Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Gospel According to Joe: From Intended Evil to Eternal Good

Joe's First Epistle

I'll use aliases throughout this series to protect the privacy of the family.

" meant evil against me, but God meant it for good..." (Genesis 50:20, ESV)

Joe, a friend of mine, recently received devastating news that sent his life into a nosedive, one that affected the whole family. His son, a corporate lawyer, immediately took on his dad's role as CEO of the family business. Joe's wife Beth, a homeschooling mom, added the role of Joe's primary care-giver.       
       Joe and Beth have served in leadership for our church for many years. They also are active in various homeschool groups, so many folks stepped up to stand beside the family and help in diverse ways. We all sought to encourage them in any way we could.
       Then Joe began sending email messages. He, our brother who was experiencing his own private, pain-ridden hell, was at once sitting at the feet of Jesus and being tutored in extreme grace! Through his messages, he shared what the Saviour was teaching him. I asked permission from Joe to share his messages, and he granted my request. May they bless your heart and life, Gentle Reader, as they have mine!

Today is Wednesday, October 22. It's my birthday. I'm 56. Those who know me well know that birthdays are not important to me. I rarely remember anyone's. I think I will remember this one as long as I live...which brings me to my story.
Today we moved from our 6,000-feet-of-excess log home. It rests on a 50-acre parcel of land that we have aptly named Utopia. We loved our home, but more than that, we loved the land and the freedom it afforded our family of now 12. It was our dream home. The kind of home that you think of when having family reunions and a gaggle of grand kids coming home to year after year. A place where they can ride four wheelers, shoot guns, hunt, fish, ride tractors, swim, BBQ, explore, creek-walk, get stuck, get hurt (a little), and relax. We sold it for reasons only God fully knows to a wonderful and generous family that has already blessed us in ways they may never know. Here's one example; they are allowing Sunny, our golden Lab, to stay with them for up to a month as we make the transition Who does that these days? Not me!
So back to my story. We turned over the house to the new owners at noon and then proceeded to Indy for a follow-up appointment for my back surgery at 2 p.m. The back doctor referred me to a specialist to tell me about the results of the two biopsies they did on my vertebrae. Beth and the two younger girls accompanied me while Stephen and Allie went to a college soccer game with a bunch of friends. As we rounded the corner to the hospital and I provided the necessary backseat driving directions to my wife, we saw entrance, Number 4, that I was instructed to enter. Both Beth and I were taken aback a little as we read the big sign over the door: CANCER CENTER. It may as well have been in flashing neon lights! Thankfully, the girls were oblivious to the sign as they were busy doing their school work.
At the reception desk, I gave the name of the doctor I was to see. That’s when I learned she was an oncologist. A very competent lady and pleasant. She met with Beth and me to inform us that I have multiple myeloma which is bone marrow cancer. Bone marrow cancer is a little hard to get your mind around. It permeates the body and can show up anywhere and is best treated by bone marrow transplants combined with chemo and radiation therapies. It is incurable. Without treatment, she said, I had a year or less. Radical treatment could extend my life expectancy by two plus years. She and my son (Tyler the doctor) are saying there are some good reasons to pursue treatment.
Me? Not so much. But I have promised my wife and son to remain open to consider. I am interested in managing the pain but not so much in extending my life. This world is not my home and I look forward with great anticipation to meeting my Savior, Christ Jesus. Don't get me wrong. There are many things I would like to see accomplished; mainly growing old with my wife, seeing all my children grown and sharing the Gospel with family and friends. I will continue for as long as God allows.
On Monday October 27, I have a radiology appointment to discuss treatment, a full body skeletal scan, a bone marrow biopsy procedure, and a bunch of lab work. This will help the doctor determine the stage I am in and the recommended treatment options. I have an appointment on October 31 to review all of those results with the oncologist.
So, I pray for you. That the salvation, peace, and understanding that only the Word of God and Christ can provide will come upon you and that you, too, will experience the joy and confidence in Christ that I have. I rejoice in this: that God chose to save me before the foundations of the Earth even though I was His enemy. Amazing!
In Christ Alone
          Husband, father, friend and follower of Christ, saved by His matchless forgiveness and grace by His death on the cross for a wretched sinner such as I.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Christmas Reflections 10: More Than 1,000 Words ~ The Art of Ron DiCianni

"Simeon's Moment" by American artist Ron DiCianni

"It is my sincere hope that my paintings
 will result in your encouragement and
 knowledge of God.

 "What you will be seeing is the fruit of
 decades of effort in honing my craft. I am
 honored and continually amazed that God
 uses these efforts in the body of Christ. I
 feel it's what I was born to do.

 "I realize that any painting can make you
 look. I'm hoping that mine will help you
 see."  ~
Ron DiCianni
You've probably seen the art of Ron DiCianni (pronounced dee cee AH nee) many times before. Early on in his career he illustrated for some major corporations, and he was the official artist for the United States Olympic Committee for the Moscow Olympic Games. His work also graced the covers of This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness, both authored by Frank E. Peretti. Though I read both of these books and appreciated the cover art, which initially drew me to the books (yes, you can tell much about a book by its cover), I didn't know who the illustrator was. I awakened to DiCianni's wonderful work through Max Lucado's and Joni Eareckson Tada's Christian Tell Me storybooks. Of course, they're in my library. I'm a storyteller!
       As I listened to Morning Edition on NPR this morning, they praised the work of an artist whose paintings look like photographs. I understand the skill required to produce such a work, but I have to ask myself why. Why would one want his canvas to look like a photo? Just take a picture. Let the artistic eye of the photographer show through the shot's composition, angle, juxtaposition of light and shadow, and darkroom/Photoshop expertise. Nonetheless, that artist's work is highly acclaimed, and that's fine, but not my preference.
       I prefer the complexity, the subtextual elements in a work by DiCianni. I cannot glance at one of his paintings and move on to the next. My eyes probe every square inch, seeking what is not easily seen.
      Case in point: the image above. Simeon's Moment. Remember Simeon? You can read about him here. He'd served the Lord in the Temple his whole life and awaited the fulfillment of the coming of the Christ. Carefully consider DiCianni's painting. Notice the enraptured look on Simeon's face. Do you see the tear. The emotion the artist expressed with that one tear would take paragraphs for a writer to describe. Here is a close-up:

Detail of DiCianni's Simeon's Moment

        Can you hear the emotion-filled worship erupting from the depths of Simeon's soul as he cradles the Creator of the universe to his bosom. Is the tear one of joy? Is it one of thankfulness to our merciful Father? Or is it inspired by a terrible vision of that Child as a Man suffering the indignation of the Cross for Simeon's own sins and those of a wretched, sinful world? 
       Jesus! The Light pierced the darkness of this world two millennia ago. Look again at the detail. DiCianni identifies the infant in Simeon's arms as that Light with the four-pointed star coming from the child. See it? The cross-shaped star?
       And of course you caught the underlying depiction of the world, signifying that the Babe came not only to the Jews but to all the world's people, for "all have sinned and fallen short of God's holy standard" and are in need of a Saviour!
       An interviewer asked DiCianni if he deliberately hid symbolic elements in his paintings. Here is his response:

"I have never set out to hide anything in my
 work. Rather, there are elements of secondary
 and tertiary importance to the central theme
 represented in my work.

 "In a painting we lessen the importance of an
 element by changing its size, color, or rendering.
 The lesser elements become slightly obscure
 at that point. When a person 'discovers' them
 later, it can seem that the element was hidden.

 "This is why it is very important to study
 these paintings. When you think you have the
 overall theme — after you 'get it' — it can be
 exciting to discover related messages that
 will expand your appreciation for the things of God."

I love all of DiCianni's work that I've seen, but Simeon's Moment is definitely a favorite. What's yours?

Question: Gentle Reader, do you see other significant, subtle elements in Simeon's Moment?

Monday, December 15, 2014

Christmas Reflections 9: Nylon Stockings for Lunch

I always knew that Santa Claus was a wonderful fantasy. Mama never took me to sit on his lap, at least not that I can recall. Perhaps she wanted to protect me from the disappointment of a nearly giftlessgiftless," because I usually got something practical--a new pair of oxfords from Schiff's Shoes, a cozy flannel nightgown from Grant's, or a blouse from Kresge's dimestore. It was never anything frivolous such as a transistor radio from Sears'. Christmas morning. I say "nearly
My gifts to Mama were handmade in the early years. After all, one would have to collect a ton of empty bottles to get anything really nice. I was in junior high when I decided that she deserved something better than a potholder woven on a borrowed toy loom or a boot-scraper crafted from pop bottle lids nailed to a small square of plywood. (After all, we lived in the heart of downtown New Castle, Indiana, so we seldom had mud on our shoes, and any snow that might be on them would melt away long before we had trudged up the three flights of stairs to our apartment.) But what could I get her, and how could I pay for it?
I began to walk the aisles of the stores looking for just the right present. One day I decided to go into Mary Woodbury's, the finest ladies' apparel shop in town. How brazen of me to even walk through the heavy brass and plate-glass door! The floor was carpeted in some plush stuff. My oxfords sank in up to the laces. Soft music played in the background. An intoxicating fragrance filled the air. I inhaled deeply, trying my best to be quiet about it. It would never do to sniff loudly in Mary Woodbury's.
I couldn't stand there and take root in the rug, so I forced myself forward to the perfume counter. Mama liked perfume, though I'd never known her to wear anything but Coty's L'Oreal, which was sold at the corner drugstore.
"May I help you?"
I turned to see a well-dressed sales clerk with meticulously coiffed hair. At least, I assumed she was a sales clerk. Could it be Mary Woodbury herself? Suddenly I felt like a ragamuffin who had wandered in off the street . . .which was exactly what I was.
"I . . .uhm . . ." Quickly, I picked up one of the perfume bottles. "Can you please tell me how much this is?"
"Yes, miss. That would be eight dollars." I gulped and hoped she hadn't heard. "Shall I wrap it for you?"
"Uh . . .no, thank you. I think I'll keep looking."
Next to the perfume was the hosiery counter. I walked over to take a look. The clerk stayed right with me. She showed me a pair of Van Raalte nylons that came in a box with tissue paper. How elegant! How perfect for Mama! And they were . . .possible . . .if I really saved. A mere two dollars and ninety-nine cents.
The junior high had no cafeteria, so Mama gave me a quarter everyday for lunch at one of the numerous hamburger joints within walking distance of the school. Doug's, with it's killer hamburgers and steaming chili, was my favorite. Both the burgers and the chili were fifteen cents apiece. During this parsimonious time, I got one or the other and drank water. Thus I was able to stash a dime per day for the Van Raaltes. As Christmas drew closer, I skipped lunch all together. The thought of Mama's getting all dressed up to go somewhere, slipping on those luxurious stockings, and asking me to fasten the clasp of her double-strand graduated pearls (a remnant of more prosperous years) helped me forget my growling stomach.
Two days before Christmas, I walked into Mary Woodbury's and up to the hosiery counter with cash in hand. The same clerk came up to me.
"I would like one pair of the Van Raalte hose, size 9, in taupe, please."
I could have sworn the clerk was pinching back a smile, but she may have just stifled a burp. "Would you like that gift-wrapped, miss?"
I stood on tiptoe and leaned over the counter so that only she could hear me. "Is that extra?"
"No, miss."
"Then, yes, please."
On Christmas morning, Mama ever so delicately loosened the tape of the silver-wrapped Van Raalte box, pausing only to notice the embossed Mary Woodbury's sticker near the bow. Memories of those afternoon hunger pangs vanished in the light of her smile. It was absolutely delicious.

Christmas Reflections 8: Santa and Me

I never really believed in Santa Claus, but I loved the idea of that jolly old elf. Since we lived in the heart of our small central Indiana town, my path to and from school took me past the courthouse where a wee "Santa Cottage" stood between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Santa, assisted by "Mary Christmas," held court there.

Each afternoon a long queue of children and parents wended down the sidewalk and curled around the corner. Several times each year, I would step to the end of that line and go through. Santa probably wondered why I squinted at him, but I was trying to see the man beyond his disguise. I played the game and give him my wish list, and then Mary Christmas handed me a whistle lollipop, all the while giving me that "Haven't you been here a few other times this year?" look. The lollipop was what I really wanted.

The Santa in the shack did not sound at all like the Santa on WCTW. The latter's voice was deep and jolly. He seemed genuinely interested in the children who called in their requests. Years later, that radio Santa became the publisher of a local weekly. He gave me my first writing job. He paid me to do what I loved. Imagine that! Merry Christmas!

Note: Santa, pictured above, occasionally disguises himself at Stephen Hollen, a storyteller of some renown, though he may also appear as Mark Twain, Buffalo Bill Cody, "Doc" Hollen, Ebenezer Scrooge (yes, it's true), and other nefarious characters.

Christmas Reflections 7: Christmas Center Stage

I love the pageantry of Christmas. Cantatas, children's plays and musicals, young adults' dramas, "specials," live nativities, and caroling. I think much should be made of the coming of Incarnate God into the flesh of humanity. The birth of the King of kings is monumental, after all. It changed all of history. The entire Bible--Old and New Testaments--points to the 33 years on Earth of the Christ, the eternal Son of God: His birth, life, death, triumphant resurrection, and imminent return.

At church whole families are involved from September until show time in preparations. The walls of the church building resound with music proclaiming the birth of the Newborn King for three months. It is a busy, cheerful time as choirs rehearse, actors learn lines and blocking, children repeat their parts until they say them in their sleep, fathers build simple sets, and mothers sew or alter costumes.

Hearts pound, tummies quiver, and knees knock as presentation time closes in. The scent of candle wax and fresh evergreens waft on the air. Grandparents arrive early to vie for choice seats, the ones providing the best camera shots. Pews fill to capacity, and ushers scurry around setting up folding chairs.

The sanctuary lights dim. The music begins. The chattering audience, filled with electric expectancy, falls silent as the program participants march in.

Then it's over. All that's left to do is to dismantle the sets, fold away the costumes, file the music, store the ornaments, and vacuum the carpet. But for three glorious months the lives of the church family revolved around that monumental moment 2,000 years ago when God became man in the form of a wee babe, born in a borrowed stable to a peasant virgin and laid in a common manger. Therein Rests the true pageantry of Christmas.

Christmas Reflections 6: A Birth Most Imminent


Just hear those sleigh bells jinglin', a ring-ting-tinglin', too. Come on, it's lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you.
It was a cherished ritual with us--myself and my two daughters. At least once a Christmas season, we would bundle up against the cold, get in the car, and take a grand light tour, stopping off first at a gas station for tall, steaming cups of some specialty holiday coffee or cappuccino. Then, with music of the season playing in the background and us joining in, we'd head for the most spectacular displays we could find, the ones where folks stopped their cars, dimmed their lights, and sat for awhile to take it all in.

You know the spot. You have one in your town, most likely. Perhaps it is a neighborhood where on a special night the streets and walkways are lined with luminarios. Or maybe it's the home of a retired man whose hobby is converting his garage into Santa's workshop and his lawn into a quiet Bethlehem scene once a year.

Giddy-yap, giddy-yap, giddy-yap! Let's go! Let's look at the show. We're ridin' in a wonderland of snow.

We usually visited the flashiest displays first, before wandering onto quiet streets. One night, colored lights shone through a fresh layer of snow, turning neighborhoods into a surrealistic winter wonderland. We rolled the car windows down, willing to endure the cold in order to hear the sound of our tires crunching snow. The icy glow of a nearly-full moon added to the mystery of the scene. We were in an upscale suburb, and most of the properties were decorated to some degree. Brightly-lit Christmas trees stood where they could be seen from the street, electric candles glowed in each window, and wreaths of fresh evergreenery hung on heavy doors of wood and brass.

Let's take the road before us and sing a chorus or two. Come on, it's lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you.

One house stood out for its lack of adornment.

"Stop," I said to my older daughter who was driving. "Let's go back to that house."

Both daughters asked why. "I can't explain it, but I just think that we should carol the people who live there."

My younger daughter who was sitting in back leaned forward. "Do you know them?"

"No. That doesn't matter."

We went back, parked the car, and walked up to the door. I knocked firmly, and, without waiting for an answer, we began to sing in three-part harmony, as we often did at church.

Silent night. Holy night.

The door opened, and there stood a young man and his wife. He had his arm around her to warm her.

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed. The little Lord Jesus lay down His sweet head.

The young woman looked up at her husband and smiled.

We wish you a merry Christmas! We wish you a merry Christmas! We wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year!

"Thank you. Thank you so very much," said the woman. "I'm in labor. We're on our way to the hospital. And I was not looking forward to the ordeal ahead of me. But I know I can make it, now. I really needed to hear your lovely caroling."

"Yes," the man said. "Thank you. And merry Christmas to you, also."

On our way out of that neighborhood, God gave us another blessing. A family of deer numbering seven or eight wandered onto a broad, snow-covered lawn just as we were about to pass. Again we stopped the car and dimmed the lights. The deer lingered, watching us watching them. For several minutes we sat there, sipping the last of our drinks, cold by now, before heading for home.

There's a birthday party at the home of Farmer Gray. It will be the perfect ending of a perfect day.

Christmas Reflections 5: One Raggedy Christmas

The tree, bedecked with cherished ornaments, garlands, and twinkling lights, stood in front of the living room window. We had carefully placed the creche on a white sheet beneath it.        While we kept our gift-giving to a minimum so that it didn't usurp the true meaning of the day, that year circumstances curtailed spending all together. The country was in a recession, and my husband was out of work. So I decided to sew. I warmed up the Singer and began working on huge Raggedy Ann dolls for our two little girls. Keeping it a secret from them while having to work in front of them was the challenge. I could do the machine sewing after they had gone to bed. Constructing the body and the clothes was the easy part. 
       Embroidering the face, the heart, and the "I love you" took many long hours. As Christmas drew nearer, I found myself working much of the day and into the night on the hand sewing. My daughters watched me rooting every strand of red yarn for the hair.

"What are you doing, Mama?" they asked.

I wouldn't lie to them. "I'm making Raggedy Ann dolls. Do you like them?"

Their faces lit up. "Yes! Who are they for?" I knew they wanted me to say that they were for them, but a mama has to have some secrets, especially at this time of year.

"They're for two children who won't have many presents on Christmas morning. I want them to have these dolls. Do you think they'll like them?"

"Yes," each said. They accepted my explanation. I was glad they didn't ask more questions.

Christmas Eve came, and our tree was still bare of presents. On Christmas morning, however, two rather large gifts appeared behind the creche. After we read Luke 2, it was time for them to open their gifts. When they realized that each had one of the Raggedy Ann dolls, they began dancing around.

"But, Mama, you said these were for two other children," one said.

"Yeah!" the other chimed in. They thought they had caught their mother in a lie.

"I never said that." I remembered, because I had been very deliberate in my wording. "I said that they were for two children who wouldn't have many presents on Christmas morning."

That Christmas, they actually received three gifts: a mama-made doll, a lesson in critical listening, and a story to tell to friends through the years. They still have those dolls. In fact, my grandchildren now enjoy them.

Christmas Reflections 4: The Candy Counter

Candy came in seasonal waves. Some stayed around all year: assorted gum-drops, orange slices, peppermint and wintergreen lozenges, coconut bon-bons and haystacks, Boston baked beans, and redhots, for example. Those were fairly stable, not melting when the weather got hot. (Most of the five-and-tens were not air-conditioned. That luxury was reserved for a few restaurants and drugstores in the 1950s.) Though some chocolate candy hung around all summer, very little was sold.

Who wanted chocolate in the summer? It would melt before you could eat it. And then there were the worms. Sometimes I'd defy the odds and buy a Hershey's bar in July because I was craving chocolate (yes, the addiction started early). After all, it was well-wrapped in that silver foil. Surely it was okay. But it wasn't okay. It was discolored, and there were tiny worms wriggling and gnawing their way through the bar. Mama said that the worm eggs were always in the chocolate, that they waited for hot weather to hatch.

Come October, all of that changed. The clerks knew the little girl who lived up over McShurley's Shoe Store and the Coffee Shop, and they knew why I kept an eye on the candy counter.

"Sharon Kay, chocolate candy came in today."

"Really? Did you get the maple nut clusters?" Those were Mama's favorites. We didn't buy them often, because they were sixty-nine cents a pound, more than twice as much as a pound of orange slices, but when they showed up in the sparkling glass bin, I would go searching for empty soda pop bottles. If I could find eighteen, I would get thirty-six cents when I redeemed them at the A & P. That was enough for half a pound of maple nut clusters.

Then came Christmas. Forget chocolate! The French creams had arrived. They were so fresh that the sugar shells on the outside had hardly hardened. The inside would eventually stiffen to stone, but right now it was soft. Some were fruit-flavored, while others tasted almost floral, like an elegant, edible perfume.

Along with the French creams came the Christmas hard candies. My favorites were the filled ones: black-walnut pillows, candy raspberries, and chocolate-filled straws. While I always loved the colors and intricacies of of the ribbon candy, I never bought it, deciding that it would be too much of a challenge to eat.

Most of the time, I feasted on the sweets only with my eyes, but occasionally Mama would give me a dime or I'd skimp on lunch to have a nickel for a bit of candy. It helped us to make it through our temporary poverty.

Christmas Reflections 3: The Christ of Christmas

The Christ of Christmas
The house is quiet in this predawn hour. Soon my grandsons will come bounding down the stairs and into my room. "It's Christmas, Gran'ma! Merry Christmas," they'll shout. The day will get busier from that moment, so I am snatching this brief time to write the final entry in the "Christmas Reflections" series.

This posting should have been finished by now, but I couldn't find direction. As a writer and storyteller, I had no trouble putting myself in Mary's place. I could imagine her, propped up against the rough boards of a stall, still perspiring from the labor of giving birth, cradling her newborn son in her arms while she examined every wrinkle and pore of His face--the face of God. I could see her bending to drink in His sweet scent and kiss the hollow at the bridge of His nose. I envisioned her slipping aside her robe just enough to put Him to her breast, giving sustenance to the One Who had created her. No doubt she pondered the words of the angel Gabriel, who told her, "He shall be great."

But this was no ordinary baby. With the conception of Jesus, Almighty God condescended from His position to take on human flesh and enter the world of man. The details of His coming were foretold by God Himself, as He escorted Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and through His prophets throughout the Old Testament. I love Luke 4:16-22, which says:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. and as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
The Christ did not come to be a cute, giggling, wriggling baby for everyone to coo over. The manger stood in the shadow of the cross. The captives? The blind? The oppressed? That's mankind. Me. You. We are held captive by sin. We are willfully blind to His truth. We are oppressed by our own wickedness. Jesus was born to die on the cross to take away the sin of all who repent and believe in Him. He then conquered Death and Hell by resurrecting from the tomb.

Two millennia ago, a baby was born under humble circumstances to a peasant girl, a virgin until after His birth. That baby is the King of kings, and his prophesied return is imminent. Indeed, the King is coming!

Christmas Reflections 2: The Miracle Tree

Money was scarce when I was growing up, at least for us. Like the Marches in Little Women, a "temporary poverty" had settled over our household, or rather our apartment-hold, one that lasted throughout my growing-up years. I'm not complaining, mind you, for I learned many valuable lessons from those times that have served me well. Over and over again, the Lord taught me about His providence and His great love for me.

Take, for example, the year I especially yearned for a Christmas tree. It didn't have to fat or tall or even freshly cut. I just wanted something other that the tiny potted pines they sold in the produce section of the A & P or the ones I crafted out of green construction paper. But, alas, there was no money for presents, let alone something so frivolous as a Christmas tree.

I could wait for the one in our classroom. On the last day of school before Christmas vacation, the teacher would remove the ornaments we had so carefully made in art class and give them back to us. Then she would say, "Who would like to have the tree?" I could envision myself lugging that tree through the snow and up Broad Street hill, leaving a trail of dry needles in its wake. Then I would have to haul it up three flights of stairs and down an interminably long hallway to Apartment 8. Had that been the only way to have a tree that year, I would have done it. But God had another plan.

Mama and I had a routine on school mornings. She would stand in the door of our apartment and wave to me as I walked backwards down the hall, past the trash chute, past the elevator, waving at her until I turned the corner of another hallway.

One morning in early December, I stopped short beside the trash chute. My mouth fell open at what I saw. Standing just around the corner was a gloriously beautiful pastel pink Christmas tree. It looked brand new. None of the artificial needles were crushed from bearing ornaments or being packed away to tightly. Through some miracle of grace, God had given me my Christmas tree. And a pink one, at that. I had never even seen a pink tree before. Then a second miracle happened: Mama let me keep it.

Note: Gentle readers, I assure you that my little pink Christmas tree was not nearly as decked out as the one pictured above, nor were the presents as numerous, but I didn't care. As far as I was concerned, God had provided another honest-to-goodness, out-and-out Christmas miracle, the first, of course, being the Gift of His beloved Son Jesus.

Christmas Reflections 1: The Dark Streets Shineth

The Dark Streets Shineth

When I was a child, the streets of New Castle, Indiana--my home town--became magic at Christmas time. "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" blared from bell-shaped speakers mounted atop some of the buildings. Shop windows sparkled with colored lights and tempting displays. Wide-eyed children pressed their noses against the window glass to get a closer view of the Terri Lee dolls, Lionel train sets, and mechanized elves. Other tots stood with their parents in the long queue to get inside the cramped little Santa Claus house on the courthouse lawn.

The stores extended their hours from Thanksgiving to Christmas, so the town streets bustled with shoppers in the evening, laughing and greeting friends. Uniformed Salvation Army workers, backs turned to the wind and collars flipped up, rang their silver bells at every intersection.

Since we lived in the Jennings Building, up over McShurley's Shoe Store and The Coffee Shop, I spent a lot of time wandering the stores and the downtown streets, drinking in the sights and sounds of the season like a mug of hot cocoa. Sometimes Mama would give me a quarter and a nickel so I could visit the candy counter at Murphy's dimestore. I would get a quarter's worth of French creme candy, available only at Christmas time, and five-cents' worth of warm Spanish peanuts, my favorite. With those two bags in my hand, I felt like a big spender.

I loved it. The busyness. The music, tinny though it was. The laughter. The candy. The lights. They all contributed to the magic.

But snow lent the real magic. As the air began to fill with large, cold, wet feathery flakes, I would turn down a side street, walk a block or so, and stand under one of the antiquated street lamps. Looking up into its aura, I watched the snow dance in the light. Softly, so that none could hear me save the lamp and the descending snow, I sang along with music from the speakers: "O, little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the Everlasting Light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight." Amen.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Words We Don't Want To Hear

Someone seeking a good Bible chapter to memorize would do well to settle on Matthew 7. It's not especially long--only 29 verses. It's part of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Even nominal Christians (if such exist) would likely be familiar with its components.
     It is often quoted and misquoted by non-believers and Christ-followers alike. Non-believers especially love to throw the very first verse at us when we take a stand against some abhorrent sin or deviant "lifestyle." The name-it-and-claim-its like to snatch Verse 7 out of context and build a theology around it. Those of us who went through elementary school before 1962 memorized Verse 12, though to learn about Verses 13 and 14, we needed to attend Sunday school and church, the same place where we heard about Verses 24-27. We even sang the song and did the motions for the latter verses.
     Wedged snuggly in there, beginning at Verse 15 and continuing through Verse 20, Jesus gives us some warnings and instructions about being fruit inspectors, advice we need today. The folks who love to buffet us with the first verse completely ignore these verses. They don't understand the difference between judgment and discernment. (That's a topic for another article.)
     These verses lead into one of the most troublesome, perplexing, downright frightening portions of Scripture for many Christ-followers.
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’  ~Matthew 7:21-23 (ESV)

     Does Christ say these hard things to keep us stirred up and uncertain of our salvation? I don't believe so. He is the One Who says, in John 14:27, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid."
     Looking at these verses, I notice that those saying "Lord, Lord" are centered on what they have done. Not once do they mention an actual relationship with the Lord Whom they address. They claim to have done miraculous things in Jesus' name, but Jesus--Who cannot lie--denies He had any part in those activities. Henry Morris, in his Defenders Study Bible (World Publishing) says, "There are actually prophets and miracle workers who--perhaps sincerely, perhaps not--profess to be Christians but instead are unsaved, deluded and even enabled to do 'wonderful works' by Satan in order to lead people to follow a false christ." These people can talk the talk, but they don't walk the walk.

Words we don't want to hear: "I never knew you"

     Liz Curtis Higgs? Of course I know her. I read her Scottish historical romances and loved them. Learned a lot about Scottish history, too. Higgs knows how to research a novel. I know she has a great sense of humor. You don't have to take my word for it. Just go on YouTube and listen to her. I know she's a tall lady. That's obvious from the various photos of her around the internet. I know she's a busy lady. When she's not writing, she's visiting the location of her next novel or speaking as some women's conference.
     But do I really know her? What makes her angry? What's her favorite food? What kinds of music does she like? What breaks her heart? Mention my name to her, and she'll say, "Sharon...who?" Maybe I don't know her so well.
      Then there's my friend, Kay. Of course I know her. She called me last week, and we talked for nearly three hours. Three hours! She told me about her daughter the cheerleader and her son; man, he's getting so tall! Kay has the writing bug now, and she has a great idea for a book. I hope she finishes it. I'm eager to read it. We talked about the names of the main characters. That was fun.
     Kay's on her way to being a teacher, too. She'll be a great one. She's already collecting ideas on Pinterest to use in her classroom. A Bohemian teacher. Imagine that! The kiddos are in for a treat. I know her well, and she knows me, thanks to those long conversations.
     The "Lord, Lord" people, they did stuff, lots of stuff, miraculous stuff. They got a lot of attention for the doing, no doubt. Probably accumulated tons of friends on Facebook and hundreds of followers on Twitter, but they made no effort to know Jesus Christ, nor did they "Follow" Him.
     These verses emphasize how imperative it is for us to know Christ and have Him know us. The Greek word used here is ginosko. It refers to the knowledge one gains though direct, personal interaction, involvement, or experience. It is the same word that is used elsewhere in the Bible to refer to marital intimacy. That makes sense, since, as Christians, we make up the bride of Christ. One day, the Bridegroom will return to claim His pure bride (made pure through His suffering, death on the cross, and resurrection).
     It's a personal question: Do I know Christ? Does He know me?
     Do you know Him? And He, you?
     I want to know Him more clearly and love Him more dearly. That can only happen as I spend time with Him-- time in prayer communing with Him and time in His Word studying His love letter to me.
Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord...  ~2 Peter 1:2 (KJV)
Because of Christ,

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

A Glimpse of Paul's Heart


I've read the book of Acts more times than I can count. Yet, as I studied today, I saw something I'd never noticed before. Paul was a compassionate, caring man. The evidence is in Chapter 20, verses 13 through 38. The Apostle is nearing the end of his third missionary journey, for God's Holy Spirit is compelling him to press toward Jerusalem.
       If you've followed Paul's journeys, you've noticed that he likes to revisit the towns and villages where he's ministered before. He doesn't plant a church and then leave it to flounder under the enemy's attacks. If he can't visit in person, he sends emissaries with letters to encourage and edify the saints.
       He had spent several years with the Christ-followers of Ephesus. This passage makes it clear the Ephesians held a special place in Paul's heart. Because he must hasten to Jerusalem, he passes by Ephesus but called the church elders to meet him in Miletus. There he summarizes his work and witness among the Ephesians, saying that he served the Lord "with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews." (ESV, v. 19)
       He proceeds to let them know what the Holy Spirit is telling him--that "imprisonment and afflictions await me." (V. 23) I think I hear a catch in his voice as he says, in verse 25, "I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again." We know he had travailed in tears on their behalf. Surely there were tears here, both in the eyes of the Apostle and in the elders.
       In Verse 31, he again gives evidence of his tender heart toward these brothers and the body of believers whom they represent when he warns them to be alert, "remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears."
       The passage ends in a tearful scene, as they gather round to embrace Paul and kiss him.
       I'm a crybaby. There. I admit it. I cry when I'm happy. I cry when I'm sad. I even cry when I'm mad. Any strong emotion will elicit tears. Believe me, I had a hard time making through school. Perhaps that's why this passage touched my heart so much. (Yes, I'm a little wet around the eyes even now.) The Bible portrays Paul as a devout man (even when he was devoutly wrong), a hard-working, strong-willed, courageous, outspoken man, a Jew among Jews with a heart that embraces us Gentiles. But I'm so glad that our Heavenly Father also allows us to see his tender heart.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Lessons from the Robins' Nest

I saw the nest long before I saw the robin. At first, I couldn't believe a bird had actually built such a tidy abode within easy line of my vision when I'm sitting in my favorite reading chair. That had never happened before.
"Come here, Reuben," I said when my ten-y.o. grandson came to spend a few days. "Look! A nest!" He was as excited as I, because we're a family of Creation lovers.
"What kind is it, Gran'ma?"
"I'm not sure. I'm hoping for robins."
Finally, I opened my patio drapes one day and beheld a beautiful robin nestled down in the nest. She was still skittish, so my opening the curtain frightened her away temporarily. She's used to me now, so I can go out quietly and trim weeds with my clippers, and she'll usually stay put.
I thought she was the only one tending the nest at first, but now I notice that the male and female take turns. It's challenging to tell them apart, since they both dress pretty much the same. His head is a bit darker, his eye crescents, a bit more pronounced. Her underbelly has more white on it, too, I think, but that part is down in the nest when she's on duty.
I don't think the eggs have hatched, yet. Wouldn't I hear a cacophony of chirps if they had? Wouldn't I see wee heads with wide-open maws pleading for food? I'll keep watching.
The robins' tenacity amazes me. It has rained for days, sometimes even stormed. Yet, one robin parent or the other faithfully sits on that nest. It's sheltered on two sides, but there's no roof, so the rain drenches whichever parent is on duty. He or she looks waterlogged!
Mr. and Mrs. Robin Redbreast understand some very important truths about parenting, truths instilled by their Creator:
  • Robin young need two parents working together to fulfill their God-given role and help ensure that the young survive to fledge.
  • The next generation is worth the effort, sacrifice, and sometimes inconvenience required to mature it.
  • Though being a parent can be daunting, the Creator equips each kind of creature with the proper skill set to fulfill his/her role.
  • Patience is a virtue. Anything worth having is worth waiting for.
  • Creator provides the raw materials. Robin builds the nest. Creator provides the worm. Robin wrests it from the ground.
Humankind would do well to learn these lessons from the robins' nest.


As I hit "Post" on this entry, the Robin family began to sing in joyful chorus. I silently crept to the window to look out and--HUZZAH!--the robin parents were up on the fence running through their trills to celebrate their hatchlings! Sure enough, sticking up above the edge of the nest was a ravenous little robin head! I wonder how many there are in there.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A View Toward Calvary

At the Cross
© 2007 and 2014 by Sharon Kirk Clifton

I huddle at the foot of the Cross.
My arms stretched to grasp it,
my head bowed,
eyes pinched so tightly they hurt.
Silent sobs wrack my being.

The men are gone.
The Brotherhood, save one, has forsaken the Master.

Other women stand,
lie prostrate nearby,
each alone,
I hear their weeping off in the distance,
at the perimeter of my own sorrow.

Roman soldiers stand silent,

trying to understand,
yet bound merely to duty.

cluster together and mutter into their self-righteous beards,
rehearsing their excuses.
Their mumbling blends, segues 

into the rumbling of a gathering storm.

Messiah, on the Cross, lifts His head to Heaven.
With one last lingering remnant of strength,
He pushes against the spike that impales His feet,
pulls up on the nails that pierce His wrists,
draws in a gurgling breath,
licks His lips to moisten them, to make speech possible,
And cries out to the Father Whose Face is turned away.

"It is finished!"

A pronouncement that will echo throughout Eternity.

I look up as His weary, abused head
sinks to His bosom,
where so many children had rested their heads
and received His blessing.

A drop of His vermillion Blood
rolls down one of the thorns
that comprises a crude crown.
In one interminable moment,
I watch it
I tip my face downward in shame,
knowing my own unworthiness,
yet yearning for His anointing.
That Sacred Drop
Splashes on my head and covers me o'er.

A mourning veil shrouds the sky.

Night invades midday

The Earth begins to tremble.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

To Live Is Christ

Beth Moore
I love Beth Moore's Bible studies. She goes into great depth and thoroughly researches each topic, providing insights into the culture and language of the day we wouldn't otherwise know. I believe her daughter helps out with the research these days. Moore knows how to get women talking. When we do one of her studies at church, the small-group discussion sessions are lively and interactive. When we watch the videos that accompany each session, her energy launches us into the next week's lessons. She's both personal and personable.

I don't know about where you live, but around her in southern Indiana, few women's groups conduct Bible studies in the winter, so I've been doing my own study of Moore's To Live Is Christ: The Life and Ministry of Paul. Do it solo has its disadvantages. It lacks two dynamics: the vigorous discussions of the sisterly group and the video, bursting with Moore's own vigor.

In today's lesson, Moore ruminates on God's willingness to humor man. As examples, she cites the case of the Magi, wise men, astronomers who studied the ancient Hebrew prophecies of a coming Messiah. While Yahweh could have reached a holy finger down to Earth and traced arrows in the dust pointing the way, He chose instead to mark the event in the heavens where an astronomer would naturally look. Then Beth mentions the miracles Yahweh worked through Paul at Ephesus (Acts 19:11)--the healing blessing of the handkerchiefs and exorcisms in Jesus' Name of demons, for example. Why would Yahweh choose to use such obvious means to reveal Himself?

"Because Satan had made his work so obvious there," Moore writes. "Satan is powerful, but he is no match for the Almighty God."

God chooses not to be good at "Hide 'n' Seek." He wants to be found. He wants you to find Him, if you haven't already.

So how does God reveal Himself today? He's Creator; therefore, He's creative. Moore goes on to demonstrate some approaches He might use.

"God sometimes reveals Himself to a homeless man hiding under a bridge through a blanket brought to him by a caring minister. He sometimes reveals Himself to a drunk through a servant who cares for him and offers him Living Water. He sometimes reveals Himself to a prostitute through a godly policeman who tells her Christ can set her free."

How did He reveal Himself to you? What circumstance in your life did He tailor make for you to help you find him? What if you're part of His perfect plan for someone else? What if He wants to use you to woo another soul to Him?

Look around. We're surrounded by people who need Jesus Christ.

[Heavenly Father, thank You for using the circumstances in my life to reveal Yourself to me. I'm so grateful for the times You whispered, "Here I am, Sharon Kay. You need Me to get through this. I love you." Thank you for the people who led me a little closer to You. Now open my eyes to see how you can use me to draw others. In Jesus' precious Name, amen.]