Friday, December 31, 2010

What will I remember about Christmas 2010?

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I realize the number of days we’ll all wake up on Christmas morning together are very numbered…

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We added one to our home this past Christmas to join in the fun we have together…

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She is blessed in the fact she will always have sisters to share life with…

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I thank God for giving me this past Christmas to watch over my most valuable gifts this side of Heaven. To be with them on Christmas morning…a white Christmas morning! I don’t take it for granted, and vow I never will.

We are blessed in my home. Not for all we have…but because we have each other. I will always remember this first Christmas we shared together…always.

I pray God blesses each of you in a mighty way in 2011, and I thank Him for the blessings He gave me in 2010.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

One of my favorite things from this Christmas

As I think back on this Christmas just past, I'm grateful. There were lots of blessings. But I think one of my favorite events was when our family participated in advent wreath devotions together each Sunday in December leading up to Christmas, on Christmas eve, and then on Christmas morning (I know, not coming from a liturgical church I've never been able to get the sequence to where I'm in time with the rest of everybody. My oldest son is Catholic and he explained that it's supposed to be every Sunday starting with the one following Thanksgiving and that it's OK if it lasts past Christmas).

Sometimes I feel like I'm not as effective of a mother as I'd like to be. Heck, sometimes I even feel like I've failed. The truth of the matter is that sometimes I have failed. But God is so good to me, and the Holy Spirit frequently encourages my heart that He knew exactly who I am and how I'd be, and that He chose to give me the sons he gave me because He wanted me to be their mom. Anyway, my middle son does not appear at this time in his life to be spiritually interested. When he was young he proclaimed faith in Jesus as His savior, and announced that He wanted Christ to be first in his life and to follow after Him. But it seems as if he's meandered away from this in the last couple of years. The other day when he was complaining about how boring church is (the joke among my sons is that it seems like I am always commenting as we drive away from church how wonderful it was, how I felt God so near during the song and worship time, or how deeply the sermon moved me, or how every time I see so and so at church my faith is encouraged by her, or some such thing). My husband John commented that it's all about object relationship; I'm not sure that my son got John's point but I sure did. John's right, when we love God, we delight in His word and so a church where the Word is everywhere is just naturally attractive. Anyway, I'm digressing here. It's just that given this son's lack of spiritual interest and my youngest son's current lack of desire to be around me, I was so grateful that they willingly participated each week in our advent devotions.

I was grateful that God made a way for us to make time in our crazy, conflicting, schedules to sit together in the candlelight and read scriptures and talk about our hope, love, peace, and joy because of Christ. To celebrate God's coming to earth in human flesh. During those few moments it was as if time stood still and we were at peace together. Somehow the boys stopped all their critical, teen age talk and reflected on something larger than themselves and their school friends and world. There weren't a lot of words, we mostly just read the scriptures and prayed the scripted prayers, but it was a genuine experience. It made sense of the season and I know it helped me stay focused on the real meaning of Christmas and to put lots of potentially stressful situations into perspective.

What about you, what was one of your favorite things from this Christmas?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

This Christmas

This Christmas certainly wasn't one of the most moving experiences I've ever had, but they were nice.  That's enough for me.  Sometimes family drama overshadows what Christmas is all about.  Nashville had a white Christmas which is very unusual. It wasn't much snow compared to South Dakota where I mostly abide, but it was nice for the folks here.  Our family in Connecticut is dealing with the newsworthy snow.  I liked the silence and the stopping that happens with a major snow in New England.  Of course, it does have to be shoveled so I don't miss that at all.

My Tennessee backyard at Christmas

The view from our apartment in South Dakota before we left

Remember me telling you about the miracle of my grandson? Here he is reading Luke 2 for us on Christmas Eve.

Now that's special and moving... He was blessed by his church who took him for some much needed clothes shopping. I feel so hopeful about this boy.  Such a miracle.

I've been writing a lot this Christmas about Christmases long long ago as a child in Brooklyn.  You can find them on Sounds of Hope.  Particularly, I want to share the last one I wrote after this Christmas.  You can find that one here.

Then on my other blog, you know one isn't enough - I write three places, I wrote about this Christmas on Storehouses of Snow - you can read that here.

It's been a good Christmas.  I have found the hope of Christmas once again.  I am looking forward to the future.  That's the best gift I've gotten. 

Monday, December 27, 2010

Snow and Donkeys, Who Would Have Thought?

On December 23, I went to the best Christmas presentation I have ever seen. A family in our community has a farm. 32 years ago they were caring for a deaf foster child and to show her the Christmas story which she did not know, they went out to the barn and placed the baby of the family in the straw. The other members of the family acted out the parts amongst the barn animals.

The production was simple, yet powerful. Mr. Downing still narrates the story with passion. Members of the community participate and there were loads of angels and shepherds on hand. They have over 300 costumes at the ready for any one wanting to be an angel, a shepherd or a wise man.

There we stood, in the snow covered field, with hundreds of others singing Oh Come Let Us Adore Him as loud as we could.

It was not the production or the costumes that were great; nor the sound system, but the passion and the Spirit that was present. I cannot remember one quite like this. It was the greatest display of God’s presence I have felt at a Christmas service in many years . There was another one that was also amazing, you can read about it HERE.

The very words, “Prince of Peace,” “King of Kings”, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” and “Christ the Lord” rang in our spirits and caused some to weep. And never have I heard this verse at a Christmas pageant: John 7:38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”

You’d think that a spiritually tingly service like this would be enough, but then they invited all the guests in for hot cocoa and cookies – hundreds and hundreds of us! The family (not a church) did 4 shows!

I met one of the sons (in a very crowded farm house); he looked right through me, as he wished me a Merry Christmas. “Thanks for coming and celebrating the birth of our Savior,” he said.

Who are these people? I thought – and I am still thinking that.

What we need is real Christianity, not a bunch of religion. It's easy to poo-poo Christmas; however, I guarantee you, that if I am alive next year, you’ll find me in a little snow covered field in rural Massachusetts adoring my King and Savior amidst the smell of cows, donkeys and sheep.

How about you, what was the most moving time you had this Christmas season?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Oh Holy Night

Call me sappy, or even cliche, but I absolutely adore and cherish Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

I'm not going to generalize in my post today. No, I'm going to be very personal and specific on my feelings when it comes to Christmas. There's no doubt I completely enjoy the time spent with family and friends during this time of year, and I also enjoy the opportunity to give gifts in appreciation to others. Food is unmatched in quality and quantity as we celebrate, and everyone seems to be just a bit nicer to one another for whatever reason.

But for me, there is no other time during the year that I feel closer to God. Honestly. Not to seem or come across overly pious or righteous, I strive each day to walk with my Lord and spend time in His Word and conversing. Granted, some days are more successful than others, but any lacking falls directly on me or my efforts to draw close while trying to keep the distraction of the world at bay.

I was asked to pray before service this past Wednesday night, and in a moment of shear humility and appreciation, I stumbled as I prayed expressing gratitude to God Almighty for the greatest gift every given to mankind. For a second, I was overcome by the magnitude of what that gift means..not just during Christmas...but forever and ever as I will one day be transformed into a state of evermore...into eternity. Praise God for such a gift! An undeserved, unobtainable gift only available because of His love and grace for us.

As Christians, we profess things like "Jesus is the reason..." and "Keep Christ in Christmas", and I absolutely support the effort to remind the world Christmas starts with Christ. But, it is during the 30 hours or so starting on Christmas Eve that I find myself in constant reflection on what it must have truly been like for a poor, travelled Jewish couple...away from watch as the Savior of all mankind came into the world. God chose Mary and Joseph, and as people of faith in God, there must have been an unbelievable feeling of peace fall upon both of them as they looked upon God's promise. A feeling of certainty that no other parent at no other time in history has ever experienced. They gazed upon the Almighty in such a fragile form...but still omnipotent and completely in control.

I heard a wonderful sermon last week on the unsung hero of the nativity story - Joseph. His wife Mary is the subject of numerous songs and stories encompassed in Christmas. Even the shepherds, wise men and stable animals have prominent places of display in the nativity scene. While I ponder and reflect on the role each one plays in the ongoing narrative that continues to move closer and closer to the world's final moment, my mind is incapable of understanding the immense amount of love Jesus had to leave Heaven, separate from His Father and walk daily in a world infused with sin.

Granted, I know I should strive for such appreciation daily in my life and not just at Christmas. I truly do. But during the festival we refer to as Christmas with all the tinsel, lights and other flashy pageantries, one miracle dominates my thoughts and emotions without question...Jesus.

He is the only reason I can be closer to my Father.

Merry Christmas and I pray God lives in you this and every other day throughout the year.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

No Room for a Christmas Child

I am reposting this from last year.  It's been translated into Norwegian and is supposed to appear on a website in Norway this Christmas as well.  If you are interested in this theme, of Norwegian Christmases in Brooklyn, you can find more at Sounds of Hope.  Hope you enjoy!

I have many Christmas stories. I imagine everyone over the age of ten has at least a few Christmas stories. I always thought of myself as a bit of Christmas child. No my birthday isn’t in December or near Christmas. My birthday comes in early November. So why am I a Christmas child? Well I suppose everyone who knows Jesus is a Christmas child. So how is my story different? I think that my life in Christ started at Christmas.

My parents were born-again, spirit-filled people. My spiritual heritage runs very deep.  From what I understand, I was “unexpected.”  My father was already in his 50’s and my mother, 19 years younger than my dad was in her early 30’s. They had decided ten years before that their family was complete.

God evidently had something else in mind.  I came along. 

Our family traditions were all Norwegian. Christmas Eve was the start of Christmas in our Norwegian neighborhood in Brooklyn. We put up our tree and had our presents all on Christmas Eve.  We were still singing around a Christmas tree well into January.

Christmas day was for church.  We’d dress up in the morning and walk to church. It was just like Sunday minus Sunday School. Sometimes we would crunch in the snow or put on galoshes for the slush of a melting snow. There was a holy hush on Christmas morning.

Of course, I remember nothing of my first Christmas. I was seven weeks old. I would beg my mother to tell me the story though; I loved to hear it.  That first Christmas my parents walked to church on Christmas morning with me.  It was the first time I was carried to church. I imagine I was wrapped up in many blankets.

That Sunday morning, a white haired tall Norwegian Pastor with a strong accent asked the Yohannesen’s (Johannesen) to come to the front.  Something very special was going to happen that morning. The new baby girl in the Yohannesen family, Yoyce Ann Yohannesen was going to be dedicated to the Lord.

That morning, my parents passed their unexpected infant daughter over to Pastor Dahl. He prayed. I wonder if he had any prophetic sense when he prayed over me. In recent years, I’ve had a sense that my dad had some prophecies concerning me. Did any of them know or sense anything then?

It all started there… it all started in a little Norwegian Pentecostal church where everyone had an accent and sang about the Vonderful Grase of Ye-sus.  My life was given over to the Lord.  No, it didn’t assure my salvation, but it did start something.

Every Christmas as the annual church Christmas program would near, I would have to learn a long “piece.” A “piece” is your part of the Christmas program. It starts when you are barely old enough to talk and you get up and say “Welcome baby Jesus” and sing Away in a Manager complete with motions. The parents beam and pray you don’t cry or do something inappropriate like pick your nose,  wet your pants or worse.

 We had an old upright piano. My mother didn’t play well but she would look for a song for me to sing. A solo! In addition to the LONGEST piece or narration in the program.  Early in my life, she found a song for me. The words of the chorus have stayed with me all these years:

"No room for the Baby in Bethlehem's inn,
Only a cattle shed!
No room on this earth for the dear Son of God,
Nowhere to lay His head!
Only a cross did they give to my Lord,
Only a borrowed tomb!
Today He is seeking a place in your heart,
Will you still say to Him - no room?"

Year after year after year, I would stand with a new outfit on, in front of the congregation, and sing this song.  I always thought someone would come to the Lord, every time I sang that song.

My father was a janitor at a bank, my mother a homemaker. My father never went to High School and my mother didn’t finish it. They lived in a two-bedroom first floor railroad flat apartment. Times were hard for them. They had no room for the new baby that God gave them. Nevertheless, they made room for me.  And then, they dedicated me to the Lord.

Jesus came to earth as an unexpected child. There was no room for Him that night in Bethlehem.  That seems tragic. There is a greater tragedy. It is that we make so little room for Him in our hearts.

Today I ask you that question that I sang for many years. 
Today He IS seeking a PLACE in YOUR heart! 

Will you still say to Him - no room?

Monday, December 20, 2010

The C Word - The Reason My Daughter Doesn't Have Pink Mittens

Merry Christmas to the Kingdom Bloggers and all our readers. We want to thank you for reading along this past year, and wish you a joyous Holiday Season complete with a Prosperous New Year.

David is going to take some time off for Christmas, so I hope that you'll enjoy my Christmas post over at Fire and Grace. I will be back at again next Monday.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year filled with the Lord's blessings and the Joy of our Savior, Jesus.

Friday, December 17, 2010

If the world would just stop and listen to Linus van Pelt...

One of the fondest memories I have from my childhood is the exuberance and joy I felt each year when CBS aired A Charlie Brown Christmas. The show first came on in 1965 and has aired annually since that first broadcast (except now on ABC).

I had the privilege of sitting down with my own family and watching it recently...and I still got goosebumps at this famous monologue:

ABC did a very good job promoting the show this year too. Just when I'm ready to throw in the towel when it comes to any form of media...I get a ray of hope that not all Christian values have been abandoned by the mainstream. At least ABC continues to let Linus tell us what Christmas is really all about...

See you next on Christmas Eve. God Bless.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Sometimes the joy is in the smallest of things

One common theme this week here at Kingdom Bloggers is that we all adore Christmas!

As I've been thinking about what to write about Christmas, I just kept thinking of some of the special Christmas moments I've experienced. Some of my fondest memories are the little things that happened, that seem to represent who someone was at that time in their life, or that showed their true heart. I figured I'd share a few of those:

It was the year when my sons were around 7, 3 & 2. Since I came from a home with very few Christmas traditions and I'd enjoyed every single one of those; I'd decided that when I had my own children, I'd work to establish meaningful traditions. I wanted to teach them the truth of how it is better to give than receive, and we did a lot of activities to that end. One of which was that presents were grouped under the tree by giver, and the big deal was getting to hand out those presents to the person for which you'd chosen it, and watch them open that gift. I'd taken each of the boys on a shopping trip for their father and brothers. They didn't have much money to spend but they enjoyed the whole experience of looking at the options and picking that one special gift for each person. My middle son was totally captivated by these plastic/rubber alligators (which he insisted were "dinosaurs") that he'd seen at the store. He even had enough money to get both a red and a green one for his oldest brother and he thought they were absolutely wonderful. I can still remember the look of glee on his face when he gave them to his brother; he thought they were so cool and was so excited to get to give them to his big brother!

A couple of years later the boys got into Legos, especially my oldest who by that time was around 9. The younger two boys had spent hours picking out just the right Legos set that they could pool their money together to afford to buy their oldest brother, and that they were certain he would enjoy. I can still remember a few days before Christmas when the boys and I were in the car and my youngest son was about 4 by that time. This 4 year old had been warned repeatedly about not telling what anyone got for Christmas because it was a fun surprise and he'd assured us that he was a big boy and could keep a secret. The boys were talking about presents and Christmas and the youngest pops up and tells the oldest how much he was gonna' love the Legos they'd gotten him. His middle brother and I looked at him aghast - he'd shared their surprise! He was totally unconcerned and looked at both of us knowingly and said "oh but I didn't tell him what kind of Legos!"

I can remember so many years when I was single, and we lived in a condo, and the boys were in late elementary school and early middle school. They relished the Christmas chain. They would argue amongst themselves as to who would break the chain that morning and they'd see what activity we were doing for the Christmas season that day. Sometimes it would be to buy presents for project angel tree, or to bake Christmas cookies, or to do the advent wreath - whatever the activity, they were always excited because it all represented the overall joy of the season.

Every year we decorate the house and there are a few things that just seem to mean Christmas to our family. One of these is a large ceramic nativity set that I painted close to 30 years ago. We've put out that set, and the barn that I purchased to put the figures in and around, every year of the boys lives. Over the years however some of the pieces have broken and been glued back together. It's almost become a contest with my husband and sons as to who can do the best glue job, who makes it look like it had never been broken. But last year when I put out the set I could not find the head of one of the wise men. I looked and looked and looked but just couldn't find it. But I really like that wise man, and you just have to have three wise men. So I figured it is more about the effect than the details, who would ever notice that this one figure's head is missing. The set goes by itself on top of our fire place mantle. I'm part of a small group of women that meets two times each month at my house. We meet so that we have time set aside to invest into one another's lives; when we meet we sings songs of praise, adoration, and worship to God, we pray for one another, and we study the Bible together. Last year during the time we were singing, just as we finished one of the songs, Kathy looks at me perplexedly and asks "what happened to your wise man's head?" So much for no one noticing! (Yes I do still have the entire set out again this year. Maybe Kathy is the only truly observant person in my life!)

Things have changed so much with the passage of time. My sons are older and at that stage in life when they're much more interested in doing things with their friends, than with their family. But I notice that they still seem to appreciate the advent wreath time we spend together and still seem to enjoy the specific foods that we enjoy during the holiday season and on Christmas day. They still seem to like seeing what I've put into their stockings for them. This year will be the first year my oldest son will not be home for Christmas. He got married last May and he and his wife are both in the army and currently, because they are both in special training schools, they are not stationed together. But I think they will get to spend a few days together at Christmas.

What about you, what are some of your special Christmas memories?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Potentate Was Late But I Wasn't

People think I'm a busy person now.  I don't.  I don't because I used to be so much busier.  I think I must have thought I was "super woman."  I wasn't.  I guess I just have some sort of strong internal drive.  It was the mid-90's.  Most of my children were still all living at home.  In fact, alternately we had a permanent house guest.  On top of that there were boyfriends, girl friends and other friends who would be in and out of our house.  It was not unusual for me to come home from a full day at work and put supper on the table for 16 people.  I could do all this within an hour of walking in the door without doing a magic trick.  And I want you to know there was no hamburger helper in my house.  It may not have been gourmet all the time but it was a good home cooked meal.

My job was no less demanding.  I was the Director of what was the largest Senior Center in the state.  This particular facility served people with disabilities of any age.  Housed in an old school building, it was a large facility where you could buy handcrafted items, visit the snack bar, exercise either with a class or with equipment, learn to paint and draw, get your toe nails clips and basic health services, see the Special Olympians practice or see the one of a kind, only 4-H group for children with disabilities in the state.  This was my domain.  I was over the whole business.  I supervised professionals and non-professionals, union and non-union.

So before this sounds like a resume rather than a blog, let me tell you just a bit about my church life.  I was in charge officially and unofficially of almost everything.  During the 90's I was the Sunday School Superintendent as well as helped lead the women's ministry. The church had no secretary so I did the bulletins and I also made sure there was toilet paper in the men's and women's bathroom every Sunday morning.  I told you I thought I was super woman.  I love it.  I loved being busy.  I loved serving people at my job and at church.  I miss those days.

It was September.  It was time to start thinking of a Christmas program.  Rather than a simple pageant fitting a small church, I decided to take on a full musical.  By a strange chain of events, I came across The Great Late Potentate.  I listened to the music.  I read the script - It was delightful!  Enlisting the help of a music teacher who went to the church, we started.  Parts were assigned, cassette tapes were given out and the mayhem began.  This now occupied all of our Children's Church time throughout the Fall.

There was excitement in the air.  A seamstress in the church got busy and made costumes for the children of Bethlehem.  The children were to tell the story of the year the four and missing Wise Man finally showed up in Bethlehem, a "one camel town."  A teen boy was asked to be the Potentate.  He came from a rough neighborhood and wasn't a church boy.  He did great.  The night of the performance he was turbaned and ready to go.

I directed from the church balcony.  We made it a multi-media presentation. I had slides made that actually went in a carousel projector to highlight certain parts of the story.  Selected people had headsets hidden under their head coverings so I could give directions from my perch in the balcony.  That night there were more people in the church building than had ever been there before.

It has always seemed miraculous to me that a program like this seems doomed for failure during the last rehearsal and is wonderful in front of the audience.  It's no less miraculous than the multiplication of loaves and fishes.  But there was another miracle that year.

I am always doing Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve.  It is rather quite comical that I bring home gifts, wrap them and that same evening we open them - we always open presents on Christmas Eve.  As I prepared for the Potentate, I still had my demanding job.  I still had to cook and clean and do laundry.  At work December meant a budget had to be prepared for submittal to the Town Council.  The Town Manager wanted every penny accounted for, an analysis of every program with a cost per unit was required.  All this and Christmas shopping had to be done.  Nothing could wait.  And on top of that there were rehearsals for the Potentate.

There is one year I was ready for Christmas with all my shopping done by December 15.  It was that same year that I directed the potentate.  I remember so clearly thinking, how did this happen?  To me it was a miracle.  A voice inside me told me something - it said:

the little boy with the loaves and fishes gave all he had and put Me first, put Me over his own needs, not only was He fed but everyone was.  Joyce, you put me first this year, you put the Kingdom of God and these precious children first - now I've multiplied your energy and time - the gifts are bought and under the tree, your budget is done - now Rest in Heavenly Peace    

Monday, December 13, 2010

Reindeer Games - Secret Santa and the Yankee Swap

I love Christmas time. Unfortunately, I am usually too busy to enjoy the season. I seem to parachute in a day or two before, and poof, it's gone like a rabbit in a Doug Henning magic act. There's just not enough time from Halloween to Christmas. And besides, our house still smells like pumpkin pie from Thanksgiving for cryin' out loud.

In spite of all that I need to do, I have been trying to be more purposeful in getting in the Christmas spirit. I started playing holiday music on Black Friday, but I have to admit, I switch it over to news radio every time I hear Madonna. It's like oil and water, Madonna and Christmas. I like traditional hymns like We Three Kings, even though they were not there when the real Jesus was born. It took me 30 years to discover the real words did not include "smoking on a rubber cigar." Next time I see my brother, I'm going to punch him in the nose for teaching me that. You have no idea how mad the blue-rinse widow was at midnight mass.

I am not PC - and I say "Merry Christmas" unless you have a "Bah Humbug" button - actually that doesn't stop me either. I guess if I was certain that someone was an atheist, I might say "Happy April Fools Day" - nah, I am more polite than that. If I know that someone is Jewish, then I say "enjoy your holidays" because I still don't know if it's Chan-UH-kah or Hah-NI-KAH. I wish that Adam Sandler's number wasn't unlisted - I am sure he knows. And what the heck - 8 days, that is very cool. It's easier to hit the target! I wonder why Christians didn't choose Chanukah - Hanukkah - whatever it is - for their own? We could have had a over week off!

We've already had a little snow here in Boston - and black-ice and major car accidents. Winter is here, and that makes me want to stay in and watch Home Alone I or II, The Santa Clause with Tim Allen, the original Grinch Who Stole Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas or Jingle All the Way with the Governator. I even like DOA with Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan.

Holiday food is good: eggnog, shrimp, hot chocolate and ribbon candy - they are all my favorites. Diets are out the window - it's a time for a celebration! And don't forget regifting the fruit bread!

I don't get involved in all the hoopla over Christmas trees and Menorahs on public property. The only true symbol of Christmas is the creche. I think every church should put one up for the season. And I like Christmas lights - the more the merrier.

I even like shopping - just no money in the budget this year thanks to Dave Ramsey and President Obama.

And yes, I know that Christmas is just a made up Christian tradition - so are church buildings! Oh, and the fact that it falls on a pagan holiday. The pagans can go to h--l, I am celebrating Christmas on the 25th - besides it's a Federal Holiday - and so far the government has not completely ruined it. Hey - If you don't want to join me, most Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas day - you can have yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

Two Christmas traditions I do like are the Yankee Swap and Secret Santa. If you haven't done a Yankee swap, let me start by saying they are better than yard sales! You wrap up some junk you don't want, don't need, and wouldn't wish on your best friend, and then take your chances on giving it away. One guy I know wrapped up a broken lamp and another gave away an entire Laurance Welk CD collection.

Most folks set a dollar limit, and get a gag gift such as a miniature velvet Elvis or Bon Jovi CD. Each person attending chooses a number from one to the amount of folks at the swap. These are most often slips of paper in a basket. And no, this can't be the host's present. It has to be wrapped. It's Christmas, right?

Play starts with number one, who chooses from any present in the room, and opens it. Number 2 chooses an unopened gift, unwraps it and then decides to "keep it," or "swap it" for any opened gift in the room. Number 3 chooses an unwrapped gift and does the same, going through the numbers until all gifts are opened. At the end, Number one gets to swap or keep the gift they have. The official rules are HERE.

Just remember, it is not fair to buy a great gift for $10, when some slug brings a Deep Purple 8-Trac tape.

The Yankee Swap is good for a few laughs, and a good lesson for covetous Christians. If you hold on to a good gift, it usually gets confiscated in the swapping; circulating from one person to the next. If you get a bad gift that no one wants, you'll get to take it home. And number 1 gets to play God, choosing last, once all the gifts are opened. Now that's a real Christian dilemma.

As much fun as a Yankee Swap is, I like Secret Santa. You get to purchase a gift for someone, and they don't know who is buying it. It's a chance to be thoughtful and anonymous. Everyone that participates puts their name in a hat, and then everyone draws one name - this is the person that you'll buy a gift for. This is also a good exercise for Christians. Official Secret Santa tips HERE.

But there is a twist to the Secret Santa game. It's really the same game, but you don't put your name in, you simply choose someone in need, a co-worker that needs to know God, a poor family at church, a foster child, the child of a man or woman in prison - if you need more ideas, just Google "abandon children," "loneliness" or "Christian charities."

I like Angel Tree and Toys for Tots.

The only rules are that you remain anonymous, and give generously. It's pretty easy. And that's what I love about the Christmas season.

Friday, December 10, 2010

What's in a name...that God can't change.

One aspect of Islam has always appealed to me. When a person converts to be a Muslim, a name change often occurs to signal the transformation. While not required by the faith unless you happen to have a 'forbidden' name, most born into the religion don't have to worry about a name change because their parents had the foresight to properly label them. From an Islamic website:

Muslims should have good names and give good names to their children. Islam does not require all converts to change their names. New Muslims should only change their first names, if they contain wrong or bad meanings. As far as their last names are concerned they should not be changed unless their parents are alive and accept the change.

Of course in this country, we have a warped sense of how this all works due to marquee converts like Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X that have a negative stigma wrapped in traditional Western belief-based stereotypes associated with their conversions.

Now don't worry. I'm not using my post today to announce I'm converting to Islam and becoming a Muslim. Jesus is my Savior sent by the Father. He was born a man, died an Earthly death to complete a Divine plan of salvation and rose from that death to return to the Father. My faith is completely contained in that plan of salvation, and I would die before renouncing my belief.

There. Hope that cleared up any potential misunderstanding created by my opening statement (take a deep breath mom).

As elementary as the concept is to our faith as Christians, I became a new person when I accepted Christ. Gone was the old Tony C and born was the new Tony C. However, the change was in no way associated to my name...just my actions. Yes, that's the way it should be, but I also like the whole name changing concept too.

As most of you know, my wife gave birth to our baby daughter last week (praise God!). We had a ton of visitors at the hospital over the course of the 3 day stay, and during one of those visits a relatively new friend of my wife that I actually knew almost ten years ago walks in to visit. Apparently, she knew we were married but had never mentioned to Candice knowing me some time back. No big deal. She had dated a friend of mine while she was in college.

I think where the initial uneasiness of the reunion stemmed was in the fact she knew the 'old' Tony C. The guy with the messed up priorities and secular focus. The persona I'm sure she associated with my name...and why wouldn't she?

Now, I was never really a bad dude in my past. I just wasn't focused on the Kingdom and made some really lame choices in those days that are well documented in my numerous post on this blog. But as we reconnected and laughed about a few shared memories, a sense of embarrassment feel over me and was probably written on my face. My wife knows of that old me and even seen a small portion before our relationship unfortunately, and that's mostly because those old actions have followed the name Tony C.

There's a small part of me that wishes on the night I feel to my knees begging God to forgive my slide away from Him that the very next morning I awoke a new man in spirit and in name. He promised to separate my transgressions far away from me, but my actions would have to dictate and document that change to the world...and that would take time. There are still many who remember me as the old Tony C probably because I was a convincing agnostic who wore the title far too good, and they aren't convinced my 'conversion' will probably last.

I will one day have the conversation with both my younger daughters that I recently had with my oldest. When the time arrives that family starts stressing to them about how important protecting their reputation is in life, I will calmly remind them that our reputation is based on what other people perceive about us, and we all live in sin...each and every person. That sin may be prevalent or may be hidden but still there and still against God's will. Character, on the other hand, is who we truly are and while you have little control over your have total control over your character. Work on having good character in the WWJD way...that's most important.

No name changes required to live the WWJD way either...little baby Eden Blakely.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A New Begnning - Again

New Life. Typically when I hear those words my mind goes to 2 Corinthians 5:17 and the new life available to each and every one of us in Christ. My mind can never get around our great God's plan for salvation; how we can come to Him and admit that we are sinners and ask for His forgiveness, choose to commit our lives to Him, and He'll grant us forgivenss. He'll even cause His Holy Spirit to come and live within our spirit so that we never have to be alone again. So that His power is available in us. All this never ceases to boggle my mind! you know that even though I know and have experienced all this, I have still chosen at times in my life to turn my back on God?
Sometimes it's been in little ways like being selfish in a specific situation in a relationship. Sometimes it's been in big ways like choosing to live in some kind of ongoing sin.

But always, when I grow tired of doing things my way, when I realize once again that my disobedience is not taking me anywhere that I want to be, I return to God. I have no illusion that my return to God is about any learned wisdom on my part; I truly believe it's about His goodness and grace that seeks me out, that draws me back to Him. When I come back, He not only takes me back, but He totally forgives me
and gives me a new chance, a new beginning.

One of my favorite Bible passages is about this very thing, it's the third chapter of Lamentations. I'm especially fond of the way the 19 - 24th verses read in The Message paraphrase:

I'll never forget the trouble, the utter lostness, the taste of ashes, the poison I've swallowed. I remember it all—oh, how well I remember— the feeling of hitting the bottom. But there's one other thing I remember, and remembering, I keep a grip on hope:

God's loyal love couldn't have run out, his merciful love couldn't have dried up. They're created new every morning. How great your faithfulness! I'm sticking with God (I say it over and over). He's all I've got left.

When I start to get discouraged I often return to this passage and remind myself of these truths found here. That though I may have chosen to "swollow poison", God's love hasn't run out. He is faithful even when I'm not (another favorite Bible verse of mine is 2 Timothy 2:13 ).

What about you, what new beginnings have you experienced?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Boy With The Sad Eyes

New life huh?  Well, let me see.  I could tell you about the 8 lives that I brought into the world.  They aren't new any more though - some have kids of their own.  It's sort of hard to be thinking about new life when it's cold outside.  Seems like this would be a better spring topic.  Then again, it's nearly Christmas.  I could write about Jesus coming as a baby.  That was a new life that came to bring new life to us all.  Sounds like a good sermon, don't you think?

I'm not completely stumped this week.  It is just that there are so many things I could write about.  However, I want to tell you about the new life my grandson just found.  He is 17.  I love it when people tell me I don't look old enough to have a 17 year old grandson -- I'm really not you know, but I have a soon to be 20 year old granddaughter too...

On the outside, Jesse looks a little bit tough.  He's had to be.  He's had a very rough life.  I remember when Jesse was born.  When he was "new life" - as he grew, he was not only a handful since he was ADHD, he was also one of the sweetest most sensitive kids you'd ever want to meet.

He was about 4 years old when we noticed that he had a strong sensitivity to the Lord.  I can remember his mesmerizing look at the communion table.  I remember when he wanted to be baptized at 4 years old.  I don't think our pastor took it too seriously, but he agreed.  I remember him coming up out of the water with his huge grin.

Time went on.  We buried his baby sister.  His parents separated.  Eventually his father took him away and we had no idea where he lived.  I remember times of despair thinking I'd never see them again.  I remember one time I was in a large ballroom at a women's conference.  The speaker had us all stand and call out the names of our family.  I called his name and his sister's name before the Lord.  I thought how futile.  I don't know where they are - what if I never see his smile again.

Within days, through a very strange turn of events, we found out where they were.  That was about 6 years ago.  Finally, I saw him again for the first time about 5 years ago.  He seemed so sad.  His eyes showed pain. It was good to know they were alive, but sad to see him with no joy.

Last year he reunited with his mom.  He and his sister have lived with their mother now for a year.  I've had two Thanksgivings with him and we'll have our second Christmas in a few weeks.  But best of all, Jesse has new life.  A few weeks ago, this guy decided to get on a bus and find a church.  He found one.  He's given his life to Jesus.  He followed the Lord in Baptism (again) a couple of weeks ago.  He's reading his Bible.  I am amazed at how God has taken care of him.  I am amazed that the little boy with the heart for Jesus is now a young man following Jesus.

New life?  New life can come to all ages-anytime, anywhere - it's found in Jesus.

Monday, December 6, 2010

New Life - Time Doesn't Heal Everything

When you look back over the last decade(s), did you ever imagine that you'd be right where you are now? Your life now; this very minute. It's the culmination of our hopes and fears along with a touch of fate.

This week, you Kingdom Bloggers are going to be talking about new life in honor the birth of Tony C's daughter a few days ago.

Here is one my old Fire & Grace Posts. I admit it, I have been too busy for real life.

I know it is starting to sound like a High school graduation speech, but it's true. We headed out toward the horizon of hope with the winds of family and friends at our back. We were free to decide every aspect of our lives, and we focused on the future. Because of our decisions there were those of us that ran into rough waters on the voyage. And for some of us, we may have experienced situations beyond our control calling out "May Day." And there are some of us who left our stern lines tightly knotted around the cleats of past disappointment, regret and anger which tore at the fabric of our soul.

James said, "You do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 4:14"

I have been on Facebook for a number of years now. I originally set up an account to keep an eye on my teenagers. As a result, I have grown accustom to the impersonal nature of computer communications. From e-mail to chat and everything in between, we lose so much of the "body language" or "non-verbals" that I have had to relearn communication to some degree-- or at least accept its limitations.

The intrigue of rediscovering old friends and classmates using the Internet is a growing pastime for many. New statistics show the steep rise in Facebook accounts are no longer college-aged kids that it was originally targeting, but those that have attended college at some point in their lives. Personally, I enjoy seeing how things have turned out for my old neighbors, classmates and friends. Hey I still have hair!

The online community is often void of emotion, however; today I had one of those bittersweet moments. I contacted the sister of an old friend when I saw that she was online. She and I would easily recognize each other from growing up in the same little cow town, yet we probably didn't have 100 words together in our entire lifetime. I thought I would find out how my old friend Jay (not his real name) was, get an email address or send a hello message to him through her. It turns out that he died of cancer a few years ago.

He and I were just a couple of typical young men. We grew up together in Cub Scouts, and saw each other in the hallways at school. He and I rode motorcycles on RT 17 at over 100 mph, smoked cigarettes and drank beer-- talked about girls and hit a bar or two along the way. We were on the same bowling team.

I remember one bowling night I returned from a conference where I had a significant spiritual experience. I was atheist when I went, and a believer in God when I came back. I remember telling Jay about. I was almost tearful as I told him the story of my conversion; how God loved me and I finally recognized it! I think it was too much for him. He just held his hands out, palms down, gesturing "enough," and said, "Jesus-- man, if don't want to party any more I understand. That's cool." That was probably my first attempt to share the change of heart that propelled me into eternity.

I am unusually unsettled about his death and here is why. For nearly 30 years I sort of hid out in Christianity since I last saw Jay. And during that time I became the one with the "Answer", the power and the ability to pray against the ravages of cancer. But I didn't-- well not for him. We lost track of each other when I moved to another state.

This past year I have been calling a friend everyday who has been in treatment for bone cancer. Today, Dave is in remission (I prefer to call it cured). Dave is a believer, and regardless of his health, he has the assurance of Heaven. But what about Jay? I don't know where he was with Jesus in the end, we never talked about God again. The stark reality is it's just too late for me to do anything about it now. What I am thinking about is this, what difference could I have made in his life by visiting him or calling him during his sickness? He lived about six months after he received the dreaded news. That is six months I could have been doing something for him, for his family.

Maybe you are thinking, why feel guilty about not being there, you didn't know he was dying. Or this, maybe your paths crossed so long ago, things change, life goes on. The truth is that time marches on, but not always life on earth.

There is one more thing that makes this tough for me. In the late 1990's I wrote an email every day entitled "Time After Time." There was a woman on the list named Sue, and she would occasionally send a reply to a message I had sent out. Simple things such as, "thanks", "I needed that", or "could you pray for my kid's exams?"

One day a prayer request from her showed up in my inbox. Sue said that she was having tests to determine if the lump in her abdomen was cancerous. She asked for me to pray for her, and gladly I did. A week or so later she sent another email that confirmed that she had cancer; stage 4 it read. I remember feeling sad, but you know, I had never met her, and I didn't even know what she looked like. From a few of her replies, I gleaned that she was married, had older children and worked for an aircraft manufacturer. I prayed each day as she waited for a surgery date.

There is another foot note to the story, all of this happened shortly after I buried my dad. He died of lung/brain cancer in February of 1998. I hated cancer.

The next email that arrived from Sue read. "Could you please call and pray for me over the phone? I am scheduled for surgery tomorrow." Wow, I could do that for a sister in Christ. And so I dialed the number the next morning about 8 'clock; 6 o'clock their time. She was leaving at 7 for the hospital.

"Hello," answered a man's voice. It was her husband.

"This is David and I am calling to pray for Sue." I said.

She picked up the other line and said, "hello." I could hear the emotion in her voice.

I said, "Well, you know why I am calling, let's ask God what He wants to do here." I began to pray quietly in the Spirit. Then I prayed directly for her healing. "Amen" I ended in my most religious voice and wished them both blessings and hung up.

On and off all day, I was wondering how the surgery had gone. At about 4 'clock the phone rang in my office (Caller ID, never thought of it in those days). "They took another x-ray and the doctors can't find anything! Nothing!" Sue said.

"You're kidding me? Really?" (There in lies the sum total of my faith.)

"They took x-rays so that the surgeons could see the size of the mass before the surgery and could not find anything!" she said in such and excited voice.

That wasn't the last time I heard from Sue, but that was the last time I heard about her stage 4 cancer.

It is very popular to chide Christians by asking "What would Jesus do?" Amazingly, most of us know. He'd be out there with the lost sheep and the goats meeting their needs with power and love.

More love, more power. Simple. Now let's get out there and make a difference.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Happy First Year Kingdom Bloggers...for His name and for His glory.

There was a time not so long ago I had the feeling of being overwhelmed come over me.

But then...haven't we all?

I spent a few days in prayer looking for guidance, maybe even relief from God. I sat down on that Friday morning to meet yet another weekly obligation and write my KB post that was already late.

For a reason I may never know this side of Glory, I felt lead early that week to do a storyboard video using the song The Change by Steven Curtis Chapman. The song had come on the radio while I drove to work one morning and stuck with me. I didn't even have it on my iPod.

Video production isn't anywhere close to a developed skill for me. I laugh even thinking about that statement. But the feeling to do was there in my gut, so I plowed forward. Over the course of several days, I worked on the project when I could, and instead of frustration from the process...I was blanketed with a feeling of peace. The song wouldn't leave my head after continuously listen to it over and over for days, but I never grew tired of the melody, the lyrics...the message.

When I finished, the video was posted to YouTube where to date it has amassed a little over 340 views. A far cry from the almost 15,000 views of the Bugs Bunny clip I posted where he's being chased by the Mad Scientist in the episode Water, Water Every Hare, but that is far from being relevant to this story.

So there I sat on Friday searching for words to type as the clock continued to tick. With many things to do before the day's end, I began to feel a stress. Like the proverbial light bulb going off overhead, I remember the video. Now I had spent way more time on the video than probably all of my post on KB combined, but that wasn't the point...was it?

A few clicks and my first video KB post is complete. Each work day at some point, I close my door and spend a few moments in prayer. On this day...I spent that time in praise and tears. No obligation is more important in life than those we have to God. In a way, I believe I was softly taken behind the woodshed for letting my priorities get out of sorts.

Is writing for Kingdom Bloggers that important?

I'm not qualified to answer that question. God will use all things for His purpose, and He has blessed me beyond all measure in my association with this blog and my fellow KB bloggers. He has proven to me that His people can be brought together from anywhere in the world using the internet, and that His love can equally shine for the world using the same tool.

I will never again allow myself to feel bogged down doing His work. Be it writing, practicing/playing drums for worship, preparing for a Sunday School lesson or spending time with a friend in need of His all makes an eternal difference. What a privilege to be able to offer back even a very small contribution to such a grand plan! Thank you God for using me and my brothers and sisters on Kingdom Bloggers. We will never fail to give you the honor and glory for all we do in Your name.

Also, thank you so much for the change You made in me...

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Grateful that you've made me sharper

From the time I first read it, I've been captivated by this statement found in Proverbs 27:17 (NIV):

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.

I'm captivated by this picture of how people can affect one another.

This year I learned that the blog-o-sphere is a place where this sharpening happens. Repeatedly as I've read the words of the writers here & on their own blogs, as I've participated in discussions on my blog, and as I've read the words of people out there in the blog-o-sphere, my thinking has been enlarged. I've been spurred on to asking more questions, looking at things from a different angle, and finding ever practical ways to put into practice what I believe.

I'm grateful that David, Tony, and Joyce let me join in with Kingdom Bloggers. It's been stimulating to participate here with my brothers and sister in the Lord who come from different traditions than my own, and who have had life experiences that inspire me. It's filled me with joy that we can respect our differences and give one another the freedom in Christ to belive exactly how he or she believes God is leading. I've treasured the opportunities to both give and receive prayer from this group.

For someone like me who was born in 1960 and grew up with black and white TV and typewriters, it's cool to see how God is using the internet and connecting people.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Let's Offer a Toast

David got really creative yesterday, didn’t he?  I had to chuckle as I read that my alias was Sunbeam J.  I could use some sunshine today – it’s grey here in South Dakota and getting ready for some snow.

I thought we were supposed to be writing about what God taught us or what God did over the last year – something like that.  Well one thing I learned is that David is a darn good writer and an even better friend.  I wish I didn’t follow David – he’s always so good with his blogs.  But the idea of Kingdom Bloggers is to hear different voices.  My voices, my life, my experience is so different from his and that’s okay.

I also learned that while I’ve never met Tony, Dave T, Michelle, or Tracy, they are family – not just my brother’s and sister’s in the Lord but blogging family.  I’ve learned to depend on their prayers and support.  I hope they feel they can depend on my prayer and support as well. 

God taught me or maybe I should say showed me that I can write.  I suppose some of you may disagree and that’s okay… I’ve learned that I can write some interesting things.  I have learned that ministry comes in all forms including blogging.  It’s been a great experience.  It’s been good for my soul as well.

Kingdom Bloggers – we are family.  We share our lives, our hopes, our dreams, our joys and sorrows, our expectations and disappointments with you.  You, our readers, are part of our family.  We hope we’ve touched your lives in some way.  We are blessed in this experience, we pray we have blessed you… if we have, we’d love to hear from you? 

Happy Anniversary Kingdom Bloggers – here’s a toast to many more years of working together for the Kingdom!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Shanghai Agent - Happy Blog-i-versary to Us!

It was a smoke filled bar in Shanghai named the Dixie. At a wicker table on the patio, there he sat, the operative I traveled half way around the world to engage. I leaned against the Juke Box, and it began to play Tiny Bubbles. Like a chess game, cautiously, we both made our moves; scanning the room for bugs, hidden mics and other signs of danger. Finally, sitting back-to-back at adjacent tables; him with and Elvis wig and shades, and me in my Hawaiian shirt - half talking over my shoulder in loud whisper I said: "Elvis is that you?"

He replied. "It's Hound Dog, Rick."

I inconspicuousy pulled off my shoe, and held a toe in my left hand, and grabbed my knee with my right.

Hound Dog, gave me the high sign by adjusting his sunglasses. He lit a cigarette pretending to smoke. He let out a loud cough, almost blowing our cover.

He slipped me a printed copy of the latest Tony C Today blog, and there is there it was scribbled on the back of a Hooters receipt between the pages, the email for Joyce, AKA Sunbeam. I went to the pay phone near the bar as I wondered how she fit into the plan. I called my office in California to run a background check. Norway, South Dakota, Connecticut, Tennessee - she had a long rap sheet. Pastor (not his real name) confirmed a meeting Jessheim, Noway.

I smiled at Hound Dog, tipping my head towards the door.

"Thank you very much." he said. Just as the shouting fans, aliens and scandal-sheet reporters began to fill the Dixie, I slipped out through the kitchen to alley.

I took a taxi to the airport and boarded my plane for Oslo to meet Sunbeam. We met in the oldest church in the country, and pretending to be tourists, we exchanged prayers. Who knew she'd appear again a few years later? That's that way it is in this business, agents come and go - a few finish the race.  We traveled with an unsuspecting group, speaking in unknown languages, and split up at various times so that we would not be found out.

I snapped a photo of her as proof that I delivered the message.

One day while I was on a secure connection t headquarters, Hound Dog sent me an encoded message. ycarT teeM - he knows I am dyslexic. I sent her a Facebook message through one of my many Farm Town aliases. I always wondered why she didn't use an alias - she's very bold. For the longest time I thought it was a pen name for Max Lucado. It was interesting she had hidden message in her blogs from G OD . Wow, she is connected.

Honestly, I am not so sure Tracy actually exists - hmmm...

For the past year we've been working for KB secretly sending messages of hope and love to our comrades that will one day be gathered by the 4 winds. It's too bad that a couple of our most beloved agents have fallen, but we salute them for their effort to win that war against S A T A N.

Disclaimer: most of this is not true. Well except for the snapshot of Joyce in Norway.

Romans 12:4 For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.

We made it! You can take the covers off the electrical outlets, and the safety-catches off the kitchen cabinets, Kingdom Bloggers is a year old. Many thanks to Tony, Dave, Michelle, Joyce and Tracy for all that you have offered us this past year.