That’s a Wrap

Only 362 days ’til Christmas!

That’s right, friends. Christmas Past has passed. And Christmas Future is way out there. But the Christmas Present remains.

Steady. Strong. Faithful. Gentle. True. Always true.

Immanuel… God with us.

His presence is the present. And it never gets lost or broken or outdated or recalled. It doesn’t dissipate, won’t depreciate, and can’t be destroyed.

Of all the promises God has made to us, the guarantee of His ever-presence is the one I cling to most. Whether I can sense Him or not, He’s near. Never distant or disinterested. He has proven Himself to be intensely personal, endlessly forgiving and full of surprises. (The good kind: joy, adventure, humor… and one day, HEAVEN.)

You surround me – front and back. You put your hand on me. That kind of knowledge is too much for me; it’s so high above me that I can’t fathom it. 

Where could I go to get away from your spirit? Where could I go to escape your presence? If I went up to heaven, you would be there. If I went down to the grave, you would be there too! If I could fly on the wings of dawn, stopping to rest only on the far side of the ocean – even there your hand would guide me; even there your strong hand would hold me tight! ~ Psalm 139:5-10 (CEB)

The gift of Christmas means we never, ever have to be alone.

Behold… and be held.

…But the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you the most joyful news ever announced, and it is for everyone!  The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born tonight in Bethlehem!” ~ Luke 2:10-11 (TLB)

That wonder-filled, worldwide birthday extravaganza we just celebrated? It’s for Him. The Savior/Messiah/Lord. The babe in the manger.

We wrap our gifts because God wrapped His.

And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.” Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” ~ Luke 2:12-14 (NLT)

The gift – God’s one and only Son – swaddled and given to us.

His birth signaled the beginning of the end for all that’s wrong in our world: war and poverty, pride and prejudice, sin and sickness, hate and hopelessness. And death itself.

The gift of Jesus is the gift of a lifetime… and forever after.

It’s a gift that calls for an all-out, everybody’s-in(vited), wildly-celebrated, centuries-long, universally-propitious holiday!

Extra merry, if you please.

And presents too… under the tree, inside a stocking, tossed on the porch or stuffed in a mailbox. (I hope St. Nick gave naps and PTO to all those weary postal workers. Bless them.)

One of my son’s favorite presents this year was a heated blanket (a Chanukah gift from his Auntie Jo). As it turns out, that present is a brilliant metaphor for God’s gift of Jesus, who surrounds and protects us… and gives our lives weight and warmth.

Jesus is – in every sense of the word – our covering.

He who lives in the safe place of the Most High will be in the shadow of the All-powerful.  I will say to the Lord, “You are my safe and strong place, my God, in Whom I trust…” He will cover you with His wings. And under His wings you will be safe. He is faithful like a safe-covering and a strong wall. ~ Psalm 91:1-2, 4 (NLV)

Maybe that’s why we call Him Comforter.

That newborn baby – born to an unwed mother in a smelly stable – proved to be the mightiest and most storied King, Creator, Counselor (and yes, Comforter) of all.

A child has been born to us; God has given a son to us. He will be responsible for leading the people. His name will be Wonderful Counselor, Powerful God, Father Who Lives Forever, Prince of Peace. ~ Isaiah 9:6 (NCV)

He covers us and consoles us. His presence wraps around and warms us from within. Gentle, soothing, serene.

What a wonderful God we have—he is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the source of every mercy, and the one who so wonderfully comforts and strengthens us in our hardships and trials. And why does he do this? So that when others are troubled, needing our sympathy and encouragement, we can pass on to them this same help and comfort God has given us. ~ 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (TLB)

The help and comfort He offers are lifesaving… and everlasting. Jesus didn’t come to pat us on the back, give us a pep talk and watch us march to our deaths. He came to rescue and resuscitate us… and redeem all we were bound to lose. He lived and died, all for us.

As C.S. Lewis observed:

“Jesus came not to make bad people good but to make dead people live.”

The gift of Jesus is life.

Invite Jesus to wrap you up in His mercy. A blanket of forgiveness and freedom. Freedom from fear, shame, loneliness, pain… and whatever else litters your past (mine too).

The gift of Jesus is love.

Invite Him to drape you in His tender loving care. The kind of love that means you never need to feel alone, afraid, ashamed or abandoned.

The gift of Jesus is joy.

Invite Him to tuck you into the sweet serenity and bountiful blessings of His presence. When Jesus is near, there’s no lack of rest or refreshment. No shortage of grace or peace.

The Christmas Presence is yours for the asking.

Unwrap… and enjoy.

Wendy

P.S. Wishing you a comfy, cozy, warm and wonder-filled New Year!

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Mercy Christmas

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December is here in all of its twinkling, sparkling, glittering glory.

And while everyone seems to be hustling, bustling, hurrying and scurrying, I want to wish you a silent night or two… moments of stillness, grace and peace. And tidings of comfort too if your heart’s been bruised… or broken.

I still require an extra helping of comfort myself… because someone I dearly loved died at Christmastime, and I’m not sure my heart has fully recovered. In a post last Christmas, I shared the very last Christmas letter this woman ever wrote. And I remembered her, wistfully:

If you’ll indulge me for a minute, I’d like to tell you about this remarkable woman. She had rare grace, a quiet strength, a strong faith, and a mischievous grin that she’d flash every so often, just to keep everyone guessing. We were so different, she and I. She was quieter, gentler, more thoughtful. But she was also tons of fun. She loved parties and plays and road trips and dancing. In a ballroom… or all through the house. She favored folk singers like James Taylor, John Denver, Simon & Garfunkel, and quirky cocktails like a Pink Squirrel or a Harvey Wallbanger. Here’s the deal though – and she would tell you this herself, emphatically: she wasn’t perfect. She had issues. Insecurity issues. Daddy issues. Irritability issues (which she referred to as “hormonal fluctuations”). I’m beginning to understand what she meant by that.

The thing I liked best about her was how relational she was: she was an includer, an encourager, a helper, a pray-er, and she had good shoulders. I know this because I cried on them often. Every one of this woman’s friends later told me that she was their go-to girl. Because she made everyone feel like they were her best friend.

Including me.

Today marks 21 years since I said goodbye to my sweet momma. She got sick on a Sunday morning and died two days later. I remember draping myself across her feet in the ICU, pleading with God. And begging her too: Don’t go. Don’t leave me.

The LORD gives, and the LORD takes away.

(And sometimes it hurts like hell.)

My momma went on ahead to heaven. Good for her… but… I was undone. Distraught. Completely crushed. I had no earthly idea how I was going to keep breathing… let alone “do Christmas.” Or life, for that matter.

I’m not gonna lie. Some days it was a sapping/sobbing/isolating/devastating struggle. I felt like I had a new label: bereft. I would see young women in the mall, shopping with their mommas and their babies. And it warmed my heart. And then broke it into a thousand pieces.

My mother-in-law did what she could. She and my father-in-law would take the boys so Steve and I could go to dinner or a movie. She’d make us meals now and then. They hosted one of the boys’ birthday parties for us. (Pretty sure my mother-in-law bought out every Thomas the Tank Engine item in the party goods section at Target for that kiddie soiree.)

She tried valiantly, and in hindsight, I realize I probably didn’t give her enough credit. But the truth was what it was… and is what it is. She wasn’t my mom.

I didn’t want Linda… I wanted Louise.

Linda was high-strung and finicky (which is a nice way of saying she could be quite a pain in the derriere.) She was an artist and fashion designer prior to becoming a wife, mother, homemaker and hostess, which meant that every detail of every party or presentation had to be perfect. The clothing label, the dinner menu, the wrapping paper, the fabrics, the flowers, the flatware. Appearances mattered. A lot. A lot a lot.

And while I like a clean house, a good pedicure and strong support (from my mattress and my undergarments), I guess I felt like I couldn’t cut it. My parenting skills, my denominational preference, and my athletic abilities were sorely lacking, it seemed. (I was a lousy tennis player and a hazard on the golf course. Which meant I was really only good for lunch at the club.) Most of the time, my mother-in-law let her actions (and non-verbal cues) communicate that message. But sometimes she came right out and said it.

Like the time she took me and my firstborn son (who was 3 at the time) shopping at a “finer” department store. Zack made a beeline for the stuffed animals and plush toys in the children’s section, and of course, he threw a fit – right there in front of the retail associate and all the other shoppers – when I told him to put the overpriced banana-toting monkey back on the shelf. When his protests reached an 8.2 magnitude on the tantrum scale, I decided it would be best (so as not to trigger migraines or a security escort) to just buy the orangutan and go home for a nap. Both of us.

My mother-in-law disagreed. She decided it was the perfect time to teach me a lengthy lesson about parental discipline and delayed gratification. Also in front of the retail associate and all the other shoppers. It was a group lesson, if you will. This from the woman who seemed to have indulged her sons’ every whim while they were growing up and was currently spoiling her dog like Leona Helmsley. (Google her. You’ll get the idea.)

In addition to being somewhat authoritative, Mom was maddeningly late for everything. If the celebration started at 7, she’d sweep into the room around 8:45 and command everyone’s attention from the moment she arrived until everyone else left. She was even late to her own parties. (Not even kidding.) Dad would play greeter and host until my mother-in-law emerged from the master suite sporting her Chanel lipstick, her signature bob, a killer dress and a dazzling smile. She was so pretty. Dad would swoon, and everyone would air-kiss and pretend perfect.

Three years after my mom passed away, Steve’s dad died from leukemia. The one who had seemingly held us all together (and held Mom in check, to no small degree) was gone now, too.

Initially, my mother-in-law chose to stay in the home they had shared, but within a couple years her physician had diagnosed her with early onset dementia (in hindsight, likely Alzheimer’s), and we knew she wouldn’t be able to live alone much longer.

One night during dinner, we started discussing the fact that Mom would need to move. Soon. There had been some troubling indications that she was no longer safe alone, and her doctor had recently told her she shouldn’t be driving. We agreed that the new assisted-living facility opening in a nearby community would be an excellent choice. She’d have a newly-built two-bedroom suite, and the ascetics would most definitely appeal to her. The only problem was that the suite wouldn’t be ready for nearly six weeks. We talked about the possibility of hiring home caregivers to bridge the gap. But Steve felt strongly that mom should come and stay with us until her new place was ready.

Excuse me?!

It was one thing when Mom herself had informed me (five years prior) that she was handing off the baton to me, and now I’d be hosting the entire extended family at Christmas each year: “You’re 30 now, so I think it’s time you start hosting the holidays.” I didn’t want the baton. I wanted to throw it to the ground and stomp on it. But I didn’t. Instead I took a couple cooking lessons. And got a membership to Sam’s Club.

But this was entirely different.

I would have to live with her. 24/7. For a month. Possibly two. (Lord, have mercy.)

My head started to spin.

I glared at my dear husband. Who was just trying to do right by his momma… and our brother and sister-in-law – whose youngest son was in the NICU.  (Clearly, I was the only logical candidate for designated driver, laundress, cook and caregiver.)

My mother-in-law stayed with us for 40 days. It felt like 400. And just before we tore each other’s hair out, her suite at the Timbers of Shorewood was ready. Hallelujah.

Little did I know that her brief stay was only the beginning of a terribly lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s. And for those of you who’ve witnessed the effects of this ravaging disease, you know that it didn’t only assail her. We were all caught in the firestorm.

From start to finish, Mom’s illness afflicted her for nearly 15 years.

I wish I could tell you that I was a devoted daughter-in-law and attentive caretaker during those years. But I wasn’t. I treated Mom’s illness – correction –  I treated Mom… like a burden. One that I bore bitterly.

Yes, I took her to her doctor’s appointments and the market. I invited her to all our family gatherings and picked up her prescriptions and dry cleaning. I chauffeured her to department store after department store (fashion remained a high priority until her cognitive function had diminished to the point where she didn’t know what a zipper was). I even – begrudgingly – returned every single fall fashion item she had selected because the cut of the garment didn’t suit her or the dye lot was inconsistent or the nap of the fabric didn’t please or natural light brought out the yellow undertones which were terribly unflattering. I ran around “doing the right thing” for my mother-in-law… with the wrong perspective and a lousy attitude. I was not kind, nor tenderhearted. Ebenezer Scrooge was more gracious than me.

I bemoaned the fact that I was solely responsible for Mom’s needs and requests (reasonable or not), and under the guise of “keeping her in the loop” I notified my sister-in-law of every appointment, errand and inconvenience I endured. I also took every opportunity to grouse to my husband and kids about their mother/grandmother.

So becoming, I know.

The fact is… I had become completely bitter. And no matter how beautiful you are, bitter is ugly. It is its own progressive disease. And at some point I realized, if I didn’t treat it, I would succumb to it.

Around that time, two things happened. First, my pastor preached a sermon about forgiveness. He talked about the fact that every relationship requires it. Ours to God. Ours to our children. To our partners. To our parents. And our friends. At some point, we all falter and fail each other. And it goes both ways. (Well, except with God. All the faltering and failing happens on my side… All the fault in that relationship lands squarely on me.) My pastor talked about that fact that regardless of how horrific the offense against us, no matter how deep the hurt and heartache, we have to find our way to forgiveness. Or bitterness will consume us from the inside out. To illustrate his point, he said, “Choosing not to forgive someone is like drinking cyanide and waiting for the other person to die.”

His message hit me full-force… like a sucker-punch to the gut. I was the one drinking the poisonous, proverbial Kool-Aid.

Not only was I bitter toward my mother-in-law, I was stoking a simmering anger toward Steve. In my mind, he had conspired against me to forcibly shackle me into Alzheimer’s patient-support services. And I was indignant.

The second thing that happened then was that my mother-in-law started quietly saying the same thing to me every time I came to see her:

“Thank you for taking care of me.”

This fierce, finicky, feisty woman was becoming softer, sweeter, more sincere. And it unnerved me. How could I continue to carry my grievances against someone who was so genuinely grateful?

I wish I could tell you that I surrendered my resentment right then and there. But I didn’t. Which is funny, because in hindsight, I can see that I was a lot more like her than I would have ever cared to admit.

Stubborn. Strong-willed. Slow to relent… or repent.

After several years in the assisted-living residence, it came time to move Mom again. This time to a memory care center with skilled nursing support. She no longer needed me to “care” for her personal needs, which was a great relief. Instead, I came to keep her company once or twice a week. Often enough to keep myself from feeling guilty… and anyone else from thinking me neglectful.

If the weather was nice, we’d sit outside in the courtyard and watch the birds build nests and the fountain grasses sway in the breeze. Most of the time we’d just sit there quietly, keeping company with one another. If it was warm and sunny or cool and breezy, I’d make remarks about the weather. But no matter what the temperature or cloud cover, Mom would tell me it was a beautiful day. And then she’d tell me again. And again. And once more for good measure.

During wintertime, I’d join her for a sing-along or a bead-stringing session in the gathering room. Sometimes we’d sit in front of the television and watch a video of a blazing fire crackling in its virtual fireplace. She wasn’t much of a conversationalist at this point, so I became fairly good at monologues. I’d tell her stories about her grandkids or share memories from years past – some sentimental, some silly. She laughed easily, though I wasn’t always sure she understood why she was laughing. But somehow she seemed to know when she was supposed to. And that made me smile.

By now, Mom had forgotten our names, her whereabouts, and any concept of time or season. She roamed the halls late at night, wore three layers of clothing in July, and seemed surprised when we told her she had been married to a wonderful man named Bob who absolutely adored her.

She had lost all manner of social graces and basic skills. The woman who had possessed such poise and impeccable manners would now reach her hand into a bowl of chocolate pudding and lap it up from her fingers.

You’d think I would have become more tenderhearted by now. Instead, I was just desperately trying to keep her from soiling my spiritwear before I headed to one of my boys’ ball games. I endured my obligatory visits with her… and I hurried back to my car and my comfort zone, as quickly as seemed acceptable to any of the staff who might be keeping tabs. For all intents and purposes, I was simply keeping up appearances. Because apparently, appearances mattered a lot to me. A lot a lot. (Hmm…)

There’s a verse in the Bible that says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test my thoughts. Point out anything you find in me that makes you sad and lead me along” your path.

Slowly but surely, as Mom’s illness progressed and our relationship changed, I opened my heart to God’s searching and knowing and testing. In those minutes of quiet and stillness, those hours of bird-watching and sitting fireside together, Mom and I kept company. And God was with us. We grew closer, and I grew kinder, gentler, a little wiser.

My eyes were opened to things I’d never really considered before: my mother-in-law’s traumatic childhood, her haunting flashbacks and debilitating fears, the heartbreaking loss of an infant son, and her family’s long history of mental illness. I began to feel something I hadn’t felt for her before.

Compassion.

I was stricken with it. I say stricken because it stung a little when I realized I had never shown her any.

I started thinking about my own propensity to hurt others. Often unintentionally, but sometimes, premeditated… and targeted… hitting below the belt or aiming for vital organs. A biting comment, a purposeful slight, a nasty tone, a bold-faced lie. Some juicy gossip or not-so-good old-fashioned back-stabbing. The more I peeled back the layers of my own “pretending perfect” the more cold and calculating I saw. The more controlling and manipulative.

Unbecoming, indeed.

I took a long, hard look at my ugly.

And I discovered something life-changing in that soul-searching… I realized that when I’m guilty, I want a pardon. Not even a slap on the wrist, I want boundless forgiveness. Mercy! But when somebody wrongs me, I want justice to its fullest extent. Book ’em Dano!  Make ’em pay. (What a double standard.)

Mom gave me that. The ability to see my own hypocrisy. It doesn’t sound like it, but it really was an incredible blessing. It gave me something I’d been lacking.

Perspective.

So I pondered and prayed. Alone and also sometimes with Mom. Though she couldn’t remember her own name, she would squeeze my hand and softly say “amen” at the end of our prayers together. And I found myself fighting back tender tears.

Not gonna lie, I still hurried out to my car (and doused my hands in sanitizer) after my visits, but the bitterness was beginning to lift. And my burden was getting lighter. I was finding my way to mercy… and grace… and peace.

Heavenly peace.

Christmas is about gifts. Not the presents under the tree. The real gifts. The lasting ones. The ones we truly cherish. Togetherness, tenderness, laughter, love.

In those years that Mom lingered, her body very much alive but her mind and memory fading away, Mom helped me unwrap another gift. An extraordinary one. The gift of forgiveness.

There’s a song by Don Henley called “The Heart of the Matter,” and it goes like this:

“I’ve been trying to get down to the heart of the matter, but my will gets weak, and my thoughts seem to scatter, but I think it’s about forgiveness.”

Forgiveness.

Whether from God or someone else, I’m always glad to receive it. When someone graciously forgives me, I’m always a little stunned… and incredibly grateful.

And forgiveness is a gift I can offer too. I can give it freely – and here’s the amazing thing – it need not be preceded by an apology. (With some people, I’ve learned, I’ll never get one anyway.)

But the really extraordinary thing God and my mother-in-law taught me about forgiveness is this:

It’s a gift I give myself.

When I forgive, I push away the toxic cocktail of bitterness. And I receive the sweetwater of mercy. I drink it in. And splash it all around.

More forgiveness and mercy, more kindness and goodness, more perspective and patience and peace.

My mother-in-law passed away three and a half years ago… and oh, how I wish I had readily offered those gifts to her earlier and more generously/joyfully/lovingly. Before she died, though, I had begun to face my pride and my judgment of her. I had begun to let go of things I had held against her for so long.

At her funeral, my son Mitchell gave the eulogy. Through tears, he concluded his remembrance with this:

“I hold my grandmother in highest esteem… because she and my grandfather raised the two finest men I know, my dad and my uncle.”

His words struck a chord in my heart. Mitch was right.

Her shortcomings and struggles aside, Mom had raised the very best man I know. And that alone ought to merit a mountain of mercy.

We sang “Amazing Grace” at the graveside service and bid Mom farewell. But I know that because of the mercy of Christ, she’s still very much alive. Healthy and whole.

I imagine that she and my father-in-law had an exceedingly joyful reunion in heaven. And that perhaps she and my mom get glimpses of their sweet, silly, lively and lovely grandchildren now and then. And that maybe – just maybe – our Father God has communicated to her my heart’s cry this Christmas:

Mom, I’m sorry. For my stubborn pride. For being quick to judge and long to hold a grudge. I’m sorry my bitterness kept us from having the close, comforting relationship we both really needed. Thanks for sticking around long enough for me to learn the lessons of forgiveness. Took me awhile, I know, but I think I’m finally starting to get it. I love you, Mom. And I’ll see you again one day. Merry Christmas.

And merry Christmas to all of you, too. May the gifts we give this holiday season be drenched in love and mercy.

And may God bless us, every one.

~ Wendy

 

The Last Christmas Letter

My dear reader,

‘Tis the season… of twinkle lights and starry nights, snowflakes and stockings, candy canes and carols, parties, presents, poinsettias…

And a little tea and sympathy.

I say sympathy because Christmas for me is still a little bittersweet. Someone I dearly love died at Christmastime, and I’m not sure my heart has fully recovered.

If you’ll indulge me for a minute, I’d like to tell you about this remarkable woman. She had rare grace, a quiet strength, a strong faith, and a mischievous grin that she’d flash every so often, just to keep everyone guessing. We were so different, she and I. She was quieter, gentler, more thoughtful. But she was also tons of fun. She loved parties and plays and road trips and dancing. In a ballroom occasionally, but most frequently in the kitchen… and all through the house. She favored folk singers like James Taylor, John Denver, Simon & Garfunkel, and quirky cocktails like a Pink Squirrel or a Harvey Wallbanger.

Here’s the deal though – and she would tell you this herself, emphatically: she wasn’t perfect. She had issues. Insecurity issues. Daddy issues. Irritability issues (which she referred to as “hormonal fluctuations”). I’m beginning to understand what she meant by that.

The thing I liked best about her was how relational she was: she was an includer, an encourager, a helper, a pray-er, and she had good shoulders. I know this because I cried on them often. Every one of this woman’s friends later told me that she was their go-to girl. Because she made everyone feel like they were her best friend.

Including me.

Tomorrow will be twenty years since I said goodbye to my sweet momma. She got sick on a Sunday morning and died two days later. I remember draping myself across her feet in the ICU, pleading with God. And begging her too: Don’t go. Don’t leave me.

The LORD gives, and the LORD takes away.

(And sometimes it hurts like hell.)

My momma went on ahead to heaven. Good for her… but… I was undone. Distraught. Completely crushed. I had no earthly idea how I was going to keep breathing… let alone “do Christmas.”

Or life, for that matter.

I’m not gonna lie. Some days it was a sapping/ sobbing/ isolating/devastating struggle. I felt like I had a new label: bereft. I would see young women in the mall, shopping with their mommas and their babies. And it warmed my heart. And then broke it into a thousand pieces.

I remember that searing pain all too well.

But even in my pain – I was shocked to discover – there was peace. The pain was deep. But the peace was deeper still.

Because Jesus is…

Immanuel.

God with us.

He was so near in my pain. And He showed me more of Himself there. I drew closer. (Probably because I had nowhere else to turn.) And He tendered solace. In the floodwaters of grief I learned… Jesus doesn’t just give peace. He is peace.

You’ve probably heard the saying: No Jesus. No peace. Know Jesus. Know peace. 

It’s true. Because it’s Truth.

Encountering Truth requires a willingness to resist presumption and abandon disbelief. It requires humility (so rare these days) and hope. A yearning for something better, bigger, more brilliant than anything this world has to offer.

A desire to embrace a divine mystery.

A mystery revealed only to those who are willing to take a leap of faith… and believe Jesus. Believe that He is. And that He was. And that He is to come.

Believe that He is with you, for you, before you and behind you.

Believe that He was born and lived and died on this dusty earth. Died to meet the highest and most holy standard of justice, bearing the brutal burden of all the world’s sin and making the bloody payment it requires.

And then – in the most stunning victory of all – defeating death and exiting the grave on his own two nail-scarred feet.

He is risen!

That’s it. That’s all.

Simply believe.

Faith.

It’s a risk. And a reward. It’s a wild, daring, heart-pounding, running leap… into the strong arms of a Father who will never let you down.

Don’t ask me to build a bridge of irrefutable proof for you. I cannot. (Though I would argue that C.S. Lewis, Lee Strobel and Tim Keller can all make a pretty good case.)

By God’s definition:

Faith is the substance of things hoped for… the evidence of things not seen.

Turns out, it’s stronger than any bridge ever built. Safer than any fortress. And it isn’t affected the slightest bit by suspicion, skepticism or outright denial. The brilliant scholar/writer/broadcaster/critic/convert C.S. Lewis once wrote:

“Thirst was made for water. Inquiry for truth.”

Keep inquiring. God will answer. (He promised.)

‘Call to Me and I will answer you, and I will tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know.’

Even if you don’t inquire, eventually you may run into Him. (This is my prayer, anyway.)

“We can ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The earth is crowded with Him,” Lewis wrote.

God cannot not divulge His grace and glory.

“A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘Darkness’ on the walls of his cell.”

I’m living proof of God’s grace. I’ve been drenched in His love… and seen glimpses of His glory. I’ve been enfolded in His inexplicable peace. I know the truth about Him.

My momma knew it too.

And now, as I celebrate her in my heart – and miss her madly – I’d like to share with you her “last words” to her friends and family. It’s a letter she wrote just days before she went home to heaven.

Her very last Christmas letter.

I want to tell you about a very special man in my life. I actually met him many years ago during a time of transition. Fred had been traveling every week from Monday through Friday for an entire year. I was at home with the kids week after week, exhausted and very lonely. Finally the time came for us to move to Louisville, and I was delighted. But not long after the move I realized that there was still something missing from my life, a void I couldn’t seem to fill. Then a dear friend introduced me to this man, unlike anyone I’d ever met. If I told you his name, you would recognize it immediately and I knew it too, but had never met him until then.

From that day on, I seemed to run into him everywhere. A lot of people were talking about him. Some seemed to be as much in awe of him as I was, while others seemed to hold a burning anger and hatred for him that I couldn’t understand. As time went on, I realized that I had fallen deeply and irreversibly in love with him. It wasn’t the same kind of love I had for my husband or family, and I can’t really explain it except to say I don’t know how I ever lived without him.

He has been there for me through joys and trails, heartache and laughter. He was my rock of stability during our move to Atlanta away from family and friends. He has brought me strength and healing this year after the loss of dear loved ones. He gives me indescribable peace, lifts me up when I’m down and turns torrents of crises into streams of calm waters. When I face uncertainty I ask myself, “What would he do?” And best of all, I know he will never leave me no matter what I say or do to disappoint him because his love for me is so strong. 

I continue to get to know him better through conversations and the beautiful letters he has written – they are powerful yet tender and they give me strength to face anything this life can throw at me. He is perfect in every way and, more than anything, I want you to know him and love him as I do.

In case you haven’t already figured it out, the “other man” in my life is Jesus Christ, the Messiah, and He loves you too. The best Christmas gift you can ever receive is to get to know Him in a personal way (Isaiah 55:6). It’s very simple, just acknowledge your need for Him (Isaiah 43:11, 25) and ask Him to come into your life. Are you tired of the struggle (Philippians 4:13)? Are you just going through the motions day after day (Psalm 127:1)? Do all the “things” of this world seem like empty boxes (1 Corinthians 2:9)? Give Jesus a chance to fill your life. And may God bless you this year in a new and powerful way.

Please let me know if you have received the greatest gift of all – eternal life.

With much love, 

Louise

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P.S. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.”

Tidings of (Cocoa) Comfort & Joy

My dear reader,

I have a confession to make.

One day last week, I let Chloe skip school. She wasn’t sick. Or tired. Or injured. She didn’t have an appointment with the doctor, dentist, allergist or orthodontist (or any other person with capital letters trailing after their name). But I let her stay home, stay warm, and stay in her PJs. All the livelong day.

She played hooky… and we made fudge. Now, before you google “truant officers” in my district, let me assure you that this is not a regular – or even once-in-a-blue-moon -occurrence in our household. (Which is possibly why I am not considered “the fun parent” by any of our offspring.) Also, in my defense and Chloe’s, she’d already finished finals, and she’s perpetually sporting straight As. Smarty pants, that one.

So I’m thinking a little midweek merry-making is permissable, right?

At the most wonderful time of the year, merry-making involves fudge-making. And watching “White Christmas” and listening to Kaye and Crosby croon. (We crooned too, in case you were wondering. Chloe can belt out a rousing rendition of “Sisters,” despite the fact that she doesn’t have one.) As we sang and stirred and savored our day together, my girl grinned and giggled non-stop. She had a ball. And licked the bowl. (And the spoon.)

At our house, it simply isn’t Christmas without my grandmother’s secret-recipe fudge. Batch after batch. Smooth, sweet, chocolate bliss. Mixed, melted, poured, and shared.

Oh taste and see that the LORD is good.

Can I get an amen?

The fudge tradition was begun my grandma Ida Rivoire Dickson (Idee to all who loved her, which was pretty much anyone who ever met her). As far as I know, Idee possessed the only copy of a highly-classified document (pretty sure it was a 3 x 5 index card) which contained the secret recipe: exact measurements, ingredients, vanilla extract stains and a genuine chocolate-fudge smudge. Eventually she handed it down to my mom – the recipe, not the highly-classified index card – and then on to yours truly. (For the record, I’m fairly certain the document was destroyed at some point. So it wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands.)

I have decades of cocoa-drenched Christmas memories. Idee would pull up a chair next to her stove, tie an apron twice around my waist, and hand me a wooden spoon. I wielded it with wide-eyed wonder, like a magic wand. (In hindsight, perhaps it was.) I was trained and supervised in this distinctive culinary art by the finest fudge-maker in all the land: my beloved Idee. Over the years, I was promoted from Butter-Melter to Vanilla-Extract-Pourer to Milk-Measurer to Cocoa-and-Confectioner’s-Sugar-Stirrer to Deputy in charge of Double-Boiler Duty. This was a tricky task, requiring one strong grip on the pan handle and another on the wooden spoon… and it required an occasional adjustment of the stove-top burner setting to ensure the proper timing and temperature for masterful melty-ness. Under my grandmother’s devoted tutelage, I climbed the confectionary ladder (and eventually outgrew the pulled-up-chair too)… and that is how I became an Executive Chef of Secret-Recipe Fudge.

But it wasn’t so much the secret recipe or even the dense, dark, luscious fudge itself that made such an impression on me all those Christmases past. It was the cavities. Just kidding. Although I’m guessing my fudge habit eventually eroded a few divots in my tooth enamel. It didn’t turn out all bad, though: I got silver. And then a crown. (You may call me Princess Wendy, if you’d like.)

What I remember most about Idee’s fudge was this: she gave it all away. Every last tin. To friends and family, old folks and new neighbors, church members and garden club ladies, the mailman and the paper boy (please excuse the gender-specific designations of the late 1960s). All of them were blessed recipients of Idee’s sweet, secret-recipe (and maybe magical) fudge.

And there were others too. People who were sad or suffering, laid-off or lonely, grieving… or just grumpy. She knew that fudge couldn’t cure all those ills. But it might make them a little easier to bear. And it would certainly remind them that someone took the time to see (and stir) and care (and share). In her own kind, quiet, gentle way, Idee taught me that Christmas isn’t all joy and jingle bells for everyone. Sometimes the season brings a whole lot of hurt and heartache.

Undoubtedly, for some, December ushers in bitter-cold and winter doldrums: dismally grey days and dreary, weary nights. December delivers distress: busyness and bills, hurrying and scurrying and worrying about every last little thing. For some, December means desperation, not celebration. Dread, despair, or unbearable isolation. Loneliness burrowing deep and dark. Hopelessness that can bleed dry all the merry and bright and beautiful and worth-living-for.

I believe Idee knew this… simply because she noticed. Somewhere along the way of life, she had slipped off the lenses of self-focus and slipped on a pair of bi-focals:

Amity and Empathy.

Idee was no stranger to dismay. Her life was not “all roses and no thorns.” She endured more than her share of sadness and strife. But along with those thorns, Idee was given great faith and hard-won wisdom. Which she kindly passed along to me:

It’s important to help bear one another’s burdens… and maybe bring a little tin of treats too.

Idee never failed to deliver tidings of (cocoa) comfort. And bone-crushing hugs.

My mom followed her lead, visiting nursing home residents at Christmastime… and every other season of the year too. She would come and sit beside her dear, elderly friends and talk with them and read to them and deliver hugs. And yes, fudge.

And now, Chloe and I will carry on the family tradition.

We will honor my grandmother (and my mother too) by doing what they did: delivering a little sweetness to someone who is feeling bereft… or barren… or bitter.

We’ll deliver fudge and big hugs to a beautiful young mother facing her first Christmas without her own dear mom. We’ll take a tin to our neighbor whose wife is away caring for a sick relative. We’ll send some fudge to friends who just moved here… and still ache for “home.” And we’ll bring a batch to Clinton, our favorite cashier at Kroger who always has a ready smile and warm greeting (and a speedy-quick checkout line) for all his customers and their kids. Even the crying ones. And the extreme Coupon-Clippers. (Clinton deserves a medal, I tell you.)

For some, Idee’s secret-recipe fudge will be irrestistible melt-in-your-mouth MERRY. For others, it might be just enough sweet to help bear the bitterness or brokenness of a blue, blue, blue Christmas.

Whatever your state of mind this Christmas, I pray that someone, somewhere, somehow, some way will deliver a little sweetness to your home. And your heart.

May God bless us, every one.

~ Wendy

P.S. I’ll pass along a copy of my grandmother’s secret recipe to ONE lucky new subscriber. Simply click the “follow” link and sign up to receive my blog via email, and you will be entered to win a top-secret 3 x 5 index card containing Idee’s fudge recipe!

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Snow Flurries and Fresh Starts

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My dear reader,

First snowflake sighting today! Just a few flurries, but I’m happily humming “Let It Snow” in an effort to invite those big, beautiful, fluffy flakes to fall like confetti from the clouds. This first snow was the perfect “post-script” to the holiday message I shared last weekend at a Christmas event in St. Louis:

The countdown to Christmas is nothing short of magical, isn’t it? Fresh-cut trees and frosty windows and crackling fires set to a soundtrack of Christmas carols. Hot cocoa and cozy throws. The only thing better than dozing under velvety covers on a cold night is waking to a brilliant blanket of fresh snow. A winter wonderland! Sunlight glistening on countless sparkling snowflakes. A pristine, picture-perfect, white-washed snowscape.

Morning glory, indeed.

Yes, in case you didn’t already guess, I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.

I have such vivid childhood memories of sparkling, snowy Christmases past… My parents would load presents and pillows and suitcases and kiddos into our Torino, and we’d make the drive from suburban Chicago to a postcard-perfect little town in Connecticut. Literally, “over the river and through the woods,” to grandmother’s house we’d go. And once we arrived, all the cousins would spend our days traipsing through the blanketed forest, inhaling the woodsy fragrance of fresh spruce and gathering pinecones for my grandfather’s kindling.

We’d build snow forts and toss snowballs and make snow angels ’til our toes burned cold. And then we’d run inside and warm ourselves by the fire and count the days and hours until the Christkindl would come and bestow His bountiful blessings. Then the next morning, we’d bundle up again – pulling on long johns, snowpants, coats, boots, hats, scarves, mittens and mufflers – and race back outside for another fun-filled snow day.

I remember way back then, standing outside, my head tilted skyward, catching snowflakes on my tongue. I loved to watch the snowflakes drifting, drifting downward. Sometimes, I would try to catch them, but of course they would quickly melt into little drops of water in the palm of my hand. It was the most amazing thing, for that brief moment, to examine the intricate design of one single snowflake. Even as a little girl, I knew that only a magnificent God could design something so complex and exquisite.

Absolutely stunning in their symmetry, aren’t they? Each solitary snowflake reflects the beauty and ingenuity of its Designer. We catch a little glimpse of God’s glory in every last one. Our Creator crafts each ice crystal and orchestrates exactly where it will fall. Not one single snowflake forms or descends outside His divine design. I’m awestruck by that thought.

And here’s the thing: only a magnificent God could design something so complex and exquisite… as you.

Each of us is utterly and profoundly unique: so wondrous and winsome to the One who created us. God’s word says that He created you in His image. Ponder that for a moment.

God knew the day, the hour, the minute, even the millisecond of your birth. How? He was there. He knew the exact color of your eyes and the shape of your little lips and the sound of your newborn cry… because He knit you together. Regardless of the circumstances of your birth (or the dysfunction of your family), know this:

God divinely designed your DNA and skillfully crafted every tiny detail of who you are, from your fingerprints to your tastebuds, your cheekbones to your vocal chords, your passions to your personality.

You are beautiful and full of wonder. Because you were created in the image of the One true, tender and mighty, wise and wonderful, great and very good God. And since you share His likeness… it means you can think, imagine, relate, create.

God designed you to reflect His radiant image… and He loves you with an everlasting love.

Think of it, the Creator of the cosmos, the One who aligned the planets and flung the stars, the One who commands wind currents and ocean tides… He knows you. And He adores you.

How can this infinite God be so incredibly intimate too? It’s astounding, really. His love follows you wherever you go. It is with you, always. When you’re at work or at school or at home, when you’re racing through the grocery store or sitting in the dentist’s chair or standing in line at the DMV… or reading these words, right this very minute. His love doesn’t depend on what you do or how well you perform or how much you accomplish. His love depends on who He is. It never ends and nothing in all the world can separate you from His love.

Sometimes it’s hard to feel that love.  Most of us have doubted God’s love – or even His existence – at one time or another.  Or maybe, most of the time.

But how you feel doesn’t change the truth: God created you, and He loves you, just the way you are. His love is true love. And all the love songs in the world cannot begin to describe it. It’s higher and wider and longer and deeper than our minds can grasp. It’s steady and strong and stunning in its perfection and purity and beauty. His love is lavish and gentle, fierce… and always, always faithful. And here’s the best part: IT. NEVER. EVER. FAILS.

The One who loves you with that unshakeable, unbreakable, boundless, endless love wants you to know Him, personally. He isn’t some far-away Super Power in the Sky. He isn’t just an Intelligent Designer or some Cosmic Force that created the universe but can’t be bothered with planet earth… or your puny little life, for that matter. He’s a loving Father that longs for an incredibly close daddy-daughter (father-son) relationship.

And because of that, He wants you to experience all the fullness of life. His word describes it this way:

Jesus knocks on the door of your heart and wants you to open up and welcome Him in. He wants to make Himself at home there… in your heart… and share your life with you.

When you’re feeling weak, He can give you strength. When you need someone to listen and really, truly, deeply care, He’ll be there. When you’re sad, He longs to comfort you. When you’re weary, He offers sweet rest. When you feel guilt or shame, he wants you to know that He forgives so completely that He chooses to simply forget. His fervent desire is to give you a fresh, new life. Like freshly fallen snow: breathtaking and exhilarating.

Wait a minute. Fresh snow? To some of us, that just sounds like a whole lot of shoveling. New life? Well, what about the dirty slush and salt residue all over the place in our past? How do we get rid of that dingy snow and dangerous black ice? How do we shovel our way out of the ugly messes we’ve made of our lives? The broken relationships and past mistakes and painful consequences and foolishness and failure?

The truth is. . . we can’t. And God knew it. So He chose to send someone to rescue us. It was a daring rescue mission… and it began in the most unlikely of places.

One starry night, long ago, a baby boy was born in a sleepy little town called Bethlehem.

He was born – not in a birthing suite – but a stable. Tucked into a trough, because there was no bassinet. This infant was called… Immanuel. Which means “God with us.” Immanuel.  Jesus.

Born to be the Savior, born to be a sacrifice, born to show the whole wide world what perfect love looks like. God gave His Son… and Jesus gave His life… for you and for me. He took all our dirty slush and salt residue and carried it to the cross. He died, so we can live. Forever… Forgiven and free. Covered and clean.

Without Jesus – and His willing self-sacrifice and His death-defying resurrection – we would have no hope. None. Not a snowball’s chance in… well, you get the idea.

Fresh snow gives us a striking image of God’s grace. It makes us clean, fresh, pure. It falls gently, settling over our souls like a velvety soft blanket of love and mercy. Our scarlet-red sins washed away by the scarlet-red blood of Jesus. Forgiveness. A fresh start. A brand new life.

And for those of us who have already trusted Jesus… we aren’t without need of a fresh start either. We doubt, disregard, disobey. We choose to do life our way, even when we know it doesn’t please God. We’re half-hearted and weak-willed. (I know I am, anyway.) I shortcut and compromise, and then I try to justify my actions and duck the consequences.

Maybe like me, you walked with Jesus awhile. . . and then you stumbled and fell. Or maybe the pain and suffering and sorrow of this world broke your heart and that heartbreak caused you to turn away from the only true Source of hope and peace and lasting joy. Maybe you think you’ve failed God miserably because of your own hypocrisy or apathy or unbelief.

Even when we try to trust God and obey, we inevitably fail. We doubt and defy. We trip and tumble. And we get dirty all over again. We just can’t keep it clean, can we?

The answer is a resounding no.

We so often and so easily fall into pride and worry and fear… even fury sometimes. We go on grieving God’s Spirit with our greed and gossip and grousing. Our lying and loathing. Our selfishness and scorn. Be encouraged, though, even if you’ve wandered away or fallen into a great big slushy mess, God will never leave you or fail you. He hasn’t wandered one step from you. His faithfulness is unending. And His compassion for you is fresh and new every morning.

He goes on forgiving as often as we ask. Morning dawns, and His mercy falls again like whirling snowflakes. A blanket of grace. A whiteout of wonder. A blizzard of blessings.

In the Bible, God tells us that He has given us everything we need for our lives, both now and forever. Not only did Jesus come to rescue us, not only does He offer unlimited forgiveness and grace… but through faith in Him, He issues an open invitation to heaven and boundless beauty and glory and goodness there.

When my kids were little, I used to tell them “Heaven is better than Disney World!”  And they would look up at me wide-eyed and slack-jawed because, to them, Disney World was a place – THE PLACE – of unspeakable joy and wonder and excitement.  Rockin’ roller coasters and princess teas and blizzard beaches and a Tollhouse Cookie Shop serving warm, gooey, chocolate chip bliss for breakfast!  Seriously.  Cookies for breakfast. What could be better?

I don’t know what you’ve heard about heaven, but let me tell you what it isn’t gonna be: It isn’t gonna be boring! Got wanderlust? You are gonna TRAVEL, my friend. You’re gonna see things that will take your breath away… and do things that will blow your mind… and explore corners of the universe that astrophysicists can’t even fathom. Need a little peace? Heaven offers more sweet serenity than unlimited shiatsu massage treatments at a resort spa in Bora Bora. Are you a thrill seeker, an adrenaline junkie?  Buckle your seatbelt, baby. (Well, actually, you won’t need one of those… or airbags either.) Sky-diving is gonna seem like puddle-hopping by comparison. Get ready for elation and exhilaration beyond your wildest dreams!

That is what the Scriptures mean when they say, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.”

All you need to do is take Jesus at His word. Believe in Jesus. It’s that simple. You know all that lovely Christmas decor with the word “Believe?” It doesn’t mean jolly ol’ St. Nick.

The real Spirit of Christmas is God’s Spirit. Christmas is Christ Himself. Jesus. He’s the One who offers the fresh start. And He’s the One who invites us to heaven. Open your heart to Him. Just ask, and He says He will start building you a home in heaven. Completely custom and probably palatial. (Because in God’s house, I’ve read that there are many mansions.)

Exquisitely designed by the finest Architect and finished by a master Carpenter. Jesus Himself. If you invite Jesus to take up residence in your heart, one day He will welcome you to your real home. And you can take Him at His word. It will be… heavenly.

So if Jesus was willing to go to the cross to give us access to heaven, shouldn’t we trust that He can take care of us in the here and now?

The things we truly need and desperately want can’t be  wrapped in pretty paper and tied with holiday ribbons. Don’t look under the tree for your most precious gift… look up to the heavens. The Maker of snowflakes and starry nights and awestruck little girls and boys is the Giver of good gifts and fresh starts.

Fresh snow, anyone?

~ Wendy

P.S. May all your Christmases be white…

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