The Train

First, the obvious – I like trains. I like riding on them, watching them, and reading about them. When I can’t do any of those things, I enjoy the hobby of model railroading. One of the great things about Christmas is that it’s the one time of the year when “playing with trains” is considered cool, rather than quirky. So the following piece is one of my favorites.

“The Train” is a dramatic reading by the late actor Geoffrey Lewis, performed with the musical and storytelling group, “Celestial Navigations.”  I first heard it a few years ago on a local radio station, who had it in their Christmas music mix.  I don’t think it’s too well known, so I wanted to share it with you and hope you will enjoy it.

You can buy a copy of it here, or see the YouTube video here.

The Train”
by Geoffrey Lewis

There was hardly anyone on the train, as it moved through the countryside. The snow-covered land slipped smoothly by. Way out there I could see a lonely house now and again, just turning on their lights against the cold, oncoming night. Two thick-coated horses in the almost-dark, steam coming out of their nostrils, eating hay, then they were gone. The sky was quickly dark; the stars were crisp through the chill air.

Wasn’t very warm on the train. A man was asleep at the other end of the car, his coat rolled up for a pillow and a Christmas present had fallen on the floor. A few seats away a young woman sat with her baby. She was staring out the window. She saw me looking at her, reflected in the window, and she half-smiled at my reflection and she stared beyond that out into the cold dark landscape that was slipping away. I turned and gazed back out my window, and then I heard a very soft, “Ohhh.” I turned and looked at the woman and I saw her hug her baby to her, very closely and very intently.

passenger-train-bald-man-thoughtfully-looking-out-window-moving-journey-rail-lonelinessSuddenly I felt very close, very close and warm, and a door appeared in the back of my mind. I opened it and light flooded in and I heard my father say, “Burrrr, burrrr, it’s cold outside. You can put those logs right on the fire,” and as I stepped in, he shut the door behind me. I was standing in my living room; the Christmas tree was all lit up over by the front windows.

I heard laughter upstairs, my mother came through the swinging kitchen door carrying a plate of red and green frosted cookies, and behind her came the smell of roasting turkey like a gauze that draped around my head, like the smell of earth that hangs out in the ocean and lets you know home is just over the horizon. Someone was stamping snow off their boots on the back porch and my little sister and two of her cousins were lying on their stomachs in front of the tree, starring at the presents like sharks at a man’s legs under water, hoping to see beyond the tinsel and pretty paper.

I put the logs down and took off my gloves to warm my frozen fingers. In the dining room my grandma was scolding my grandpa about the best way for him to crack the walnuts that he was already cracking. He looked at me through the doorway and shrugged his shoulders and continued shelling the walnuts. I took off my thick coat and threw it on the floor by the door and went to stand by my aunt who had just called me to come sing the tenor part at the piano. There was talk and loud laughter coming out of the kitchen where the windows were steamed. We were singing, sometimes forgetting the second verses, but sounding pretty good.

But suddenly, somewhere in all the warm and familiar sounds, I heard someone very quietly crying. I looked around trying to locate the person and then my eyes landed on the young woman in the train, a few seats away holding her baby. Her eyes with tears, hardly seeing the back of the seat in front of her. I got up and walked awkwardly up the aisle of the swaying car. I put my thick coat around her shoulders, then I sat down beside her. I held her hand in both of mine and we rode like that, not looking at each other…looking straight ahead and I head her whisper under her breath, “Merry Christmas.”

The train slipped away across the sleeping land, into the dark winter night.

“Chains Shall He Break…”

The music of Christmas has always been one of my favorite parts of celebrating this season of joy. When I was a child, I remember my mom had Christmas music playing during the entire month of December. Christmas music continues to be special to me, both the serious and the silly, the sacred and the secular. I want to tell you the story behind my favorite of all Christmas songs.

The year was 1847. Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was the commissioner of wines in a small French village who had some local fame as a poet. Although he was not a regular church-goer, the local priest asked him if he would compose a special poem for use at that year’s Christmas service, and Cappeau agreed.

With the Christmas story from Luke in mind, Cappeau began to imagine actually being in Bethlehem and watching the events of that night unfold, and he soon completed the poem, which he entitled, “Cantique de Noel.” But Cappeau felt that the poem needed to become a song, and so he turned to a musician friend, Adolphe Adams, for help.

Adams was a Jew, but he agreed to help his Gentile friend compose a song for a holiday that Adams did not celebrate, to honor a Messiah that he did not worship. The tune was finished, and three weeks later, “Cantique” was performed for the first time at the midnight Christmas Mass. The song found wide acceptance in churches across France.

But a few years later, Cappeau walked away from the church and became part of the socialist movement, and French church officials discovered that the tune had been written by an unbelieving Jew. They denounced the song as being unfit for worship services, lacking in musical taste, and “total absence of the spirit of religion.” (Personally, I think that’s a good thing, but I digress.)

Anyway, that might have been the end of “Cantique,” except the song found its way to America a few years later, and was given new life by a staunch abolitionist, John Sullivan Dwight. You probably never heard of him – frankly, neither had I – but he prepared and published a new translation of Cappeau’s poem into English. Dwight was especially moved by the third verse of “Cantique.”

Truly He taught us to love one another,

His law is love, and His gospel is peace.

Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,

And in His Name, all oppression shall cease.

Sweet hymns of joy, in grateful chorus raise we,

Let all within us, praise His holy Name:

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever!

His power and glory, Ever more proclaim!

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever!

His power and glory, Ever more proclaim!

And so, “O Holy Night” became popular on this side of the Atlantic, at first in northern homes during the Civil War, and later, throughout the country.

There is a legend that says during the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, a French soldier on Christmas Eve stood up, exposing himself to enemy fire, and began to sing “Cantique de Noel.” The Germans held their fire, and when was finished, a German soldier began to sing “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” a Christmas hymn by Martin Luther. The story goes that troops on both sides observed an unofficial Christmas truce.

“O Holy Night” became involved in another Christmas miracle of sorts a few years later, in 1906. Reginald Fessenden was a 33-year-old university professor and former assistant to Thomas Edison. On Christmas Eve of that year, using a new type of generator, Fessenden began to speak into a microphone: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed…”

Across the country, and far out at sea, wireless operators who were used to hearing only coded dots and dashes over their equipment heard a man’s voice, reading them the Christmas story! It was the first known radio broadcast. When he finished reading the story, Professor Fessenden did something even more remarkable. He picked up his violin, and began to play a Christmas hymn – “O Holy Night.” And so it became the first song ever heard on the radio.

(The above material taken from “Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas” by Ace Collins, Copyright (c) 2001, Andrew Collins. Published by Zondervan.)

I love this carol, and it always moves me to tears, in part because of its soaring melody, and also in part because it answers the “So What?” question of Christmas. Jesus came to Earth – so what? He taught us about the love of God – so what? This song reminds us that we must live out the meaning of Christmas in the way that we treat others, to love God by loving our neighbors, and to join the work of Christ in breaking the chains of sin and injustice.

One of my favorite versions of this hymn is by Point of Grace. I hope you enjoy it.

From our family to yours, Merry Christmas.

The Christmas Guest

When I used to host my Sunday morning radio show, I had lots of requests for this reading during December. I’m not sure who wrote it. The earliest version I can find is a short story by the 19th century American author and poet Edwin Markham. The various poems and dramatic readings are listed as being written by Grandpa Jones, Mel Torme, Helen Steiner Rice, and others – nobody seems to know for sure. There’s a sense in which Jesus wrote it when He said, “Inasmuch as ye did it to the least of these my brothers, ye did it unto Me.”

But regardless of who wrote it, re-reading it is one of my favorite things about Christmas, and I wanted to share it with you. Merry Christmas!

THE CHRISTMAS GUEST

It happened one day near December’s end
Two neighbors called on an old friend
And they found his shop so meager and lean
Made gay with thousand bows of green

And Conrad was sitting with face a-shine
When he suddenly stopped as he stitched a twine
And he said, “Old friends, at dawn today
When the cock was crowing the night away
The Lord appeared in a dream to me
And said, ‘I’m coming your guest to be’

“So I’ve been busy with feet astir
Strewing my shop with branches of fern
The table is spread and the kettle is shined
And over the rafters the holly is twined

“Now I’ll wait for my Lord to appear
And listen closely so I will hear His step
As He nears my humble place.
And I’ll open the door and look on His face”

So his friends went home and left Conrad alone
For this was the happiest day he had known
For long since, his family had passed away
And Conrad had spent many a sad Christmas Day

But he knew with the Lord as his Christmas Guest
This Christmas would be the dearest and best
So he listened with only joy in his heart
And with every sound he would rise with a start
And look for the Lord to be at his door
Like the vision he had had a few hours before

So he ran to the window after hearing a sound
But all he could see on the snow covered ground
Was a shabby beggar whose shoes were torn
And all of his clothes were ragged and worn

But Conrad was touched and he went to the door
And he said, “You know, your feet must be frozen and sore
I have some shoes in my shop for you
And a coat that will keep you warmer too”

So with grateful heart the man went away
But Conrad noticed the time of day
And wondered what made the Lord so late
And how much longer he’d have to wait

When he heard a knock, he ran to the door
But it was only a stranger once more
A bent old lady with a shawl of black
With a bundle of kindling piled on her back
She asked for only a place to rest
But that was reserved for Conrad’s great Guest

But her voice seemed to plead “Don’t send me away
Let me rest for awhile on Christmas Day”
So Conrad brewed her a steaming cup
And told her to sit at the table and sup

But after she left, he was filled with dismay
For he saw that the hours were slipping away
And the Lord hadn’t come as he said he would
And Conrad felt sure he had misunderstood

When out of the stillness he heard a cry,
“Please help me and tell me where am I?”
So again he opened his friendly door
And stood disappointed as twice before
It was only a child who’d wandered away
And was lost from her family on Christmas Day

Again Conrad’s heart was heavy and sad
But he knew he should make the little girl glad
So he called her in and he wiped her tears
And quieted all her childish fears

Then he led her back to her home once more
But as he entered his own darkened door
He knew the Lord was not coming today
For the hours of Christmas had passed away

So he went to his room and knelt down to pray
And he said, “Dear Lord, why did You delay?
What kept You from coming to call on me?
For I wanted so much Your face to see”

When soft in the silence a voice he heard
“Lift up your head for I kept my word
Three times my shadow crossed your floor
And three times I came to your lonely door

“I was the beggar with bruised, cold feet
And I was the woman you gave something to eat
I was the child on the homeless street
Three times I knocked and three times I came in
And each time I found the warmth of a friend
Of all the gifts, love is the best
And I was honored to be your Christmas Guest”

Slow Down

(Thanks to Keith Roberson, North Campus Pastor at Beltway Park, for kick-starting my thinking along these lines.)

It won’t come as a galloping surprise to anyone if I say, we’re busy. We’re all busy.

Duh.

And that busy-ness only gets worse during the holidays. Here it is, the first week of December, and my family already has somewhere to be, every night this week. And it’s going to continue like that for the whole month, right up until the 25th. Of course, by the time Christmas Day actually, finally, mercifully, gets here, we’re so exhausted that we won’t be able to appreciate it. So Christmas becomes something to be endured, rather than enjoyed.

Stop this train. I want to get off.

Nobody WANTS to hate Christmas. The truth is, most people enjoy many of the things associated with the season, but we utterly despise – and absolutely reject – the crass merchandising of the holiday, the cynicism of too-slick marketing, the packaging of warm fuzzies as if they were so many beans for sale on a store shelf somewhere.

Slow down. Nobody said it had to be this way.

I’m not going to tell you that you have to stay home from the office Christmas party, or not to exchange gifts with cousin Freddie, or skip putting up the outdoor decorations. But I AM suggesting that we all stop and think about what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it. And maybe that DOES mean, simplifying our schedules and cutting back on some things, in order to focus on better things.

Almost everyone likes SOMETHING about Christmas. The music. The food. Spending time with family or friends. So, how about we focus on doing the things we enjoy, and skip (or at least, minimize) the rest of it?

If it’s Christmas music you like, give yourself permission to spend more time listening to it. Do you like Christmas movies? Skip one of the endless parties, make some hot chocolate and popcorn, and stay in with “White Christmas” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Or even, “A Christmas Story,” if that’s your thing. (Just don’t put your eye out!)

Do you like to cook or bake? Whip up a batch of your favorite holiday snack treat – chocolate chip cookies, peppermint bark, Chex mix, whatever – and enjoy. Share some with friends. And don’t forget to take some to your neighbors.

Do you have little ones, kids or grandkids, that you can spend some time with? Find a way to make some Christmas memories for them. Think back to your own childhood: what was most special to you? Many folks remember something fun and special that their family did. So now, it’s your turn to help your young ones have some special memories of their own. But it’s not about the stuff – it’s about the time.

I’m suggesting we skip maxxing out our credit cards and over-scheduling ourselves into a holiday frenzy, and instead, slow down, think about what this season is all about, and spend some quality time with the people who matter in our lives. Share a second cup of coffee with a companion. Reach out to a friend. Don’t just forward another mindless Facebook meme about “the reason for the season” – let the Spirit of the Christ-child living in and through you be evident to everyone.

We can start by spending a little time in the Christmas Story as found in Luke 2. Notice that after the shepherds come for their visit, verse 19 says that “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”

Treasuring memories. Pondering them. Works for me.

Remembering Ginny

Ginny KloogWhile others were enjoying a lingering Independence Day holiday on Sunday, I was thinking about Ginny. It would have been her 60th birthday.

Ginny and Mike were among the first friends my wife and I made after we moved to Brainerd, Minnesota, where I was a newly-installed pastor serving my first church. Later, we moved back to Texas, to Haskell, and about a year after that, they followed so Michael could go to work at the Paint Creek WTU power station.

Ginny was pretty and vivacious, and a smile that could absolutely light up a room. She had an amazing soprano voice and could play the guitar, and she and my wife would sing together for hours, their voices naturally harmonizing. They knew the entire John Denver catalog of songs, and covered lots of other artists as well – my personal favorite was always, “The Sweetest Gift,” as performed by Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd they frequently sang together in church.

She had lots of other talents, as well. Ginny loved kids – ALL kids! Ethnicity, income, color, whatever, didn’t matter to her. For several years, she ran an in-home day care center, and helped raise a whole generation of kids in the Haskell area – our son Drew, included.

She loved Christmas, and enjoyed singing in community musicals. And she loved art – she taught art classes at the Paint Creek school, and left an indelible mark on dozens, if not hundreds, of students.

Over the years, our friendship grew, changed, matured. We had our kids, and she and Mike had theirs – first two daughters, then later, a son. She taught Sunday School at church, and also became the song leader, and I swear, I never grew tired of hearing her & Kathy sing together.

That all changed one year just before Christmas. Ginny had had a bad headache all that day, then that evening (at a Christmas party, of all things) she had a stroke – a bad one. She was just in her 40s. Ginny worked really hard, and managed to regain a lot of what she had lost. But then in 2005, she had another stroke, from which she could not recover. She passed away on December 16, 2005.

Why am I telling you all this? I don’t know. For one thing, I guess, just to share Ginny’s story: she was a remarkable woman, a dear friend, and I wish you could have known her. Beyond that, her story is a reminder that life is short, so cherish every moment, and make it count. Tell the people that you love how you feel. Smile. Sing. Laugh.

Ginny would tell you, that really IS “The Sweetest Gift.”

 

 

The Story

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

So when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

 18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.

 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. 10 Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.

13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” 18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” 19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

21 Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. 22 When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. 23 When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

24 After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, 25 “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”[b] 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born[d] will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”

38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

39 Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60 But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” 61 They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” 62 Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63 He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65 Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66 All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:

68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71     that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

80 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

19 Meanwhile, Mary’s betrothed husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace because she was pregnant, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son…

2 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that a census should be taken of all the Roman territory. This was the first census, and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

15 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.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

21 After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

 22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31     which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”

33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

51 And he was obedient to them in all things. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

The Secret of Christmas

(I’d like to dedicate this blog to my late father-in-law, Frank Rolens. Frank was a wonderful, gentle, Godly man, a great father and husband, a terrific father-in-law and friend. December 16 was his birthday, and he absolutely loved Barbershop singing and the Vocal Majority, so I’m posting this in his honor.)

Back in 1982, radio station KVIL in Dallas released the first of what would become a series of Christmas recordings. This album, and later CDs, contained some really beautiful Christmas songs – some old favorites, some newer material – and featured artists from the D/FW and North Texas area.

One of my favorites was a recording by the Vocal Majority of “The Secret of Christmas.” I had never heard the song before, but it turns out it was written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn for Bing Crosby to sing in the 1959 movie, “Say One for Me.” Besides Der Bingle, the song has been covered by numerous artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, Julie Andrews and Johnny Mathis, but the VM’s version remains my favorite.

Now, if you’re not familiar with the Vocal Majority, they are a men’s chorus of about 150 guys who sing in classic “Barbershop” harmony. They are based in Dallas, and have won numerous international singing competitions.

My preacher, David McQueen, has been talking in his recent sermons about the true “Spirit” of Christmas, and the idea that the best of what we call “The Christmas Spirit” – joy, generosity, hope, surrounding yourself with loved ones – are qualities that Christians ought to embody throughout the entire year. That certainly fits with this song.

So here are the lyrics for “The Secret of Christmas,” along with a YouTube recording of the VM singing it. Do yourself a favor and watch this video. Let their gorgeous harmonies wash over you.

And may we all remember the secret, all year through.

It's not the glow you feel
 When snow appears
 It's not the Christmas card
 You've sent for years
Not the joyful sound
 When sleigh bells ring
 Or the merry songs
 Children sing
The little gift you send
 On Christmas day
 Will not bring back the friend
 You've turned away
So may I suggest, the secret of Christmas
 Is not the things you do at Christmas time 
 But the Christmas things you do
 All year through

 

Training for Christmas Fun

When someone finds out that I’m a model railroad aficionado, most of the time, it brings a sort of tolerant half-smile. That changes at Christmas. Tell someone you’re into model trains at this time of year, and their eyes will invariably light up, and they’ll say, “Oh, that’s so cool!” And you’ll hear a great story about a parent or some other loved one, a long-gone Lionel or other train set, and some wonderful memories. Even people who have no interest in trains the rest of the year, become nostalgic and even wistful thinking about trains around a Christmas tree.

asmr_logoSo I am happy to tell you about our model train club, the Abilene Society of Model Railroaders, and our annual Open House, coming up this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 13 & 14. Our layout is at 2043 N. 2nd, behind Global Samaritan Ministries, here in Abilene, and the times will be Saturday, 10 AM – 5 PM, and on Sunday from 1 – 5 PM. Admission is free, but donations will be accepted, and all ages are welcome. (For more about the hobby, see my previous post “The World’s Greatest Hobby.”)

The club layout is in HO scale (pronounced “aitch-oh”), which is based on a proportion of 1:87 – in other words, 1 foot on the layout represents 87 feet in real life. (Yes, that’s an odd number, and there’s a story behind how it developed that I won’t bore you with right now.) The club is seeking to represent the old Texas & Pacific Railway (now Union Pacific) from Ft. Worth through Abilene and on to Big Spring – although club members are allowed to “freelance” sections to reflect their personal interests.

CutI have been adding to the scenery on a 20 ft. section of track, representing a rural area somewhere in Callahan County; other club members are doing sections that represent Abilene, Baird, and elsewhere. The scenery is finished in some areas, partially done in other areas, and not even started in some portions.

There are many different techniques for creating realistic scenery. In my case, I used blue Styrofoam insulation board, stacked up and carved to represent ridges and hills, then covered with a thin layer of lightweight plaster. I painted it and sprinkled a product that represents grass, then placed lichen in various shades of green to represent trees. I am pleased with the final results.FW&D_depot

Other scenes: A Burlington engine passes in front of the old Ft. Worth & Denver depot on Locust Street in Abilene –>

theater_corner<– A downtown city scene. Do you suppose patrons at the movie theater complain about the noise when a train goes by?

oil_field1A tank farm, complete with pump jack. –>

T&P_station<– The T&P station in downtown Abilene.

underpassNear the Swift Meat Packing Plant. –>

Mel<– Member Mel Herwick adds details to a section of scenery.

engine_facilityLocomotive shop facility, still under construction –>

Club members are happy to share our layout and our passion for the hobby, and we invite everyone to come out this weekend and see the trains, and also see our progress on the layout. Besides the main club layout, we will also have smaller displays of model trains in other scales, as well as an operating Thomas the Tank Engine that little ones can run themselves. (Why should the big kids have all the fun?)

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions:

1. When did the Abilene club begin? Our club started in 1991, partly in connection with the Abilene Railroad Festival which also began that year. The railroad festival is no longer being held, but our club continues to go well.

2. How long did it take to build the layout? The current layout was started a little over two years ago, and is a little over half completed. At some future point we plan to expand our area. Once that’s done, it will be a matter of adding more scenery, and improving what has already been done – there’s a sense in which a model railroad is never finished.

3. Isn’t model railroading expensive? Well, it can be – you can spend hundreds of dollars on one engine if you want – but it doesn’t have to be. Speaking for myself, I certainly don’t have the funds to build a large layout, or the time, space or expertise, for that matter. But by being a member of the ASMR, I can have access to a great layout that I would never be able to afford to duplicate at home. I have also made some great friendships and my fellow members are happy to share their time and experience with me. As with any hobby – fishing, quilting, golfing – how much you spend is up to you.

4. What about other sizes of model trains? One of the first things that newcomers to the hobby must decide is what SCALE they want to model. As mentioned, the club models HO scale, which is the most common, and has the widest selection of engines, cars and model buildings available. A good beginner’s layout fits well on a 4×8 sheet of plywood, which is another reason it’s so popular. Other popular scales include N scale, which is smaller – a 3×5 size beginner’s layout works great – and also O scale, which is derived from the traditional Lionel trains that so many older folks grew up with. And there are others.

5. How can I get started? Many people begin by buying a train set at Christmas; that may or may NOT be the best thing, depending on the age and interests of the person you’re buying it for. For younger children, a wooden “Brio” style may be a better choice; for older children (or grown-ups), a set that includes an engine, some cars, track and a transformer, often for around $100, might be a good choice. Most sets will be either HO or N scale; it’s your choice which one you get. HO sets take up more room but are easier to put together and often easier to operate; N scale sets are more compact, but are less forgiving of bumps in the track and other beginner mistakes.

If you decide to buy a set from a “big box” retailer or craft stores, don’t expect much help. Traditional model train stores can be more helpful for beginners, but also more expensive and sometimes hard to find. But there are PLENTY of online resources, and several good hobby magazines that can be very helpful. There are also lots of “how to” videos you can access for free on YouTube.

We hope to see you this weekend!

Christmas Priorities

Several years ago, the Christian band “Truth” did a parody of “Silent Night” that included the line, “Christmas is the time I hate the best!” For many people, that sentiment is too true to be funny.

You know what I mean. As I write this, it’s only the first week of December, but already our household calendar is covered with commitments for the month. We are battered and buried with ads for Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday. And every year when we get to about the middle of the month, we’re saying to our spouses, “This is crazy! Holidays shouldn’t be this stressful, and nobody should be this busy. Next year, let’s do things differently!”

Well, THIS year is the NEXT year you talked about LAST year. So what are you going to do about it? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but please allow me to offer a few thoughts that I intend to keep focused on this Christmas season.

Simplify. Seriously. Christmas to me seems to be a time when less is more – that is, don’t over-schedule yourself, and don’t feel like you have to put in an appearance at every event. My hunch is we will enjoy the events that we do go to more, if we’re not constantly worrying about having to get to the next thing. That goes for decorating, too. The world will not come to an end if your neighbor has more lights on his house than you do.

Don’t stress over stuff. How often we fret and fuss over getting the “perfect” gift for everyone on our list. Hey – it’s just stuff. Most of us have too much of it as it is. Maybe rather than having a meltdown trying to be the gift genie, you could make a donation in that person’s name to one of their favorite charities. If you like being in the kitchen, think about making a batch of cookies and giving everyone 2 or 3. That’s enough to go along with a cup of coffee or a glass of milk, and nearly everyone likes homemade cookies!

Another idea would be, instead of getting someone another coffee mug or pair of socks, consider instead just giving them a card with a nice, handwritten note inside. It will mean a whole lot more, and is certainly not likely to be “re-gifted” to someone else.

Share. Yourself. Your time. Be open to others and let them be open with you.

And finally, to quote my pastor, David McQueen,

The main thing, is to keep the main thing, the main thing. What is the main thing for Christmas? Isn’t it to rejoice in the great gift that God has given us when He sent His Son Jesus? So maybe we could spend more time worshiping and celebrating, and less time stressing over what to wear to the ugly sweater party. More time enjoying loved ones, and less going from store to store to save $1.98.

Maybe at the start of this Christmas season, we can determine to make this year one that we can look back at and say, “I love Christmas,” and really mean it. “And God bless, every one.”

Merry Christmas.

The Christmas Guest

One of the greatest blessings of my life was to be the host of “A.M. Sunday,” a Gospel music radio show on KVRP in Haskell. I had the privilege of programming the show, picking out the songs that would play on the air, reading a little scripture, and putting together special shows for holidays.

I used to take requests, and every year at Christmas, I’d get requests for Grandpa Jones performing “The Christmas Guest.” The only problem was, I didn’t HAVE a copy of Grandpa Jones doing that piece, and this was long before you could simply download the song from iTunes or watch and listen to it on YouTube. But I DID have a different version of it, done by Reba McEntire, and I would play that. And I understood why people liked it so much, because I absolutely fell in love with it.

To tell the truth, I’m not sure who wrote this poem. The earliest version I can find is a short story by the 19th century American author and poet Edwin Markham. The various poems and dramatic readings are listed as being written by Grandpa Jones, Mel Torme, Helen Steiner Rice, and others. There’s a sense in which Jesus wrote it when He said, “Inasmuch as ye did it to the least of these my brothers, ye did it unto Me.”

So whether you heard it back in the day on “A.M. Sunday,” or if this is your first encounter with this poem, I hope it blesses you as much as it does me.

Merry Christmas!

THE CHRISTMAS GUEST

It happened one day near December’s end
Two neighbors called on an old friend
And they found his shop so meager and lean
Made gay with thousand bows of green

And Conrad was sitting with face a-shine
When he suddenly stopped as he stitched a twine
And he said, “Old friends, at dawn today
When the cock was crowing the night away
The Lord appeared in a dream to me
And said, ‘I’m coming your guest to be’

“So I’ve been busy with feet astir
Strewing my shop with branches of fern
The table is spread and the kettle is shined
And over the rafters the holly is twined

“Now I’ll wait for my Lord to appear
And listen closely so I will hear His step
As He nears my humble place.
And I’ll open the door and look on His face”

So his friends went home and left Conrad alone
For this was the happiest day he had known
For long since, his family had passed away
And Conrad had spent many a sad Christmas Day

But he knew with the Lord as his Christmas Guest
This Christmas would be the dearest and best
So he listened with only joy in his heart
And with every sound he would rise with a start
And look for the Lord to be at his door
Like the vision he had had a few hours before

So he ran to the window after hearing a sound
But all he could see on the snow covered ground
Was a shabby beggar whose shoes were torn
And all of his clothes were ragged and worn

But Conrad was touched and he went to the door
And he said, “You know, your feet must be frozen and sore
I have some shoes in my shop for you
And a coat that will keep you warmer too”

So with grateful heart the man went away
But Conrad noticed the time of day
And wondered what made the Lord so late
And how much longer he’d have to wait

When he heard a knock, he ran to the door
But it was only a stranger once more
A bent old lady with a shawl of black
With a bundle of kindling piled on her back
She asked for only a place to rest
But that was reserved for Conrad’s Great Guest

But her voice seemed to plead “Don’t send me away
Let me rest for awhile on Christmas Day”
So Conrad brewed her a steaming cup
And told her to sit at the table and sup

But after she left, he was filled with dismay
For he saw that the hours were slipping away
And the Lord hadn’t come as he said he would
And Conrad felt sure he had misunderstood

When out of the stillness he heard a cry,
“Please help me and tell me where am I?”
So again he opened his friendly door
And stood disappointed as twice before
It was only a child who’d wandered away
And was lost from her family on Christmas Day

Again Conrad’s heart was heavy and sad
But he knew he should make the little girl glad
So he called her in and he wiped her tears
And quieted all her childish fears

Then he led her back to her home once more
But as he entered his own darkened door
He knew the Lord was not coming today
For the hours of Christmas had passed away

So he went to his room and knelt down to pray
And he said, “Dear Lord, why did You delay?
What kept You from coming to call on me?
For I wanted so much Your face to see”

When soft in the silence a voice he heard
“Lift up your head for I kept my word
Three times my shadow crossed your floor
And three times I came to your lonely door

“I was the beggar with bruised, cold feet
And I was the woman you gave something to eat
I was the child on the homeless street
Three times I knocked and three times I came in
And each time I found the warmth of a friend
Of all the gifts, love is the best
And I was honored to be your Christmas Guest”