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Friday, November 27, 2015

Christmas Past

It is wired into us perhaps to believe that we are made from fine stuff. Though we are dust we imagine that it was stardust and not sawdust or dirt-dust. And we who can trace our lineage back to the God of the universe have cause to believe that we originated from nobility. Yet, on earth we know this is not true. Few of us can point back in our ancestry to the landed gentry or a royal family or a blueblood birth. We are lamentably common and therefore our joys in life are simple, lacking the fuss and frill perhaps of those who are born to the silver spoon. And it bears out then that our festive celebrations are characterized by homey pleasures. There is little in our homes or on our tables that would compare with the lavish festooned halls and elaborately prepared meals of the rich and beautiful people. Yet, to us, our platters and puddings are delicious and our strings of lights and bounteous trees are a delight. We care not that the recipes lack gourmet spices or that the ornaments are irregularly placed and somewhat garish in their reference to tourism and hobbies and children’s amateur artistry. We refuse to see the ordinary and instead see the wonder and richness of a holiday spent with the familiar and the beloved. And we insist in our heart of hearts, if ever we stop to think of it, that there must be in this scene a bit of glamour after all. For anything close to the heart bears great value.

And so I can conjure up even now the scenes from Christmases long ago which, in my memory, are bright with the meaning of the season. Much of my childhood was spent in ministry as my family was an itinerant evangelistic team and lived many weeks out of the year “on the road.” It must have been challenging and at times even difficult for my parents and grandparents, but to me, in a child’s way of seeing things, it was a delightful mix of adventure and normality. Many of the warm memories of my past are bound up in these travels. And of course Christmas was part of that past.

There was the year when our travels took my family in early fall to a small hamlet in Tennessee where we pulled up our campers into the church yard alongside a fence. The pastor’s name was Hood and his daughter, happily named Robin (as in Robin Hood ), was older than me and could have been annoyed at the hero-worship of a middle-schooler. But she wasn’t and invited me into her world, introducing me to the “new” author, Janette Oke, and fixing me hot chocolate with marshmallows while we clandestinely listened to Christmas music way ahead of the season, and even invited my perusal of her shopping purchases (I remember a purse and maybe some shoes.) It was still the autumn season and I can recall country roads with leaves, but the hot chocolate and the music had awakened the seed of Christmas already in the fertile soil of my young imagination.

As the days grew chilly and misty and the calendar pages keep turning, the evangelistic slate took my family in November to a wee metropolis in Arkansas by the name of DeWitt. There we held revival services by night and by day made pilgrimages to the local discount market, thanks to the shopping affinity held by my grandmother. This store, appropriately named Magic Mart for it held all sorts of astounding treasures, was a labyrinth of adventure for children and a lot of fun for my grandmother as well. And as it was the beginning of the retail holiday push, there was added to the trips the thrill of Christmas that once beat in the pulse of every kid my age. For us, in those days, Christmas was not a day of opening gift cards for shopping on Amazon or of pilfering through piles of technological gadgets; rather, Christmas was a journey through toy catalogs and real Christmas trees and wrapping gifts and making sugar cookies. It was the time of year when mother made us wait until the day after Thanksgiving to play our treasured Christmas albums and tapes. It was something in the air that you wanted to reach out and grab and hug to yourself.

And in this spirit, our family acquired, through the generous graces of my grandmother and the ample stock of Magic Mart, a lighted ceramic Christmas tree. My mother, though staunch in her resolve not to desecrate the spirit of thankfulness and Pilgrims, somehow allowed us to take it out of the box and set it up in all its illuminated glory on a small dresser in the camper. This then became the centerpiece of our imaginations and joys. My brother and I were effervescent in our satisfaction; it was the most beautiful piece of d├ęcor in our world. And it represented all the hope and love and peace that we associated with Christmas. We were a family who claimed Christ as Savior, who recognized the greatest Gift, who had been blessed by grace. And so, hung with every wreath and wrapped with every bow, was the knowledge of the Baby, the Source of every good thing.  But we did not think such thoughts at the time. All we knew, in our childish understanding, was that we were loved and cared for by our parents, that we had a very exciting life of travel (though home-school was a bit tedious) and that Christmas was on the way and we had a ceramic tree with which to celebrate. Providing the sounds for this euphoric time was an 8-track tape that we were permitted to sneak in before the “after Thanksgiving” rule. The “Songs of Christmas” played over and over on the player my father had installed in our camper. It was a compilation of various artists and groups singing gospel Christmas songs and for that reason, a bit more permissible this early in the season than traditional carols. Even today, I am instantly back in that moment of my childhood when I hear one of those songs (and yes, I have a copy now on CD). I don’t remember much else about that saga in Arkansas in that small town; the store and the tree encapsulate almost the totality of my remembrance. But it is a good thing, and a favorite image on the screen of my mind.

I remember the next town where we traveled, Nadi, Arkansas, where my family was given chickens to butcher (which didn’t go so well, either in the butchering or the eating), and I spent Sunday afternoon with a new friend, and we jumped on her trampoline and then left early for service where I listened to the rehearsal for the upcoming Christmas program. This was the time my little brother got the chicken pox, and I, who had already had this childhood disease, instead contracted the shingles. My mother nursed me through it. When homemade remedies didn’t work and I couldn’t sleep, my parents prayed and the Father, who loves children and understands everything about them including their Christmas joy, eased the itching and burning and put me to sleep.

We did make it back home before Christmas, of course. Home was a few wooded lots in the countryside middle Tennessee. And there more excitement awaited us as we watched Mama bring down the hallowed boxes from the attic and adorn our little place with favorite decorations – the cardboard Christmas village we had helped to assemble, the “bubble lights” on the tree and the familiar greenery and bows. Outside, Daddy would put up the Christmas carolers and nativity scene that he had made from  a kit and that was part of the visual celebration of our holiday. There would be my parents’ annual shopping trip to Nashville to the mall (when they told us they were going to visit Santa Claus and we didn’t tell them we knew that was their euphemism for buying us gifts) and there would be the Christmas program at the country church and all the hurry and scurry of the season. And then would come the night when we would gather at my grandparents’ house across the road to eat some holiday sweets and open gifts (though usually we would have to wait as my grandma finished her gift wrapping). Together with our cousins, we would spread across the floor in our routine places and wait while my uncle and my father passed out the gifts. Then when there was only empty space under the tree, the “go” would be given and we would tear into the presents, oohing and ahhing and comparing and rejoicing. It was a grand time.  And then there was stockings on Christmas morning (in the familiar crocheted stockings) and Christmas dinner again at the grandparents and hovering over it all the security of knowing that Jesus’ birth was the focal point of all this joy and that He was the bond that held our family tight (and still does).

These are a few of the scenes that color the kaleidoscope of my Christmas past. None of them is significant on a grand scale and none of them is really important to anybody else, but they are part of my Christmas past and I would not trade them for memories of lavish banquets in the courts of royalty.  Dickens knew, as did his character Bob Cratchit, that it is not the wealth of the celebrants, but what they are celebrating and with whom they are celebrating that makes all the difference. And so, as I keep Christmas this year, I build upon the things of old, keeping room in my heart for memories yet to come and for the Christ who is the Reason for them all.Pas 

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Story for Thanksgiving (guest post)

Here's a bit of fiction that my daughter wrote for her high school composition class. 
I thought I'd share it with you.  Enjoy!

A Teddy Bear Thanksgiving
- Autumn Quesenberry
“Noah, honey, how many times does Mommy have to answer your question?”
Four-year-old Noah peered up at his mom with a sheepish look. “I’m sorry, Mommy.”
 “It’s okay, sweetheart.  We’re going to Colorado to spend Thanksgiving with Grandma and Grandpa. Did you bring Mr. Ted with you?”
“Yep, he’s ri-i-g-g-h-h-t here.” Noah stretched out his small frame to reach the teddy bear which had been carelessly tossed into the vehicle before its departure.  “I think he needs a new bow. Do you think Grandma could make one?”
Looking back at her little boy with tousled brown hair, Tiffany saw his troubled expression. “Yes, I think Grandma would be happy to help.”
Seemingly content with her answer, Noah settled back into his booster seat and proceeded to tell Mr. Ted how big the mountains in Colorado actually are. Trees whizzed by the window as the evening turned to night, and heat blasted from the vents on the floor to counter the forty degree temperatures outside. Christmas music played softly in the background, filling the cozy Jeep Liberty with a sense of peace. Tiffany turned her attention to her husband who was driving their vehicle down the highway. “I can’t wait to see Mom. She must have made at least three pumpkin pies by now, and who knows how many apple pies she’s going to make.”
Damien flashed a quick grin. “Yeah, and as I remember, her turkey is the absolute bomb. Hey, Tiff, can you get the GPS back out? I need to get gas, and this traffic is so thick that I’m not sure we’ll make it.”
“Sure thing, where’d you put it?”
“In the glove box. Now why did I let your brother convince me to try this new route?”
“Because you were curious.  Ah, here it is!” Rescuing the GPS from its long forgotten residence, Tiffany punched in their location. “There’s a Shell station about fifteen miles from here. We need to make a right at the next light.”
“Okay, thanks,” he said with a sigh. “Do we have any of that puppy chow left? I’m starved.”
“Yeah, I think it’s in the back. Noah, will you give me the puppy chow, please?”
Noah roused from his explanation to Mr. Ted. “Here, Mommy.”
“Thanks, honey.” After taking a handful for herself, she held it out to Damien. He reached for the bag, but it fell between his feet in front of the pedals. Distracted, he bent down to pick it up, taking his eyes off the road for a moment. Without warning, a car horn loudly sounded followed immediately by a crash into the driver’s side. Noah’s frightened screams filled the air. Glass shattered, seat belts retracted, and the air bags deployed, then the sound of sirens floated through the chilly November night as paramedics flooded the scene.  Before she lost consciousness, Tiffany looked up to see a firefighter pulling her son’s body out the back window.
She groggily awakened. The overpowering smell of disinfectant permeated the room, while the heart monitors beeped with a cicada-like rhythm.
“Good morning, sleepy head.” A voice spoke from the corner chair, and Tiffany soon realized that it was Damien’s.
“What happened? Where am I?”
“We had an accident. You’re at the hospital just outside of the Colorado state border. The doctor says that you have a mild concussion along with some scrapes and bruises.”
Terror suddenly gripped Tiffany’s heart. “Where’s Noah?”
“That’s what I need to talk to you about. The car that hit us rammed the side of the Jeep where Noah was sitting.” Tears filled Damien’s eyes, and his voice caught. “He’s got serious internal bleeding. The doctor called in the surgeon; they’ve got to perform surgery right away.”
Tiffany’s body shook with uncontrollable sobs. “My poor baby. How could this happen?”
A still silence followed her question. Damien’s head dropped into his hands, and Tiffany couldn’t bear to see her husband in such a deflated state.  She looked to the window, unable to understand how her world had shattered in merely hours. Before she lost all restraints on her emotions, she choked out the words, “When are they going to take him back?”
Damien walked over to her with a look of tenderness. “He’s already in surgery. Has been for the past thirty minutes.”
“Oh, no! No, no, no.” She murmured to herself.
 “I can’t lose him, Tiff. I just can’t.”
“I know, honey.  I can’t either.”
 “Your mom called a few minutes ago. She said to tell you that she and Dad are praying for us.”
A lapse once again entered the conversation. Damien tried to find a way to fill it, but he didn’t have anything else to offer. “I’m going to go to the hospital chapel. I need some time alone.”
Shuffling out the door, Damien made his way down the hall. He should have told her the rest of it. It wasn’t right to keep this kind of news from her, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. It didn’t make sense. How could his insurance company, the one he worked for, not pay for Noah’s hospital bills? How was that even possible?
 His mind reeled with all of the many potential reasons, but the harsh atmosphere of the hospital hallway didn’t help his concentration any. People bustled by on their way to spend time with family members on the eve of Thanksgiving. Doctors, medical charts in hand, rushed around to see patients, and a couple of nurses shared a light moment at the desk. Despite the cheerfulness surrounding him, Damien continued to plod through the sea of people. He knew that he looked ghostly white, but he didn’t care at the moment. He just had to get to the chapel.
Reaching the door, he stuck out his hand and twisted the knob. He wasn’t even through the doorway when he saw a man in his late fifties sitting in the second row, silently praying. He considered walking back out, but since he didn’t know where he would go, he quietly trudged down the short aisle and knelt in front of the large cross displayed on the front wall. He felt his body collapse into a heap onto the floor as it shook with the release of the raw emotional pain gnawing at his soul. Broken, he begged God to spare his son’s life.
“ ‘Scuse me, son. Can I help you pray about something?”
Damien stopped praying for a moment and looked up to see that the man had come to kneel beside him. His graying brown hair fell atop peaceful, compassionate eyes, and his voice was calm. Damien didn’t know what to say. “Sir?”
 “I said, can I help you pray about something?”
“Oh, I don’t want to burden you with my problems.”
The man didn’t seem to be offended but instead gave a gentle reply. “Well, now as I recall the Bible says to bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. My name’s Peter, and I really would like to help you pray if you’ll let me.”
Damien couldn’t explain it, but he felt that he could trust Peter fully, so he shared everything that had happened within the last two days. He told of his plans for Thanksgiving, the accident, and the unexpected trip to the hospital. At the end, he even shared that his insurance company was not going to pay for the hospital bills for some reason and that he had no idea where he was going to get the money.
After he finished, Damien looked over to see Peter’s eyes filling with tears. He didn’t understand why this man, whom he had never met, would take time not only to pray with him but for him as well. Before Damien could thank him, Peter interrupted his thoughts. “Last night I saw a terrible car accident while going home from the store. I didn’t know those involved, but I heard that the victims had been brought here. This morning when I got up I felt the Spirit of God telling me to come to the chapel this morning to pray for those who were injured and from what you’ve just told me I guess that would be your family.”
Peter reached into the bag he had by his side and pulled out a mud-caked teddy bear. “I found this by the side of the road this morning where the accident was. Does this belong to someone in your family?”
Damien reached for the teddy bear with a watery smile on his face. “Yes, yes it does. My four-year-old will be so happy to see him.” Frowning, he realized what he had said and added, “That is if he gets out of surgery okay.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that if I were you,” Peter said. “God can heal with but a single word. And as to your hospital bills? Every year I set aside some money to give to charities and other Christian organizations, and oddly enough I met you the day before I normally send the checks. I don’t think that God would mind if I gave this year’s money to you for your family. In fact, I think He had the idea in the first place.”
The two men rose from their places on the ground, when a knock sounded on the door. A tall nurse with a broad smile lingered in the doorway. “Mr. Jakes, your son’s surgery was successful. He’s in his room.”
Damien felt a joy that was unlike any he had ever known. He practically leapt towards the doorway, but not before ensuring that Peter would come visit Noah soon.
The amount of gratitude Damien felt was indescribable, and as he walked down the hallway towards Noah’s room, he couldn’t help but smile at the teddy bear firm within his grasp. 
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