To the manger-seekers of 2016

The minister prayed just prior to his sermon on the first Sunday of Advent, “Help us get through this season.” I confess I heard little of what he said after that.

How honest and practical to introduce the theme “Simply Christmas” with such a prayer. Honest and practical not only in perhaps the most obvious way (“help us not to get all stressed and partied out, with gifts and decorating…”). Rather, in the plea for God’s help “to get through this” I found the Spirit reminding me that even a Christ-centered Advent celebration can be a test of sorts. It is such a big and necessary celebration that, though it is always a happy event, it demands of true manger-seekers some serious and even exhausting efforts: self-examination, pilgrimage, seeking, remembering, hoping, telling. Worshiping. But for whom and to what purposes should we rather exhaust ourselves? Binge-watching a series on Netflix? (Suddenly we’re back to the word honesty.)

How wonderful that we have such beautiful houses of worship filled with glorious music to honor Christ, where we can be drawn together to celebrate His birth just now and His life, death, resurrection, ascension and promised return during the other 48 weeks of the year. For it is not only in the special seasons of the liturgical calendar, but also in the “ordinary days,” that self-examination, pilgrimage, seeking, remembering, hoping, telling, and worshiping are some of the most stringent requirements set before Christ’s followers. In these actions we not only give our most devoted obedience but also receive our fullest blessings.

The very serious pursuit of non-temporal blessing binds us to our Father and to like-minded Christian brothers and sisters. Is it your desire to be so bound, and to a greater degree than ever? Can Advent 2016 find you being lured irresistibly down the fresh, new road of intentional, serious pilgrimage? It may seem a deserted road, quiet like a country lane with no sign posts and no apparent obstacles, ideal for seeking and worshiping. May God bless you with a pilgrimage road like that! Or, it may look like a busy street at rush hour – loud, confusing, and with many fun and ordinary activities telling you “pilgrimage” is an admirable goal but just not possible unless you’re a minister, a famous ascetic, or someone wealthy enough and unattached enough to “go away” for as long as needed.

Your pilgrimage road may not be a literal “road” at all, and, as a new course of action, attitude, or private spiritual pursuit, it may be unseen and quite possibly ununderstood by those closest to you. So be it. Jesus is there, and the plain truth is a husband, wife, child, parent, best friend or new associate cannot go with you into the holy place where Jesus infuses you with His presence, His power, and His peace. Though none go with you there, they can’t be unaware that you have been. Your light will shine more brightly (or into different corners) so that many – though they have not experienced your pilgrimage with you – will know one way or another that you have been in pursuit of Jesus and cannot be content except when close to His side.

“And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.” Jeremiah 29:13 (KJV)

The heavens are telling

img_6376

“The heavens are telling the glory of God.” That line is already taken.

“I will extol thee.” Hmmm. Also taken. And, even if it wasn’t, “extol” isn’t part of my vocabulary. (To be honest,”thee” isn’t, either.)

Being original with the words of praise I offer to God isn’t super important, perhaps, but isn’t there something to be said for not always wanting to be quoting someone else? Far be it from me to express anything other than appreciation and awe for any book of scripture, and least of all for the Psalms, but, as beautiful as that poetry is, I’d like to offer God praises from my own heart, not from King David’s.

Remember movies or TV shows in which someone wrote love notes to another? It seems they often quoted famous poets with or without giving credit for the lines they lifted. Adolescent Peter Brady was tongue-tied, he was so infatuated with Kerry Hathaway. He did write a love note, but he also tried having his older brother Greg cue him with flowery words because he was incapable of voicing his feelings toward the pretty, new girl.

In not praising God for any length of time in my own words could there be diagnosed a similar emotional tongue-tiedness, or is it more to the point that I have not gotten in touch lately with what my deep feelings toward the eternal Alpha and Omega actually are? Perhaps it is that for years I’ve been conditioned to use other people’s words instead of my own.

There is nothing deficient about choosing to quote scripture or hymns or popular praise songs if the words express what I feel and if I don’t happen to be quite that poetic myself. I do think it bears examining by any of us, though, if we claim to be “worshiping through” songs that tell about faith and feelings we don’t have, don’t understand, and are not very interested in.

Is there a point? Yes, at least one. Anyone who isn’t praising Yahweh frequently is missing something much more huge than we might think. Missing. Missing. Going without – and for no good reason. Often, for a lot of basically unimportant reasons.

I feel this “missing” – right now, as I write – as if it is a vitamin deficiency that has been going on for a long time and is finally causing outward symptoms. I’m looking jaundiced. I’m feeling anemic. I crave this missing nutrient as I would be thinking about chocolate halfway through Lent if I were strong enough to give up chocolate for Lent.

Now, what about the pretty, heartfelt words that prove I don’t need to quote the Psalms or Charles Wesley or Getty and Townend in order to praise? Well, they may come or they may not come. Lovesick Greg Brady (in an earlier season) lay on his bed thinking about Linda. He wasn’t sitting at the desk in the boys’ bedroom composing a poem, nor was he chanting, “Linda, you are beautiful; Linda, no one is like you.” We saw in that episode interest and affection that was untrained, spontaneous, and all-consuming. No orations. Just an infatuated teen with a stomach ache.

I want to be the one who takes to my bed sometimes because God is so wonderful that it gives me a stomach ache.

I am that baby

image

I looked in the mirror this morning and realized I am the most important person in the world to God. And so is the next person. And the next person. Because God is all-powerful and omnipresent, it’s as if each of us has God entire giving sole attention to us. Do we fail to ask for His attention? If so, we grievously fail ourselves.

I’ve seen a baby ultrasound face picture recently, remembered the one of my daughter, and visited a Chinese friend and her newborn son. As I looked at my face in the mirror, I thought of that, how I was once that beautiful, brand-new creation knit together in my mother’s womb. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, of course, but – also of course – I am just as precious to God today as I was when tiny, helpless, and innocent.

And so are you.

Last week we buried the last of our parents, Jeff’s 93-year-old mother. Pictures from her youth were quite impressive at the funeral visitation. How beautiful she was, an 18-year-old war bride! That face at 93 – the one under the lid of the casket – suffered years of declining health. But no wrinkle, no pallor, no weakness mars beauty except to us, who sometimes forget what beauty is.

Never forget how beautiful you are, and live accordingly! The world needs your beauty to shine forth in positive words and good works.

 

image
Granddaughter and grandmother show remarkable family resemblance at similar age!

31st Olympiad: inspiring and sobering

With my family, I enjoyed watching TV coverage of the competition, victories, anxious moments, medal ceremonies, and background stories on many athletes representing the U.S. and other nations. My husband, a former high school and college sprinter and hurdler, told me that a certain Olympic runner for Great Britain (who looks to me as though he’s from Africa) lives in the United States. It all gets very eclectic and melting pot – which is one of the clearest messages portrayed in advertising during the games and, of course, in the games themselves.

I am sad over the scandal of Ryan Lochte and companions, and I surely hope many people of all ages get the message that going out “partying” and drinking is very foolish and risky, indeed, and is a habit best given up. Period. Did you find the pun I used intentionally in this article’s title, where I originally wrote “inspiring and disturbing”?

Michael “Mikey” Brannigan, 19, the Paralympic runner with autism, said, “Find a hobby you love and stick with it.” As a hopeful novelist – who, in that pursuit, often has work periods when a second great love, knitting, gets set aside – I find a monumental reminder in Brannigan’s advice! These pursuits, both authorship and knitting, presently are hobbies for me. So far, I’m in that protected place where I am not obligated by strict completion deadlines in either avocation (other than self-imposed goals). And I do love both hobbies. That’s why you often see me busy at one or at the other.

For athletes and for hopefuls in any field, the message has been coming down for a long time, including from classic DCOMs* like Brink and Doubleteamed: Stick with your passion as long as it makes you happy. Whether it ever earns a living for you or brings you competitive victories is secondary. Of course, the happy fallout of this approach is that passion typically fuels excellence, and excellence frequently attracts interest, customers, and even trophies.

Love and enjoy the process. That doesn’t mean not dedicating long hours and hard work. If you take a look at my other blog page, Long Tail and Short Tales, you will find pictures depicting long hours and hard work toward knitting, my hobby that is a true happy place. And, when A Stranger’s Promise and its sequel, The Wrong Type of Love, get into print and you read them, you will find several years’ hard work that brought me considerable pleasure. Please like Books by Betsy Lowery on Facebook and follow my trail to market!

“In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 5:16

*DCOM, Disney Channel original movie

The bridge: “out of my hands”

Jessica_Claus

This is part 2 of my “Christmas in July” post on Robie Lester’s song, “My World is Beginning Today.” If you missed part 1, read it here.

The bridge of the song has a very light, “retro feel” trumpet score underlying. Listen again here for that. Ah, so nice! It brings to mind songs by B.J. Thomas from the same era. And the flute is great, too.

SCiCtT song lyrics trippy flowers

Things happening that are “out of my hands” – we need this!

In the bridge lyrics there is a neon-yellow, flashing, impossible-to-miss parallel to the movement of God we need and long to see in our confused and violent day. Things beginning to happen that are “out of my hands” and “without any plans” (that I made) is a monumental reminder of what the power of the Holy Spirit is, and of how the life of faith is lived.

Note, please: I am energized by the reminders I get from this song, but it is what God’s word says that guides what we believe about our prayers and His work. Some of what the Bible declares about God’s response to our prayers can be found here.

“When God’s people pray”

I dream of a grassroots, spontaneous outbreak of prayer like none of us have ever witnessed. Don’t you agree these many mass shootings are already starting to spark that? Lines in a pair of songs by Life Action Singers* help me to visualize what many of us long to see happen in and around us: “Businesses stopping so thousands can pray; all through the nation it’s just the same way” and “nothing moves the Father like His children on their knees.” Put those habitual relaxation activities aside long enough to walk into a different room of the house, bow your head, and ask God to move in a way that all of us can’t help talking about as enthusiastically as about football recruitment or the lives of famous people.

When? Well, pull up your device’s Reminders or Calendar and set it up. Thursday night? Saturday morning? There is a window for this in your week, I promise. You can find it. Oh, happy place that I assure you you want to be found: not continuing to shove Jesus aside in order to spend ALL AVAILABLE FREE TIME enjoying idols and working toward temporary dreams.

Since joining my church’s intercessory prayer team and committing to a once-a-week vigil over published prayer requests, I find my appetite for prayer obeisance whetted. Private, exposed-heart prayer and unashamed “where two or three are gathered” prayer. It’s nothing more than pride, complacency, and disobedience that stops you and me from going to a Christian coworker or family member or neighbor and requesting a few minutes of prayer together.

I promised to include comments on pretending to be God (in a good way), but that’s next time. It’s another subject and I’m out of space.

*Workaday World and When God’s People Pray, tracks on CD “Send the Fire Again”

The voice: Robie Lester

It all started when I flopped into bed very early on Friday evening. These days, I do my best to sleep unapologetically when sleep is ready to happen – though this can get tricky during a long sermon – and to get up when I feel awake. So, after a solid seven hours on Friday night, I got up at 2 a.m. and went upstairs to sew. The antique Singer handed down from my mother’s aunt, Zona, strategically faces our last remaining non-flat-screen TV, which is connected to our last remaining VCR. By 9 a.m. on Saturday, a new dress was virtually finished and I’d watched the four videotapes represented below.

VHS montage
That Darn Cat, The Glass Slipper, The Farmer’s Daughter, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town


“Christmas in July” again
And now we have the “Christmas in July” tie-in. I love a lot of things about the 1970 production by Rankin Bass, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town: the voices of Mickey Rooney and Fred Astaire, the first names of the Kringle toymakers (Bingle, Dingle, Zingle, Wingle…), and Keenan Wynn, one of my favorite character actors. But, my go-to scene is the music video sequence aptly called “trippy” by one Youtube user. “My World is Beginning Today” is sung by Miss Jessica, the schoolteacher of Sombertown. Robie Lester, who voiced the character, is also credited with writing this song.

A little background on Robie Lester and my envy of beautiful singing voices. In one of the seven original poems I successfully “snuck” into my collection of 366 prayers in Pause: Everyday Prayers for Everyday Women (Revell, 2004), I suggest that “Superwoman” is a soprano soloist while I am merely “an adequate alto in the choir’s second row.” I am so wistful in the presence of a beautiful singing voice like Lester’s. Go to iTunes store and preview the songs that come up with her name. She did a voice in Disney’s The Aristocats and the catchy Siamese cat song in Lady and the Tramp.

I’m not taking space here to provide the lyrics to the song in question, but I invite you to view them here and to listen to the song, complete with “trippy” video, here.

New love; new attitude. The attitude you and I need every morning before our feet hit the floor, “my world is beginning today,” may not be prompted by a newfound love like Jessica’s for Kris Kringle in the fanciful video tale that proposes to “explain” American Christmas traditions.* Even if being in love is a strong energizer currently, a lifelong sense of newness each morning can’t be based on one’s significant other, no matter how wonderful that person is. It just can’t. It must be based on something more permanent.

What relevant insights from this song just now?

For starters, “my” world (as opposed to “the” world) reminds us everyone’s world is different. Life may be wonderful and beautiful to some, terrible to others. To the same person, it may seem scary one day and carefree the next. What each person’s world is like depends on varying circumstances and a few basic truths.

Next, there’s an obvious parallel between spiritual transformation and the song’s message about seeing life with new eyes. 2 Corinthians 5:17 declares, “Old things have passed away; look, all things have become new.” Miss Jessica sings about having walked a certain path for a long time and having never seen “the things I see today.” This is a great exercise to attempt deliberately instead of waiting for a brand new viewpoint to take you by surprise. (You may be waiting a long time for that.) Try closing your eyes and then opening them, pretending you’re seeing your house or your desk or a very familiar person for the first time – as if you’d just awakened from a coma or snapped out of amnesia. My house has clutter I’ve gone “blind” to. I need to see that clutter with fresh, critical eyes so I will be more appalled by it. What do these new eyes see that needs to go? What that needs to stay and be used more and showcased better?

My world is beginning today is a call to action. This is the day the Lord has made. See a place or a person you’re around every day with eyes moved by the heart God wants within you – the heart that’s unselfish, compassionate, shrewd, wise, and… holy. That will give rise to a new attitude that will be so much healthier for you – let alone how it will benefit others!

Little cares, little worries disappearing – don’t we wish?

What a great line in the song, about “the little cares” disappearing with yesterday! If you don’t need a reminder to let the “little” worries go, then congrats. You seem to have 9 toes inside heaven’s gate. The rest of us need reminding that Jesus lovingly told us the Father’s tender care is meant to free us from fearing and fretting about insignificant things. I love on-the-mark lyrics; a very few words aptly assembled: “all the little cares…have disappeared with yesterday.” I wish I’d written that!

And don’t miss the word “picked,” as in the image of bending to pick flowers. The writer seems to suggest that we have the option of walking past worries or of actively stooping to pluck them up and carry them with us. If not a worry “picked” like a flower, then a worry “picked,” as in chosen, by us. Either way, we lose by taking hold of a worry with our own hands. A clever point made in one good word.

Next up, in the conclusion of this post:

  • Things happening that are “out of our hands”
  • Shoving Jesus aside
  • Pretending to be God (in a good way)

 

*Traditions like hanging stockings above the fireplace to be filled with toys. That one is a real “stretch” – and I hope you get that pun if you remember how the cartoon stockings looked when filled, stretched very obviously over the shapes of wooden trains, tops, and such. It’s just silly that the inspectors and the mean, old “Burgermeister Meisterburger” of Sombertown didn’t see that the stockings were hiding illegal toys!

 

Christmas in July: stellar “Secret Santa” thank-you note

I never saw a more thoughtful handwritten note.

And I had no idea that my “main” gift at the end of Secret Santa week would be, as he called it in the note, his first “tie” tie. I see now that that was a big deal for a seventeen-year-old boy. A rite of passage. In fact, my memory of the whole experience is so vague now. His probably is, too. So, you see, it’s terribly fortunate, and so important, that he wrote that note in 1977 and that I have kept it until 2016.

1977_note_excerpt
December 27, 1977 NHS band Secret Santa thank-you note

This high school classmate wrote that he was impressed by my thoughtfulness and effort as a Secret Santa. Thirty-nine years later, I am focused on his thoughtfulness and effort in having given me this permanent record of his feelings and experience. I apologize right now to anyone offended by the implication that this level of maturity is unexpected from a seventeen-year-old, then or now. It shouldn’t be unexpected. It should be standard practice for normal, literate, well-brought-up people, no matter their age or “life stage.” Subtext: People aren’t too busy to write thank-you notes. They’re just too lazy. And saying “people no longer expect it” is absolutely not an excuse.

How much can a handwritten note mean? A lot! Yes, it’s manners and it’s protocol. It can be politics. But, set all that baggage aside for a moment and remember that the note your gift-giver deserves from you means appreciation. It means you don’t take lightly the time that person spent to make or to select your gift. It means you understand that he or she did eye-straining, mind-bending or back-breaking work in a suffocating cubicle or in a dusty factory to earn the money spent. Gift recipients: Please “get this” and write those notes. 

Why do letters and other artifacts seem to acquire more value over time? Why are antiques more special than last week’s factory output? Here’s why: History. Preservation. Heritage. Heirloom. Family legacy. Items made with personal artisanship – or written with one’s own fingers on actual paper – often grow to mean more later because, as time has passed, we have changed. We feel different things. We understand life and other people better. We’ve forgotten what other stuff was pressing on us at the time we received the note or the item. We treasure things that last because we see so much that does not last. Possessions. Lands. Lives. Relationships.

I’ve told my children (and here I’m reminding them) that we have a file folder upstairs labeled Thank-you Notes Received. When it comes time for you to oversee the writing of eulogies for myself and your father, this is a place I want you to look. What others remember of us (and take the trouble to record) is our legacy.

So…

Write them. With thoughtfulness. Read them. Keep them. Read thank-you notes again when you are older and when some details in that correspondence have taken on new meaning in light of what has happened in the world. These pieces of paper are what the historyphiles call “primary sources.”

Psalm 50:14 reads, “Offer to God thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High.” To be honest, I was looking for a very simple “be thankful” verse, but I found in this one a great reminder that, just as when we sin we do so foremost against Godwhen we express our thanks to someone for a gift, we are also acknowledging the Giver of all good gifts!

 

Closing with a little red and green for Christmas in July…

Postscript 1
I am grateful for my friend’s permission to publish this article. He was a leader, scholar, friend, and band Captain back then. Now, in roles that include physician, husband, and father, he continues to serve as Christ’s ambassador. In May of this year I met a younger woman who went to our high school and turned out to be a mutual acquaintance. My friend once served as her youth camp counselor at church. #smallworld

Postscript 2
To the person(s) who decided “we need a little Christmas” in the middle of the year: Thank you. (Even if it is primarily about ratings for your feel-good TV movies and about reversing downward trends in retail sales.) I’m down with #ChristmasInJuly and I even have my hot chocolate, sweaters, and mittens in use! (Well…maybe not mittens.) #coldnatured #airconditioningisamixedblessing