Christmas Running

Running on the treadmill of religion too often parallels the celebration of Christmas in our lives. The scenery on a treadmill doesn’t change; there is the knowledge that we are going through the motions, but boredom and monotony settle in quickly. Nothing new comes into view that might spur us on.

If we approach the celebration of Christ’s birth like a treadmill, the essence of Immanuel, God with the us, never comes into view. We see the baking, decorating, gift buying, party going repeat every year. The trappings may change somewhat, but the wonder  gets lost in drudgery. We have to shop, have to bake, have to clean, have to entertain… just like last year. Little changes, and the wonder once associated with Christmas dulls or sparkles with artificial snow and tacky tinsel.

Others, however, choose to run outside. They expend energy as if they were exercising on a treadmill,  setting either a comfortable pace or a more demanding speed. Yet they run a course that allows for sights as well as insights. The terrain changes, expanding the mind as the heart pumps and feet pound.

While I only get to watch and cheer for runners in our family, I love to approach the Christmas season with an outside runners’ perspective. 

Instead of the treadmill approach to Christmas, I enjoy the freedom to experience the joy and hope of this time of year. The party could be a potluck gathering of friends and family. The gifts might be fewer, with time spent around a large puzzle worked on over 3 or 4 days. People of all ages can get involved in completing the masterpiece! Savor the time rather than worrying over having all the napkins match. Bake cookies and take them to another family, the local fire department or a lonely neighbor. 

And walk outside to listen for the angels of old who announced the best gift ever. It could prove very liberating to get off the Christmas treadmill. Merry Christmas!

Lavish

This season of giving thanks always reminds me of bounty. The colors of burnt umber (How I love Crayola’s original color names!) painted on a cerulean canvas create soul sparks of thanksgiving that fly heavenward!

Pumpkin aromas waft upward through our log cabin, infusing our home with warmth and richness. They too draw my heart to inhale and ruminate on the goodness of the everyday, the seemingly mundane. How often do I wander through abundance and not acknowledge the sheer extravagance?
Do I see the artistry of an evening’s sunset or rush off to get somewhere without pause or reflection? Have I consider all the Lord has lavished on me? Lavish, by definition, means “to expend or bestow profusely.” Such an over-the-top word gets limited play in today’s speech. It may even sound stuffy to some. But yet..

The lavishness of autumn reawakens  me to a spectacular truth that outshines even the beauty of fall:

“We have redemption in Him through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.” Eph 1:7-8

This wood carving at Leheman’s Hardware in Dalton, Ohio, reminds me that God’s lavish grace had an unimaginable cost. With bowed head, I offer a prayer of thanks.

Transplanting at 4

A few years back, a neighbor brought us a lady slipper from the nearby woods. Dave planted it but alas, it died very quickly. After researching the transplanting of these delicate flowers, botanists discovered that lady slippers rarely transplant well because they flourish in the exact bacteria that exists in the soil where they live. Knowing the location of several of these lady slipper pockets, we now take the ATV out and enjoy them where they are at home. Transplanting them doesn’t work well.

As a child, I experienced a very difficult transplant, one that, after a spinal tap in my doctor’s office, took me 43 miles away. My parents carefully wrapped me in a blanket that July day, and placed me in the backseat for the trip that would drastically change my life. When the ’39 Olds  stopped, we had arrived at Vassar Brothers Hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York, one of the few hospitals accepting polio patients. I don’t remember the goodbye that was said between my parents and me that day; I actually have only a few clear memories because I was so young. 

Twenty beds occupied one large room, 10 beds on each side with iron lungs out in the hall. The next youngest patient to me in our room was 20. My parents visited on Saturdays and Sundays. Hospital rules being what they were then, mom and dad had to go up to Hyde Park to spend time out of the hospital between the afternoon and evening visiting hours. I vaguely remember repeatedly pressing my call button one night, but the hot packs remained  on my back and the backs of my legs all night, resulting in blisters the next morning. My parents met with the administrator of the hospital, which in its defense, was terribly overworked and understaffed, but after one month at Vassar, the next transplant came.

An ambulance would take me 43 miles south to the the New York State Rehabilitation Hospital, now know as Helen Hayes Hospital. The second pot for the transplanted little redhead would teach her to swim and exercise weakened muscles. This hospital would allow her beloved cousins to visit, along with her parents, on Saturdays or Sundays. 

During her 5 months in residence at NYSRH, the 4-year-old sang “Jesus Loves Me” to all the staff and folded diapers for the infants on the children’s ward where she shared a room with other youngsters. She also picked up a lifelong dislike for poached eggs and canned asparagus. Thinking she was crafty, she hid these things under other bowls on the tray. She sang along to “Irene Goodnight, Irene,”  and repeatedly asked her parents if she could take one of the infants home with her!
But before this major transplant to two hospitals in six months’ time, the Lord had already planted the good seeds of faith. Her parents, Grandma Lundy, and her Otisville church had all shared truths about Jesus with her through songs and Bible verses. And by God’s grace alone, one of the lady slipper  transplants did survive those months, returning home on January 21.

Transplanting: Part 1

Transplanting flowers can result in beautiful combinations such as the three-mum combination at my friend’s home. But sometimes, and for a variety of reasons, floral transplants don’t thrive. We usually give up on the dying effort and start again. But people, of far greater importance than plants, also experience moves, uprootings, transplantings. Some repotting brings beautiful new situations while others leave roots exposed, drying out and threatening death. Consider the Middle Eastern refugees fleeing war-torn homelands; a job promotion that necessitates a move; a young Olympic hopeful who relocates to train with a renowned coach; the children pulled into custody battles, or worse yet, sex trafficking. 

At some bends in the road, we make decisions with the best information we have. My husband turned down a corporate promotion once because he felt he would be useful serving in a fledgling church. 

Yet, a year after my third major back surgery, we chose to move three hours from our suburban home — and 30+ years’ worth of friends and family — to a quiet 4 acres on a dirt road.
Initially, the peacefulness fed my soul, especially after the hectic pace we had lived. But I missed people. This plant had some times of slumping over, then perking up, only to look bedraggled again. Being transplanted, even when planned and prayed about, is not a greenhouse-perfect transfer. People, as I mentioned before, are far more complex than plants. 

For almost eight years now, my husband and I have made personal and financial adjustments to our early retirement, worshipped at a church 40 minutes away, and found new doctors and dentists. We even left Winding  Ridge for a school year and lived in North Carolina where I taught high school English for a year. But that transplant is its own story!

Proverbs 16:9 often re-anchors my ailing roots: “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.” 

I have a responsibility to research, plan, prepare. Yet, the sovereign Lord is the Divine Gardener. His landscape architecture lies far, far beyond my scope. But I can trust Him.

Following Directions

While men notoriously get blamed for not asking directions, I believe we all want to have a go at finding our own way. Our direction is right! We know it! In this insistence, we people have the tendency to behave like sheep. We wander off in myriad directions, blithely ignoring sign posts, advice from those who know us well, and warning signs that we sense ourselves, but choose to mute.

Little wonder the Bible compares people to sheep. Actually, sheep ‘graze’ all over the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. In the Old Testament sheep are fattened, slaughtered, and sacrificed to the Lord. In the New Testament, people deceive others by appearing “as sheep” or “in sheep’s clothing.” 

More often, however, the Lord sees sheep as lost, foolish, and helpless. While they need direction, they fight following the shepherd. Why? Trustworthiness? Indecision? Obstinance?


Since Eden’s debacle, our DNA has been programmed to follow foolishness. Those who know something of the Bible readily see this willful wandering from the Shepherd as sin. That is absolutely true, and Jesus served as the Perfect Unblemished Lamb, the only one who could atone for man’s sin.

“All we like sheep have gone astray;  we have turned — every one — to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” 

Here, in Isaiah 53, people go in our own direction and God chooses to inflict our punishment on the only person who ever followed Yahweh perfectly — Jesus Christ. Only a perfect sacrifice could fulfill the demand of the law.

 Edit

However, those God calls don’t instantly join a happy flock and never face any problems. The men who received three years of direct mentoring from Christ fell away like sheep when guards arrested Christ. (Mark 14:27)

Following in one direction means choosing not to proceed  in another. Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” is a poetic statement about this. So for today, in what ways well I, as a sheep, be led astray by following my own direction in issues large and small? Will I choose to follow my own way by ignoring another’s need, making a hurtful comment, or sneaking a handful of dark chocolate later tonight? Lots to ponder for this little sheep.

Serving 

Many summer jobs involve serving the public


Most children learn to serve by making their beds, picking veggies from the family garden, shoveling snow for an elderly neighbor, or setting the table. Those in the military are in service to their country. Many who first arrived on America’s shore came as indentured servants, those who worked for four to seven years to repay their passage. 

I remember both our sons’ first paying jobs. They mowed neighbors’ lawns, cooked at Fuddruckers, and worked 60-hour weeks at a local deli. They got the Latin connection between servant and serf! Public servants, aka politicians, once served a term or two and then returned home to work as citizens. Somewhere, however, the concept of serving is slipping from America’s lexicon and experience. Mike Rowe, former opera singer turned television actor, calls his foundation mikeroweWORKS. For those who seek training to do many service jobs, Rowe offers scholarships. Too many college-degreed people train for jobs that no longer exist or that are already glutted with too many applicants. How many MBAs can this country use? Yet many other jobs, often involving labor and/or serving, need qualified workers. Do we want only shirt and tie jobs? Do we expect a six-figure salary the second year we’re employed? Perhaps the more telling question for our future is this: what attitudes are we planting in the next generation? 

The Chick-Fil-A organization trains its employees to respond with a quick smile and a hearty, “My pleasure.” This fast food chain hires from the general population, but Chick-Fil-A executives realize that employees who offer pleasant responses and cordial service cost nothing more, but bring in tons of good will from loyal customers. It’s the old “service with a smile” concept!

Even three-year-olds can take dishes to the counter at the end of a meal. I know … parents or grandparents can do the task more quickly, perhaps more safely, but don’t miss the golden opportunity when kids want to help. And how about those school backpacks children pose with in first-day photos? Who carries that bulging tote into school and then out of the car by week three? Keep giving those serving tasks to your children. We serve the next generation when we teach them the responsibility and then the joy in serving. We have few years to instill serving before the sun sets.

What Are We Teaching?

I loved teaching English for decades  — whether grammar, usage, writing, logic, or literature. Over those years I watched things like diagramming fall in and out of vogue. Writing sentences and paragraphs morphed into teaching the Writing Process, to group brainstorming, making idea blocks, and Venn diagrams.

Yet, my biggest concern lies with the choices of reading material now being offered to students. I’ve lived through books like Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird being banned from and then reinstated to school reading lists. A former student, aspiring to major in English, endured a mid-90s college course titled Women Writers of the Caribbean. Puzzled, I asked her what published book she had used. “None. Each poem was zeroxed.” Remember that such courses are now 20 years further on the continuum of what I refer to as agenda over education. 

Snarky sarcasm, obscenities and profanities now spew forth from younger children; they have had years of not just poor television, but a decline in literature.

For nine years, Maryland Humanities has sponsored a large book club of sorts, One Maryland One Book. This year’s selection, All American Boys, concerns me as an educator, grandmother and citizen of a country increasingly polarized by extremes. The more tv shows and books rehash stories of hate, and litter their limited vocabulary dialogue with incoherent utterances, the more people go to their respective corners in frustration and anger. Slowly, like plaque building up on our teeth, we begin to take on distasteful attitudes.

Please understand that I’m not an ostrich with its head buried in the sand about pain or injustice. I taught in inner city Little Rock in the late 60s. I also contracted polio five years before the Salk vaccine; I have been the last one picked for many games, the one who fell and got stepped on in the school’s Halloween parade through town. 

What are parents to do about literature choices? They can’t afford to be ostriches about their children’s education. First, make every effort to read with your elementary-age children. Ask questions about what you’ve read together. Make age-appropriate connections with your child’s experiences. 

But what happens at middle and high school? The books  get much longer! If you cannot read the whole book, at least read reviews written by people who have read them. Enlist friends and grandparents to read them and give their input. The Internet makes this task much easier today. Engage your children by asking them about the ideas in the book. “What do you think the author was trying to accomplish? Is the conflict exaggerated? Do you have any personal experience with the situations the book presents? Can you read me one powerfully written sentence? Why did you choose that one? Would you be comfortable reading me a selection from the book due to content or language? Are you being assigned too many books like this? If so, why do you think so?”

These precious years with children pass so quickly. The psalmist declares, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” That seems like sound counsel.