than ourselves. Perhaps we should use this time of year as a catalyst for change– a change that yields a life that intentionally gives and serves all year long.

There are some things to consider as we evaluate our lifestyle of service.

Children are wonderful, but there are so many elderly people who have no family to visit them. They sit, sad and lonely, throughout the year, wondering if anybody cares. Do they have the same value as a child? We would answer of course because we know that is the “right” answer but do we live it out by our actions?

And do we give all year long or do we only serve and give during this one little window of time during the year? Are we practicing a life of service all year long or do we live a life of self-absorption that disappears for a short time at Christmastime?

Time goes so fast. We will be back to our normal routine again before we know it. This holiday season seems a good time to consider our patterns of giving and serving.

Many people have set examples for me in this area of serving others throughout the year, but one example that made an impact on me was something my mother-in-law did when I was a young mother. She would take my kids along with her to the local nursing home to visit a few of the elderly from our church. As a pastor’s wife, it was a way she could bring a little sunshine and joy to their lives. At the time, I didn’t realize just what a service of love this was. Most older people love kids. As I watched her set this good example and as I grew braver and more mature, I hesitantly decided to try it myself. I say “braver”, because my greatest fear was that I wouldn’t know what to say.

So one day I gathered my children and we set off in our minivan. How do you talk to an elderly person that you don’t really know? But what I found was that, especially with kids along, there is rarely an awkward moment. I figured out how to ask lots of questions and we would learn so much about the past. (The incredible upside of this is that so many of these older people have so much to teach us. If we will just take the time, we can learn so much.)

But this post is not just about giving of ourselves to elderly people. Are we serving and encouraging our pastors, and other church members such as the single parents, the downcast and depressed, the sick and weary, and those who are struggling financially? These should all be on our radar throughout the whole year.

There are many ways we can encourage, serve, and build them up. We can do this by sending a card or an email. We can do this by babysitting; providing meals, if needed; by just sitting and talking after church instead of rushing out the door. And, of course, we can do this by praying for them. There are many more ways we can love and serve others.

One of the things I try to do is to think about what I would want someone to do for me if I were in their situation. And you know what? Sometimes I am the one who needs encouraged. Sometimes I need to be the recipient of the love and service of my church family. I have been there, too. And this may be one of the best things about being part of a church family–the love and care we take of each other. Learning to receive gracefully and gratefully is a topic for another post.

As I write this, I can see how I have failed in this area of serving others in such a big way. I can be so blind. I often find myself so caught up in my own agenda that I lose sight of those who need to be encouraged, built up, and supported.

But scripture continues to prod me (and hopefully you, too!) into a holier and more obedient life that is filled with love for others. I Peter 4:10-11 exhorts us to serve one another–

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: 11 whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

I John 4:7-8 exhorts us to love one another–

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.

And I Thessalonians 5:11 exhorts us to encourage one another–

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.

These passages are particularly referring to the Church. This is our first priority–serving other Christian brothers and sisters, loving and taking care of each other in a way that unifies the church and causes the world to step back and wonder what we have that they don’t have.

Scripture will not let us go. It continues to draw us to a more mature faith, showing us how we fail and where we need to grow. Christmas season is a great time to evaluate our life of service.

May we broaden our horizons and see that needs abound across all classes, races, and ages of people. May we never miss an opportunity to share the Gospel as we give to those that don’t know Christ. And may we be especially sensitive to the needs of our Christian brothers and sisters both here and across the world as we faithfully serve and give throughout the whole year!

 

 

Meeting Ella (Part 2)

Noises in the Night

MeetingElla

This is the second installment in this year’s Christmas Story. Hope you enjoy it! (If you’d like to read Part 1, you can find it here.)

      By 7pm, the big house was feeling a bit more like my old home. I had even dusted and swept. I sighed with contentment. The fond memories of this place filled me with a peace I hadn’t known for quite some time. Of course, there was a big empty hole without Gram here. And something else was missing, too. What was it?
      I walked through the house and made my way to the living room. Spotting the braided rug in front of the hearth, it came to me. It was Snoopy. It was just not the same here without the little black dog that used to follow me around everywhere I went.
      With the flip of a switch a fire came to life in the fireplace insert Uncle Gus and I had talked Gram into buying awhile back. The comfortable overstuffed blue chair by the stone hearth was the perfect place to do a little day dreaming. I allowed my mind to travel back in time to that moment when Gram had finally allowed me to get a dog. Driving to the local shelter and giddy with excitement, I had found the happiest puppy there and named him Snoopy–after my favorite cartoon dog. From the beginning, our relationship was special. We became fast friends and were inseparable. I was heart broken when he died during my freshman year of college. I had longed for another dog ever since, but apartment living and a demanding job just didn’t make it possible. Of course, all that had changed now.
      Wait! Yes, all that had changed! What was holding me back? I grew excited as I considered the prospect of owning a dog again. In fact, I could feasibly go back to that same shelter and find a new dog. What quicker way was there to shoo away the loneliness of this house than with a new canine friend? Tomorrow grew into an exciting adventure as I pondered this idea.
      I was jolted back to reality as my mind turned to my job situation. That was of grave concern. I didn’t need to worry about it for a few months but those months would go by fast. I shook my head, as if to free it of the troublesome thoughts and grabbed my keys. That problem would have to wait until tomorrow as I had a much more important priority currently–a grumbling belly that was urging me to eat.
      I drove into town and pulled into Martha’s Diner. As I munched on a hamburger and fries, I looked around, hoping to see a familiar face but saw not a one. It had been over ten years since I had lived in the area. Things do change.
      Feeling rather lonely and out-of-place, I pulled out my iPhone and started scrolling through Facebook. The happy faces of my city friends provided a sobering reminder of all that I had given up. Photos of adorable children and beautifully decorated homes reminded me that I didn’t fit in with my married friends, either. In fact, I didn’t really fit into any world at the moment. It was rather disconcerting.
“Libby? Libby Barnwell?”
      I glanced up to see a smiling, older couple staring at me.
      “Mr. and Mrs. Miller? How nice to see you,” I gave the older lady a warm hug and then turned to Mr. Miller to shake his hand, but, he, too, pulled me into a big hug. This couple, dear friends of my Gram, provided just the dose of encouragement I needed. We chatted for several minutes about life and change and then they made me promise that I would be at church on Sunday.
      “We will save you a seat, dear. We always sit about six rows back on the right and will look for you. And please plan on having lunch with us afterward. Our granddaughter, Katie, is living with us currently and I think you two would really get along. Don’t you think so, Jim? She’s in grad school at the local university so she is living with us for awhile,” said Mrs. Miller. And then with one final hug, they walked out of the diner.
      Thank you, Lord. Thank you for bringing a familiar face. That was exactly what I needed.
      I had one last cup of coffee and then paid my bill. Glancing at my watch, I saw that I had time to run by the grocery store to pick up a few things. My trip to the store didn’t take very long and soon I was back at home unloading my car in the bitter wind. Dropping the last bag on the table and locking the door behind me, I reached up to feel my cold cheeks. Winter had certainly arrived.
      I quickly put everything away and then checked the clock above the sink. Only 9:30pm. The sound of the wind drew me to take refuge in my comfortable, childhood bed and so, grabbing a book from my backpack, I made my way upstairs and got ready for bed. I snuggled down into the blankets and down comforter and then sniffed. These would definitely need a good airing tomorrow.
      Engrossed in my book a few minutes later, I froze when, suddenly, I heard a creak coming from the direction of the stairs.
      I strained to hear anything further, but nothing came. After what seemed like hours (but was probably only a few minutes), I returned to my book. Wait! There it was again! Someone was definitely in this house. I immediately realized my vulnerable situation. No weapons. No friends. No family. I was quite defenseless. I didn’t even know a phone number of a neighbor, for goodness’ sake.
      I started to panic. I tried to calm myself by remembering that old houses make noises. It was windy tonight. It was probably the wind.
      It was just the wind.
      I lay there for a few more minutes but couldn’t shake the idea that someone was in the house. I decided to go check. Anything was better than laying in my bed paralyzed in fear. I glanced around for some kind of weapon. The only thing I spotted was a small glass candlestick on the dresser. I picked it up and held it in front of me with one hand and opened the door with the other. I must have made quite a site, me tiptoeing quietly across the room in my snowflake print pajamas, polka-dot slippers, and carrying a glass candlestick as my only mode of protection against who knew what?
      I peeked out of my room and looked both ways. Nothing. I cautiously stepped out into the hallway. I crept down the stairs and explored the first level. It didn’t seem as if anything had been disturbed. I hesitated at the cellar door. Even in the daytime, I hated the cellar. But I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I didn’t check it out and so I opened the door, switched on the light, and started down the steps. Halfway down the L-shaped steps was a window that stood wide open. Each gust of wind would cause it to move and creak just a bit.
      An open window would definitely cause strange noises on a windy night. I sighed with relief and quickly shut and locked it. From my vantage point of the steps, I looked around the forgotten room. It was piled high with Gram’s stuff and someone could easily hide there. This thought gave me no comfort.
      At that point, I realized that I had a decision to make. I could either trust the Lord to take care of me or I could choose to be fearful. God and I had a close relationship. He had saved me from my sins and He promised to care for me. My job was to trust Him and not cave in to fear. With a prayer for protection, I headed back to bed, trusting that He would keep me safe through the night.
      A few minutes later I was tucked under the stale-smelling covers and, after an hour or two of laying there listening to the weird noises an old house makes at night, I finally drifted off into a troubled sleep.

Find Part 3 to this story here

Meeting Ella (Part 1)

Moving into the Farmhouse

MeetingElla

One of my favorite things to do is to write fiction, which doesn’t fit very well with the purpose of this blog. However, at Christmastime last year, I broke away from my typical posts and presented the story A Candle in the Window. I decided to do the same thing again this year. And so I hope you enjoy this year’s story, which will be presented on Mondays throughout this December. It is called Meeting Ella and here is Part 1, “Moving into the Farmhouse”

     I approached the front door with a combination of fear and nostalgia, the wind whipping my hair into my eyes. The front of the big farm house looked so forlorn. The last time I was here it was Christmastime. Garland with twinkling white lights had hung over the door. Big red pots that held miniature Christmas trees had sat like guards on each side of the steps. And out in the lawn had been the wooden nativity made by my Uncle Gus.
     I sighed with sadness as I pulled the key out of my coat pocket and placed it into the deadbolt on the door. What a difference a year can make.
     Had it only been six months since Gram had died? It felt so much longer than that…and so much shorter. My parents had died in a car accident when I was just a baby. My grandparents had raised me. Grandpa had died two years ago and Uncle Gus a year before that. I was truly alone now.
     I pushed in the big wooden door and hesitantly stepped inside to the entry way. The stale smell of an unlived-in house assaulted my nose. I walked through the familiar rooms downstairs, pulling sheets off the furniture amidst clouds of dust.
     I had called the utility companies last week to assure I would have electric and water when I arrived. Tomorrow I’d call about setting up wifi.
     I ended up in the kitchen, where I plugged in the refrigerator and stove and pushed them back to the wall, relieved to hear the hum of the refrigerator as it started up.
     The magnitude of what I was doing suddenly hit me. Did I know what I had gotten myself into?
     As Gram’s only living relative, I had inherited the house. My first thought had been to put it on the market immediately. But there was something that held me back. Maybe it was the memories. After all, it was the only home I had ever known.
     I decided to give myself a few months to think about it and during that time I had lost my graphic design job when my company was bought out. I remembered the conversation well. We are sorry, Libby. We treasure your talent and wish we could keep you but the other company already has a designer on staff and we don’t need two. Please feel free to ask us for a recommendation. We wish you the best. And that was that. I had worked two more weeks and then took my small severance package, packed up my office, and walked out the door.
     But what had seemed devastating at the time started to look like the purpose of God leading me back to this house. My job was the main thing holding me back from moving. Now I didn’t have any excuses left.
     And so I had sold my furniture, packed up what was left in my Jeep Cherokee, and traveled across the state to my hometown. And here I was on a cold, windy night in December.
     I shouldn’t have come back at Christmastime. I realized that now. Anytime would have been difficult but December was by far the worst. Gram had loved Christmas. It had been the most special time of the year. Even last year, when she was really slowing down due to her heart failure, I had hauled the boxes out of the attic and she had sat, her knees covered with a bright red afghan, and directed me with her smiley face and twinkly eyes.
     I sat down on a kitchen chair and laid my head on my arms. My shoulders started to shake. Christmas would never be the same again. Never.
     I must have sat there for fifteen minutes, sobbing, when suddenly I got the distinct impression that someone was watching me. My eyes scanned the nearby doorway and then moved around the room. I didn’t see anyone. I wiped my face on my sleeve, stood up, and looked around a bit before chalking it up to my imagination.
     I shrugged and decided to head upstairs, eager to see my old bedroom. As I walked up the creaky stairs, the strangeness and unfamiliarity of being in this big old house by myself assailed me. It was not a pleasant feeling. But I had sold everything now and didn’t have much of a choice but to stay here. At least for a little while, as I decided what to do next.
     I found my bedroom very much like I had left it, which was incredibly comforting to me. I sat down on the edge of my bed and sighed. I was home. Even without Gram, it felt like home. This feeling renewed my energy and I jumped from the bed to go get my stuff. I glanced in some of the other bedrooms on the way, just for old times’ sake. Uncle Gus’s room still had the plaid bedspread and dark oak furniture. And there was Gram’s room with the delicate floral wallpaper. I checked out the guest room, made up with one of Gram’s lavender quilts. And then, finally, headed down to the last tiny room on the right. I remembered that this room held a twin bed and Gram’s sewing machine. It was one of my favorite rooms in the house and I remembered many hours playing on the floor with my puzzles and dolls while she sewed and quilted there.
     However, I was not prepared for what I found in that room. The bed looked like it had been slept in the night before, unmade and unkempt. There was a small cup of water by the bedside, along with a girl’s sweater. I picked up the purple sweater and stared at it. It was a size 10, faded, with a tear at the elbow. Questions came to me in rapid succession. Had Gram had a young visitor here when she died? And who in the world had it been? And where was she now? And why hadn’t Gram bought her a new sweater?
     Oh, well. Those were questions for another day. For now, I needed to go get my stuff and move in. I ran lightly down the stairs and out to my car, ready to unload my things. Tomorrow I would get out the Christmas decorations. It was a good day.
     I was home.

 

Continue to PART 2

 

The Candle in the Window (Part 5)

candleinthewindow

Today is the final part of my holiday-themed story. For some reason, it seems like this December has gone especially fast and here we are already–ready to celebrate our Lord’s birth! I hope that you have enjoyed this story and that it will give you cause to think outside just you and your own family this Christmas and move your thoughts towards those who may not have a family or who may have lost a loved one this past year. Christmas can be especially hard for so many dear people. 

If you have missed this series, you can find Part 4 here. You will also find links to the other three parts on that post.

And, now, onto the fifth and final part of The Candle in the Window

     Helen lit the red candle and then went into the kitchen to heat up the leftover Christmas dinner that Marge had brought her last night. The memory of the night before warmed her heart. Christmas Eve spent with a friend was so much better than spending it alone. It even took a bit of the sting out of spending Christmas Day all by herself. She hummed Joy to the World as the microwave heated her meal.
     She decided to take the plate of the food into the living room. This was the last evening that she would burn the Christmas Candle and she wanted to fully enjoy it. Setting the plate on her recliner seat, she pulled an old TV tray table from it’s spot in the corner and set it up. She sat and rested for a minute or two before turning on the TV and digging into the turkey and stuffing before her.
     Thirty minutes later found her dozing, with an empty plate in front of her and an old Christmas movie playing on the TV.

______________________________________________________

     Jessa licked her lips nervously. Perhaps this was a really crazy idea. Maybe her grandmother wouldn’t even want to see her. What was she thinking?
     “Ready?” Mark smiled at her.
     Lacey was full of nervous excitement, while Logan looked just a bit bored at the whole situation.
     “Okay, let’s do this,” Jessa determinedly started walking towards the front door of the little white Cape Cod. When the rest of the family had gathered there with her, she took a deep breath and then knocked.
     Since setting out the red candle at home a few weeks ago, Jessa had felt an increasing desire to find out if anyone from her father’s family was still alive. What she had discovered was that there was only one person left—her elderly grandmother. The family had decided they would drive the hour south to visit her after they had had Christmas dinner with her mother’s side of the family. Since they had been with Mark’s family on Christmas Eve, Christmas evening had seemed like the perfect time to make the momentous visit. But now here they were. At her house. On Christmas day. To Jessa it all felt quite surreal and a bit frightening.
     As the family stood on the front porch and waited, they looked around. The little house was in much disrepair. Besides being in dire need of a fresh coat of paint, the porch needed fixed and the shrubbery needed trimmed. Mark, always big-hearted and generous, started thinking about how the family could help his wife’s grandmother before he even met her.
     Suddenly, the door swung open, and there stood a small, thin woman.
     “Merry Christmas to you,” Jessa said nervously, “are you Mrs. Helen Morgan? Helen Rose Morgan?”
     “Why yes, that’s me,” she said, puzzled. She shivered as a gust of cold air blew into the warm room behind her.
     “We are the Washington family and we have come from across the border especially to see you. May we come in for just a moment? We have something we’d like to share with you.”
     Helen grew just a little nervous at the smiling strangers. Her eyes took in the tall African-American man with glasses and then moved to the pretty tan blue-eyed woman with dark curly hair. With them were two older children. The boy looked like he didn’t want to be there but the girl looked sweet. Who in the world would come visiting a stranger on Christmas day? How odd! She stared at them for a few more seconds before finally deciding they looked safe enough and inviting them inside.
     “Have a seat,” she said as she gestured to the sofa across the room. Her hands shook nervously as she second-guessed the wisdom of letting strangers into her home. She had heard horrible stories about wicked people who tricked and terrorized the elderly. What if they were going to steal from her? Or, even worse, kill her?
     There must have been a look of terror in her eyes, for Mark tenderly touched her shoulder and said, “Oh, Mrs. Morgan, you need not fear. We are here to share good news!”
     He moved to the slip-covered sofa and sat down. The family followed his lead and soon they were all squeezed there, side by side. Helen felt herself relax just a bit. They did seem like a very nice family.
     After they introduced themselves, they all sat there for a few awkward moments in silence, until finally Mark gave an imperceptible nod of his head to Jessa. At that, Jessa said a quick prayer for strength and then just decided to get it over with. Out it all came in one big rush, “Mrs. Morgan, we are here because, well, I think you are my grandmother.”
     Helen’s eyes grew big at this but she remained quiet.
     “You see, my father died in a car accident before I was born so I never met him. I knew his name was Kenneth Roy Morgan and thought about trying to find his family through the years but…”
     “Your father was Kenneth Roy Morgan?” Helen interrupted, aghast, “Are you sure? Kenny didn’t have any children.”
     As Jessa shared her story of how Kenny and Bernadette had met and then got married and had her, Helen started shaking uncontrollably.
     “Kenny’s daughter? You are Kenny’s daughter?” Helen kept saying it over and over again in disbelief.
     “Are you okay, Grandma?” Lacey rushed to her side in her typical fashion. To this precocious and loving child, this woman was her grandma and it made total sense to call her that. She had no idea that this name was a name that Helen never thought she would be called. The shock was almost too much.
     Mark stepped in, “Lacey would you go to the kitchen and get Mrs. Morgan a glass of water?”
     As she left to do her father’s bidding, he tenderly held Helen’s hand, “Mrs. Morgan, we are so sorry for the shock. A few weeks ago, Jessa’s mother died. This event awakened in her a desire to find her father’s family. As she searched, she realized that you are the only relative left on her father’s side. She wanted to meet you as soon as possible and so here we are. Are you okay?”
     Helen’s heart had stopped pounding as this new and wonderful thought started to seep into her brain and then settled into her heart. She had a family! She had a FAMILY! SHE HAD A FAMILY! The words just kept ringing in her ears.
     Happy tears made their way down her wrinkled face as unfamiliar hope started to grow in her heart. As she sipped the cup of water Lacey handed her, she looked at Jessa. She had felt like something was familiar about the woman but couldn’t figure out what. But, suddenly, she knew! It was her cobalt blue eyes. Kenneth had those same eyes. And the boy–Jessa’s son—he looked like Kenneth. How had she missed that earlier? Oh, he had darker skin but he had those same blue eyes and something about his face definitely reminded her of her boy at that age. She knew without a doubt that this family was telling her the truth.
     “Come here, dear,” Helen directed the gentle request to Jessa. When Jessa was kneeling in front of her, Helen put her frail hand up to caress her face, “Oh, how much I have missed. Oh, how dreadfully sorry I am that I wasn’t there for you and your mother. If only I had known,” she said sadly and then sat in silence for a few moments while Jessa tenderly held her hand and then Helen smiled and looked at the children, “So I suppose that makes you two my great-grandchildren!” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
     Logan gave a gentle smile—even he was affected by this reunion– but Lacey jumped to her feet and rushed to her great-grandmother’s side, talking a mile a minute, “So what would you like me to call you, Grandma? I mean, I know that you aren’t really my grandma, but “great-grandma” seems like such a long name to call you and since my other grandma just died, maybe you could kinda take her place? Well, not take her place exactly but be my grandma now that she’s gone? Would that be okay?—”she was prepared to go on but Mark quickly put a firm hand on her shoulder.
     “Shhh, Lacey,” he said quietly behind her.
     “Oh, don’t shush her,” said Helen merrily, “I haven’t had this much fun since–well, perhaps since your father left our home,” this she directed to Jessa, “It has been an awfully long time since I had some young blood around here and I am enjoying it immensely!”
     And, with that, she turned towards Lacey and the two of them chatted on and on, while the rest of the family sat quietly and listened.
     A little later in the evening, Mark asked if he could read the Christmas story and the family talked about God’s Son coming in a manger and how He would later grow up to die so that man could be forgiven and reconciled to God. They talked about Jesus like He was their friend. Helen was puzzled and unfamiliar with that part of the Bible.
     A few hours later, the family gathered their things together with a promise to return soon. Phone numbers were exchanged and Jessa promised to call Helen and check on her the next day. The family all hugged Helen good-bye like they had known her for years. Their coats were on and they were just about to leave when Jessa stopped in her tracks as she spotted the red candle.
     “That candle in the window…”
     “Oh, yes, that was one of your father’s favorite Christmas traditions!” smiled Helen, “Light a red candle to…”
     “Symbolize the light that Jesus brought to the world,” finished Jessa, “My mom and I did that in honor of my dad for all of my growing up years. In fact, I am continuing the tradition at my house now.”
     Helen’s heart felt like it would burst. Kenny’s memory was still alive in another soul besides her own. It was so comforting somehow.
     More hugs and then they were gone and the house grew strangely quiet again. Helen sat back down in her recliner with just the candle for light and reveled in pleasant thoughts of family picnics and dinners. She dreamed of going to gardens and concerts with her new family. And, most of all, of never having to spend another Christmas alone. After an hour of daydreaming, she blew out the candle in the window and went to bed.

______________________________________________________

     In the months and years to follow, Helen’s newfound family would fulfill all their promises and more to the elderly lady. They took her to concerts and gardens. They took her to doctor and dentist appointments. And Helen never spent another Christmas alone but was, instead, surrounded by her loving family. But, most of all, they introduced her to the baby in a manger. They told her that Jesus had died for her sins and that if she believed on Him as her Savior, she would be reconciled to God and spend eternity with Him in Heaven. Helen did believe and started studying her Bible during her many hours alone. Placing the red candle in the window each Christmas became even more special as Helen finally understood the real meaning of the long-held family tradition. And when, five years later, she slipped away quietly in her sleep, her family knew– without a shadow of a doubt–that they would see her again.

 

I hope you have enjoyed this 2016 Christmas story. As you probably already know, this is far outside my usual content. However, sometimes it is just nice to do something different! If you have enjoyed this story, would you take a moment to comment and let me know?

What My Gingerbread House Taught Me About Social Media

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Our culture has an obsession with pictures. In fact, most of the younger generation has abandoned Facebook for more photo-based apps like Instagram and Snapchat.  There is no denying that we live in a world that is dominated by photos.

Photos demanding we look better.

Photos demanding we have more stuff.

Photos telling us our homes aren’t enough. Our parenting skills are lacking. Our creativity is wanting.

Photos crying out that we just aren’t enough.

This has led to a culture of perpetual dissatisfaction and restlessness. If we aren’t careful, even those of us who are older can get caught up in this. We see warm family photos on Facebook and we think to ourselves–I wish I had that. We see teens winning awards, homes that should be in a magazine, and the creative projects of our talented friends and we think–if only…

But photos don’t show the whole story. They never show the whole story.

Which I learned in a big way the other night.

One of our daughters planned a family gingerbread house contest. Building gingerbread houses has been part of our Christmas family traditions for years now but this is the first time we had a contest. We took photos of the houses and put them on Facebook and let Facebook viewers choose the winner.

My husband and I were a team and I was excited because he is a master gingerbread house builder! As you may already know, he is a landscape designer so he has a great eye for design. Unfortunately for me, he had also had very little sleep the night before and had been out for a snow/ice event the whole day. The timing was not going to be helping us to clinch a win!

We started out pretty well. He was manning the icing bag and I was holding the graham crackers in place. It was going pretty well until we got to the roof. Just as we carefully placed the last cracker in its designated spot, the whole thing caved in. It was around that time that our grandson started to fuss in his high chair, so I decided to take on baby duty, confidently leaving the building of the house in the hands of my very capable husband.

A few minutes later, I came back to find my husband decorating half of a house!

I found out that he had tried twice more and the house just kept collapsing. Now on a different day– with a little more sleep and without a cute baby grandson begging his attention nearby–my husband would have kept trying. But on this night, he gave up. I handed the baby to him (which is exactly what he wanted!) and told him I’d finish decorating.

Then it was time to take the photos for Facebook. We moved our house to just the right angle and ended up with this–

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What the carefully taken photo didn’t show was this–

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So, we had an adequate house for our contest photo (can’t say it is our best work, by any means) but what no one could see was that it was completely unfinished in the back!

Oh, how this is the same for so much of what we see in our photo-driven world. How much we don’t see!

The model’s desperate battle with anorexia.

The movie star’s drug addiction.

The neighbor-down-the-street’s marriage issues.

The rebellious son’s antics of our picture-perfect church friend.

Social Media is a wonderful tool. It keeps us in touch with each other and we are able to cry and laugh and rejoice with one another. But sometimes the photos we see creep into our soul and give us a deep longing for something more. We start believing that God hasn’t give us enough and there is this illusive “perfect” life waiting for us out there somewhere.

Don’t be fooled! Not only is this untrue, believing this lie can potentially ruin marriages, families, and churches.

Scripture shows us that God is intentionally designing and directing our lives (Proverbs 16:9; Psalm 139:16), and it also shows us that it is God’s will that we be content with the life He has given us (Hebrews 13:5; I Timothy 6:6).

This can be a challenge for us in a world that is a swirling, writhing mass of discontentment.

If this is something you struggle with (like I do!), may I recommend the book The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs. It is an old book so it isn’t easy to read, but it is full of profound wisdom in this area of contentment.

I hope that our gingerbread house incident hasn’t only reminded me of the inadequacy of a photo but that it has also reminded you. I hope that we are all encouraged to consider this area of contentment in our lives as we view the world around us–particularly social media. Choosing contentment when everyone else around us is in a constant state of complaining dissatisfaction is truly one way we can really stand out as believers in Jesus Christ.