Celebrating Christmas

Another question from my final exam in Theology 331, Jesus Christ, Liberator, asked us how we might celebrate the birth of the Christ child differently this year after being in this class. Here was my answer.

As a family of people who profess to follow Jesus – Christians – we act in faith and hope and love. These virtues are the highest exercise of our humanity, and in them we participate in the very life of God. But what does this look like for us as we look ahead to Christmas? Do we just believe that Jesus was incarnated so we could have a new television? Is that all we hope for on December 25? Is that how we show our love for each other as husband and wife? Is it so small? This Christmas we need to seek more deeply what it means to be human persons beloved by God so much that he would share this human life.

It begins in prayer. Not the prayer that says, “Bless us Father with all good gifts, especially the 55” one,” but the one that draws us to the foot of the cross and centers us in this reminder of how much he poured out his love for us. Let us pray that our lives would be poured out for each other and for the sister we share this home with. In the light of a candle burning, let us look around at each other’s faces and see the gift of each one and our need for each other. We cannot do this alone, but only together.

As we come together at the supper table, we can break the bread and drink the cup in communion as we remember what Jesus taught here: in the broken bread and poured out cup, he is there, and we share it together. In this sacrament of meal, our lives are joined in a dance of humanity and divinity. The only cookies we make this year shall not be a sugarfest of over-consumption, but a reason to walk the neighborhood and share this gift of love in the form of food with those around us.

martha-stewart-treeTo counter the culture that says BUY! BUY! BUY!, that is what makes for a good solid marketing dream of Christmas, we shall expend our resources in ways to benefit the poor and outcast in our community. The opportunities to provide for the homeless and helpless are the messages we will look to. Instead of presents under a tree in the living room, we will mark each ornament as a gift we have made to someone in the name of love. Here is the one for Wendi who needed a ride to Bible study. Here is the one for Verda Leigh who needed a weekly phone call to remind her that God loves her. Here is one for the gift to Bread for the World, to remind ourselves that advocating for the voiceless is a joy to participate in. Here is one for Amariah, in the hope that she is back with her family in California after a long bus ride from Omaha.

And we will mark the eve of Christmas in worship as we share in song and word with those who have shared our lives, who have mourned with us and rejoiced with us and listened to us unburden our hearts for people living in war in Syria and Iraq.

525,600 minutes

“525,600 minutes…how do you measure a year?” Jonathan Larson did the math for me when he wrote that beautiful song in his musical Rent.

365 days times 24 hours times 60 minutes equals 525,600 minutes in a year. And today on the first day of 2016, I want to look back and see how my 2015 was measured.

WordPress, this wonderful platform on which I pound my thoughts out to share with whoever wants to read them has measured my year in this way:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,400 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 57 trips to carry that many people.

There were 102 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 761 MB. That’s about 2 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was January 26th with 189 views. The most popular post that day was Not as she died, but as she lived.

I write the blog for me, but it makes my heart feel joined with you when you stop and read my words, so thank you. If I say something that triggers a response – good or bad – please take a moment and comment. My two most faithful commenters are my writer sister Sally and a sweet padre I have never met named Michael. Interestingly enough, Padre Michael is going to marry Sally to Robert in April so we will both get to meet him!

My sister Susan took this picture as walked on my birthday. On UNO's campus, it is the Castle of Perserverance, one my favorite places.

My sister Susan took this picture as walked on my birthday. On UNO’s campus, it is the Castle of Perseverance, one my favorite places.

My walking app, MapMyWalk, also measured my year. I really started walking seriously in August after I returned from the Middle East. MapMyWalk logged 322 miles on 82 walks that took a total of 88 hours and amounted to 771,000 steps. I lost twelve pounds and hope to lose another ten in the next year. It was a resolution I didn’t make in January!

 

 

Flanked by Rev. Kate Kotfila of Cambridge, New York, and my new friend Mahsen, from Hasakeh, Syria, we fold peace cranes together.

Flanked by Rev. Kate Kotfila of Cambridge, New York, and my new friend Mahsen, from Hasakeh, Syria, we fold peace cranes together.

I made my eighth trip to the Middle East, traveling to Lebanon with my mentor Marilyn Borst as she led a group of faithful women on behalf of The Outreach Foundation. We spent blessed precious time with our counterparts, women from Presbyterian churches in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. We worshiped. We had communion. We laughed and cried. We went on a memorable field trip to a Bekaa Valley winery on three buses and each bus rang out with singing and shook from dancing. We folded paper cranes for peace together on a quiet porch in hot weather. One hundred women with ten thousand stories to tell of love and loss.

Paper cranes 209Besides the cranes I folded there, I have folded 500 here at home, with 500 more to go to make my 1,000. Each one has been prayed over at least four times: as I write the name or memory on the paper, as I fold the paper and rewrite the words on a wing, as I string them together in strands like rosary beads, and as I hang them in the flock in my office. The first 323 had two additional prayer times: as I removed them strand by strand from the church office where they flew initially and the rehung them reverently in my office at home.

Dona nobis pacem. Dona nobis pacem. Dona nobis pacem.

Write. Fold. Repeat.

I can measure this year in uncountable songs. The worship set that plays randomly in my ears as I walked those 771,000 steps. The choir anthems sung on Wednesday night rehearsals and most of the 52 Sundays in the year. Hymns and praise songs on Tuesday night worship team rehearsals with two or three voices and an amazing band that are lifted to the glory of God on Sundays as well. Singing Handel’s Messiah for the eleventh time in thirteen years with the Voices of Omaha, a choir this year of 165 voices.

2015 marked some endings.

We finished the addition to our home so that Jana can have a safe place to live. No more stairs for her to go up and down. Her seizures make that a gamble for her safety we could not live with. In the process we said good-bye to a tree that had been planted in Daddy’s memory.

My Aunt Heddy died on Christmas day. She was my dad’s last sibling and she lived for 95 years, longer than either of her parents and all of her four siblings. She taught me how to embroider when I was a little girl and she became my mentor and guide into the world of quilting.

Sami Sadeeh was killed in Syria, defending his country from rebels. He was one of four national guardsmen who watched over our safety as we journed through Syria in 2014. God rest his soul.

My friend Hala, a religion teacher and a preacher who lives in Beirut, lost her father. He died in Aleppo, Syria, and she could not be there to say good-bye because of the war. May God continue to comfort her as she lives not so far in miles from her mother and siblings, but an uncrossable distance in time of war.

I left a job I had held for ten and a half years as director of Support Ministries at West Hills Church. It was my own decision and I was and continue to be at peace with it.

Julia Child SteveIn those 525,600 minutes of 2015, there were celebrations, too! Steve and I marked thirteen years of wedded bliss. We opened the year with his 57th birthday and closed the year with mine. All my siblings – the Omaha ones and the Colorado ones – made it to 722 N. Happy Hollow to celebrate Christmas together on my birthday weekend. All these moments were marked with Steve’s amazing cooking and good bottles of red wine.

Even as I get ready to step into a new year of adventures – back to school for goodness sake! – I marvel at this year that was. And the thread through the whole 525,600 minutes is the faithfulness of God experienced in whatever place I was standing in each of those minutes. And I know that this golden thread of his love will continue to weave and tie and hold together the minutes of life to come.

So happy new year. And it’s leap year, so we get 527,040 minutes. I know they will be as full and memorable as the last 525,600.

Let’s get started…

Light in the dark places

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth; and they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself; what we have heard you did at Caper′na-um, do here also in your own country.’” And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Eli′jah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and Eli′jah was sent to none of them but only to Zar′ephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Eli′sha; and none of them was cleansed, but only Na′aman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and put him out of the city… Luke 4:16-29a NRSV

P1080389This passage came back to me this week as I have been reading Kenneth E. Bailey’s Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. It took me back to a staff retreat day in March, 2010, where I first met my friend and mentor Marilyn Borst of The Outreach Foundation, a day that changed my life. She used this passage of the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry to launch into her topic which was the church in dark places.

This week as I read Dr Bailey’s chapter on this passage, I was struck anew as to just how radical Jesus was with his message of loving God and loving our neighbors. Dr. Bailey writes that Jesus took a very familiar passage from the book of Isaiah, chapter 61, verses 1-7, and edited it as he read to bring a new message to these people. These folks knew this passage as a prophecy which would put them in charge and their oppressors underneath them, to be dealt with as they had done. And Jesus turned it on its head. He uses sermon examples of Gentiles being open to faith in Yahweh, the God of the Israelites, not of conquering Hebrew heroes like David or Solomon. And where they had thought his sermon started out well, in the end they just wanted to kill him.

The points that Bailey makes that strike me are these:

  • Salvation comes from beyond the community; it is not community generated.
  • Ministry involves proclamation, justice advocacy and compassion. Compassion is meant to inform both witness and advocacy.
  • And lastly, “Jesus refuses to endorse the narrow nationalism of his own community. Instead he stands in prophetic judgment over it.”

It’s not really a text for Advent, and yet that is when I am taking this all in, and recent news stories cause me to stop and think about it.

I wonder what Jesus would think coming to the U.S. as many of us light the candles of Advent leading up to Christmas?

Watching the news yesterday morning I heard a story about one of the most popular Christmas gifts this year: a new gun. The store owner interviewed even stated that “best way you can show love to your loved ones this year is “to give them a gun.” For the ladies they even had thigh holsters covered in bling.

We have had the president of a Christian university declare to the student body that if more of them had concealed-carry permits, “we could end those Muslims.”

We have presidential candidates talk about shutting doors to Muslims, carpet bombing Syria until the desert sands glow, hating the media (“But I wouldn’t kill them,” added as an afterthought), and insulting every ethnic/gender/faith group except the one that looks like them.

We have people saying, “Merry Christmas!” like it is a threat instead of an invitation or salutation.

We get up in arms because a huge chain of coffee shops has a red “holiday” cup instead of a “Christmas” cup, but pay $7 for the coffee anyway.

But where are we when the only cup that really matters is lifted humbly with a plate of bread? The cup poured out for all that we might have life. The cup of the one for whom we light those candles each week.

I am grateful for that day back in March, 2010, when Marilyn introduced me to the church in dark places, for I have been gifted to walk with them in Syria, in Lebanon, in Iraq. They remind me that Jesus is not an American, not a pandering politician, not a guy peddling $7 coffee in a red cup, not a guy carrying a gun with a concealed-carry permit, not a it’s-Merry-Christmas-not-happy-holidays! season’s greeter yelling back at the customer service rep.

He is the Christian woman declaring on a bus stopped by Syrian rebels that the young Alawite man next to her is her son, and they may not take him.

Basrah crossHe is in the Shi’ite neighbors guarding the church in Basrah, saying that rebels will not bomb this church.

He is in the evangelical school in Tripoli, in Sidon, in Kirkuk, in Baghdad, in Aleppo, in Homs, educating Christian and Muslim together in the ethics of reconciliation.

He is in the woman of the Bekaa Valley who ministers to the refugees of the war next door, knowing that her own family is in danger.

He has come from outside of every community, in judgment over our selfishness, our hatred, our greed, our twisting of the meaning of his birth.

He offers us the compassion of his lifeblood poured out for us and invites us to the table of grace.

He is the mighty God, prince of peace, wonderful counselor. He is Immanuel, God with us.

He is the light of the world.

Let us light the candles for this one.

(References from Dr. Bailey’s book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, are found in chapter 12, The Inauguration of Jesus’ Ministry.)

All is well

Pam Kragt and I worked together for eight years at West Hills Church. Pam left her job this past January to pursue her dream job. It didn’t turn out to be the dream, but it in a period of waiting this summer, that dream did materialized for her. She is serving the people she loves the most, the Greatest Generation. It is her mission call and she was gifted by God for that purpose. She does it well!

I left six months after her and am in my waiting period as my new journey of school begins in January.

We are two women who found a way to be friends and sisters in Christ even though we represent the two ends of a political spectrum that can be very divisive. We had our moments, oh yes, we did. But at the end of the day and the end of our time on staff together, we were grateful that the common ground we shared was much broader and connecting than our political divide. We remain friends.

But now that we are not serving together, we haven’t seen each other since January.

Until today…

Pamela Sue, as she is known professionally, came to sing the Christmas program at church for our 55 and over group. Yes, I qualify. I earned my way in two Decembers ago when I hit the double nickel birthday. I didn’t really want to go, but Jana did, so we went. I was happy to see Pam again and hear her sing.

When we served on staff together, there were times when we would just start singing a hymn in the workroom at church. I would take the melody and Pam would just purr out her beautiful deep alto harmony. She learned all those hymns growing up in the church in northwest Iowa. For me, they were all fresh and new and singing with Pam in the workroom was just a joy.

The Lemon Sisters sing for the first time, West Hills Church Super Supper, 2007. Kathy Padilla, me, Pam Kragt

The Lemon Sisters sing for the first time, West Hills Church Super Supper, 2007. Kathy Padilla, me, Pam Kragt

One year for the annual church meeting known as the Super Supper, we formed a fabulous trio with our friend Kathy Padilla: The Lemon Sisters. Our motto was “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade for the Lord!” Our original song, West Hills Mission Trip, sung to the tune of Route 66, was a big hit that year.

This little group would pop up periodically to provide light entertainment and provoke laughter as we did in a sadder moment at church in 2013. Pam Moore was heading to Colorado Springs to take a new job after the death of her husband and our pastor George the year before. We gathered together as a staff to send her off and the Lemon Sisters were there to do it up right. This little video always makes me smile at the memory.

And so today we went to hear Pam sing. I had so many things to ask her and to tell her about life since we last shared time together. Upon seeing each other we just had a great big hug and it was such a gift. But then she said, “Oh Julie! I am so glad you are here. I was praying that you would come because there is a song I wanted to do for you.”

She had prayed. For me. She wanted to do a song. I thought maybe she was going to sing Sentimental Journey which we had done as Lemon Sisters, or maybe I’ll Fly Away. But that wasn’t it.

She couldn’t look at me as she introduced the song because she started tearing up. The truth is as she began to talk, I teared up myself. She said as she rehearsed it she would see me and my heart for the people of Syria. We had talked so many times about the places God has called us to, her to senior citizens and to Honor Flights and me to the church in the Middle East. She had heard me ask for prayers so many times for them, that they would know peace. And so many times in staff prayer she would be prompted to pray for them.

Always, even in our differences, we would find the words to pray for each other’s hearts.

And today, for me and for the peace of Syria, she sang this song by Michael W. Smith.

All Is Well

All is well all is well
Angels and men rejoice
For tonight darkness fell
Into the dawn of love’s light
Sing A-le
Sing Alleluia

All is well all is well
Let there be peace on earth
Christ is come go and tell
That He is in the manger
Sing A-le
Sing Alleluia

All is well all is well
Lift up your voice and sing
Born is now Emmanuel
Born is our Lord and Savior
Sing Alleluia
Sing Alleluia
All is well

I have written before about my birthday season. I have a season because my birthday is in the time of Advent, the Christmas season. The gifts I receive come on many days, not just the nineteenth of December. And so officially, today, December 4, 2015, my 57th birthday season began with the gift of song from my friend, Pam.

All is well.

Born is Emmanuel.

Let there be peace on earth.

Sing Alleluia.

All is well.

The best Christmas gift

The front of the 1965 Christmas card with all seven Prescott children. Cathy would have just celebrated her first birthday on December 7.

The front of the 1965 Christmas card with all seven Prescott children. Cathy would have just celebrated her first birthday on December 7.

I wrote a bit about those old family Christmas cards a few days ago in “The birthday season.” I had most of the cards my mom and dad made during the years they had together when we were children, until my mom died in 1966.

I couldn’t put my hands on two of them: 1964 and 1965. 1964 was the year the last of the Prescott siblings was born, Cathy, on December 7. I think my sister Sally has a copy and I will get my hands on it soon!

But Sally did find the one from 1965 and looking at it now, I was reflecting on its simplicity.

Like the rest of the series begun in 1956 when George was born, it has each of our faces cut into a Christmas scene. These kind of graphics are popular again. They are just so cliche and that is what makes them cute and timeless. Jana gets the privilege in this one of placing the star on top of the tree as George holds the ladder for her. (Just for the record, Daddy was the only one who ever put the star up there!) The rest of us are all lined up in age order to pile the presents under the tree. This is the only card that has our names on the front. I guess there were so many of us by now they needed to remind everyone who was getting a card who we were. And even Cathy – only one! – was bringing a present.

The inside of the 1965 Christmas card with a simple message.

The inside of the 1965 Christmas card with a simple message.

The back side of the 1965 Christmas card with our dog Candy. Uncle Bob gave us this Saint Bernard puppy earlier in the year.

The back side of the 1965 Christmas card with our dog Candy. Uncle Bob gave us this Saint Bernard puppy earlier in the year.

The inside of the card had a simple message, and for once, the back of the card was printed. Yes, there was one more family member added that year. Candy the Saint Bernard had come to us sometime during the spring or summer. My Uncle Bob, a bachelor at the time, thought we should have a dog. On a visit to Omaha from Milwaukee where he lived, he stepped off the plane with a furry bundle of joy. A gift for his nieces and nephews (not sure Mommy and Daddy smiled at this one) of a puppy who would grow to be larger than any of us. Thank you, Uncle Bob!

With almost fifty Christmases between this one in 1965 and now, my memory is fogged on details. I am sure we spent Christmas Eve at Grandpa Piskac’s house with the rest of our extended family. There would have been Uncle Tony and Aunt Hon, Uncle Jerry and Aunt Tillie, Aunt Suzy; maybe Aunt Heddy and Uncle Jerry would have come in from Lincoln, and all the cousins who went with these brothers and sisters of my dad. I know Grandma Piskac would not have been there because she had died earlier in the year, but the rest would have been there.

We would have had Aunt Hon’s Christmas tree cake and Aunt Tillie’s always festive Christmas cookies. There would have been some dried fruits with those delicate little plastic forks to spear the fruits with. There would have been a Christmas tree in Grandpa’s living room, somewhere in the corner by his fish tanks. And there would have been piles of presents for all of us. And everyone would have given Grandpa a can of tobacco for his pipe. (All these years later, I love the smell of a tobacco-filled pipe being smoked. It always reminds me of Grandpa.)

In the morning at our house, there would have been a great big pile of presents as well. Our stockings would be hanging on the fireplace at the house on 105th Street that we had just moved into that September. Our first Christmas in a new home! We each would have a net bag of goodies – apple, orange, sack of salted peanuts in the shell, candy cigarettes, Brach’s chocolate stars – from the Shriners. Uncle Jerry was a Shriner and he always made sure that we each got one of these bags of goodies. There would be shredded paper everywhere once the gifts were opened. And then we would go to church.

But what I remember looking back now is that 1965 was the last Christmas that my entire family – all those names on that Christmas card with the dog on the back – had together. It was the last Christmas Eve and the last Christmas morning and the last Christmas card designed by a couple who loved each other and loved each of us and wanted everyone to know it.

Mom died March 27, 1966.

Looking at the card from 1965, it made me remember one of my favorite Christmases. I’ve shared the story with others when someone asks, “What is one of the best gifts you ever received on Christmas?”

It was Christmas, 1966, the very year after this last card. I’m sure we spent Christmas Eve at Grandpa’s. I am sure all the aunts and uncles and cousins were there and that we ate Aunt Hon’s Christmas tree cake and Aunt Tillie’s festive cookies. I am sure the dried fruit and the little plastic forks were on the table as well. The tree was laden with gifts and the fish tanks were there nearby. Grandpa got the usual supply of pipe tobacco and the smell from his smoking added to the memory.

The next morning there would be the stockings and the Shriner goodie bags. But there weren’t many gifts. Really, there were just two. One for the girls and one for the boys. I can remember it quite distinctly. There were two car-racing sets that had come from the Texaco station down the street. And that is all. And it was the very best Christmas gift I ever remember receiving.

And here is why.

What does a father of seven do for Christmas when his wife, the mother of his seven children, dies nine months before? Ten years and six months and seven children after they said their “I dos” she is gone.

I think he grieves. He grieves in private so the seven young children are unaware of his loss. He grieves privately because they have grief of their own that he needs to tend to.

Nine months go by and he realizes that the presents she would have bought and wrapped and put under the tree aren’t going to materialize. So he does what he can. He stops at the gas station at the end of the street where they are selling these Texaco-themed car race sets and buys two, one for the boys and one for the girls.

He takes them home in the middle of the night and assembles them and sets them up under the tree, ready to play with the next morning – Christmas morning – before church.

The funniest part of this story is that Jana and Susan were in on the surprise. The three of us shared a bedroom upstairs just down the hall from the living room. I was in a deep sleep – sugarplums, no doubt dancing in my head. Jana and Susan heard something, however. Thinking it was elves they crept down the hall to discover Daddy putting together the car sets…and he let them help.

It makes me smile to look back on this gift. It remains the best gift I remember receiving. Daddy going out in the night to make sure his children had a Christmas. Daddy who worked so hard every day to provide for seven children in all their needs, loved us so much that he didn’t want us to miss Christmas. And we didn’t.

Love. That is the best gift. And sometimes it looks like matching car racing sets from Texaco, at least it did in 1966.

A Christmas poem, 2011

At a West Hills Church staff Christmas party at my house, probably Christmas 2010.

At a West Hills Church staff Christmas party at my house, probably Christmas 2010.

For many years I have written an end of year poem for the pastor at my church. It started kind of innocently and not deliberately around 1997 or so. Doctor Seuss-like verse pops out of my fingers without thinking most days. That year I had become more involved here at my church and really started listening to the sermons. By listening, I mean absorbing.

So, George Moore was our pastor then, and he was the inspiration. He had spent many sermons trying to get us to understand the word incarnational. That word and the word relational were the two words that really described our church. Well, once we understood what they meant!

So that Christmas I began to understand how the two went together and how we define our life here in this community of worship and faith.

I also realized the two words made a great rhyme!

I don’t have that poem as I wrote it out longhand in his Christmas card that year, the first time I wrote him a poem, and the first time I gave him a Christmas card.

And that continued all the way through 2011, when he preached his last Advent series. He had one ready for 2012, but sadly, he died on November 24, 2012, before he could give it to us.

I wrote one for the associate pastor that year; I’m not sure she appreciated it like George did. She never said anything. I wrote one for our interim last year, and I would say the same thing. I realize neither of them is George, and no one can ever take his place.

I used to put it on his desk between the two late Christmas Eve services with a little gift.

He would always find me and say, “How do you do it? How can you write a poem about my Advent series and always include something about the sermon you haven’t heard yet? The one from tonight?”

I would just smile and say, “You have led me to this place by the previous sermons. You wrote it. I didn’t.”

This year I’m not writing one. There just hasn’t been any inspiration. Maybe it’s me. My heart is in a very sad place right now. My friends and sisters and brothers in Syria and Iraq are not experiencing a silent night. I take hope from the fact that they are still there worshiping the same God who came to earth as an infant. I take hope in the fact that their voices are still lifted in worship. I take hope in the fact that they are still there serving those living through these days.

But my heart is not inspired to a Christmas poem this year.

Inside Joe Mbiy's home in Kumbo, Cameroon, summer 2001. This was the second time I had met Joe. The first was in Germany the year before. He has now completed seminary and been ordained as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church of Cameroon.

Inside Joe Mbiy’s home in Kumbo, Cameroon, summer 2001. This was the second time I had met Joe. The first was in Germany the year before. He has now completed seminary and been ordained as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church of Cameroon.

So I wanted to share the last one I wrote for George. And in it I mention another dear friend, a Cameroonian man I met in Germany in 2000. Upon visiting him in his country on a return trip there in 2004, he pulled me aside and told me his dream of becoming a pastor. (That’s Joe in the picture, standing with the hat on.)

Joe is one year older than me, making him 57. His birthday is tomorrow, December 22.

He had a fourth grade education when he asked me if my family might see the way to help him achieve his dream by attending seminary. I asked him how it was possible if he only had a fourth grade education. He said he would work to get his equivalency diploma allowing him to take the entrance exam.

Thinking this was a total impossibility, I told him we would pray about it. If he could make it that far, we would take him the rest of the way, never believing myself that it was possible.

Well the poem indicates that Joe did make it. He worked to get his equivalency diploma, all the time he was a father, grandfather, farmer and Sunday school agent for his church, the Presbyterian Church of Cameroon. He made it through seminary, and graduated at the top of his class.

Steve and Jana and I supported him for those four years of seminary and he worked as hard as anyone ever could.

Two weeks ago, we sent him an ordination gift. He is now Reverend Joe Mbiy.

This poem is for those two pastors from two different continents who inspire me even today. One has gone home to be with Jesus, and one is in Africa, six time zones to the east.

A Christmas Worth Remembering, 2011

My purse was full when I made my start
As I walked in, I grabbed for a cart.
The store was full of so many others:
There were brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers.
This time of year we spend and spend
And Santa’s line, it has no end.
As far back as I can remember,
This is how we have spent December.
It’s Christmastime! The lights! The splendor!
The shopping that’s a never-ender.
A shirt, some shoes, a brand new jacket,
Toys and games that make a racket,
The cart it overflows with plenty,
And when I return my purse is empty.

This ritual of consumption seems so permanent,
and yet I wonder, should it be different?
What if instead of filling a cart,
I took a step and emptied my heart?
If I just stopped and took a deep breath,
and thought long ago of a nativity crèche,
The scene before me would surely reveal
A Christmas worth remembering, God’s ideal.

He asked a young girl to open her heart,
And bear his son, this plan to start.
Her simple peasant acquiescence,
Allowed room for this holy presence.
A song she sang to worship fully,
Her soul glorifies the Lord most holy.
She and her mate had nought to spend,
But with this gift to us portend
That in giving all they had to give
They showed God’s plan on how to live.

To empty my cart and open my heart
I can give to just one, it’s a step; it’s a start.
How easily love can be made manifest
I can give even more, maybe even the rest!

For the story we hear every year on this night
Is about a little babe born to set it all right.
He is the word of our God, sent to us in the flesh
It’s him we should worship, much more and not less.
He spent all he had, his life, in his giving.
To show us the way to love while we’re living.

So when he asks me, and my answer is “yes,”
I should look forward, and not second guess.
As I think back on my “yesses” in this year that has passed
I look in my cart to see what I’ve amassed.
My brother in Cameroon shall soon be called “Reverend,”
I’ve worshiped in Basra, I’ve gone where he’s sent.
I’ve sung in the choir, in the plate I’ve put treasure,
I’ve given my all in ways I can’t measure.

I thank you for helping me have vision to see
That the love of my Jesus, is all that I need.
He gave up his life for the sake of us all,
And that’s what he asks when we answer his call.
This answer does mark us, it makes us distinct
That’s what you told me, at least what I think!
That’s your gift to me in this month of December.
It surely will be a Christmas to remember.

Merry Christmas George!
Peace to you and to all in 2012