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Sunday, December 24, 2017

time to ponder

I rubbed my swollen stomach and grimaced as my foot slipped on a loose stone in the road. Dust swirled around my sandals and clung to my clothing. The crowd of people traveling with us grew with each mile. Surely that meant we were nearing our destination. By sheer willpower, I made my weary feet speed up so I might catch up to my husband a few yards ahead. I laid my hand on his arm and asked, “How much farther?”

Joseph gave me his gentle smile, concern in his eyes.“I think we will reach the village by nightfall.  How are you, my love?"

“Very tired,” I answered truthfully. My legs are aching, and I am having more pains.”

His eyes widened,“Is it time?”

I hastened to reassure him. “I think not tonight. It is just the walking that makes the pains come. But it will be soon.”

“I promise you the best room in Bethlehem. I brought extra money just for that purpose.” Joseph squeezed my hand before I dropped back to walk at a slower pace with the other women.

My mind, however, would not slow its rapid thinking. It seemed to be having trouble keeping up with my body as we made this journey. Things had just happened too quickly, too unexpectedly, for calm, rational thoughts. 

We had barely settled into the routine of newly married life. Joseph had just completed crafting our household furniture after our quiet, hasty wedding. And I, the soon-to-be mother, was in the midst of a flurry of activity, preparing for this special little one. Then, the announcement from Caesar was made in the village square. And everything was disrupted as we departed on this very unwelcome trip at such an inconvenient time.

It was just like the Romans to snatch from me even this joy – the birth of my first Child. I laid at their feet the blame for my grief as I struggled to accept the fact that my cherished dreams of motherhood were not to be fulfilled. I had imagined a tranquil setting – giving birth in my own home, with my family nearby and time after the hard labor to ponder and rejoice. With the present circumstances, that was not going to happen.

If Yahweh were truly in control of this miraculous event, why would He not at least grant me the luxury of my own home and the attendance of my mother for the birth? In all I had experienced in the months since my Baby’s unexplainable conception, I had clung to the words of the Most High as delivered by His messenger. I believed Him. Now, amid the flurry of feet and shouts of travelers, I couldn’t sense Him. The quiet peace of my waiting in Nazareth were gone. I felt panic clutch me as strongly as the birthing pains that occasionally knifed through my stomach. As I glimpsed the shadowy outline of Bethlehem’s streets ahead, I felt tears warm my cheeks. I wanted to sit down in the dusty trail and give full sway to my emotions, but instead, I kept walking . . . .

 . . . that was three days ago.
Tonight I sit beside a straw-filled feeding trough which holds the most precious possession I have . . . my infant Son. He is wrapped in the traditional swaddling clothes. His tiny hands are curled against his face; he smiles as he dreams, in the universal way of newborns. I move about gingerly in the manner of every woman whose body has just experienced the trauma of birth. My husband slumbers nearby in the exhaustion felt by new fathers since the beginning of families. And yet truly I know the Baby's Father is One who never sleeps, who always watches and keeps. 

The Baby stirs, and I trace a finger along His silken cheek. His very presence stirs my soul, and I feel oddly awakened after years of sleep, strangely seeing after years of darkness. I know in my heart that this awareness is the beginning of the fulfillment of His destiny.  

The messenger promised He would save His people. And I, His mother, need to find that salvation as well. Yet, He is so ordinary, this Child who is God’s own Son. There is nothing outwardly about his small form that demands worship. Yet, those with waiting hearts will know Him, I’m sure. 

No, I won’t tell you that I sit tonight in the tranquil place I hoped to give birth. I won’t tell you how excruciating was the pain, or how much I longed for my mother. Things weren’t perfect. In fact, everything, even His first bed, is rough and unlovely. But I am discovering that the surroundings in my life are only the background for what Jehovah is doing. The true savoring of the event is in my soul where an unearthly peace rules when I relinquish and rest. So, I turn to cradle my Son, and then sit back to ponder and rejoice. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

silent night

Christmas Eve. Sure enough, not a creature was stirring, but that was because it was 11:00 pm in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of Parkland Memorial Health Center and the little ones were too sick to be active. 

McKendra Gordon sank into an empty swivel chair at the nurses’ station on third floor. She reached for her cup of coffee, trying not to remember that her college-age children were gathered around the dining room table at her home, playing board games with their father. There was, no doubt, lots of laughter as the siblings regaled each other with tales of childhood pranks. There would be cocoa, Christmas cookies and a crackling fire in the fireplace. The blue spruce tree decked in country-style would be shining from its corner.

But this was the year that she pulled Christmas Eve for her holiday shift. And, she had determined early that she would be cheerful about it, if it killed her. So far, it seemed it might.

A beeping pierced her reverie. Labor and Delivery. A newborn was in trouble. Jerking up, she quick-stepped down the hall, joining her colleague, Taneeka, in the sprint to the L&D unit.

Inside the birthing room, both nurses began their well-rehearsed routine, assessing the infant, starting the life-sustaining procedures. A tiny baby boy lay in an isolette, his fragile lungs struggling to take in oxygen. He was preterm – 6 weeks early. His was a textbook case – there was not enough surfactant to expand the air sacs in his underdeveloped lungs.

As they prepared to wheel the baby to NICU, McKendra’s glance took in the terrified eyes of the pale, young mother and the rigid shoulders of her husband, both of them weary, scared and trying to be strong. Unexpectedly, she reached out and grasped the mother’s hand.

In a quiet voice she said, “He is with us, you know.  Emmanuel. That what Christmas is all about.”

Then she and Taneeka were gone, racing the baby into the sterile environment behind the secure doors of the NIC unit.

Dr. Jameson joined them, inserting the tube for the ventilator, staring the intravenous line in the baby’s scalp. Such invasive procedures for this tiny human, and on his first Christmas in this world.

McKendra watched as the newborn took shuddering gasps of air through the mask. Taneeka was easing him into the incubator. They stepped back, and looked at each other. Taneeka laid a gentle black hand on the infant’s life-giving cocoon of wires and plastic and began softly, “Oh, Jesus . . ."

McKendra reached out her own hand, joining her friend in their special ritual. “Thank you for this special Christmas gift. Hold this little boy close to Your heart. We ask for Your healing. And give his parents strength and peace. In Jesus’ name . . . .”  They both whispered “Amen.”

McKendra needed a break. She excused herself and headed for her favorite, quiet place. There was a little alcove in a scarcely-used side waiting room. It had a window looking out over the back lawn of the hospital. She wished she could personally thank the architect who designed the little space. She had spent many a solitary moment here, nourishing her soul in the Lord’s presence.

Tonight the view was a blanket of snow, as soft as the flannel coverlet on the infant she had just left. She leaned against the window, feeling through the glass the chill of the frost outside. And in the early morning stillness, a verse from the gospel of Matthew formed in her mind. “For I was hungry ,., ,  . ."  (Matthew 25:35, 36, 40) The least of these . . . a baby coming into the world naked and hungry, a newborn stranger.

McKendra smiled through misty eyes. She and Taneeka had served Jesus while they cared for the little preemie in NICU. What a glorious way to spend Christmas Eve! The third floor of Parkland Memorial suddenly seemed a cathedral.

The lights on the silver and red trimmed Christmas tree winked at her as she swished by the nurses’ station on her way back to the babies. Beside isolette number 4 stood the young parents – the mother wrapped in a wheelchair, both she and her husband gazing intently at the baby.
The father spoke. “He seems to be breathing better, doesn’t he?”

McKendra hesitated. NICU parents were characteristically overly optimistic, often in denial. But she leaned over to check the baby anyway. And couldn’t believe her eyes and ears. Beautiful pink color filled tiny cheeks which already looked plumper. His breathing was even and getting stronger.

She looked up and smiled.“Yes, he’s improved a lot. It won’t be long until you’ll hear those lungs all the time!”

The young mother grabbed her head. “Thank you for taking such good care of our Matthew. Thank you so much.”

On impulse, McKendra leaned down and hugged her. The little stranger’s name seemed to fit. And she whispered ever so softly, “You’re welcome, Jesus.”

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

a gift in words

The library had a different kind of quiet today.  Emma could feel the holiday spirit just under the surface in the youngsters who jostled past her desk on their way to the children’s department. Christmas was only 3 weeks away, and the town was bursting with holiday cheer.

Emma had made sure the library was full of the joy of the season. Her favorite design book had given her some marvelous ideas for the display area in the adult department, as well as some suggestions for the wreaths for the front doors.  Even now, she reveled in the woodsy splendor of the Blur Spruce tree that reigned in the traditional corner. Yes, Christmas had come to the library.

Emma sat back in her desk chair, glancing at the books which she had just finished covering with clear book-wrap protectors. Books. They had been her life. If Dickens should have chosen to characterize her for his “Christmas Carol” masterpiece, he would have used books instead of ghosts. They represented her past, present and future. A scrapbook photo from her childhood showed a seven-year-old clutching a new book with a birthday banner in the background. Her high school annual pronounced a bright-eyed brunette as president of the literary society. A snapshot from college days revealed her dorm room as a place of soft lamps and neatly shelved books. Now, the name card on her desk called her “head librarian” – a dream whose fruition she still sometimes doubted. Books had been her friend for so long that she was still amazed at her good fortune to be able to spend her waking hours getting paid for doing what she loved. Books at home, books at work, books for leisure, books for learning, books for life. Yes, words were her world. And, as the years passed, she'd made a tentative peace with her lack of family and relationship because of their comfort. 

A sturdy voice interrupted her reverie. “Excuse me, I need help with a book.”

Emma was a bit surprised. Requests for help with books were getting rarer these days what with the computerized cataloging system the library used.  Back in her younger years, librarians were much more involved in book selection. These days, young people preferred to do things on their own.

She looked up, smiled because it was her job. “Yes, of course.  Which book do you need?”

The face she looked into was cheerful, determined and youthful. A dark jacket was slung over one arm, a leather attache case held in the other hand. A young entrepreneur? A business major at the university?

“Oh, I know where the books are. I just need an opinion. You see, I've read some of the articles you write for the university newspaper. I really admire your command of words. I want to know which of these books you would recommend.”

The books he extended to her were theology tomes, recent additions from noted evangelical authors. She gave a demure smile. “I’m afraid I’m not read up in this department. I’m sure both are excellent.  They are checked out regularly.’

“Thanks, maybe I’ll just take them both. You see, I’m preparing an address for my 3rd year Christology class. It has to been given before the Christmas break. I have to make it good.” He gave her an engaging grin and handed her his library card. 

Over the next two weeks, Emma often noted his curly black head bent over a library table. The young man would be tapping furiously on a laptop. Sometimes he would stop by her desk on his way out and chat for a minute or ask advice on how to word a particular phrase or how to solve a certain grammatical problem. Other times, he just waved congenially as he hurried to start his work. 

On the last week before Christmas, she was helping a young mother check out a book on Christmas crafts when she saw the now familiar jacket as he approached her desk. He waited courteously until she was free to talk to him.  He smiled, as always.

“Hi, Miss Emma. I’m getting ready to go home to my family in Chicago for the Christmas break. But I had to share the news with you – I got an “A” for my Christology address! I wanted to thank you for your help. And I want you to have a copy of it.” He handed her a manila envelope tied with a bright bow. “Have a wonderful Christmas.”

And he was gone, waving merrily over his shoulder as he went out the double doors with the pine-scented wreaths.

With the usual afternoon flurry of activity in the library, Emma didn’t have another thought about the envelope until she was tidying up her desk when the library closed at 6:00. She saw it lying there on her desk, and instead of starting her rounds of the library tables to corral errant books, she sat down and opened the clasp.

It was neatly typed and full of Scripture.
She expected that; she had heard Scripture passages before. But these particular verses seemed strangely significant.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . .” (God was a God of words?) “and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us . . . “  (John 1:14a) Jesus Christ was born of man and for man. He became one with His creation so they could become one with Him. The Savior incarnate. This is Christmas.” She paused in her reading.

That reference must be to Jesus. God could have chosen some other means of communication with His creation. But He chose the power of the written and spoken word - the Bible and the Son.

Funny that she had never considered that before – the fact that the thing closest to her heart also represented the heart of God come to earth in the form of a tiny Baby. Words. Living words. God’s words. The Word. Why had she said “no” for so long to the words of salvation she had heard as a child? Why through the years had she shut up her heart, not only to others, but also to Him? She bowed her heard, a solitary tear tracing a path along her cheek.

It was time. Time to embrace the words that would set her free; words that would transform her life with their power. She closed the pages of the manuscript and opened her heart in prayer. And a new chapter was written in the public library while the snow whispered outside the window and the angels wrote in heaven’s book.                                    

Monday, December 18, 2017

christmas in a mason jar

(an old-fashioned tale of the season)

It started quite simply, as many times these things do. A quart of soup in a Mason canning jar seems such an insignificant thing but don’t try to say that to a little farming community in the Midwest. They won’t hear you. They remember the story of the prairie schoolteacher who bravely struggled through her first year teaching the three R’s to a gaggle of towheaded kids. They know how she tromped through knee-deep drifts, started fires in a frigid shanty schoolhouse and pressed on through planting season, drought, diphtheria and wildfires. They have been told the tale of her first Christmas, alone in her cabin, scarcely anything to eat when a knock on the door brought a visitor with a hearty gift. They know well that the stew brought her more than nourishment; it was an act of giving that warmed her heart and bonded her to the townsfolk forever. Not to mention, of course, that she married the farmer son of the woman who brought it!

So, today they still keep the tradition of the Christmas jar in that little rift in the fields called home to a stalwart few. Every December, a Mason jar filled with a Christmas remembrance is sent to the newest member of the community, sometimes lavishly appointed, sometimes embellished with homely bits of trim. It might be filled with cookies or caramel popcorn or pudding, but it is always at the very soul of the Christmas spirit itself. The original jar is no more, of course, having fallen victim to careless little hands carrying it on its joyful mission. But hearts in this town are quick to forbear and forgive and a substitute jar hasn’t made any difference to the cheer in which it is received.    

This year, the members of the Remington family are to be the bearers of the gift. Theirs is a happy estate, situated on acres of land as flat as pancake, as they say, and teeming with soil that is good for growing things. Mr. Remington’s great-grandfather first staked claim to this property many years ago and his descendants have lovingly worked it since. In summer its fields are full of robust crops of soybeans and wheat and corn, guarded by brilliant sunflowers. In winter, as now, the land lies still and beautiful in frozen sleep, covered with a quilt of snow. 

Mrs. Remington has filled the Christmas jar to the brim with homemade goodness, placed a bright scrap of fabric around the lid and tied it with a bit of twine. As she hands it to the noisy twosome putting on coats and gloves and boots, she reminds them of their important task.

“Shelly, remember to take this straight to Miss Calvert’s home. And keep it safe in this basket until you get there.”

“I will, Mama.” Shelly is a pink-cheeked youngster whose pigtails always seem to escape their bands. 

“And I know why we’re taking it to Miss Calvert.”  This from Tommy, the little brother whose boots betray his fondness for muddy ditches.

“Why, dear?” Mrs. Remington pats his check in spite of the tracks he is making on the kitchen floor.
“Because she is the newest people in our town!”

“It’s person, not people, Tommy.”  Shelly shakes her head in grownup dismay.

Mrs. Remington smiles. “That’s all right, Tommy. She is new to our town, and we want her to feel welcome.”

“Because of Grandma Connors and the soup, right?” 

“Mmmm-hmmm. It’s a lovely tradition, I think. Now, hurry, children, I want you to be home soon for supper.” 

And so out the door they go, Shelly swinging the basket with the jar, Tommy nearly tripping over his dangling boot laces. In a few paces, they have gathered their sleds from the porch and have started down the road toward the smattering of houses they call a town. It isn’t a long walk and certainly not dangerous. The sun is smiling down, though not warmly enough to melt the snow and the neighbors watch the path for children at play. The Remington children are thus carefree and exuberant as they skip onward, unaware that the basket on Shelly’s arm is lighter than before, that the Christmas jar lies in a drift, its fabric trim growing stiff in the cold. They are eager to give the new teacher their gift, to show that this community cares for its own, especially its newest members.

Though there is another district where one might wonder at the truth of this statement. The folks there have no Christmas traditions, other than drink. Their homes are not brightly lit, nor filled with wonderful aromas and happy faces. The Christmas trees there are dismal affairs and the children have little expectation of Christmas morning. 

James lives in one of these hovels. He is named for his grandfather, the last good man in his family tree, a man who died serving his country and whose offspring didn’t possess the same firmness of character as he. Little James was born to poverty; life has given him little comfort. He sleeps with his sister and brother underneath a paltry blanket and scrounges for his own breakfast in the chilly kitchen where his breath is warmer than the stove. This morning he thinks about a mug of cocoa. He’s only tasted it once, at a party with his mother when he was much younger, but he remembers the sweet taste and comforting warmth. 

And he recalls there were little squishy bits of white floating on the top of the drink. Oh, how he’d love to have a cup of that for Christmas. So, standing in his bare feet on a cold, sticky floor, he naturally turns to a Source his granny told him about – the Father in heaven. In simple terms, he asks for cocoa, please. Then he eats his crumbling crust of toast and runs to find his coat with the short arms and the broken zipper. In a flash, he is dressed as warmly as he knows and out the door. He doesn’t call out to the others in the house; no one will miss him when he is gone. 

By chance, he takes the road toward the “other” town. He doesn’t plan to go there; he just wants to walk a ways and view the festive houses from afar. And so, he thinks little about where his feet walk, his eyes are trained ahead, eager for the sight of the happy town. 

But, wait . . .  he suddenly sees something. Was it an angel who brushed the snow off the little jar and caused the sun to pick up the glint of glass beside him? Who can say? All we know is that the Heavenly Father cares for the little ones and their Christmas prayers are heard and cherished. 

It takes James a few minutes to realize what he has found. Mrs. Remington put on the lid tightly and he has to twist it a few times before it comes off. But when he dips his finger in the powdery stuff and brings it to his tongue, a look of delight comes on his face that I think the heavenly hosts must be able to see. And he is quick to pop one of the bits of white into his mouth too. Certainly, no marshmallow has ever been more appreciated. And James turns back toward his pitiful home, the gift held firmly in his little-boy hands. It is proof that granny was right, and he is happy with his wonderful treat. He doesn’t know, of course, that his granny’s prayers are at work nor that Mrs. Remington teaches a Sunday-School class and will soon find him on her visiting rounds through the countryside. He doesn’t understand that sometimes God works through Mason jars and hot cocoa and tiny marshmallows.

And what of the new teacher in town, Miss Calvert? She never will tell that the students dropped her gift in the snow. She smiles tenderly at Shelly and Tommy, wipes their teary eyes and goes right out to buy another jar to replace the one that was lost. It is love that is the real gift after all and that has been delivered in abundance. 

And as for the boy from the hovel, well, it will be many years before the full story will be known and by that time, James will be a young minister with a little boy of his own and a heart dedicated to helping others. He will retain a fondness for hot cocoa topped with marshmallows and will be quick to share a cup with anyone he can. Because to his way of thinking, there has never been a gift as full of hope and love as the Mason jar filled with cocoa by Mrs. Remington and dropped in the snow by angels that winter’s eve on the prairie. 

(Copyright by Valorie Quesenberry, 2013.  All rights reserved.)

Saturday, December 16, 2017

a story of Mary

My name is Mary. When I was born, there were many girls with this name. And just like my name was common, so was everything else about me. I had the same dark eyes and hair of my people, olive skin, and a nose just the least bit prominent. As I grew up, my stature was average. There were no outstanding features about me.

In the first century village in which I was raised, the houses were made of mud bricks with rooms on the ground floor and a stair case leading to the roof. Our house looked just like all the others. We ate sitting on the floor around a low table and slept on mats on the floor. We carried water from the village well and bought our food at the community marketplace. Our lives were the ones of poor people: working hard to provide for our needs, enjoying the small celebrations in our town which provided a break from the routine, sharing with our neighbors, going to synagogue faithfully, living for the day when Messiah would come and free us from the Romans.

In fact, I often heard my father and older brothers discuss the Roman oppression as they ate the evening meal. Like submissive Hebrew women, my mother and I ate after we had served the men. But I listened intently while I helped my mother. I have always been full of questions. My brothers were apprenticed to merchants and tradesmen in our village of Nazareth. They already had the full beards of mature Jewish men and would soon take a wife and establish their own homes. Just like all the men in Galilee, they hated the Romans. And my father shared their bitterness. I often heard him say that the Romans were cruel and unjust, taxing the Jewish people severely to keep them in poverty, and that they took delight in squelching any hint of pride they found in a Jewish patriot. I remember hearing their exclamations of anticipated victory as they ended their discussions with "When Messiah comes........" It seemed He was to be the answer to the Roman problem. I wondered what He would be like and when He would come.

For several years now, my mother had been preparing me to take care of a house when the day of my marriage would arrive. We would talk of it as we washed the clothes by the river or ground the wheat to make bread. "Someday," my mother would say, "Your father will arrange a marriage for you and I want you to make the best wife in Nazareth, Mary. Always keep the housework done and respect your husband." It seemed so far off to me then that I would just give a little smile and say, "Oh, mother, I will, I will."

But the day came. After the evening meal, my father asked to speak with me. My mother came and sat by the fire with me as he spoke. He told me about a young carpenter with whose father he had done business over the last year. They were a good family with an established trade. They were members of our synagogue and faithful to the law of Moses. Just today my father had agreed to a betrothal between me and the carpenter's son.

I remember my first question. "What is his name?" And my father's reply, “His name is Joseph." So, he couldn't be all that bad with a name from the patriarchs. I wanted to know more of course, but father was not given to noticing all details of appearance and manners. He was concerned with my future husband's religious fervor, job security, and family background. This Joseph seemed to pass all these tests. I would just have to wait to find out the answers to the rest of my questions.

Since the women are separate from the men at synagogue, I did not meet Joseph until the day our betrothal was celebrated. Though I had seen many such ceremonies in my fourteen years, I still was a little dazed that it was happening to me. The rabbi said the words from the Torah and then my father gave a blessing, putting my hand into Joseph's for a second. I remember how rough his hand was and thinking, "That must be from long days of working with wood." And I wondered if he was gruff on the inside as well. Then my mother placed the betrothal head ornament on me and the ceremony was over. I peeked once again at Joseph as we parted, and saw that he was quite a bit older than me, his beard long and full, his stature well-muscled, and his sandaled feet athletic and lithe. His face was not handsome nor was his manner winsome. Indeed, he seemed quite somber, as if he were fully aware of the significance of such a day as this. As I turned to go, he looked my way and our eyes met. There was no thrilling feeling, only a bonding -- a sense that, in the split second, our futures were unalterably sealed. I left that day with a wondering inside.

The next weeks were filled with much preparation for my wedding day. My mother and I worked many long days readying my small trousseau. Many of my aunts and cousins stopped by from time to time to help out. But my favorite cousin, Elizabeth, did not come. In fact, our messages to her were not answered. She seemed to be in some sort of seclusion. Of course, this might have been due to that fact that her husband, Zacharias, had recently suffered a horrible attack which left him unable to speak. At any rate, I missed her very much as the preparations continued.

My new husband's parents were to host a great feast in honor of our marriage, but my family must provide my wedding garments and supplies for our new home together.  It was on one such busy day that I turned to pick up a piece of cloth and saw him sitting there in the room. He wore a white garment, but had no beard and seemed to have been observing me at my work. When I looked up, startled to see a strange man in my room, he spoke and his words pierced my consciousness with their clarity. Somehow I knew he was not just a man. His very manner seemed to indicate he was a messenger. When he said I was very blessed and that God was with me, I remember feeling relieved that I was not being warned of coming punishment because of wickedness. But when he told me that I would conceive a child, my astonishment must have been written across my face. And then that most remarkable of all explanations -- this child would be God's Son, in my womb to carry, but the seed of Jehovah Himself, the Messiah.

For minutes after he left, I just sat, gazing out the window of my room, pondering those words. As unbelievable as it seemed, I believed it. I could not explain the deep conviction I had that this was real, that this prophecy would come true. Maybe it was because I have always had a strong loyalty to Yahweh, and because I never tired of hearing the Torah read. Maybe this certainty was a gift from Jehovah, for He certainly knew what difficult moments I would soon face. All I knew then was that I was changed and my life was not my own, but His. I was a handmaiden, fulfilling every detail of the One I served.

The task before me now was how to inform my family and my betrothed -- Joseph. I decided to wait until my pregnancy became more evident before saying anything. In this way, I figured the proof would be undeniable. And since I was never out of the house without my parents' approval, they would know I had not dishonored my virginity. And since God's Messenger had explained to me about Elizabeth I was very eager to see her. By this time, the news of her pregnancy had reached our village and we understood the reason of her seclusion. Since there were several months before my marriage and it was customary for women members of the family to go and assist a new mother, I was able to convince my parents to allow me to travel to Judah, to Elizabeth's lovely home in the hill country.

The 3 months there were an unexpected joy. The very day of my arrival God miraculously revealed to Elizabeth the news that I was carrying the Sacred Son of God deep within my womb. And throughout the weeks that followed, we had many conversations about the ways of God and the great bond we shared in His plan. Of course, there were also conversations about pregnancy and motherhood, which were a great source of comfort to me. Surely, God had planned this visit. By experiencing the supernatural herself, Elizabeth's heart was prepared to receive my news and to help me the most in those first difficult months of my pregnancy.

I stayed with her as long as my father had specified and then returned home when my brother came to get me. Being a man, he did not recognize my slightly swollen stomach as pregnancy, but instead teased me about eating up Elizabeth's food instead of helping to prepare for the baby. But my mother's keen eyes missed nothing. That night as I prepared for bed, she came to my room. Her face told me what was coming. Her words were sad and disheartened. Her voice had an incredulous tone. "Mary, what has happened? You are with child. When did this come to be?  Why have you not told me?"

I did my best to explain to her. I even showed her where the angel sat and told her the very words he spoke to me (I have never forgotten them, even to this day). My mother has never possessed either great intellect or great faith. And while she could not accept what I was saying totally, she loved me deeply and somehow believed me enough to know that whatever had caused this condition was not my fault.

But, explaining to my father the next day was very different. He was a man of plain fact, a man who needed clear reasons and who possessed a great pride. My explanations of God's Messenger and giving birth to Messiah seemed to him a creative, devious plan concocted by a desperate, pregnant teenager. While I do not think he would have asked the council to put me to death as the law commanded, neither do I think he would have dared to protest if they had. His fear of God and loyalty to the law were great. The shame which I was bringing upon his house caused him to withdraw from me as the days passed.

As was the custom, my father went to talk to Joseph, telling him of the breach of contract and leaving further decisions about my future in his hands. As the betrothed, he had the right to bring this sin before the religious council for their judgment or quietly to break the engagement, leaving me with the shame of a fatherless child and a life of shunning. I did not know until later that Joseph actually considered the "quiet" approach. But even as he pondered it, it bothered his just nature. As I would later learn, Joseph was a man of impeccable principle. He thought deeply about every decision. In this case, though all the evidence pointed against me, he had a nagging doubt. He could not justify this course of action. And then came the night when his dreams were interrupted by God's Messenger, who brought him the words of Jehovah concerning the Child I was carrying. Joseph was a steady, unexcitable carpenter, but God's Words are always convincing. The next morning, he let my father know that the betrothal would not be broken. He would marry me on the planned date. My father had only words of praise for Joseph, "such a merciful man" he would say.

My mother and I continued the wedding preparations, while I dealt with the symptoms of pregnancy, so new and unexpected to me. We did not often talk of the Child to come; this seemed uncomfortable to my mother. But she did try to prepare me as best she could for the days ahead and for the birth as well. It did seem to dampen the wedding spirit. My brothers were ashamed of their sister's seeming transgression and avoided me as much as possible. My father had little contact with me -- he could not seem to sort out his feelings about what had happened and chose to ignore the situation as best he could. My wedding was not going to be a joyous affair at all.

 I cried into my sleeping mat many times at night. My world had turned upside down and in all my 14 years I had never faced so many difficulties. It was during those lonely nights that I learned to turn to Jehovah. Now, I had been taught that we must go to God through the priest, and this I did at every appointed time. But, now, I just lifted my heart to God at night and whispered to Him my confusion and disappointment. It was unexplainable really, but I would feel His strength surrounding me and I could go to sleep, at peace. And I even felt hope for the days to come. . . 

Friday, December 15, 2017

a cookie cutter story

As  Catherine took the cheap, tin cookie cutters from their jar, she remembered the story. She always did when she made Christmas cookies with Grandma Kitty’s cutters. It was a story passed down for 2 generations — from mother to daughter while they shaped stars and angels and filled the farmhouse kitchen with the scent of orange peel and sugar.  A story that began in this very kitchen……

Katherine (Kitty) Engel was a girl of 7, the daughter of immigrant parents. Through the hard work of her father, they gained a small patch of land in the Great Lake country. Here they daily reached to enjoy more of the golden promise of America — free enterprise, freedom, and faith. 

Kitty spent most days helping her ma, after she trudged home from the one-room school where strict Miss Hodges held court. She liked school, even if her brothers didn’t. And she didn’t whine about her chores — they were just part of life. But today’s job was going to be fun, not work. They were doing Christmas baking! That meant Ma would go to her kitchen shelf and pull off the tattered book she had brought from the old country. She would mix and mutter to herself and then roll out the dough on the counter where Kitty would help her with the cutting. There would be stars, bells, and angels — they were Kitty’s favorite.

But today, when Kitty pulled down the glass jar that held the cookie cutters, the lid was off and the cutters were gone. Her ma was expecting her to flour the table and wash the cutters off from their long sleep since last Christmas. Kitty turned to her ma. “They’re gone.”

“Now where…..” her Ma stopped mid-sentence. “Hans. I let him play with them this afternoon, but I thought I put them back. Kitty, go look for him.”

And Kitty did. Everywhere she could think of, in the farmhouse and the barn. But little Hans wasn’t there. Kitty was running back to the house when she saw it in the snow — the angel cookie cutter, half buried in the snow, and beyond it, tiny footprints. It took just a few minutes for Pa and her older brothers to get started searching. And they finally found Hans, in the dark woods behind the farm, shivering, clutching the other cookie cutters in tight little fists. 

They figured out the story. Hans had been happily playing on the floor with cookie cutters, but when Kitty and her brothers had come home from school, he had managed to innocently slip outside where he wanted to“make a snow angel” but the“the angel had got losted in the snow”and he had apparently wandered into the woods looking for it. Around the pot-bellied stove, they pulled him close and hugged him a long time. Then Pa prayed a fervent prayer, his strong voice breaking as he thanked “Gottvater”(God the Father) for sending another angel to watch over little Hans. And always after that, the angel Christmas cutter was special, very special.

Catherine dusted the flour from her hands, and like her long-ago namesake, carefully washed the cookie cutters and put them back in the jar. The cookie cutter story and its reminder of the care of God was as much a Christmas tradition as carols and cider. And how like God to use something small to bring salvation. Just like the small Christ child brought the promise of salvation to the entire world. 

“Mommy!” It was her daughter, Katie, bouncing into the kitchen with 7-year-old zest. “I have to draw angels on this paper for a project at school tomorrow. Teacher said to use a cookie cutter.  Do you have one I can use?”

Catherine smiled, and again reached up for the jar. It was time to tell the story to Katie.  A story about little children and Christmas and, especially, about angels.                                                                            

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

yellowstone christmas

I never dreamed I would spend Christmas Eve away from my native Midwestern roots, without the comfort of family and familiar foods. But, then I never dreamed I would be a widow at age 29 either. But both are true. And now, by the generosity of a fellow teacher, I am ensconced in a plush room at the Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone National Park, awaiting the holiday festivities. That is, my daughter and I are sharing a room next door to my fun-loving friend, Christy. Though my parents will sorely miss having my 3-year-old opening her gifts at their home tomorrow, I could not bring myself to come without her — we go everywhere together — we are best buds.

Christy bounces in. “Hurry already!” She tosses her jacket on the chair. “They're having the most awesome buffet downstairs in the great hall.” She smooths her skirt and starts toward the door.

I stop her. “Christy, thanks. For this. The trip . . . everything. I mean, it’s been 2 years and still . . . well, holidays are difficult.”

She gives me a quick hug. “Hey, I know. I have loved having you and Kenna here with me. Now, how about that food . . . .”

I make a face and grab Kenna's hand. And we're off to join the other guests for a scrumptious and hearty meal.

The Old Faithful Snow Lodge is the quintessential mountain structure — exposed beams, hewn stone, oversized seating, and a mammoth fireplace with snowshoes on the mantel — just being here makes you feel like a Klondike adventurer. And with the snow piled deep by the door and the Christmas trees catching the sparkle of the crackling fire . . .well, it almost rivals Christmas with my family in Indiana . . .almost.

When I cannot possibly swallow another appetizer, I pull Kenna back on my lap and settle into an Adirondack chair. She sits still for a minute, then pulls back to look at me, and points toward the window “Mommy, please, let's go see the snow.”

I can’t refuse her. I want to see it too.

We go over to the room across the hall and gaze out the huge window at the silent world being draped in a frosty coverlet. And seeing isn’t enough. Kenna and I want to feel the feather-soft snow on our faces. A quick dash upstairs, and we are bundled into parkas, gloves, and caps. We go through the main hall and out the door. I happen to catch the gaze of a young park ranger as we go out the door. Thinking he might attempt to dissuade us from our play, I quickly slip out, hoping he won’t follow.

The snow is incredible. Kenna and I twirl in circles like 2 sisters, laughing at the shower of tiny snowflakes. She is so tiny there beside me, an elfin child in a world of white. Then…...she is gone. I don’t see her. And the panic is unbearable. I turn toward the lodge, opening my mouth to scream. And look up into the face of the ranger. His face is calm, chiseled against the wintry night sky.

 I point. “My little girl. She was right here. I can't find her.”

He lightly touches my shoulder and is gone. I hear a radio and realize he is calling help.

Someone holds out a hand, “Come back to the lodge. They'll find her.”

As I stand by the window, I moan my stupidity. What was I thinking? To go out in the snow, at night, with a child? And I find myself running to my Father. “Oh God, I‟m so sorry. Please keep her. Help him find her. You said You‟re a help to the fatherless — please be with Kenna. Help her not to be scared.”

It is really a very short time, though it seems much longer, and Kenna is back safe and sound, her nose very red, and a few dried tears on her cheeks. She snuggles close to me by the fire. I try to thank the ranger.

He smiles and leans down. “I heard you and Kenna praying over your meal, and I knew she was in good hands. He just used me to find her. And anyway, I’ve been looking out for you since you came yesterday. You seemed a little out of your league here.” His eyes twinkle; he extends his hand. “I'm Bruce Grayson — park ranger, Sunday School teacher, from Montana.”

I put out my hand. “I'm Claire Isaacs — Kenna's mom, Kindergarten teacher, from Indiana. Wait a minute . . . Bruce Grayson . . . from Montana . . .you’re not . . .you were my husband's hunting buddy? The one who led Him to Christ?"

He nods. “I heard about Dave . . . can't believe he got to spend Christmas in heaven before I did. We used to talk about that by the campfire. He always wanted me to meet you. I’m glad I finally get the privilege.”

It‟s getting late. Kenna’s head is lolling around on my shoulder. I get up. “Again . . .thank you. I am very grateful.”

“You’re welcome.” His tone takes no credit, just rejoices.

I start toward the stairs, glance back and see Bruce walking toward the front desk. Our very own guardian angel. Who would have guessed?

A few minutes later, I am wrapped in my chenille bathrobe, fuzzy slippers warming my feet, when I hear a knock on my door. A bellboy stands there with an envelope. It’s from the ranger. “Please join me for breakfast tomorrow. I have some stories about Dave you probably never heard. The lodge kitchen makes a mean French toast platter. — Bruce.”

I smile. An angel who likes French toast. I prop the note on the night stand and switch off the lamp. God is looking out for me — my present and my future. Maybe Bruce will be part of that. But for now, I am content. Christmas is alive in my heart. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

far from home

The wind on the lake flung ice crystals against the glass window pane of the cabin. Britta could barely see the fir trees in front. Such a storm!

The cabin was warm enough; the rocking chair made by her husband’s skilled hands sat in front of the fireplace, a cheery braided rug at her feet. But she was not one for relaxing; that was what she took from Mamma—busy hands. Right now, her hands were clicking knitting needles. It was a surprise for Anders—a new sweater of lovely blue.

He would need it in the winter months to come. This America, ach! Such a wild, cold land. She remembered the first time she had seen their new home, six months ago, on a glorious summer morn that rivaled any at home in Sweden. The lake was pure azure and dark green trees gleamed on the shore; the sun warmed the little house as Anders carried her over the threshold. She was perfectly, wondrously happy. After their long separation while he came to America to clear land and build the house, it had been unspeakable joy to be together again. Sometimes, Britta still couldn't believe it was true, and she would raise the lid of the cedar trunk to take another look at the wedding dress packed safely inside. She was now Mrs. Anders Lindgren. In their own happy little home, she could put aside the memories of the big ship pulling away from the dock and Mamma and Pappa, waving goodbye, and growing smaller and smaller in the distance. With sunshine and a garden and summer nights to enjoy, she didn’t have to think about her oldest and dearest friend, Linnea, who was expecting her first baby any day now. She and Anders had picnics on the lakeshore and long drives in the twilight. It had been different in the summer.

But it was winter now. This place named Minnesota was frozen; the Lake called Superior was solid. There was no warmth, no waves and no color—only wind and snow in shades of grey and white.

Still, Sweden was terribly cold too. And the winter days there hadn’t seemed unbearable. Pausing to pick up a dropped stitch, Britta thought about the difference family and friends make. She hadn’t really considered how important they were, especially at Christmastime. A plump tear rolled down her face as she thought about Mamma, with golden braids wound around her head and a crisp apron around her middle, baking pans of Pepparkakor (ginger cookies) and saffransbullar (saffron buns). She wondered which of her sisters would be chosen to be the Lucia Queen on December 13. Perhaps it would be Helena; oh, how she would love to see her in a white gown, wearing the candle crown and carrying a tray of coffee and sweet rolls for everyone to enjoy. She would miss the wonderful Christmas Eve smorgasbord and the Christmas church service. Yes, being without loved ones was awful.

Of course, she loved Anders too much to tell him about it. He was working so hard, and he would worry if she told him about her sadness. This is what being a prairie wife was all about. She must buck up and do the job.

At least, that’s what Mamma would say. Britta thought about the quiet night last spring when they were sitting on Britta’s bed, stitching pillowcases for her trousseau. She remembered Mamma’s words: "Britta, soon there will be an ocean separating us. I could not let you go so far on your own." She stopped sewing and laid her hand on Britta’s. "But I know our dear Savior Himself goes with you always. And it was His plan that a woman stay with her husband. You must honor His way, even when it causes hurt. And, if you do, He will be true to you. I know it." Her eyes had been shining with misty tears and love.

Britta stopped knitting. So, I am here. The snow is piling at my door, and my husband has gone to help a neighbor. But, I have spices and sugar and flour and eggs; it is time for me to do the baking. I will make Kanelbullar (cinnamon buns). She hid her knitting and got up from the chair.

Before she started mixing and stirring, she went to the cedar chest and took out candles. She fashioned a little wreath with fir sprays and tied a bit of ribbon here and there; then she set the candles inside and struck a match. She lit candles in the two glass windows Anders was so proud of. Then she stood looking out at the wintry sky; "Lord, I have lit the candles in honor of the Christ Child. I am here, following Your way. I’m waiting on Your answer."

She had barely finished when there was a bang on the door. Outside, with snow peppering down on golden curls was a young woman.

Britta threw open the door and smiled. “Hello, welcome.”

The stranger smiled back at her. “I’m Olga. My Gunnar knows your husband. He said you might like a visit." 

"Oh yes, I would! Come in! I'm just going to make Kanelbullar. Let's do it together!"

Saturday, December 9, 2017

christmas crash

The calendar on the refrigerator had so many dates circled it looked like a geometry test. The kitchen sink was piled with white bowls and plates like a mouth crowded with teeth. A laundry basket in the hallway grinned mockingly, the red sock hanging over the side looking amazingly like a stuck-out tongue. The oven light was out, and the soup had spilled over and burned on the eye of the stove, filling the house with an acrid aroma. There wasn't enough milk for Janie‘s sippy cup; there were cookies due for the playgroup party tomorrow, and Noah has just discovered the Christmas presents trying to hide in her closet.

Then the phone rang. It was the neighbor. The dog had broken loose from his run and ransacked their trash barrel.

Celeste was tempted to tell Mr. West to donate him at the Salvation Army kettle by Walmart, but she prayed, grit her teeth, and tried to sooth the none-too-amiable older man next door. She hung up the phone and collapsed on a kitchen stool. Was this the real picture of holiday joy? She heard a crash from upstairs.


She found Noah sitting among the shards of her favorite figurine, his tiny thumb dripping blood. It was, as her grandma used to say, the breaking point. She cried, sat down next to her toddler and howled for a moment. Noah was so shocked that he quieted and looked at her in wonder.

I can‘t do this, God. Maybe I wasn't ever cut out to be a mother. I mean, I can‘t even handle a normal household and a couple kids, let alone keep my husband happy and wear a smile to church! What am I supposed to do here? I need major help. Please!‖

If she had expected to hear the rustle of wings or see a shining light, she was disappointed. The floor was still littered with sharp, glittery pieces, the kitchen was still in disarray and at that moment, Janie woke up and began crying.

Her domestic world was still a bit fractured. But somehow she had the strength to wipe her eyes, hug Noah and start the process of clean-up. A band-aid, a broom, and a few minutes later and the mess was gone. She picked up Janie and put her in the baby swing. She got Noah settled at the table with a cup of yogurt. Then she faced the kitchen.

It taunted her again; she ignored it. First, clear the sink, then clean the stove, next, fold the laundry. Now, give Janie a cup of juice and sit Noah down with a coloring book. Finally, remove the calendar and make a list of the events they needed to attend.

The afternoon was gone too soon. Celeste never did get that quiet moment to read the new book on her nightstand. Instead, she read ―Baby Bunny‘s First Christmas to a little boy with a band-aid on his thumb and eyes that looked like his daddy‘s. She rocked a baby girl and changed two diapers in the space of an hour. She explained again that Noah couldn't experiment with the light strands on the Christmas tree because it might hurt him. She put dinner in the oven and wiped the smears off the bathroom mirror. She still wished for a wonderful hour of comfort and joy, for a latte and a nap. But she found that she had just enough calm to make it through the day, and she counted that a great triumph.

Somehow she had picked up the idea that the peace Jesus promised would erase the stress of life, even the busy season of motherhood or the crowded holiday schedule. But maybe that was wrong. The Father promised strength in measure to her need. It didn't remove the outer strain, but would match it with divine stamina. Without that grace, the equation of life was unbalanced. With it, there was no missing factor. And as Celeste sat by Christmas tree with her children on her lap, she knew that, in a few days, she would feel merry again. But, in the meantime, His grace was enough.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

the christmas swap

In that very odd manner that train stations have, it was cozy and yet too full at the same time. To Pastor Dillingham, it was a haven. Or at least the prelude to a haven. He was on his way home for the Christmas holidays. And everything within sight fairly sparkled with homecoming cheer.

 It had been a tiring year in his parish. The war, you know, complicated everything. And while he delighted in the everyday mechanics of ministry as well as the time spent in the pulpit, the burden of grief he carried along with the families in his charge felt at times too monstrous to bear. 

 If hadn’t been for the unselfish assistance of the “twin saints” as he called them, he doubted he could ever have managed. Emma and Susan had been members of the Faith Chapel congregation for as long as anybody could remember. Sisters who had seen more of life than he was old, they were industrious souls, collecting clothing for the needy, distributing baked goods far and wide and ministering to the children of the city; he felt sure there could be wings hiding under their sensible coats. But, whether maiden humans or heaven’s angels, he thanked God daily for them. Yet even they could not entirely lighten his load. He needed a rest, a Christmas break.

And so home to the farm he was going. Pastor Dillingham felt like a schoolboy at the thought - for there was nothing like the village of Greyston in December. 

 Leaning back against the bench in the station, he closed his eyes and conjured up in his mind the look of the little town nestled in a glen against a backdrop of wooded hills. He recalled the scent of cinnamon escaping from the bakery and the twinkle of colored Christmas bulbs in the front window of the hardware store. Of course, being a minister, he naturally thought of the little chapel on the main street and wondered if the village children would be staging their annual production of the nativity story, complete with farm animals and turban-shrouded shepherd boys. The parents and grandparents would agonize through each line uttered, a beatific smile on their proud faces as their quaking offspring participated in the thespian triumph. The cocoa and cookies following would not be the best, but it would be devoured amidst cooing over the young stars among the commoners. 

 The real delight though would be to lie in his bed past 9:00 and then putter around in his dressing gown if he felt like it. The fireplace in his childhood home would crackle with welcome all day long; mother would bake his favorite treats and stuff him with fattening goodness and father would draw him into a discussion of war tactics or the new model Chrysler was making – both of which he was miserably inadequate to discuss - the first because he was a preacher, not a soldier and the second because, as a preacher, he couldn’t afford the new model of car. But never mind that; he and father would go at the discussion as if both of them had the brains and the means to merit both subjects.

It was while he was wrapped in the comfort of these anticipations that he took notice of a young man hunched on a bench a few feet away. The uniform was a trifle rumpled though his shoes retained a glint of spit polish in spite of the snowy weather. 

 He was obviously on leave from the service, a weary warrior needing rest. Pastor Dillingham sympathized with him. Whatever the battle a man was in, Christmas was a welcome break. But the look on the young man’s face didn’t reveal any hint of hope for relaxation and comfort. Rather, he looked as if he were headed back to the front if the drawn expression and slumped shoulders were a clue. 

Pastor Dillingham walked over to the bench where the young man was seated and nodded in friendliness. “Where are you going to spend the holidays, young man?” 

The boy seemed startled to hear a human voice directed at him. “What?” His eyes looked bewildered. ‘Are you talking to me?”

“Indeed, son. Where are you going for the Christmas holiday?”

Pastor Dillingham took the vacant seat opposite the young man, not bothering to ask if he could. “Oh, to a canteen, I suppose. They have free beds and food.”

Pastor Dillingham leaned forward. “No family of your own?”

“Nah. My grandmother died a year back and I never had anyone but her anyway. No reason to go back to that place. They had to sell the house to pay for her doctor bills.”

“I’m so sorry.” And Pastor Dillingham was. In his way of thinking, there were few creatures on God’s earth more miserable than the man without a home. It reminded him of the Scripture where the Psalmist referred to himself as an owl in the wilderness. This boy had the look of wilderness all over him. He sank back in his seat, closing his eyes and letting his hands fall open at his sides. 

Pastor Dillingham knew what he had to do. But he resisted for just a minute, just long enough to relish in his mind the sounds and smells and comfort he wasn’t going to enjoy. Emma and Susan had assured him that his seat at their table was open on any occasion. They wouldn’t be a bit surprised when he showed up on Christmas Day. If he knew them, they’d already been stirring and baking for days as if the entire Royal Army was going to be fed in their parlor. And he almost smiled in spite of the lump forming in his throat. 

Pastor Dillingham straightened his back and signaled the porter. Then he scratched out a quick note on a scrap of paper from his pocket. "Father and Mother, please receive this young man in my name. Give him my room, my favorite foods and all the love that I know you have in your hearts. Believe me, you are doing this as unto me. I know your love unites us though we may be apart. Happy Christmas. May He who came from heaven for us all grace your hearts as you open them to this representative of me. Lovingly, Your Son.

“Sir, please see that this is telegraphed ahead to Ephraim Dillingham in Greyston. And I find that I must return to the city. This young man and I are trading places for a while. I know I can trust you to deliver him safely to those who will be waiting.”

The porter nodded agreeably and ambled off. And Pastor Dillingham took the ticket held limply in the young man’s fingers as he dozed and reaching into his overcoat, he tucked his own glorious passport to home and love into the uniformed shirt pocket and stepped back with a smile on his face. He hoped the “twin saints” had roasted a big turkey. Pastors had big appetites, especially at Christmas.      
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