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Archive for December, 2010

Nativity Sets

In my last writing, I mentioned that I had done no decorating. With this writing, I declare that is no longer true. As I hoped, my children descended upon the Christmas tree like Santa’s elves, and our naked tree is now “dressed.” Will hung up new shelves and laid out the tree skirt and in general, made the house ready to receive Christmas decorations which the children pull out. And last night, December 22nd, we began the task of setting up the over 100 nativity sets that I have collected over the years. There is an exact number of them, but I don’t know the number. Sara Anne keeps track of that, although I did hear the number “135” as she went about the house counting.

Now, not all of my nativity sets are unpacked and set up. The biggest ones are still in their boxes because I am not quite sure where they will go in the house. We have some time before Christmas to figure that out, and maybe even afterward. I usually leave up my nativity sets until about the third week of January (I’ve been known to be quite slow about taking down Christmas stuff once it’s finally up!).

Since I was a child, I have been fascinated with nativity sets. We had a traditional-looking set with a little wooden stable that my father made. All the necessary characters were there: Joseph (who was hard to tell from the shepherd; all those bearded, robed figures look alike), Mary, baby Jesus, a shepherd (who might also be Joseph), three wise men, two sheep, a standing camel, a sitting camel and a donkey. I would spend quite a lot of time arranging and re-arranging the figures in the nativity; telling and re-telling the story. I appreciate that such a powerful story can be told with so few figures!

The first nativity set that belonged solely to me was the one that my first grade Sunday school teacher gave me. I still have it. It is a tiny brown plastic stable with silver glitter on the roof, and inside the stable are glued the tiny figures of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, 2 little sheep. That marked the beginning of my collection, although I didn’t truly start collecting them until after college, when my sister gave me a larger, china set. At first I thought it wasn’t proper to have more than one nativity set (competing Christmas stories!) but then I decided that the different sets tell different things about Jesus’ birth from different perspectives. How people view and create the Christmas story is fascinating. For example, I’ve found that Hispanic nativity sets tend to be quite grand in color and large in quantity. They are not spartan in their telling of the story, but have a glorious entourage of wise men, shepherds, angels, animals. Mary is always beautifully crafted and painted and Jesus is perfectly shaped. There’s no mistaking Joseph for a shepherd; he looks splendid in those nativity sets.
The set that I have from Vietnam is little round black figures painted with white markings. The stable is made of straw, like a hut. I have nativity sets that are just the Holy Three; sets with intricate facial expressions on each figure and some that are carved without features at all. I have light-up nativities, nativities that talk, a Veggie-Tale nativity, a PlayMobile nativity . .I even have a nativity in which a large white rabbit was substituted for the virgin Mary! I have teeny tiny nativity sets–one is painted on a seed, one is on a thimble, one is the size of a dice. I have puzzle nativity sets, musical waterglobe nativity sets, an Advent candle nativity set. The list goes on and on–trust me! And take this as your invitation to come see my nativity sets during the holiday season (and probably beyond). [No appointment necessary; my house is what it is!]

And while I love the story of Jesus’ birth that each nativity set tells in its own way, the other thing I love about these nativity sets is the story of the people who gave them to me. Each Christmas, when I finally DO get around to setting out the nativity sets, every set tells me a story about the person or family who gave it to me, or causes me to remember where I was when I purchased it, or brings back warm memories of someone who is no longer with us. As the nativity sets are placed, I remember this person who went to Peru, the family who adopted a baby from Guatamala and brought me back a nativity set; the widower who gave me the set that his wife loved; the many different types of nativity sets that my dear sister Judy has given to me over the years and the many different occasions (it doesn’t have to be Christmas!). In my heart, I draw close to those people each Christmas season. This is a season of remembrance–remembering the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; and also remembering the love of family and friends and the ties that bind us, one to another.

Merry Christmas!

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Christmas Decorating

Let’s see, today is December 18th and our Christmas tree is standing naked in the middle of the living room. I think the large number of birds who keep hovering around the living room windows are trying to find a way to sit in this beautiful tree’s branches, or build a nest. They don’t know this tree is just part of the Christmas decorations; how could they? The tree looks like it grew in the living room (which would not surprise those of you who have viewed my housekeeping skills. What’s an inch or two of dirt among friends?).

I have been in several of your homes this Christmas season and your decorations are already up. Your tree is full of ornaments and lights. You have been enjoying the fruits of your labor, curling up with a cup of hot chocolate or a glass of wine, listening to Christmas carols and admiring your well-decorated tree.

I suspect that last year, you did not throw into a single box “lights strings that work” with “lights strings that don’t work.” as well as “light strings that halfway work.” I suspect you didn’t store so much furniture, sports equipment and old books in front of your Christmas decorations that apart from calling “Two Men and A Truck”, you couldn’t get to them. I suspect you didn’t wait until it was 12 degrees outside before thinking about bringing in the Christmas boxes, or better yet, you have a Christmas closet in your home instead of a “Board Games closet” which holds every game that every child has ever played since birth. I suspect you are a planner, an organized person.

And I can organize and plan some stuff quite well, I really can; but I’ve never organized or planned Christmas decorating well. Or Christmas itself, for that matter. Despite the fact that Christmas comes at the same time every year, I am always surprised when the season arrives. In July, I think really good thoughts about what I’m going to do for Christmas, what presents I am going to buy, how I could display my numerous nativity sets, when I should start decorating the tree and house. I make lists and check them twice. I file them in folders marked ‘Christmas Ideas” (I have a lot of those). I frustrate my organized friends who make suggestions like, “when you see something you know someone wants, buy it and put it away until Christmas.” It is a great idea but then I forget all about the gift or I forget what really great place I hid it. As quickly as a 2 year old with a toy, I can dismantle any Christmas organization scheme.

So here it is, December 18th, and my Christmas tree is bare. I’ve pulled out the box of lights and so far, while only half of the strands work, I consider that a victory! I know there’s another box of lights around here somewhere. I also know that my children are coming home for the holidays and they will help me. They usually don’t help all at the same time, but one will come home and put up these ornaments and decorations; another will put up those nativity sets and a few more ornaments; and the third will remember that we haven’t brought in this decoration or put up this ornament and will happily root through the cluttered garage to find them. It gives me a little time to be with each child, individually, which I enjoy. And, voila! By December 24th, the house–and tree–is ready for Christmas.

What I’ve learned is that we all have to approach Christmas in our own way, organized or disorganized; prepared or surprised. Some Christmases we are glad for the season to be over, and other Christmases we wish would never end. For some, Christmas will be a little emptier this year; for others, an additional to the family will add fullness. But Christmas comes to all of us, and it doesn’t matter whether we’re ready or not, we are blessed by the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. “For see–I am bringing you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.”

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Another Cactus Story

Remember the Christmas cactus that I mentioned in Sunday’s sermon? For those of you who weren’t at worship—or who might have slept through it!—I will briefly retell the story of my mother’s Christmas cactus, which has got to be one of the ugliest plants I’ve ever seen. Ugliness-not-withstanding, it became a common practice for Mom to ask me to count how many blooms were on the cactus. She couldn’t see them until the blooms had flowered, so I would scan my eyes over this scruffy-looking plant and report to her the number. It was kind of like hunting Easter eggs, or reading “Where’s Waldo?” In these last years of poor health, it gave Mom a lot of pleasure to anticipate the flowers about to bloom on the Christmas cactus
When I came home from church today, I glanced at the Christmas cactus, the same one used as an illustration in my earlier. It was on the table, in front of the window which was now white with snow. Since breakfast, this scruffy brown plant had bloomed twice! The deep pink and white flowers were a brilliant contrast against the grey, snowy sky.
So I did what I have done many times in the last several years: I counted the remaining blooms. Only two; maybe three, but I can’t be certain. Not as many as usual, but then, that’s to be expected. This Christmas cactus has made a major move from its sunny, warm, familiar windowsill at Belmont Village to its new home on our dining room table. Things are different now–for me, as well. But I’m confident we’ll both keep blooming.
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
 the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.”

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The Small Things

This is a brief reflection on the importance of small things. I don’t think there’s any theology attached, but you are welcome to add it.

Recently, in my fourth attempt to get the natural gas turned back on at my parents’ former home in Nashville, the kind lady at the gas company put me on hold because “something wasn’t adding up.” The gas meter is running, she told me. The computer was showing that the gas had been turned on, she told me. But the gas company guy who went out on Wednesday to check on the gas line said the gas line was capped. The lady on the phone, whose name was Kathy, said to me, “there’s no record of that gas line being capped.” So while she checked with her supervisor, I was on hold for quite some time, listening to really awful electronic music. (I think utility companies use really awful music to discourage customers from staying on the line.)

Kathy’s voice broke through the electronic version of what used to be one of my favorite Christmas songs. She said the problem was that whoever had originally taken the call about the gas line way back in May, had noted (electronically) that the gas line was shut off, but neglected to note that the gas line was capped. Had that person simply entered that the line was capped, I would not have had to listen to “Silent Night” with a reggae beat. Kathy said that the computer refuses to acknowledge that the gas line is capped. The computer is telling Kathy “no, Kathy, the gas is on at that house.” The computer won’t take a request to uncap the gas line because no one entered into the computer the information that the gas line was capped in May.

So, Kathy said, we have no way to handle this situation except to send a technician out to the house on a pretend service call, report back to the computer that the gas line is capped, then the computer can then process the order to uncap the gas line. See, Kathy said, we have to fool the computer. But then she concluded her remarks to me with these words, “I just hope this works.” (I did not find those to be comforting words). Kathy went on to tell me how important it is that whoever receives a call about a gas problem enters all of the information–not just part–into the computer. She said that a technician would be out at the house before dark on Friday. Alas, no such technician appeared. But I haven’t given up hope–Kathy said she made copious notes for the computer’s benefit!

I learn lessons from everything that happens to me in this life, and this episode with the gas company is no exception. The small things in life are important. Take complete notes, no matter how insignificant you may think your job is. Whoever it was at the gas company who didn’t note that the gas line was capped would never dream his/her slight oversight would create such a huge headache.

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Grieving in Hope

By now, most of you know that my mother died. As I shared with you in an earlier blog, she was ready to die and impatient to move from this life to the next. Mom was not pleased that she was still alive at Thanksgiving, and was determined not make it to Christmas (a harsh sentence, I know, but it is simply the truth!). I only hope she didn’t greet her Maker with the words, “What took you so long?”

The death of a loved one carries with it not only sadness, but the great joy of being reunited with people one hasn’t seen in years. At the same time one is laughing and recalling old times, one is aware that the reason for the reunion is conspicuously absent. We gather together because our loved one has gone away. It’s surreal and yet strangely comforting. It’s a dimension of Paul’s words, “we do not grieve as those who have no hope.”

The mixture of joy and sadness is what the resurrection is all about. Imagine Jesus’ disciples huddled together in sorrow after the crucifixion, swapping stories about the last three years spent together with Jesus, and there he is, in the midst of them. They are laughing and crying at the same time, believing and disbelieving in a single moment.

It’s how we Christians grieve, or should grieve. I don’t believe that death is supposed to be taken lightly, just as one more cycle of nature, like putting compost in a garden. I believe death is supposed to be taken seriously, but not so seriously that we can’t laugh and give thanks for the life of the one who died, and enjoy a temporary reunion of beloved friends and family. Death does not have the last word, we are assured of through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So the next few days will be filled with funny stories that we are going to tell about Mom, and then the sobering realization that she’s no longer around to dismiss our teasing with a wave of her hand. Our family will delight in seeing folks we hadn’t seen in years, while sadly remembering this is a reunion brought about by a death. For the next few days, maybe even weeks, maybe until the end of my own life–I’ll laugh and cry, weep and rejoice and take heart in the Apostle Paul’s word, “O Death, where is thy sting? But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

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