I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men!
I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men
And in despair I bowed my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men"
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep,
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men."
Till, ringing singing, on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I remember my first introduction to the stars. It was a summer night in 1947. We laid blankets on the ground and my parents, my brother, my granddad and I gazed up at the night sky. My granddaddy pointed out the constellations and recited poems of the stars.
I have wondered as I have wandered in my backyard and on walks in my neighborhood, but it was the places far away from lights that made me love and appreciate the Christmas night story. I have wondered as I wandered in the Big Bend country, in New Mexico, and in Montana where I watched the bright stars on most nights and the wonderful Northern Lights on other nights. When I lived in Yellowstone Park, I never missed a clear night sky. I know there is something out there, something I hope to find (or maybe I have found).
One night long ago the shepherds saw the glory that shone around that first Christmas night. When I look at the same dark sky, full of dazzling bright stars, it makes me wonder if on that dark night long ago the shepherds saw what we can see, if we wonder about it and look for it.
We thank you God for the moon and the sun and the stars and the world around us. May we, like the shepherd, always look for the beauty of your world. Amen.
Judd Holt (2009)
Fourth Sunday of Advent – Love
An Advent Christmas Memory
In 1994, Christmas fell on a Sunday, and the “message” that year consisted of various members of the congregation sharing a memorable Christmas. Evelyn Stribling, then 91, and a thirty-six year member of First Christian Church, Denton, was helped to the pulpit and told the following story, which made a lasting impression upon me.
Evelyn grew up in Oklahoma where winters could be cold. One year Evelyn and her sister Pauline, either older teens or very young adults, decided early in the year to gift their father with a fine wool coat. The two scrimped and saved all year to purchase the coat, and finally did so in time for Christmas. They were understandably excited as they watched their father open his present, for which they had worked so hard. Mr. Middleton was elated to receive such a fine coat, the likes of which he had never owned.
Just after Christmas, a young couple in the community had a baby who died. The very young father constructed a wooden coffin for his child’s body, and a brief graveside service was held in bitterly cold weather. Mr. Middleton, wearing his new wool coat, was among those who gathered at the cemetery seeking to offer comfort to the young man who was suffering so great a loss. As the people gathered and the service began, Evelyn and Pauline watched as their father broke from among the group of people, approached the young father from behind, slipped off his new coat, and placed it instead on the shoulders of the grieving father. Mr. Middleton could not bring back the dead infant, but he could, and did show God’s love in a powerful way that day. And that story, which took place almost 100 years ago, lives on to be told again.
The story paints a beautiful picture of sacrificial giving. Evelyn and Pauline had sacrificed throughout the year to save enough money to purchase the gift for their father. And their father sacrificed by giving his fine new coat to someone experiencing tremendous sorrow and loss. None of the characters in this true story gave out of their abundance. Rather, each of them gave sacrificially. Thanks be to God for those God places around us to teach us “the way.”
Note: Zena Stribling McAdams, currently serving as Interim Regional Executive of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the Southwest and a Priscilla of our congregation, is the daughter of Evelyn Stribling and the granddaughter of Mr. Middleton.
A few weeks ago, after my mother had our old home movies digitized, I came face to face once more with seven year-old me, during my most memorable Christmas ever. The first scene shows my cousins, siblings, and me, laughing and cutting up with our beloved and beaming grandmother in the living room of her home in Laredo, on Christmas Eve, 1968. Then we’re shown in our pajamas, having just awakened early on Christmas morning, frantically opening gifts from Santa.
But what happened between these two scenes is even more memorable. That Christmas Eve, all of us – grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, Mom and Dad – gathered around my grandparents’ black & white TV, because that night, for the first time ever, men were traveling to another celestial body, and the Apollo 8 astronauts were marking their entry into orbit around the Moon with a live broadcast to Earth.
I remember the hush in the room when the astronauts’ camera panned up from the surface of the Moon to show a shimmering disc. It was our entire world, in a God’s-eye view, being shown to its inhabitants, live. Except for those three men at the moon, every person who ever lived was in that picture. Later, after technical descriptions of what they were seeing and doing, it was time for the astronauts to end their broadcast, but not before they announced that they had a message, “For all the people back on Earth.”
After a pause of many seconds, as we gazed at that small grainy image of Earth, floating in space, we heard these words: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth…”
Over the next several minutes the astronauts proceeded, in turn, to read the first ten verses from the Book of Genesis. Upon hearing this, historians write that many of the buttoned-down engineers and flight controllers in Mission Control, suddenly had tears in their eyes. Most of the adults in that Laredo living room did too. But I was confused. Why were they crying? This was awesome!
We kids were confused again on Christmas morning, when we realized that our grandparents weren’t around, and that some of our aunts and uncles were missing too. It seems that after the kids were finally asleep, our Grandmother had suffered a seizure and been rushed to the hospital. Most of the adults had joined her there. It turned out to be the first sign of the brain cancer that would take her life a couple of years later and would also mark the start of the first time that we kids would ever genuinely worry about someone we loved or be forced to consider mortality.
I think we were lucky, at our young ages, to begin understanding that Christmastime contains stories more profound than Santa’s ability to get all those toys into his sleigh; and I still trace my awe and wonder at this season back to that 1968 Christmas in Laredo.
John 1:14 and the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory.
We are coming close to the culmination of the Christmas season. Our days have been full of preparations, gift buying, gift sharing, social activities, celebrations, acts of kindness and generosity, special services of worship, Christmas carols, stores playing “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” ad nauseam, the clamor of commercialism. Soon Christmas Eve will come and briefly we will reflect in the candlelight on the amazing gift of love God has given us in the Christ Child.
Then Christmas morning will follow, for many a time of festivities primarily centered on gift exchanges and food, family and friends. After that day, when we want a glorious White Christmas few are “ dashing through the snow” anymore because snow here too often includes hazardous ice. The weather gets warmer and Frosty the snowman melts leaving only his hat. Christmas decorations are put away; even if you only had a very small tree or simple décor there are pine needles everywhere. Wrapping paper has gone out with the trash. Focus shifts to business and financial matters which need attention before the end of the year.
Although it would seem the Christmas season has come and gone there will remain memories of those moments when the love of God was whispered in your ear, in your heart. Maybe it was only a few brief seconds, perhaps in the music or a gesture of kindness or the wisdom of a child or a spoken word or the tenderness of the Christmas story, but it was a glimpse of something bigger, more loving, liberating, joyous, hopeful, peaceful. Let us be receptive to God’s Christmas gift to us, a whispered holy message, a glimpse of God’s glory through Jesus Christ. Long after the decorations are put away for another year, that gift will remain with us and sustain us.
Growing up in rural Michigan, we could usually plan on a white Christmas. My fondest memories are going to both sets of grandparents’ farms for Christmas Day. My father’s family was always the largest gathering with lots of aunts and uncles and cousins. Walking into the kitchen smelled so good – of white bread dressing with lots of sage and herbs (no cornbread here!) and homemade mincemeat pie – my VERY favorite! I still buy Walker’s mincemeat tarts every year for an indulgence.
At my grandma and grandpa Potter’s place, the kids had their own table in the basement with tables set up with coloring books and puzzles to pass the time. It was always a joyous occasion when we became old enough to come upstairs to the adult table.
There was always a wagon ride across the sleeping fields, the whole extended family seated on bales of hay and snuggled into warm blankets, pulled by the chugging, old tractor. Hot chocolate was waiting for us upon our return.
The Lothrop’s, my mother’s parents, lived in the only house down a country lane that bore their name, half a mile from the main road. Grandpa made several runs to the corner of the highway to pick up family members as cars couldn’t get down the icy, snowy road. He’d hitch up his team of horses (Queenie was one I remember) to the sleigh, complete with jingle bells, and haul family members back up to the house. This was a smaller gathering – not as many cousins – so no kids’ table – we all ate together.
Food, good cheer, and fun times were abundant at both houses. Both farms are still in the families today, still intact, and lived on by cousins. I still visit as often as I can. These are fond memories I continue to cherish, and I hope you will have, and continue to make, meaningful memories to cherish as well.
John 13:34-35 A new command I give you: Love one another.
Christmas is where I first found love. True love. When I accepted Christ into my heart, my life changed. I sat in the corner of First Baptist Church watching my younger sister on stage in the role of “Townsperson #7” as I heard the story that would change me. That brisk and heavy-hearted evening, the true story of our Messiah being born hit my heart in a way I can only describe as a God moment. That night, surrounded by hundreds, it felt right then that it was only me and Jesus there. As people sang, scenes were played, and angels came down the aisle, I started to cry. I heard about a child, a small baby who was born with the purpose of loving me. That this boy would grow to be a man, would go through a death so extremely painful, for one reason – when I sin, my slate would be wiped clean. No matter how poorly I do, this child was born to show me that even then I am loved beyond deserving. That’s why I cried. I found true love. Because of the birth of Jesus, I am who I am, and I love who I love.
In this season, in this time of love, find your true love for God. Find it in a fortune cookie or a play that your younger sister is performing in. Go, go out, find love, be love, show love and be His disciple.
Khaleigh Rose Hopkins
I do not know when or where the tradition of hanging Christmas stockings started, but I have a Christmas stocking memory that I received over fifty years ago.
As we woke up on Christmas morning, having hung our stockings above the fireplace on Christmas Eve, I will never forget the happy expression on my three-year-old daughter’s face. She was very excited as she removed the items one by one. There were a few trinkets from the dime store, oranges, walnuts and a candy bar or two. Nothing extraordinary or expensive! What I remember most was my daughter saying, “My, wasn’t Santa good to me!”
We emptied our stockings before going into the living room, where under the Christmas tree was a shiny new tricycle, a small table and chair with tea set, a baby doll and other gifts too numerous to name. A bounty of presents, yet she would have been perfectly happy with her Christmas stocking. There must be a message in there somewhere!
Gone are the gifts I received from my boyhood; the little red wagon, the set of small lead soldiers, the BB gun, roller skates, the Western Flyer bicycle. I’ve received many other gifts throughout my lifetime but best of all are the memories which are everlasting.
Every Christmas I remember how excited my daughter was while opening her Christmas stocking and I find myself saying, “My, wasn’t God good to me!”
God bless you and may your Christmas stocking overflow with happiness and joy!
"What shall I give him, poor as I am?"
- Christina Rossetti, In the Bleak Midwinter
Four years ago, Christmas Eve found me and my then-husband Charlie in a small town in western New York to visit his recently bereaved father, Al. That part of New York has bleak, bitter winters because of the humidity supplied by the nearby Great Lakes. We skipped dinner on the road so we could share a meal with Al, but we arrived after nightfall to find no dinner and almost no food in the house. I was beside myself! Charlie had spoken to Al at least three times during the 11-hour car ride; why hadn't he mentioned he had no food? And why hadn't Charlie asked? We could have brought a meal, had we known.
The town was too small to support a grocery store, but it would not have mattered: by the time we got there, every business in town was closed except one: a gas station with a Subway. So off we went for Christmas Eve dinner, me shivering in the raw air and keeping my frustrated mouth shut so I wouldn't get myself in trouble.
Inside the nearly silent store, a young man stood behind the cash register and a girl, perhaps 16 or 17, was making sandwiches. She looked about as sullen as I felt. Putting aside my own irritation at having to be there, I jokingly asked her if she'd like me to sing a couple of carols as she worked. To my great surprise, she looked right at me, her expression softening, and said, "Yes. Please. There's no music here and you would never even know it's Christmas and I would love you to sing."
So I did. Silent Night and O Little Town of Bethlehem and probably Winter Wonderland and finally We Wish You a Merry Christmas, with Charlie and Al and possibly the guy at the register joining in on the last one.
She wrapped up our food and thanked me so sincerely that I nearly cried on the spot. I felt both ashamed of my petty, selfish reaction at my grief-stricken father in law not supplying the picture-perfect holiday I felt entitled to, and happy that I had a present to give the girl who had to work Christmas Eve at a gas station. And you know what? That moment of service and her appreciation were the nicest gifts I gave and received during that year, and honestly, over many others too.
Dear Lord, help us keep our expectations in check so that we may find the unexpected blessings this Christmas season. Help us to see - and serve - the Christ child in all those around us: our families and friends, the strangers we encounter, and even the sullen kid at the gas station or mall or wherever we meet him or her. Thank you for the wondrous gift of your love: help us share it with the world!
Third Sunday of Advent - Joy
Luke 2:10-11 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
At the beginning of 2018 one of the contributors to my daily devotionals book wrote about how she has the practice of choosing a word for the year – a word she focuses on for the next twelve months. Her idea spoke to me, and I chose two words, both new to me, that perfectly describe a concept: pentimento (Italian) and kintsugi (Japanese).
In our world, great emphasis is placed on perfection. These concepts show how beauty in all its forms can be enhanced by acknowledging the cracks and scars in an object, as well as in our lives. The artist acknowledges the flaws in his/her creation and uses them as part of the finished work. Throughout this year I have found countless places where these words just fit.
In anticipation of 2019, I have already chosen my word: Joy. A word I struggle to define. It is so much more than happiness, I think. Throughout Advent and Christmas, we hear this word often. For me it is an indescribable feeling over which I seem to have little control. It has appeared at unexpected times and places. But it always comes at the Advent season, remembering the joy that must have surrounded the Christ Child, the joy of the miracle of birth. The angels and the kings kneeled in celebration. We do the same as we celebrate the birthday of Jesus, the baby, and Christ, the man. Joy to the world!
In this season, I invite you to define what joy means to you.
Creator of all joy, be near to us in this season of Advent, making us ever aware of the joy that is ours in this and every season.