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.