Category Archives for Faith

golden love grandparents

Love, Grandmama: A letter about lasting love

On June 10, 1925, before God and the witnesses present, Mabel Louise Cobb, 20, and Jesse D. Martin, 23, promised to love and cherish each other as long as they both should live. And that’s what they did. For better, for worse, from Georgia to Cuba to Brazil and back to Georgia again; in sickness and in health and through the darkness of dementia. They loved (three boys and two girls; 11 grandchildren) and they lost (their oldest daughter in 1961: she was only 33 years old. . .).

By 1989, when Granddaddy’s death parted them, my grandparents had been married for 64 years. Oh, how they loved each other! Ten years earlier, reflecting on 54 years of marriage, Grandmama (then 74) wrote to my parents who had been married for 19 years at the time, and had three children of their own. She thanks them for the anniversary card they had sent and proceeds to describe what marriage in the golden years was like for them. Here is what she said.

golden love grandparentsWe do feel most blessed to be as well as we are at our age. And to be as thoughtful and considerate of each other, but as the years go by, one learns that there’s much more to love than meets the eye when we start out our marriages. True love calls for lots of giving and taking. We have to learn to realize we aren’t always right. Even after as many years as you two have been married, there’s still things you probably don’t realize will draw you closer as years continue to pass until finally you become so close you can’t imagine life without one another. It’s a glorious feeling to know that there’s one who loves you and wants never to have to give you up, yet we have to realize any time after we get our age that God could call either of us any day. So, you must live each day for each other and thank Him so much for another day together.

My Grandmama wrote that in 1979, back when people worried about gas prices and the cost of long distance phone calls, and when computers were housed in large buildings rather than back pockets. But the wisdom she shares is truly timeless. When Mother uncovered this letter recently, she said to me, “It’s amazing how her letter perfectly describes how your daddy and I feel about our marriage.” (Mother and Daddy got married in 1960 and just celebrated their 57th anniversary.) Every morning, my parents have breakfast together and share a time of prayer. Every prayer begins like this, “Thank you God for the gift of a new day.”

Today is the 113th anniversary of Grandmama’s birth. There are lots of things about Grandmama that I could celebrate—her love of the color purple (my favorite too); her delicious homemade biscuits; her hearty, full-body laugh. But today I think I will celebrate by trying to apply Grandmama’s words, not just to my 30-year marriage, but to all my relationships. I will try to be thoughtful and considerate, to remember I’m not always right, and to thank God for the gift of a new day. I hope you’ll celebrate with me!

rabbi ben ezra

30 Years and Counting (Blessings)

I was 22; he was just barely 24. We started dating when we were students at Campbell University and two and a half years later we said our vows. How thirty years have slipped away since that day, I could not tell you. But boy, have we made a lot of memories since then. Here, in celebration of our 30th anniversary last November, are just a sample of them.

  1. We married in North Myrtle Beach, SC on a rainy Friday--November 27, 1987--and by Sunday I had moved into Jay’s apartment in Panama City, Florida. He was stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base at the time. Within the next few weeks, I invited Linda Reiman and Janet Elmore—also newly married to 2nd Lieutenants—over for lunch. A chance to make friends AND use my brand-new Christmas china: win, win! I don’t remember the full menu, but I do remember the desert: homemade peppermint ice cream. I still have the recipe. AND I remember Linda and Janet, two women who made my transition into the foreign world of military life so much easier.
  2. We moved to Oklahoma in January 1988; Jay would be stationed at Tinker Air Force Base in Midwest City, Oklahoma. The drive to Oklahoma from Florida—in two cars, before the days of cellphones—was interminable and not just because of the distance. We crossed into Oklahoma during an ice storm that slowed traffic to an excruciatingly slow and dangerous crawl. Luckily, it did not turn out to be any kind of omen. We absolutely loved living in Oklahoma.
  3. Jay went to survival school soon after we moved to Oklahoma—March as I recall. It was the first time I had stayed alone in our apartment overnight, and I was terrified. Don’t know why I was so convinced that I was the one who would not survive those few weeks—after all, it was Jay who was experiencing a prisoner of war simulation . . ..
  4. After about six months of looking and visiting, we joined First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City, the first church we belonged to as a married couple. Seven years later, the sanctuary’s 100+ year old windows were blown out by the explosion orchestrated by homegrown terrorist Timothy McVeigh at the nearby Alfred P. Murrah federal building. That day, 168 people died and 680 more were injured. (Back then, we thought it would be the most tragic event of its kind in our lifetime.)
  5. In the Sunday school class for young couples at FBCOKC, we met a couple who married just five months before we did—Vic and Debbie Averitt. The first time Vic and Debbie invited us to join them for lunch after church, we accepted but we were so nervous! At the time, we were 22 and 24, lived in a just-barely-average two-bedroom apartment, and I was unemployed. Debbie and Vic were in their thirties, owned a beautiful home, and were established in successful careers. What kind of restaurant would such affluent, mature people choose? “I hope this place takes credit cards,” Jay said as we walked to our 1985 Chevrolet Cavalier and they headed over to their Volvo. “I don’t have much cash!” We followed Debbie and Vic to the fine establishment they had chosen: the local version of today’s IHOP. (We didn’t need the credit card.)
  6. Another young couple—fresh grads of Oklahoma State University—joined First Baptist OKC a few months later: Ken and Kimberlee Spady. Ken was beginning his career in agricultural science and Kimberlee studied law at OKC University. Kimberlee’s easy laugh and vivacious personality paired perfectly with Ken’s quiet strength and steady presence. In my memory, our friendship formed instantaneously.
  7. As soon as housing became available at Tinker Air Force Base—around 1990—Jay and I moved from our place at Lakeview Apartments in Northwest OKC, to a three-bedroom house on base. It felt huge! To me, living on base seemed a lot like college life. Everyone was about the same age (not quite adults, but on our way), we shared some communal spaces (officer’s club, BX, etc.), and we had few pressing responsibilities (no mortgages, for example). I loved it.
  8. Jay took up biking in Oklahoma and would go for extended rides of 50-75 miles. Soon, he was participating in triathlons and biathlons around Oklahoma, giving us a great opportunity to see some remote parts of the state. This will surprise all of you readers, but I played the role of spectator, not participant. (You’re shocked, I know.)
  9. After a couple of employment flops, I got a job in Chickasha as a recruiter for the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, “Oklahoma’s ONLY public liberal arts university. Gooooo Drovers!” USAO was a great place to work. The only problem? Chickasha was a 55-minute drive from Midwest City. It got old. Fast.
  10. In 1990, Jay took his first leisure trip to that popular vacation spot known for attracting (or is that attacking?) international tourists. Yep, Jay and hundreds of his closest friends received an all-expenses paid trip to not-terribly-beautiful Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
  11. In November of 1991, you may have noticed that the world was suddenly vastly improved. That would have been when our niece Rachel Elizabeth Webster (now Breckenridge) was born. We met her that December when she was still small enough to fit comfortably in my two hands. My palms still tingle at the memory.
  12. That 55-minute drive I mentioned? It drove me to resign from USAO so I could go back to school and complete my degree before Jay got out of the Air Force in 1992. I finished my MEd at the University of Central Oklahoma in July of 1992, just before we moved back east where Jay would go to NC State for his Master’s in Atmospheric Sciences which he completed in 1994.
  13. In August of 1992, we moved to a tiny apartment (exactly the size of a two-car garage) with a huge monthly rent (and still the cheapest we could find) in Cary, NC. That apartment . . . oh my. It was underneath a large home in a nice neighborhood (as garages so often are). The couple, smiling at each other with pride, told us they had renovated the space themselves. (This explained the mismatched paint, uneven molding, and the lovely rooster motif.) I am certain that the apartment had some insulation. I mean, surely the original builders included a layer above the garage, right? Anyway, we could neither cool the place in the summer nor heat it in the winter. What an adventure!
  14. We bought our first house in Sanford, NC in 1993. Painted pale yellow with black shutters, it had a front porch—swing added—and a big yard. One teensy little drawback—our yard backed up to an elementary school. (I could hear the tardy bell from my kitchen.) Still, it was my favorite house and if it were twice as big and in Asheville, I’d live in it today.
  15. Our three children were all born in the same room at Central Carolina Hospital in Sanford, NC. (Not, however, at the same time.) Trellace, born in 1994, was 3 ½ and Baker was not quite 2 when Margaret joined the family in February of 1998.
  16. For about six years, I worked at Central Carolina Community College. My first supervisor at CCCC was Dr. Matt Garrett. He and his wife Becky had three teens (or almost teens) at the time. We learned so much from the Garretts about so many things: leadership, marriage, parenting, faith, and so much more. Of the many gifts we were given during our time in Sanford, NC, the Garrett family is one of our favorites.
  17. Keisha McLeod Petty and I also worked together at CCCC; having her as a co-worker for those six years is another of God’s gifts to me and my family. The kids grew up knowing and loving her and her husband Jeffrey Petty. A lot has changed for Keisha and Jeff since we moved from Sanford. Through it all, they have become even more beautiful and an even greater example for my family of abiding faith and enduring love.
  18. While in Sanford, Jay and I belonged to First Baptist Church (a recurring association, you’ll notice). We made many great friends there, among them Mark and Traci Willis. We have maintained our friendship with Mark and Traci, raising our families and navigating the complexities of life together. Yet another Sanford blessing!
  19. In May of 1998, Jay left his position with the State of North Carolina to accept a position with the National Climatic Data Center (now National Centers for Environmental Information) in Asheville, NC. From May until October of that year, Jay commuted to Asheville from Sanford. He lived in Asheville Monday through Thursday and spent the long weekend at home in Sanford. That went on for six extra-long months.
  20. We bought our third house in October 1998: 24 Cedar Trail in Asheville. (We’d sold the little yellow one and bought a size larger while we were in Sanford.) Margaret was just shy of nine months old; Baker was 2½ and Trellace was 4½. Our address falls in the A.C.Reynolds/Oakley school district, so approximately five minutes after we moved to Asheville, all three of our kids were attending Oakley Elementary, then ACR Middle, then graduating from ACRHS.
  21. In the fall of 2003, Baker and Trellace both made their professions of faith and were baptized by their Papa, my dad. Margaret was baptized in 2013, also by Papa. Beautiful.
  22. Remember that great trip Jay took back in 1990? It was so much fun that 14 years later he went back to the region for a second vaycay (that time to Tikrit, Iraq as part of the NC Air National Guard). Just before he left, our family joined—you guessed it—First Baptist Church of Asheville.
  23. From 1991 to 2003, our 12 (biological and otherwise) nieces and nephews entered the world. We have seven boys ages 26 to 14 (Cameron, Lane, Jake, Mitch, Connor, Cage, and Banks) and five girls ages 26 to 15 (Rachel, Emma, Meredith, Allie, and Anna Kate). They are all such wonderful people and we are privileged to share their lives.
    While today, all of our nieces and nephews are healthy, their birth stories are not all uneventful:
  • Meredith Averitt, born in 1995 at 25.5 weeks, weighed 1 pound 12 ounces and was about 12 inches long at birth. Her life hung in the balance for months; her identical twin had slipped past earth and gone straight on to heaven. Meredith’s survival, her vitality, brings me to my knees with gratitude.
  • Emma and Mitch Weiss (born 1997 and 1999), both had health concerns at birth due to my sister’s obstetric cholestasis—a liver disease that causes multiple problems, most predominantly chronic and insatiable itching. We could have lost any one of them. It was a harrowing time.
  • From day one, Anna Kate Willis’ gregarious personality and can-do attitude assured all of us that she would triumph over the medical limitations inherent in her cerebral palsy diagnosis.  Through multiple surgeries (we love Shriner’s Hospitals!) and countless therapy sessions, Anna Kate has maintained her strong will and indomitable spirit; at 15 years old, she is strong and independent—spending as much time as possible riding her horse, Houdini. Nieces and nephews: one of our life’s most delightful surprises.
  1. I thought it was cute, certainly nothing upsetting. So, when I was told that almost-3-year-old Baker might have a developmental speech disorder, I thought it was nonsense. I had him professionally evaluated, though, and then reluctantly consented to having him enter speech therapy after his third birthday. I learned that while there are plenty of appropriate developmental speech patterns, Baker’s did not fall within that range. For example, he called Trellace, “Hada” and when he said words that started with “s,” an “f” sound came out (“soft” sounded like “fof”.) Anyway, he had great therapists and after six years, he graduated from the program at 9 years old. (Seeing as now he pretty much uses his voice to make money, I’d say the treatment was effective.)
    Many adorable stories feature Baker’s unusual speech. Here’s one of the favorites. We were at the allergist’s office and had been there for some time. (Both Baker and Margaret had appointments; Trellace was along for the ride.) By the time we left, the kids were tired and hungry. As I was checking out, the clerk offered the children a sweet treat for good behavior. Baker didn’t hesitate to accept, responding loudly with great enthusiasm, “I want a GREEN sucker!” At least, that’s what he meant to say . . ..
  2. When Trellace was 8 years old, she got a bit of a tummy ache which turned out to be appendicitis—a diagnosis that occurred sometime after the appendix ruptured, shortly before the surgery to remove it. Peritonitis, as it turns out, is nasty business. Because of the superb medical care at Mission Hospital, Trellace got better just in time for us to go on our annual trip to The Woodlands, TX to spend Thanksgiving with the Averitt family—a tradition that we kept up for more than a decade.
  3. I had just finished teaching a fitness class and the kids were waiting for me there in the studio at the YMCA when it happened. Suddenly, Margaret began crying out in pain, describing the symptoms of a classic migraine; she was six years old. By that time, she had grappled with asthma for two years. Thanks to modern medicine for quality pharmaceuticals and to chiropractic care for healing adjustments, Margaret keeps both in check these days. Never a pushover, Margaret wasn’t about to let a little bit of neurological distress and respiratory dysfunction slow her down.
  4. This next story spans most of our 30 years of marriage, so allow me to truncate: when I was 42, in January of 2008, I returned to college for the third time, this time to Gardner-Webb University to pursue my Master’s of Divinity. I graduated in December 2010. In Fall 2017, I headed back to Boiling Springs, NC to begin my Doctorate of Ministry which I’ll finish in 2020.
  5. One weekend in the fall of 2011, I was out of town for a speaking engagement. Jay called me to tell me that Baker had gone to the school’s homecoming dance with a girl I had never met. (An aside: apparently my husband had never met ME seeing as he mentioned this casually and in passing. This was Baker’s FIRST date!) A few weeks later, they made it “Facebook official.” That Facebook status didn’t change until March 2017 when Addison Cook said YES to becoming a Lawrimore. (On May 19, 2018, they’ll change their status once more to “married.”)
  6. Our nest emptied out in the fall of 2016 when Margaret went to NC State, following her brother who had gone to UNC Greensboro and her sister who graduated that same year from Georgetown University. As of now, Margaret is a sophomore, Baker is a senior, and Trellace is in the PhD program at New York University.
  7. Both of our sets of parents have passed their 50th Mine are at 57; Jay’s just celebrated their 60th. Despite their share of health complications, all four continue to thrive, a fact that we never take for granted. Jay’s sister Jill and her husband Ted will be married 30 years in January; Aileen’s sister Dawn and her husband Mike are up to 27 years; Hal, Aileen’s brother, and his wife Kim had their 26th anniversary this past December. Add all that up and you’ve got about 200 years of marriage. Makes our 30 seem like just a short chapter in a really long and beautiful love story. We are grateful.

Black and White, Just Alike

One of my all-time favorite stories (at the end of this post) and worth a re-run. 

Before I moved to North Myrtle Beach, SC in my junior year of high school, I lived in Goldsboro, NC. Back in the 1980’s when I was a student there, Goldsboro High School lacked diversity. Everyone there looked alike—at least to the few of us who were of the paler variety. Evidently we white folk couldn’t differentiate between the colors of mocha, caramel, and dark chocolate. I guess we couldn’t tell the difference in hair texture, color, and style either. And, perhaps we didn’t notice the zillions of variances in facial features, body structure, height, weight, and so on. We were, after all adolescents, and by nature not that discerning. Anyway, I don’t know the ethnic percentages at GHS, I just remember that when we saw white faces, we waved; they were probably our relatives.

When I lived in Goldsboro, I was blessed: African-American role models were the norm for me. My favorite teachers, Mrs. Delaney and Mrs. Hayes, were strong African-American women; our principal, Mr. Best remains the standard by which I judge all school administrators. He is an enormous man in my memory. “His biceps are the size of our football players’ quadriceps,” we often quipped. But it was his presence, not his size, which looms large in my recall: how he commanded the boisterous hallways by striding silently along, nodding at students, calling them by name. He died young, a loss to the community and to the world.

seymour johnson afb

Goldsboro is an Air Force town; race boundaries blurred early there. So, if I’d get off the bus to find my mother was not yet home, I’d go to the home of the African-American couple the Hightowers. Mr. Hightower had retired from the Air Force and was always home during the day, usually tending the roses in his yard. I spent many afternoons there learning about the delicate flowers he loved so well.

The Hightowers lived on one side of us in a house about the size of ours. On the other side was a house twice as big and parked out front was the son’s BMW. This family was also African-American. Sometimes I caught a ride from school with Darryl, who didn’t have to ride the bus since, well, he had the BMW and all.

Recently, chatting with a friend who coaches girls’ basketball, I got a chuckle when she told me about something her nearly-all-white team experienced. They were playing at a school that must have been something like Goldsboro High School was back in the 80’s because most of the students at the rival school were African-American. My friend’s team was not bothered by the circumstance, played a good game, and headed to the locker room. On the way, they passed a few middle-aged men from the rival school and my friend over heard a bit of their dialog. Observing the pasty skinned opponents, the men shook their heads and commented quietly to each other, “Man, look at those girls. They all look alike!"

"Red and yellow, black and white,
they are precious in his sight,
Jesus loves the little children of the world!"

dexter avenue baptist church

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Kitchen

Dr. Sheri Adams led a class on Civil Rights and Religion in May 2009 which included a tour of key historic sites from the Civil Rights Movement. One of the places we visited was the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church parsonage where Martin and Coretta King lived during their ministry there. This story comes from that experience.

I am standing in my Grandmother Martin’s kitchen. It’s true: Grandmama died nearly 14 years ago and her kitchen was dismantled long before that, but I’m telling you, this is her kitchen.

Her resin dishes are laid out on the Formica table ready for supper—though I remember them being a pale pink, not this mint green. The table setting includes a bowl of pecans. Granddaddy often collected pecans from the yard to be cracked after supper; and for the record, he and Grandmama called them “pea ca’ns,” giving equal emphasis to the first two syllables and letting the third one slip in for free. (Only those uppity carpet-baggers from the North used the term “puhcahns,” spitting out the “puh” just to get to the “cahns.”)

The ceramic napkin holder is new to me. I’m not surprised it’s in her kitchen though since it has strawberries on it; Grandmama did love her strawberries. Her oven, probably still hot from cooking biscuits, looks like it always did and her Frigidaire does too. The coffee pot—a percolator—has not changed at all. The kitchen shelves hold the usual, everything from Jewel® shortening to HotShot® bug killer in the pump and shoot tin can. Granddaddy murdered many a 6-legged intruder with that beastly weapon.

“’Get out of town within three days,’ the caller threatened, ‘or you’ll be sorry,’” The docent’s words drew me out of my reverie. “Martin knew this threat was different.”

“The call had awakened him and he could not get back to sleep, so he left Coretta and newborn Yolanda asleep, and came in here to the kitchen.”

This kitchen: this kitchen that looked so much like my Grandmama’s.

“He made himself a cup of coffee, but says he never even took a sip. And he sat down at his kitchen table. By the way, most everything in the parsonage here is authentic; however, this table is not the one that was here at that time, but it is very much like the one Martin sat at that night.”

(And it’s very much like the one my Grandparents sat at in their kitchen in Georgia during those very same years.)

My divinity school colleagues—19 of us counting students and professors—crowded into the parsonage's tiny kitchen and stood around the little table. Studying civil rights and religion, we were travelling to significant sites in the South, learning more about faith’s role in the Civil Rights Movement. Coming to the end of this tour of the Birmingham parsonage of Martin Luther King, Jr., we found ourselves spellbound by our guide’s retelling of the famous  “kitchen table epiphany.

“Martin sat here, full of despair. He thought of Coretta, and baby Yolanda. He thought of all the threatening phone calls. He thought of all he had to lose. He sat here in the wee hours of that morning and cried out to God, confessing his own doubts, his own weaknesses.

“When Martin recalled the story, he said it was at that moment of confession that he heard the voice of Jesus say to him, ‘Martin Luther stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’ He heard Jesus tell him he would never be alone, no matter what.” The docent looked up to heaven, lifting her hands as if in thanksgiving. Then looking down, she shook her head slowly.

“And he didn’t give up. Not even three days later when his house, this house, was bombed. You see Martin was right: the call he got that night was more than just a prank. It was a real threat. What a blessing that Martin had just reaffirmed his calling and his faith right here in this kitchen.”

This Montgomery, Alabama kitchen that belonged to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an African American Baptist preacher and the leader of the Civil Rights movement. This kitchen:so familiar to me that it could have been in the Albany, Georgia home of Mrs. Mabel Louise Martin, my white, Southern Baptist grandmama.

 

seraphim

From Despair to Hope Sans Seraphim

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Published originally February 2009

"In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ " Isaiah 6:1-3

“In the year King Uzziah died. . .” Remember the year? It was an awful year. For the people of Judea, it was the year King Uzziah died. King Uzziah had been such a great king. During his reign, they were prosperous and peace ruled in their land. But when he died—well it felt like all hope died with him.

What year was it for you?
“In the year the shuttle crashed. . .
“In the year of September 11. . .
“In the year of the Virginia Tech Tragedy. . .
Or is it more personal?
“In the year my mother/father/sister/brother died. . .”
“In the year of my divorce. . .”
“In the year my favorite teacher died. . .”

It’s the year hope dies. The year that what was, is no more. It’s the watershed moment: when everything before and after is defined by that moment. Everyone get’s it when you say it. They nod, knowingly, as if to say, “Oh, that year. Yeah. That was awful.”

“In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.”

I wonder what Isaiah was thinking when he went into the temple. Was he thinking, “I’m so great—righteous really—that I will lead the wretched ones out of their despair into God’s Glory. (amen)” That is, was he full of himself? Or. . .was he empty? Did he go to the temple thinking, “I’m not up for this. My hope is gone. How can I lead the people of God into his glory?”

We can’t know what he was feeling, but we know this: Isaiah went to the temple. Last Tuesday, I arrived at the divinity school to find out one of our professors, a man younger than I, had died. Soon after I learned of his death, I heard we would be having a chapel service in a few hours.

It was a terrible day. It was like the year the shuttle crashed. It was like September 11th. I felt shock, confusion, grief. It was that day. You know the one?

Like Isaiah went to the temple, I went to the chapel. By grace, I was not met by the fearsome vision that Isaiah beheld. But I did see God there. I saw God in the tear stained faces of my godly professors, struggling as we were to make sense of this tragedy. I saw God in the hunched forms of students, embraced by other students. I heard God in the stories, the testimonies, the music. God filled up that chapel last Tuesday.

In the year king Uzziah died, Isaiah went to the temple. And despite his despair, Isaiah saw God there. But Isaiah did not stop with that one visit to the temple. Isaiah kept going back. Sometimes, he surely felt the full presence of God’s glory. Sometimes, though, I bet he came away with little more than a meal plan for the upcoming week. Still, he kept going back to the temple, going back to worship. And somehow, I’d say miraculously, he found his way out of the darkness of grief; he found his way back to hope.

Away in a Grotto: an Advent Devotion

“Hold on to the railing,” our guide said as we wound down the stairs of the Church of the Nativity to the Grotto. “These steps are centuries old and very tricky.”

The church, built under the direction of Saint Helena, has been used continuously since 333 AD. St. Helena, using her influence as the mother of Constantine, Emperor of Rome, had this sanctuary built over the site where she believed Jesus had been born.

So, beneath this ancient church, is a cave—a cave that, back in first century Jerusalem, looked like any other inner-city cave. As the city grew up around it, the cave found a job—you know, made itself useful. Situated next to an inn, it offered its services to the innkeeper as a stable for sheltering his animals. The cave would have been a quiet, peaceful place, a place where guests often stayed when the inn reached capacity.

Today, a silver star on the floor of that cave marks the spot where St. Helena believed Mary gave birth. Another niche is considered to be the place where Mary laid Jesus in the manger.

True? Hard to say.

To me, whether the Grotto of the Nativity is the real, exact place where Jesus was born is not the point. I don’t really care much about such particulars. This I know: for more than 19 centuries, believers have come to this place to celebrate the birth of Jesus. They have come from far, far away, and from right next door, on donkey-back, on camel-back and on Amtrak. They have come: speaking Aramaic, Latin, Greek, Spanish, Swahili, Russian, even English. They have come in a steady stream of expectation, watching their step and holding onto the railing, to worship in this place. It's like an Advent Devotion come to life!

So as I stepped carefully on those tricky centuries-old stairs, my spirit reached out to the great crowd of witnesses there in that grotto with me. I turned to face the silver star and, joining my voice with theirs, I prayed, “Glory to God in the highest. And on earth, peace, good will to all people.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 
Luke 2:13-15 (NRSV)
(Originally published in my 2008 Christmas letter.)
advent bird in tree

Advent Devotional: Where's Your Head?

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Colossians 1:15-20

Recently, I saw perhaps the weirdest video I’ve ever seen. It begins with a woman preparing fresh fish for supper. On the screen we see her hands: one holding a kitchen knife, the other holding a raw fish fillet on a cutting board over a sink. All she has left to do is cleaning off a few more scales and the fish will be ready to cook. But (here’s the weird thing), every time she touches her knife to the headless fillet, it spontaneously bends up towards her. She shrieks, “This fish is trying to bite me and it doesn’t even have a head!” Crazy, right?

You know what’s even crazier, though? The fact that fish aren’t the only ones guilty of acting as if they can operate without a rightful head in place. Too often we followers of Christ do the same thing. We flop around and can’t figure out why we feel distant from God. In our churches, we wonder why we can’t form community, why there’s so little harmony and so much discord. Could it be that we are trying to live godly lives and form meaningful connections without our Head?

Paul says that in Jesus “all things hold together.” Let’s keep Christ at the head of our lives not just at Advent, but always. We just aren’t made to function any other way.

Thank you God for Jesus! Help us always to make Christ first place in everything. Amen.

 

anna kate and houdini

An Advent Devotion: Joy Comes Home

An Advent message from the prophet Zephaniah
"Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! . . .At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord."  
                                                                                                  Zep 3:14, 20 NRSV

2 Year Old Girl Caucasian"Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to you!"

Twenty voices sang to the little guest of honor enthroned in her high chair. Anna Kate, celebrating her second birthday, celebrated her first in a very different place. Back then, she lay in a Russian orphanage awaiting her turn for nourishment and a little nurture as well.

"Happy Birthday Anna Kay-ate! Happy Birthday to you!"

Anna Kate beamed, looking around at all the people gathered just for her. A look of wonder filled her eyes as she said just one word, "Happy."

And in that moment, I beheld joy in the shape of a little girl. I got a snapshot, just a glimpse, of what it must have been like to see the face of Christ.

Christ had a second birthday too, you know. When Jesus was two years old and toddling about, do you think humanity realized the treasure in its midst? Of course Mary did, and Joseph. And surely other family members recognized that this baby was indeed extraordinary. But there must have been those who missed their chance to cradle joy incarnate in their arms. There must've been.

This advent season, we are called to embrace the coming of Christ. Don't miss your chance. Celebrate the joy of Christ today.

"Jesus, let us glimpse this day, joy incarnate. In the midst of our 21st century frenzy, slow us down that we might recognize your face, thereby experiencing the wonder of Advent."

Advent picture of Willis Family 2014

Anna Kate and her family, 2014

Peace Is the Real Thing

2nd Sunday of Advent: Peace--the Real Thing

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
Luke 1:78-79 NRSV

Back in the 1970’s, when $250,000 was an exorbitant amount to spend on an advertisement, Coca Cola Bottling Company assembled a cast and crew on a mountain in Italy to film what would become one of the most popular TV commercials of all time. In the ad, young people who appear to be from every tribe and nation, join in singing a song that even now, almost fifty years later, many people can recall.

I'd like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony.
I'd like to buy the world a Coke
And keep it company.
That's the real thing.

Back in the day, if you watched that commercial and did not shed a tear, you were in the minority. When you saw those youthful faces bright with hope, it was nearly undeniable: if everyone could just have a nice cold Coca-Cola, the world would most certainly be at peace.

In the above text, we read about what the world truly does need, and it’s not a soft drink. Old Zechariah, still glowing from the unexpected miracle of his newborn son, explains, “Through the heartfelt mercies of our God, God’s Sunrise will break in upon us, shining on those in the darkness, those sitting in the shadow of death, then showing us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79 The Message)

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