Monthly Archives: December 2020

Cup of Christmas

Sit with me by the fire while the wind whines around the corner of the house. Have a cup of Christmas. Choose between hot cocoa, Russian tea, pumpkin spice coffee, caramel latte, or just plain coffee steaming hot. Enjoy the Christmas tree glowing with colored lights and sparkling ornaments. Feel the anticipation of Christmas as you see the stockings hanging empty ready to be filled on Christmas Eve. Take a look at the Nativity scene on a side table with shepherds, wise men, and the Holy Family casting shadows from the lamplight. Oh, and here, have a cookie please–sugar cookies in Christmas shapes, thumbprint cookies with a dab of mayhaw jelly in the clevities, chocolate covered pretzels, and spiced snowballs.

Now–sit comfortably with me, toasting your toes, and let us contemplate Christmas together.

The sight of those limp stockings reminds me of how heart-stopping exciting it was as a child to begin to unpack my knobby, crooked, fat sock that the night before had seemed so useless. Yes, it was a sock. Everyone in the family, large and small, hung their own socks, not fine needlepoint stockings, on nails used only for that purpose. The rest of the year those nails were seldom, if ever, used. When I was very little I can remember my mother gently replacing mine and my sister’s small socks with longer ones from our older brothers. It was amazing what interesting things came out of those socks–simple little tops, handheld dolls, puzzles, crayons, along with oranges, some of Mamma’s fudge wrapped in wax paper, coconuts for the older children, and nuts, of course!

As exciting as those socks were, I daresay packing stockings for our children when they were young, was even more exciting. I loved the time on Christmas Eve when they were (hopefully!) fast asleep and we could begin packing those stockings with little trucks and cars, whistles, new socks, games and puzzles, hair doodles, along with chocolate kisses, a pack of crackers (planned for our Christmas trip to Grandmother’s) and always a candy cane sticking out the top. It was fun to add an extra surprise, too big for the stocking and wrapped in tissue, laid alongside the stocking. We took great pleasure in collecting things, over a matter of weeks, that we thought might bring a smile to our children on Christmas morning.

We comment, you and I, on the fact that Jesus loves to give us good things–even during hard times–good things packed into the stockings of our days.

Think about the Christmas tree. We enjoy bringing home a new ornament as a souvenir of special trips. One prominent one each year on our tree is a tiny replica of the White House, complete with wreath. It reminds us to pray for whoever occupies that house and for other government officials. There are reminders all over the tree of our children and grandchildren. But the tree itself reminds us that Jesus came as a Baby but gave His life on a tree that we may have eternal life. And the lights twinkling so brightly? Even in the darkest days, He is the Light of the world and He wants us to shine for Him. Underneath the tree are various sizes, shapes of packages, gifts to our loved ones, a wonderful tradition, reminiscent to some of the wise men bringing gifts to the Baby so long ago.

Look at the Nativity scenes. We have several. One is our elegant one, beautiful ceramic pieces purchased when our children were young enough to move the figures around, but surviving the little hands of grandchildren and great grandchildren. There’s an olive wood stable and figures from Bethlehem, a set a sister gave me made especially for children, another from France. Two Nativity scenes I’ve arranged on the piano on either side of hymnals ready for a pianist to play “Away In A Manger” or “Silent Night.”

As we sit here by the fire talking about the shepherds, the wise men, Mary and Joseph and the Baby as depicted by the Nativity scenes, our conversation turns to a question that troubles us. Why is it so hard for people to believe this story? It is so crucial to their receiving the marvelous eternal life God the Father gave us through His Son Jesus Christ. Why are there so many millions who refuse to believe because it “couldn’t have happened,” or “God wouldn’t have done it,” or because God doesn’t care that much. We’re talking about God who created the world by the spoken word, God who could do anything, impossible or not. Why will they not believe?

We remember Paul Harvey, a favorite radio storyteller. One of his stories he told several years at Christmas is about the birds. Remember that one?

It went something like this.

A man, his wife, and two children, lived happily in a little town. They did almost everything together. But on Sunday the wife and the children went to church and the man stayed at home. Repeatedly, the family begged him to go with them to church but over and over he refused, sometimes going so far as to say there couldn’t be anything to that Christian stuff. It didn’t make sense that God would become a little baby. On Christmas Eve, the family prepared to go to the special church service and, again, pleaded with the man to go with them. He almost lost his cool in his irritation and told them just to go on and leave him alone, that there was no way he’d believe Jesus was born to a virgin, died on the cross, and was raised again. Why in the world would God do that? So the family sadly left him alone and went on to the midnight church service. It began to snow again and, hearing the sound of many birds, the man looked out the window. On the lawn were a dozen or more little birds cold, huddling together trying to stay warm. He thought of the barn where the birds could be warm for the night. He went out and turned on a light to entice them. They didn’t come. He got some bread and sprinkled crumbs on the snow leading to the barn’s lighted door. Still, they continued to huddle on the snow. He waved his arms trying to shoo them in. Nothing worked. In frustration he thought, if I could just explain to them that they don’t need to be afraid of me, that I’m trying to give them a warm, safe place away from the storm. But, he realized, he’d have to be one of them in order to explain and to make them understand. He’d have to be one of them, one of them. He took in a gasp of cold air just as the church bells began to ring. Oh, my! The man dropped to his knees in the snow.

Because of the magic of modern media you can hear on You Tube Paul Harvey, who’s been dead for years, telling this story in his own words with his own dramatic pauses.

Well, here we are still nursing our warm cups, though they’re empty. Maybe we better get started on that knitting we were going to do together. Christmas is a time for sharing. It is so much fun!

Merry Christmas, everyone!

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The Uplifted Horn

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”

A twinkle of candlelight on brass, the uplifted horn, the blast of sound reaching even the noisiest of us children waiting in the crowded kitchen. It was time to troop into the Hall in age order to see the Christmas tree. Our anticipation and expectancy were never higher.

Daddy wasn’t really a trumpet player and always played only a few notes to call us out, but years later, when my brother Stan was the herald, he would play a whole song–“Joy to the World,” “Silent Night,” or “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Stan made no bones about being a perfectionist. He just played to enjoy the music and hoped everyone else would enjoy it too. By the time he finished, everyone would be crowded close to the tree, eyes widened at the beautiful sight of the immense cedar or pine lit with twinkling real candles.

When I sing the notes today, I am not only thrilled at the truths in “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” such as “God and sinners reconciled,” I’m also remembering how quickly we hushed our silly prattle when the trumpet sounded, and how, with no argument, we found our places in the line–rounding a dark corner in the breakfast room and stepping down through the big arch into the Hall where we spied the tree for the first time and gasped in pure awe. Somehow the song and memory make me look forward to the next time Jesus comes, when, instead of “the herald angels,” He will appear Himself in the sky in a burst of unbelievable light. I want to be ready to put all distractions away and be quick to join Him when He calls my name.

***

We spent a lot of time in the woods when I was a kid. In fact, I spent a lot of time up in the trees, often with a book to read, sometimes even with a precious snack–a thick slice of Mamma’s bread spread with rich yellow butter and topped off with a layer of beautiful brown sugar, or a couple of cookies, or a baked potato snatched from noon leftovers stored in the stove’s warming closet. A few times I did fall out of one of those trees. My first concern–before checking for broken bones–was that no one tell Daddy, because he would ban me from climbing trees if he found out.

Aside from eating and reading, Suzanne and I loved to sing while aloft in a favorite dogwood. We’d sing with girlish gusto, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” or “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” from Thanksgiving to Christmas. We giggled uproariously if one or all of our motley collection of dogs began baying. They were, after all, our usual audience. Suzanne thought they were singing with us, but I was sure they were objecting as hard as they knew how to a sound that grated on their ears.

We young sprouts didn’t understand all the words we so liltingly sang, although, until someone asked me directly whether I knew what the more advanced words meant, I probably thought I knew. I didn’t go around in a puzzled cloud wondering what in the world “the incarnate Deity” was or stop to study the meaning of “veiled in flesh, the God-head see,” either. Like solvers of jigsaw puzzles setting pieces aside until they fine a place for them, we held these words and phrases in our thinking somewhere until they made sense. Now, they are precious–a declaration of our mighty God’s humbling Himself for our sakes.

In the back of my mind, I hear Dad’s bass voice belting out “Glory to the newborn King” and Mamma’s soft yet enthusiastic voice almost trembling while singing “With th’angelic hosts proclaim, ‘Christ is born in Bethlehem.'” I hear my brother Stan down the pew from me at Clarkesville Baptist, singing loud enough for three how Jesus was “born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.”

I can see my grandson Charles Douglas’s face when, as a tiny boy, he had his first experience “lining up for the Christmas tree at Grandmother Knight’s.” His brown eyes grew so wide, and he looked awed and amazed as the notes of the trumpet sounded. But how we did crack up at his next question: “What’s that noise?”

Lord, I pray I’ll be ready when You come. I pray I’ll do my part in preparing others for Your coming. I pray we’ll recognize You and never once wonder what the “noise” is. Amen.

The above is adapted from a chapter in Christmas Carols in my Heart by Brenda Knight Graham. If you’d like signed copies as Christmas presents, please e-mail me at topdawgs@syrupcity.net for info on this and other books and prices.

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Christmas Joy

I once thought joy was synonymous with happiness. Sure, I would use the word to mean extreme happiness, not just everyday cheerfulness, but still…I lined it up somewhere in the happiness spectrum. But joy is far more than happiness. Experience in God’s kingdom teaches us this more than His word, though it is confirmed there over and over.

In December 1997 my then ninety-three-old mother was in the hospital. We all knew, though we wouldn’t admit it, that she was dying. Previously, I’d been guilty of thinking that the passing of someone over ninety didn’t bring forth strong grief; after all, the person had lived a good, long life. I was totally wrong.

All ten of the children Mamma had given birth to and nine chosen ones, as well as thirty-three grandchildren and thirty great-grandchildren, expressed ourselves differently, but we were heartbroken at the thought of losing Mamma, Momsey, Mother, Grandmother, Great-Grandmother, Miss Eula. We couldn’t imagine ever finding full happiness again without this dear lady whose cozy bedroom had become a sanctuary for all of us–a place where we knew we’d find loving support, challenges to keep our chins up, boosts to our faith, encouragement to continue pursuing our dreams, or simply the opportunity to catch our breath. Hers was a place where we could lean over a game of Scrabble and lose our other concerns in deep contemplation over whether we could find a brilliant or not so brilliant use for a q.

It seemed natural to sing around Mamma’s hospital bed. Gradually, she slipped too far for us to communicate in any other way. She’d always enjoyed her children being around her–so we sang, some of the boys strumming guitars. We gathered each night around Mamma’s bed to sing, even though, for days, there was no response from the still figure in the bed. We sang all her favorite hymns and, with Christmas approaching, felt compelled to sing carols too. It was apparent Mamma wouldn’t be with us at the big Stone Gables Christmas tree this year. In fact, some of her last words had been that she wouldn’t be seen sitting in her big blue chair “But,” she’d whispered, “I’ll see you.”

It was a struggle, even a battle, for me to sing “Joy to the World” beside Mamma’s silent form to the accompaniment of her struggled breathing. But I was determined to do it. When one of us dropped out of the singing because of tears, others took up the slack. Nurses, who had ignored hospital rules to let us overcrowd Mamma’s room, told us with moist eyes how much our faith–and, yes, joy–meant to them as we sang Mamma to heaven, her flight to perfect peace finally occurring in the wee hours of December 12, 1997.

For over a year I could not sing any Christmas carol without needing one of Mamma’s handkerchiefs. But I knew hos much Mamma had loved Jesus and loved Christmas, how she’d loved seeing the little ones sitting around the tree singing “Away in a Manger.” I remembered how she’d always beamed as her younger sons, Stan and Charlie, took turns emceeing our large family Christmas party. They would throw in a line about how Santa had been delayed by a heavy snow, but could still possibly come. She was as thrilled as the children when a real live Santa Claus came walking in our big front door with a pack on his back. It would have been a tremendous sorrow to her if she knew she’d laid a shadow forever over our Christmas spirit. So, I kept singing. We all did. And the joy of the Lord came to us even in the midst of grief.

Now, years later, I can sing more joyfully than ever. For there are even more memories–memories of Mamma’s sweet concern for us to the very last, of her dreams for each little great-grandchild, of her love of life. I remember vividly my husband’s tenderness throughout that dreadful, sweet time and my children’s thoughtfulness. William pulled on his dad’s boots and went out in a cold dawn to help his cousins dig Mamma’s grave in our family cemetery, all of them wanting her place of rest to be personally and perfectly right. Julie reminded me, “Grandmother’s happy now and not hurting anymore. She’s singing with the angels. And you’re just going to have to learn how to make those good green beans she always cooked for us.”

Yes, true joy comes during our darkest hours. True joy shines through our grief in an unexplainable way. The Christ of Christmas knew sorrow greater than any of us can begin to conceive. But He offers Joy that is eternal.

Almighty God, thank You for being there for me in great joy and in sorrow. Thank You for bringing joy out of sorrow and showing me rainbows in my tears. Make me a blessing, Lord, to others who mourn. Amen.

Ideas for you to write in your Christmas journal:

Have you experienced grief at Christmastime? Write about it, if only a few words.

What are some of the voices you hear in your mind when “Joy to the World” is sung?

Write a prayer from your heart to His.

This “Pens and Needles” entry adapted from Christmas Carols in my Heart by Brenda Knight Graham

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Good Christian Men, Rejoice

Please allow me this month to share excerpts from my Christmas book, Christmas Carols in my Heart, published October, 2019. I call it an interactive Christmas journal because, not only do I write of memories evoked by twelve Christmas carols, but I invite you, the reader, to write down your memories too. The following is part of my entry for “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” by Heinrich Suso.

Good Christian Men

I tugged at quilts and straightened heavy muslin sheets, scraping my knuckles while dealing with tight spaces between antique headboards and mattresses. It was all part of making beds at Stone Gables, a regular job for me when I was a teenager. Daddy expected the boys to work outside, not inside. As I cleaned up after my brothers, I listened to music on Stan’s new radio. Good Christian men, rejoice, with heart and soul and voice…Even the carols were male oriented. Why should only men rejoice?

But as I opened my mouth and began to sing, my resentment melted away like morning mist disappearing from the grove in front of our house. My question wasn’t exactly answered. It just didn’t matter anymore. Of course men weren’t the only ones to rejoice. Because I was rejoicing and I knew it. Suddenly it seemed clear why the song said Christian men. Nothing else would fit poetically. Try to sing the song with women or children in place of men.

Years later, singing in our Cairo church congregation surrounded by Charles and our children and one special guest, I could appreciate even better the words to this song and rejoice more completely. He hath opened heaven’s door, and man is blest forevermore. Now I knew that “man” means mankind, including women and children. And I had so much about which to rejoice that day. Festive wreaths were up once again high above the doors on either side of the nave and along the balcony railing behind us were graceful loops of garland, hung lovingly by Sarah Timmerman and helpers. A Chrismon tree glowed near the right transept. Even though it was a very gray cold day outside, warmth and friendship surrounded us here.

But the best part of that day was that a missionary to Alaska was visiting us. As director of women’s missions that year, I had asked him to come from his retirement home in Tallahassee and here he was. He would be speaking in only a few minutes. Calls you one and calls you all, To gain his everlasting hall.

Rev. John Isaacs and his wife, Lillian, pioneers in teaching English as a second language in Kentucky, then Alaska, had always sought to bring their students to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. They became dear friends of our family after they retired, even helping churches in our community start ESL classes. Always we’ve enjoyed remembering that particular day when Rev. Isaacs first came to our church.

As we all stood outside after services talking about Alaska, the weather in our little south Georgia town made a distinct change. Snowflakes began to fall, lighting on our shoulders and hair. William and Julie and church friends ran about in great glee. It was the first snow we’d seen in years!

We took Rev. Isaacs out for lunch, and as we sat at the table in Pizza Hut eight-year-old William blurted out, “Can you believe it’s snowing today?” John Isaacs, never one to miss a chance to tease, said in his low key way, “Yes, son, I can believe it. I put in a special order early this morning. So glad you like it. It’s Alaskan snow, you know.”

***

It was one of those years when my brother Charlie’s teenage sons James and Nathan did most of the work of cutting and setting up the Stone Gables tree. We arrived as a small crowd of other family members were pulling out Mamma’s ornaments and starting to decorate the tall rafters-high cedar. William took a handful of sparkly icicles from his grandmother and dashed up the stairs to work on the top third of the tree. Julie accepted an angel and began to hung for the very best lower branch. Evelyn, James and Nathan’s older sister, hummed “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” with her twin cousins Fairlight and Rebecca, as they chose ornaments to place.

My sister Ginger was on a ladder working on the middle branches when she suddenly screamed and Suzanne grabbed the ladder to steady it. There, draped gracefully across a branch near the trunk of the tree was a long gray snake skin.

“What in the world!” said Mamma, immediately looking at Nathan. Though we all accused Nathan, his neck never turned red the way it did when he was guilty. But he did take the thing out like a young gentleman.

I couldn’t help expecting to meet that snake in its new skin wound around a chair leg or lining itself up in a shady corner of the breakfast room. But he never showed up and the merriment grew merrier. Nathan, to this day, declares he did not put that snake skin in the Christmas tree.

***

I’ve been married nearly fifty-five years to a “good Christian man,” and I am so grateful for him. Charles is a godly leader in our family and in our church. He takes his instructions from God’s holy Word and I trust him. He is faithful as a husband, a father, a grandfather, a deacon, and a veterinarian. And he is so patient in putting up a straight Christmas tree.

Oh, Jesus, how You continue through the ages to give Your words, Your truths to humble folk. You use nobility and skilled persons and You use children and people of low esteem. I’m so grateful, Lord, that You’re always ready to respond to our seeking. Help me learn something new every single Christmas. And thank You for all the good Christian men You’ve put in my life–father, father-in-law, brothers, son, especially my husband. Amen.

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