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Hello, friends!

Last year around Christmas time, I began writing a series of essays, filled with “half-baked ideas” about Christmas and the cookies we eat around that time of year. Well, the time has come to revise them. I would like to take a stab at publishing them, and I’m praying to that end; however, even if God closes that door, I do want to revisit and improve them.

To revise them well, I need your input.

Here’s are some ways that you can help, if you have the time.

1) you can pray for me as I finish writing and revising =) any time the subject comes to mind, pray about it with me =)

2) if you read them last Christmas and have a minute to drop a comment to me, I’d like to know which one (or ones) stood out to you the most vividly–I mean, which ones come to mind most readily without your having to re-read them? And if you can tell me something that was memorable about it (or them), I’d be even more grateful!

3) if you have the time to re-read one or more of them (or to read them for the first time) and can comment on them, I’d like to know which statements made the most sense, which connections were clearest to you, which lines you liked best, anything like that. It helps to know which parts worked best so that I don’t lose them!

4) mention them to people who might find them enjoyable. invite them to read and comment on them

To access them, you can click on the “2007 Christmas Cookies” link at the top of my blog home page.

Thank you for your help and for you time and for your support and for your prayers.
Thank you for your comments, one of the most enjoyable parts about blogging.

Merry Christmas!

When I was a kid, rosettes were my favorite cookie to make. Mom made them especially at Christmastime. It’s been more years than I can count since I made them, but I can still recall the fascination they always held for me. Mom heated oil in a frying pan and mixed up the thin, sweet batter; then she dipped the rosette mold (a flower-shaped piece of iron on a long handle) into the batter to coat its lower half and quickly inserted the mold–batter and all–into the oil. The hot oil immediately fried the batter in the shape of the mold, allowing Mom to lift the mold entirely out of the flower-shaped cookie and leave it to cook, floating in the hot oil until it was a beautiful golden-brown. We would lift the cookies out onto a stack of paper towels in order to remove the ecxess grease before dusting them with powdered sugar. They were the prettiest and most delicate cookies I had ever seen. I loved them!

Like rosettes, peace seems brittle. Sweet, beautiful, fascinating, but delicate. Breathe on it and it is gone like the miniature snowflake on your sleeve. Try to preserve it and it becomes rancid like old french fries (or old resettes, for that matter). So God’s gift that Christmas night of peace on earth seems not only rather unrealistic, but also a bit impractical. Yet it is definitely not a white-elephant gift. Everyone wants it.

One of the most famous Christmas songs of all time is the most peaceful: “Silent Night” by Joseph Mohr, given its perfect musical setting by Franz Gruber. The song’s story goes that it was composed and performed upon the grand occasion of the church’s organ being out of commission. Now, anyone familiar with Christmas programs and Christmas services knows how stressful losing the church’s main instrument can be–how stressful any glitch can be! Yet from that rather inconvenient situation has come a song capturing the peace of Christmas like no other song does. Listen:

Silent night! holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and Child,
Holy Infant, so tender and mild–
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night! holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight;
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heav’nly hosts sing aleluia–
Christ the Savior is born!
Christ the Savior is born!

Silent night! holy night!
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace–
Jesus, Lord at Thy birth,
Jesus, Lord at Thy birth.

The songs is so gentle, lulling us to restful contemplation. But as I ponder that first Christmas, as I ponder the Christmas story, I see that not everything was still, not everything was hushed. The city being so crowded, how could it be still and at peace? Tensions must have been higher than normal. How could Joseph’s mind not have been churning with the problem of where in the world they would live until the census was over? Childbirth being so full of anguish and pain, how could Mary have been silent? A sky full of angels, how could it have been peaceful? How could one’s heart not have beat wildly after being surprised in such a manner as the shepherds were? Silent night? Did I miss what Mohr and Gruber saw?

“All is calm, all is bright/ Round yon virgin mother and Child.” I remember walking into my mother’s hospital room shortly after my sister was born. I had skipped school and spent all morning in the waiting room of the hospital until finally Dad came to get me: my sister had been born. There was a stillness, a wonder to that hospital room when I entered it (almost on tiptoe). The pain was over, Mom was exhausted but happy. And she moved gently as she let me see my sister for the first time and then allowed me to hold her. In fact, each time I visited them in the hospital a peacefulness pervaded the room, a peacefulness because all was well . . . and because the baby might be sleeping. All was calm and bright. How could it have been otherwise for that tiny baby and his exhausted mother that night? As the new mother showed her newborn infant to his wondering father and later to the curious shepherds, it could not have been other than peaceful–the peace of happy and successful exhaustion, the peace of proud mother-hood, the peace of infancy.

“Shepherds quake at the sight;/ Glories stream from heaven afar,/ Heav’nly hosts sing aleluia.” What a concert that must have been! I’ve been to good concerts, and I have also been on various stages myself a time or two. While applause is nice to receive, a good performer soon learns to crave silence from his audience, and not just any silence. An attentive silence is so concentrated that a performer can feel the audience frozen in time and place, lost in the story he is weaving. I have heard that silence from audiences, and I have felt that expectant stillness myself. I, too, have had my times of sitting silent after the house lights come back on, awed and overwhelmed by the power of the performance I have just seen or heard, pondering the thoughts it has placed in my grasp. Picture the hillside after the heavenly curtain has fallen again and the aerial show is over: wouldn’t you have sat in silence, not wanting to break the wonderful stillness of the moment?

But those moments seem so fragile. The stillness must be broken eventually: the shepherds have to speak, have to move, have to go check out this amazing news the angels gave them; the baby Jesus, like other babies the world over, will cry for the various reasons babies cry. The peace can’t last. Was God’s gift of peace to the world as insubstantial as the rosettes we used to make at Christmas time–beautiful to look at but certainly not known for longevity?

“Love’s pure light/ Radiant beams from Thy holy face/ With the dawn of redeeming grace.” Perhaps beyond the ordinary stillnesses, a different kind of peace was embedded in that night, a peace more beautiful, more realistic, more substantial, more satisfying than those natural yet fragile ones described in the first two stanzas; a peace I have glimpsed like a hummingbird out my window; a peace I have tasted but not grasped; a peace I want more of. It’s the peace that comes from God Himself, from seeing His face and knowing that everything is as it should be between us.

God’s Word, in Philippians 4:7, aptly dubs it the peace “which passeth all understanding.” I heard it described at a New Year service in which people were given the opportunity to give testimonies of how God had helped them through the year. One couple spoke of living life after a devastating house fire. The wife spoke of the first night after the fire and of the peace inside which, in the face of loss and devastation, whispered to her, “Let’s see what God is going to do with this.” And I recognized something about this incomprehensible peace, something I have been learning but having trouble putting into words: this peace comes with a built-in sense of adventure! Somehow it can look trouble in the face and see it as a ride at an amusement park. This peace is not a fragile flower; it’s tough as rope. It makes absolutely no sense at all as it grins in the face of adversity. No, it’s not a bitter grimace nor a starry-eyed smile. It’s a grin, an infectious grin that’s like a rainbow through the tears. And it enables the possessor to rest–to “sleep in heavenly peace,” something that seems impossible at first.

So, how does one get it? And how does one keep it? Well, to answer the second question, we don’t keep it–it keeps us. Philippians 4:7 goes on to promise that it will “keep [or guard] our hearts and minds.” It’s an active, strong peace, stronger than we are. How do we get it? That one is just as easy and yet infinitely more difficult to answer. We get it from God. We get it, Philippians tells us, by pouring out our hearts to Him, letting Him have all the things that we are worried over or concerned by or angry about or longing for. John 13-15 says that as we do this we must allow Christ’s words to become part of us, expecting that He will answer those longings. That part isn’t so easy. In fact, it seems almost an impossibility that we will ever have enough of His words within us to purchase His gift of peace. Bother! So much for that thought, nice though it was.

That’s the difficulty: peace involves trust. And trust comes from love. I have been re-reading The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom. And the marvel to me is that my favorite chapter, the chapter that moves me most, is the one about her time in a German extermination camp. As she and her sister lived through those days of hell on earth, their confidence in the love of God shines, beams out in defiance of all horror, radiates in the face of evil itself. There’s a peace on those pages that I want in my life. A beautiful, yet unbreakable peace.

It comes from knowing God, from knowing His love. Not from loving Him–oh, no! How many people have we loved and yet feared that our love was unrequited? How many times have our hearts been broken by insensitivity, ingratitude, betrayal? No, loving God cannot bring us peace. Only being loved by Him can. Just as we rest and relax the best in the places we feel safe, just as we feel safe in the presence of those who love us, we will only have heavenly peace when we know the love of Christ, a love “which passeth knowledge.”

How can we know something that’s too big to fit into our minds? Can a child fully understand his father’s love? Can he completely grasp the arms that encircle him? Does he really care that the arms are bigger than he is? Of course not! That’s what makes him feel so safe. We never outgrow that need for love. God’s love is the only love that will always satisfy that child we carry within us forever. That’s why He calls us His children.

Hungry for some peace? It starts here: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

“Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us.”

“But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

My Grandma (the one I live with) has a wonderful theory about cinnamon: she heard somewhere that it is very beneficial to our health, so she tries to find things that contain cinnamon to eat or drink or else she adds a little extra cinnamon to thing that already have cinnamon in them. It’s a joke at our house that we can eat sweet things (such as pie or cookies or candy) because they have cinnamon in them and cinnamon is good for us.

One of the things that cinnamon is supposed to do for us it to stop the sniffles. My first reaction to this news was one of slight disbelief; but if Grandma’s theory is correct, I have the “cure for the common sniffles”: snickerdoodles, lots and lots of snickerdoodles! Snickerdoodles are such fun cookies! Even the name sounds fun. And making them is fun: take small balls of dough (containing cinnamon, of course), roll them around in a cinnamon and sugar mixture to coat them really well, and then put them in the oven to bake. When they come out and are done to perfection, these cookies are a little crunchy on the outside and a little soft on the inside. So good! They REALLY keep me coming back for more. And if Grandma’s theory is correct, they will keep away the sniffles, too. Grandma has tried taking extra cinnamon when she has the sniffles, and she has found that it works. Why not give cinnamon cookies a try when the common cold comes your way? (I know, the sugar content would probably conflict with the medicinal properties of the cinnamon, but still . . . )

There are few things more annoying that getting the sniffles: being in the middle of something and suddenly needing to dive for the box of tissues does not help productivity very much. Looking at life, it seems that sniffles plague us more than just in the cold season. O. Henry, the famous short-story writer, made this comment about life in his story “The Gift of the Magi” when his female character collapses into tears over something: “Which [action] instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.” I agree that life seems to bring sniffles up an awful lot; sometimes even when we are laughing, we are hiding a sniffle or two. Not that we spend our lives blubbering about the hard lot we have been given; no, we try to face things as bravely as we can, knowing that life is not fair and that we should not expect it to be. Still, we can’t really help the sniffles.

But what is there for solving the sniffles of everyday life? If–as O. Henry suggests–sniffles lead the statistics of our lives, eating cinnamon cookies for such a frequent amount of sniffles will add weight problems to the woes of the heart. Is there a balm for them?

There is. It’s an unlikely one–as unlikely as eating cinnamon for common sniffles. But it gives promise of truly working.

A King.

Now THAT sounds preposterous. Any American can tell you that a king is not necessary for a nation to work properly. And gone are the days of Britain’s autocratic kings. Who needs a king? Not us. We don’t need a dictator to run our lives, and we don’t need a figurehead to take all the credit. So the words of this Christmas carol have a hard time making sense to us.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the world, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders of His love.

~Isaac Watts

Isaac Watts is not describing a weak figurehead king here. His king has power–power to bring about changes. Look at the things He can do: send His blessings on everyone, reverse the effects of the curse, rule the entire world (notice there’s no mention of bureaucracy here–He is the One ruling, not His government), and prove His love to the world through the way He treats the nations. That’s power! And, to be honest, sometimes we long for that power to be seen in our lives. Having the curse reversed would be wonderful; and if blessings are being served out, pass me a generous helping! Also, I agree that it would be nice for the world to be full of love rather than hatred. Maybe I do need a king. I certainly wish for someone sometimes who will step in and make the decisions that seem impossible for me to make, someone who will pull out the necessary resources when mine are running dry, someone who has influence over others when I am getting a raw deal or do not know how to communicate with them. Yes, a king would be nice. A king looking out for my interests would definitely cure the sniffles.

But does it have to be a king? Giving someone else the reins of power is more than a little disconcerting! Put this thought in everyday shoes: we want advice from people, but we hate it when they step in to try to run our lives–we want to make the ultimate decisions (esp. since we are responsible to live with those decisions once they’re made); we want others to listen to our troubles, but we are terrified of what they might do about those problems–we want their help and we don’t want their intereference all at the same time. We have a relative amount of control over our own lives; we know what we are thinking before we do it; we know how we hope that things turn out. We don’t know these things about others. We have no control over them, well, very little. We may do our best to manipulate others or dominate them in order to get what we think we want, but those who refuse to be dominated or manipulated scare us. In our experience, a loss of personal control can lead to MORE sniffling rather than less. Is it worth giving up control just to have what a king can do for us? ummmm . . . pass the Kleenex, please!

But the price is joy.

And we don’t really have much of it. We find our hearts getting hardened and numb, and we walk through life in a half-fog, just trying to survive. We are more than fully aware of the curse, seeing its blight on our lives everywhere we look, especially when we look inside. It’s scary to realize the evil we are capable of and overwhelming to see the wounds we suffer from. And the worst part is knowing that really there’s little we can do about the problems within us anymore than we can control the circumstances around us. Our small measure of control is just that: small. Maybe we do need a king after all. We don’t want one, but we need one. We need one badly.

And to have Him, we are going to have to trust Him. Even though we don’t know what He’s going to do, even though we can’t control Him, we are going to have to open our hearts to allow Him to come in. As Watts wrote, we must “prepare Him room” in our hearts. We can’t keep Him relegated to the stable of our hearts, we have to allow Him to have the throne if He is going to do us the good we so long for Him to do. Watts was writing this song not about the first coming of Jesus–when He came as a baby to be born obscurely, live humbly, and die sacrificially–but about the second coming when He will come to rule the world and to make all things right. The Bible contains many prophesies of what He will do when He rules. All wonderful, all badly longed for, all in the future. But His rule in our hearts does not have to wait that long: it can begin now. And what He wil do for the world someday He promises to do within our hearts today: weed out the thorns and weeds of sin, heal the wounds, make us new. We find it easier to trust someone when we know towards what goal he is heading; has the King not showed us enough of His goal to inspire our trust?

Interesting thing about snickerdoodles: they get hard after a while. As they sit in the cookie jar, the moisture leaves them and they lose their softness. They’re still tasty, but not quite as addicting. Unless they’re dunked in milk. Dipped and held there until the milk has soaked into them through and through. Then they’re delicious. A joyful taste if ever there was one. Preparing our hard hearts for receiving the King is as simple as milk and cookies: it involves soaking in Him, bringing our hearts to His moisture and soaking in it until our hearts are saturated with it. Just soaking.

Happy soaking this holiday season!

I am so very sorry that I let the “half-bakery” close its doors for the past couple days! I did not want to, and I will try to resume posting for the last 5 in the series. However, when I found myself falling asleep at the computer while trying to put my thoughts on the computer screen, I decided that something had to give–at least for a couple days. So, pray for me as the days before Christmas become busier and busier. And have a Merry Christmas yourself!

The first recorded Christmas song in the Bible did not come from the heavens with a full choir to back it up. It was sung composed and performed by an amateur to an audience of one. The composer was Mary, the mother of Jesus herself. Here’s how I imagine it:

“Only a few more turns to go, and I’ll be standing at their front door,” Mary thought as she trudged wearily along. She had already hashed things out in her mind countless times on this journey. Why did I decide to leave Galilee? Well, I needed to leave. I’m starting to feel the symptoms of pregnancy, but I can’t talk to anyone about it. There’s no one to tell: Nazareth’s too small a town to hide things in for very long. Tell one person and the whole town knows in a minute! I can’t live there, growing more and more pregnant and raising more and more questions. I have to leave. I have to get away for a while. Why Elisabeth’s house? I know it’s a little risky–after all, Zacharias is a priest and might have trouble buying my story. But I think they will understand; after all, things have not been normal with them, either, according to the angel. Imagine! Having a baby after all these years! In fact, I suspect the angel told me about their current miraculous situation just so that I would know that I have a place to turn. Surely they will not reject me. And Elisabeth will help me. Each question had raised itself to be answered over and over again until they were all silent–all but one, that one haunting question that had lingered long after the angel-radiance had left the house feeling drab and colorless that amazing day. Is this all truly from God as the angel said it was? or is there some sort of horrible mistake? I couldn’t be dreaming this up, could I? But who will believe me?

Elisabeth’s house appeared over the rise of the hill, a welcoming atmosphere about it. Tired and road-weary, Mary concentrated all of her thoughts on reaching that inviting doorway ahead. Time had not allowed her to send a letter pre-announcing her arrival. She would just announce it herself. Too tired to work out the words ahead of time, she would just have to wait for the moment itself to bring the words. Somehow she would tell her story and hope to be believed and understood and welcomed.

“Who is it?” a low, pleasant, parchment-paper voice replied to her knock.

“It’s Mary, your cousin.” A pause. She realized she was holding her breath, but she couldn’t help it.

The door flew open, and she found herself tightly enveloped by a little old lady with excited eyes and a warm smile. “Mary! Oh, Mary! So good to see you! Oh! You are the happiest, most favored woman on earth! You were chosen to carry the Savior of the world! Oh! I’m so happy for you! What in the world did I ever do to deserve having a visit from the mother of my Lord and God? Come in! Come in!” Another bear hug. Elisabeth talking and chattering and drawing Mary into the house. A rather dazed Mary wondered how in the world Elisabeth could have known, but she couldn’t find the words to speak at all.

Elisabeth was still speaking excitedly. “I just knew it! Oh! The minute I heard your voice I knew! Well, actually little John here knew,” she patted her protruding stomach to punctuate her sentences as she continued. “The minute we heard your voice, he jumped! He jumped–must have turned a somersault in there! And I knew what had happened to you! Oh! I am so happy for you! And so happy that you came here of all places! You are more than welcome to stay with us!
“And, Mary,” she paused to regain Mary’s focused attention, “Mary, bless you for your belief. You truly will be happy that you believed God’s message. God has promised you something, and He will keep his promise to you.”

There was a stillness in the room for a moment, Elisabeth wisely being quiet for a moment to let her last words sink in. She had lived long enough to know that believing is not easy–even after an angel has spoken to you and told you what will happen. Even after the predicted event had begun to unfold itself. Believing can be very difficult.

When Mary found her tongue, it was to sing. To sing the song that had been writing itself within her over the miles of the trip from her hometown to her cousin’s house. Her question had been answered in a way she had not looked for: how could it not be from God when Elisabeth had known before she had even been told? how could it not be from God when even Elisabeth’s baby had known who Mary was carrying in her womb? And Elisabeth had believed. No explaining, no begging, no pleading required. It was answered, and her full heart responded in the only way it could.

Luke 1:46-55 records the words for us.
And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

For He hath regarded the low estate of His handmaiden:
for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed;

For He that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is His name;
And His mercy is on them that fear Him from generation to generation;
He hath shewed strength with His arm;
He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts;

He hath put down the mighty from their seats,
and exalted them of low degree.

He hath filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich He hath sent empty away;

He hath holpen His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy;
As He spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to His seed for ever.”

My eyes and thoughts are drawn over and over to this line: “He that is mighty hath done to me great things.” She could look at her circumstances and be happy that “great things” were being done to her. I am truly awestruck at her, not at her super-spirituality, but at her humanness. Mary was a regular girl who had just been thrust into a difficult situation, a situation unheard of before and since her time. Sure, she had welcomed God’s plan for her life when the angel had announced it to her. But since that magically astounding moment, reality had set in. She knew exactly what it would look like for her to become pregnant at this time: she was betrothed to Joseph. The whole town might think that they had not waited for the proper time to act as husband and wife. Joseph’s reputation would be tarnished. And no one would know that it was God’s baby rather than Joseph’s. Joseph would know that the baby was not his and would be devastated. This marvelous news would not look beautiful; it would look wrong. And if its appearance had been true in any way, her situation would have been wrong. Terribly wrong! She couldn’t blame them for what they would think of her. But, on the other hand, this was a beautiful gift God has given her, creating within her womb–without any action on her part at all–the precious life of His Son. Mary was stuck–stuck in the jaws of circumstances.

And yet, she accepted it. Not only accepted it, but rejoiced in the God that had done this preposterous, incomprehnsible miracle in her. She recognized that being stuck was part and parcel of the “great things” that God was doing to her–not through her, not around her, but TO her. She saw those things as for her.

I can relate to her stuck-ness. Some days feel like a long crawl through tunnels too small for a rat. Yet, looking back at how I came to be where I am, I can only conclude that I am here because God wants me here. I feel small and insignificant and helpless and . . . well, flattened. I am stuck with no way to escape. I feel like molasses cookies must feel.

Molasses cookies are wonderful! I do not remember making them as a kid, but I have grown to love them over the three years of living in St. Louis with my aunt’s family and with my Grandmother (mom’s side). Molasses cookies are dark and thin and a little chewy. They are spiced cookies and taste wonderful in milk. To make them, Grandma could roll out the dough thinly and cut it into shapes with cookie cutters; but more often she plops blobs of dough onto the cookie sheet, butters the bottom of the cup and dips it in sugar, then uses the bottom of the cup to flatten the blobs into respectable cookies. That’s right, she squeezes them flat. For that moment, that crucial moment that they are being shaped, they are stuck. Completely stuck. Nowhere else to go. Stuck like Mary was. Stuck like I am. Stuck like you are.

Perhaps I could escape–perhaps I could just throw my hands up and say “I quit!” But what would become of those “great things” happening around me? I don’t want to miss what He is doing. I want to be where He is watching Him work. I’ll sit still! I’ll be quiet! Just let me be where I can see what you are doing! I do not want to quit. But sometimes it seems that it is impossible to exist in the circumstances He has given to me. And rejoicing at my front-row seat becomes fear and sadness over my impossible situation.

Perhaps the secret to rejoicing in being stuck can be found in two comments: one made by Elisabeth and one made by Mary herself. 1) Elisabeth reminded Mary that God would fulfil His promises. God is a promise-keeping God. He is also a sure God: He does not decide to abandon a project once He has started it. The God who favored her today in giving her His only begotten Son to mother would not decide He had made a mistake the following day and remove her from His favor. 2) She realized that the “great things” God was doing were hers, too, not just for the rest of the world. It is easy for me to see myself as a mere tool of God’s work in the lives of those around me. It does not occur to me that the situations I am in, the places I feel “stuck” are for me, too, not just for those around me. Mary recognized that God’s Son within her was for her personally. God was doing great things TO her, not just in her, not just around her, not just for others, but for her. And this knowledge made her feel safe.

See, eventually, the flattened molasses cookies will go in the oven and bake and be ready to eat. Their “stuck” position is good for them. It is done to them so that they will bake as they are supposed to bake and be as wonderful as they are supposed to be. Molasses cookies are meant to be flat.

It’s morning. I can tell it by the amount of light in the room. I can tell it by the way my body feels. I can tell it by the sounds coming from outside and from other parts of the house. But I can’t get up. Traces of a dream linger in my fuzzy consciousness, blurring the line between reality and unreality, dreams of going somewhere I can’t reach, struggling to be someone I can’t be, stuck between crushing stresses–not pleasant dreams at all. But I can’t wake up either. I dread the reality of the expectations and needs of my day: they resemble my dreams more than a little–trying hard to meet needs I can’t meet, be someone I can’t be, stuck between crushing forces I don’t belong between. At this point in the morning, it’s sometimes hard to tell which is the dream and which the reality. And sometimes it’s hard to tell which is worse.

So there I lie, eyes tightly closed, curled up into a little warm ball to shut out the morning, knowing that all that precious time is slipping away and making things worse by making life more hurried. And as consciousness begins to drown out my dreams, I realize that I am praying: “God, please! Please, I can’t do this! I can’t, I just can’t. It’s not possible. I’m too small, I’m too . . . I’m not . . . I don’t have . . . I just can’t face today, God. Please help me. Where is Your strength? Aren’t You going to help me? Please, I can’t do this.” The track plays over and over again as I lie there waiting for something–a divine power-surge, perhaps? Finally there comes, not an adrenaline rush, but a tiny modicum of readiness, and I plunge head-first into the icy water of the day. My morning has begun.

I have been pondering and dreading this post all day. Pondering it because I knew that it was ready to be written. Dreading it because, as much as I have wanted to write it, I also do not want to write it. I have too many questions about the subject matter. It seems improbable and impossible. I don’t want to type. I don’t want to ponder. And I apologize for the rambling that is sure to result from pondering of this type (pun not originally intended–this is what happens when I post and ponder at night).

I think I’ll go get a cookie. A Mint Meltaway. This Christmas season is the first time I have ever had one of Grandma’s Mint Meltaway cookies. I am currently living with my Mom’s mother, and this means I benefit from her wonderful culinary abilities. Mint Meltaways are her favorite Christmas cookie, and I now understand why. They are small short-bread-like cookies, firm and buttery, but not too crunchy. On the top, Grandma spreads a generous layer of icing–icing the pink color of peppermint candy when it is mixed in ice-cream and starting to dissolve. And the icing itself contains pieces of crushed peppermint sticks. The combination is fresh and invigorating and . . . addicting. The funny thing about this addiction is that rather than wanting these cookies in great quantities, I find I crave them one at a time, but frequently. Leave out a plate of these cookies, and I will snatch one as I walk past then snitch another on my return trip. This cookie is the most cheerful cookie I have ever met. It is excited to meet the day; even melting away in someone’s mouth is a great adventure to this little treat.

That little cookie is everything I don’t want to be in the morning . . . or at other times during the day. I do not want to view life as a great adventure–adventures are unpleasant and uncomfortable long before they sound great in storybooks. I do not want to be excited about being where I feel so inadequate or so unwanted or so helpless (depending on the day and the moment, of course). I want my life to be perfect, I know it is not going to be, so I will not be cheerful about it. I will curl up in a little ball somewhere inside myself, if possible, and beg God to end the storm.

To be perfectly honest, I know that I should be able to view life as cheerfully as the little Mint Meltaway seems to. I know that the Bible commands it of me. But, in the spirit of honesty, I confess that I think this command impossible and unreasonable. Unreasonable because it is impossible. Impossible because I cannot do it. I have tried. I do not want to try anymore. It takes too much energy, energy I need to conserve if I am to survive the challenges life sends me. I have lived long enough to know that life is one big bundle of sorrows. It is not a video game where you can fall down many times and come away with a body un-bruised. Its sorrows are real, and they cut deep into our souls. Some of them burrow so deeply into us that we do not realize they exist until something brushes them, sending throbs of pain throughout our whole beings. Life is real, life is hard, life is pain. (To quote from the movie The Princess Bride: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling you something.”)

And sometimes the “Christmas spirit” seems to ask that we forget the pain of life in order to have beautiful moments that will be remembered for years to come. And sometimes Christmas brings with it the most painful moments in the entire year. In spite of all its “Christmas cheer,” Christmas can be a very difficult time. And the rejoicing of the people recorded in the Bible seems far removed from the real life struggles of the present moment. “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly,” one of my favorite Christmas carols has presented this seeming unreality to me this Chrismas in glaring words.

Infant holy, Infant lowly,
For His bed a cattle stall;
Oxen lowing, little knowing
Christ the Babe is Lord of all.
Swift are winging, angels singing,
Noels ringing, tidings bringing:
Christ the Babe is Lord of all,
Christ the Babe is Lord of all.

Flocks were sleeping, shepherds keeping
Vigil till the morning new
Saw the glory, heard the story,
Tidings of a gospel true.
Thus rejoicing, free from sorrow,
Praises voicing, greet the morrow:
Christ the Babe was born for you.
Christ the Babe was born for you.

~ Polish carol; tr. Edith M. G. Reed

It’s the end of the second verse that really catches at the tatters of my heart: “Thus rejoicing, free from sorrow,/ Praises voicing, greet the morrow”! I’m supposed to wake up and greet the morning with praises, rejoicing and somehow free from sorrow? Right! Like that’s going to happen! But that’s what the song says; in plain English it tells me that I am supposed to meet the morning as the shepherds did in Luke 2: “and the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen as it was told unto them.” How could such a thing be possible?

Central to this issue is the word “sorrow.” At least the song does not ignore its place of importance in our lives. To rejoice as the shepherds did, we have to somehow be free from sorrow. And how, pray tell, is this supposed to happen? What magic potion is supposed to free me from sorrow, giving me the ability to greet the morning with eagerness and joy rather than dread and fear?

I’ve been pondering this for many days, almost two weeks since our church’s Christmas program in which my quartet sang this piece. A punctuation mark may hold the inconceivable answer. A colon. Observe with me: ” Thus rejoicing, free from sorrow,/ Praises voicing, greet the morrow:/ Christ the Babe was born for you.” There is a colon between the injunction to greet the morning with sorrow-free rejoicing and the next statement. A colon alerts the reader to either a list or an explanation. Since the last line of the song is very clearly not a list, we must take the colon to mean that an explanation will follow. How can we manage this impossible feat of cheerfulness in the face of a cold and sorrowful world? We can manage it by knowing that we have been given a gift. And by knowing that the gift truly is ours to open and own and cherish and keep.

But is it possible that a gift can outweigh sadness enough to make me able to greet rather than rue the morning? I’ve been wondering this, and I have come up with some examples from real life of outlook-changing gifts. I will try to briefly cite some: 1) What child does not look forward to Christmas and to the day after Christmas? Those days involve getting gifts and then playing with those gifts. The anticipation and excitement can last for days, especially as the novelty of the gifts continues: “tomorrow I get to . . . ride my bike . . . play with my new game . . . .” 2) How much easier it is to get up and face a long-awaited day off from work than to face the demands of the workplace! 3) Facing strangers and acquaintances at a party is much easier to do when I know that I have a companion with me who enjoys my company. 4) Last February, my dad was in critical condition with a blood clot in his lung and another in his leg. A friend of mine paid for me to fly out for a week to be with him. Being with him was wonderful–I was getting first-hand knowledge of what was going on, and I was watching him mend. But as the week drew to a close, I dreaded going home; a week seemed like far too little. And so I called another friend, a friend who had also offered to help me out with my ticket if I needed her help. I asked this friend if she would pay for an extension to my ticket for another week. Getting that extension to my ticket, having that extra week made life much easier to face. I could hardly believe it was happening to me, truly being given to me like that. I went from dreading the morning to relaxing in the morning. That gift made all the difference between sorrow and rejoicing.

What is this gift that made the difference for the shepherds? “Christ the babe was born for you.” There is a gift. It has your name on it. Mine, too. As simple as that.

Maybe it is possible that the knowledge of the great gift we have received will enable us to face the day and the sorrows it holds with rejoicing and excitement. Maybe it will make the difference between trumped-up cheerfulness and true joy. A small, cheerful little voice inside me is eager to find out if such knowledge and such a gift does have that kind of power. Part of me wants to be that joyful, that refreshed, that refreshing. “Try it,” the little hopeful voice inside suggests. “Try it and see if it truly works.”

So I am trying it, trying to accept that Christ’s gift for me has my name on it, wondering if it will produce in me the same rejoicing that it produced in the shepherds. Will you dare to test it out with me this Christmas season? If it works (and it HAS to!), it promises to be even more refreshing than a Mint Meltaway cookie. And it promises to last longer, too. The Mint Meltaway cookies don’t last long around my house.

“Mary’s Boy Child”

Long time ago in Bethlehem,
So the Holy Bible say,
Mary’s boy child, Jesus Christ,
Was born on Christmas Day.

Hark, now hear the angels sing,
A new king born today,
And man will live forever more,
Because of Christmas Day.

While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
Them see a bright new shining star,
Them hear a choir sing,
The music seemed to come from afar.

Now Joseph and his wife Mary,
Come to Bethlehem that night,
Them find no place to born she child,
Not a single room was in sight.

Hark, now hear the angels sing,
A new king born today,
And man will live forever more,
Because of Christmas Day.

By and by they find a little nook
In a stable all forlorn,
And in a manger cold and dark,
Mary’s little boy was born.

Hark, now hear the angels sing,
A new king born today,
And man will live forever more,
Because of Christmas Day.

Trumpets sound and angels sing,
Listen to what they say,
That man will live forever more,
Because of Christmas Day.

~ Jester Hairston
arranged by Frank Gallagher

In wondering what to write today, I was listening to Charlotte Church’s Christmas CD Dream a Dream, and the above song began to play. And God put the pieces in place for me. I knew what to write.

Christmas is the holiday we spend with my dad’s side of the family. We used to see them more often when I was little–we would see them in the summer as well as at Christmas. Now, it’s primarily at Christmas. This year we will be going to Michigan to be with my grandmother and my dad’s two sisters. Grandma is getting too old to travel, so we make sure we go visit her (rather than making her come see us if she wants to see us!). As she grows older, tiredness has settled into her body, making it harder for her to do the things she has always loved to do when the family is around. Gradually she stopped doing things: cooking for the family meals is left to my aunt, now; buying gifts for us “kids” is my mother’s job now. But one thing that Grandma still does is make cookies. Chocolate Chip cookies.

Being at Grandma’s house has always meant having cookies. I can picture the two of us at bedtime one night when I was staying alone with her at her apartment: in our pj’s and eating a cookie apiece with a cold glass of milk before bedtime. This November, at her apartment, I raided her box of cookies again, tasting the taste that will forever be associated in my mind with her and her home. And even though she makes other cookies, even though she keeps other cookies on hand (Danish butter cookies–yum!), nothing compares with her chocolate chip cookies.

We have tried to duplicate them at our house. We use no other recipe. They’re Dad’s favorite cookie, and he loves it when we make them. But somehow they never match Grandma’s cookies. And it’s not just Dad remembering “the good old days,” either: one look at Grandma’s cookies, one taste, and I realize just how good they are and how unique. Mom has tried to make them match Grandma’s cookies, people have raved about the cookies coming from that recipe; blue ribbons have been won with it (well, at least one). The cookies we make from the recipe are not bad–in fact, they’re pretty good; but no one makes Grandma’s cookies quite like Grandma does. They’re almost crunchy, but not quite. They’re almost chewy, but not really. They’re thick and have the right proportion of chocolate chips in them–just enough to be wonderful. They’re small enough to dunk in a glass of milk without having to break them, but big enough to eat in more than one bite. And they beg you to eat more! An unseen conversation goes on in my brain when I open the box to get one out:
me: I think I’ll have a cookie.
brain: With milk?
me: Naw. I’m not really hungry; I’m not going to make a big production out of it. I’ll have milk and another one later, maybe.
I take out a cookie and eat it.
brain: Wow! That’s good.
me: Hmmm. It was better than I expected. I think I’m going to have one more.
brain: Great idea! With a glass of milk this time, ok?
me: Ok!
And there I am standing with a glass of milk and a couple more cookies, having made a big production of it after all!

Yes, they’re that good.

So what does this have to do with Christmas? What does this have to do with the song “Mary’s Boy Child” (that contains such bad grammar–yes, I’m aware of the grammatical errors, and the slight factual error, too)? That’s what I was asking myself this morning. And that’s the missing piece that fell into place for me. Uniqueness. The Christmas story is unique. No religion in the world can boast a God who gives Himself to His creation in the way Jesus Christ has given Himself. No other person in history has the power to change lives as He does. No other story in the world gives such hope and such peace, warming cold hearts the world over.

Oh, the story has often been imitated: in fact, Dickens, one of my favorite authors, models his themes off of the themes in the Christmas story. But no sacrifice nor generosity in any story can completely match the real Christmas story. It is unique. It is hard and real–cold, bare facts of a factual story. It is soft and gentle–warm, pleasant thoughts of God’s love to the world. It is thick with suspense and has just enough mystery in it to make it wonderful.  It is concise enough to read in a night (unlike my blog posts!), yet it’s big enough to spend an entire lifetime pondering. And I find that I keep coming back for more. More than I ever expect each year–I wonder if there’s anything I can possibly get out of it this year as Christmas approaches, and each year I see it in a new way. It’s just as good as I remembered. No, better! Like Grandma’s cookies.

And like Grandma’s cookies, it’s not really satisfying to think about eating them or to read about how good they are. Only the real thing satisfies. Other re-tellings and comment may help us see the story in a new light, but they are not the story. There is no substitute for reading the words–God’s words, His telling of what happened from His point of view–and hearing the way He connects it with the hopes and fears and questions I bring with me to the reading of the story.

May you find yourself devouring more of His word this Christmas than you expected to. May you sample again the “real thing” and find it more satisfying than you remembered.

I learned a new word last week: “gangrel.” It sounds like it ought to be a cookie. But it’s not. In fact, I must begin by apologizing for cheating with this post. This post is not about a cookie at all–it’s about cookie dough. I am fully aware of the fact that “cookie dough” is not its own type of cookie. I can offer no excuses for writing about cookie dough this time. But I can humbly beg your patience with me as I write about this rather sticky subject (pun intended).

When did cookie dough become off limits? I think I remember eating cookie dough as a child. I am sure my mother “scolded” me every now and then for eating too much; however, she would let me lick the beaters for just about every sweet dessert she made, so I know she did not mind my sampling the wares before they were cooked. So when did cookie dough and any raw batter with eggs in it become off limits? Now it is a threat for salmonella because it contains raw eggs. I used to get after my brother and sister for eating cookie dough, and I stopped eating it myself. That is, I managed to hold to my principles of not eating it until I moved in with my cousins. At their house, everyone eats cookie dough, it seems. And eventually I, too, fell victim to the batter for Chocolate Chip Oatmeal cookies. I realize that it is still as dangerous as it was before, but I go ahead and eat it anyway, figuring that the odds are against me getting salmonella every time I take a bite of that dangerous, uncooked concoction.

What is it about cookie dough that attracts us? It’s sticky. It’s goopy. It sometimes has a little bite to it from the vanilla flavoring that has not been cooked into submission yet (at least, I am speculating that it’s the vanilla which creates that slight tingling sensation on my tongue when I eat cookie dough). What is it about cookie dough that has made it one of the leading flavors of ice cream? Maybe it’s all of the above. I honestly do not know.

But I do know what a gangrel is now. And it is the opposite of cookie dough: cookie dough is popular–gangrels are not; cookie dough is tasty–gangrels are usually rather unsavory; cookie dough has immediate potential for happiness–gangrels often seem to have passed their expiration date. In fact, about the only visible connection between the two (besides the word itself sounding like some sort of Scandinavian sweet) is that both of them look like a mess. What’s a gangrel? Maybe you should ask “WHO is a gangrel?” A gangrel is a vagabond, a homeless person, a vagrant. When I read the words “homeless person,” I picture the people on the streets and in the parks of San Francisco, some of them sleeping in boxes, some of them pushing shopping carts of tattered junk down the street. They’re unsightly and generally considered a problem. And the most annoying thing about them is that many of them do not truly have to live that way; they want to. Only God knows what it is in them that makes them want to live lives of homelessness. But they are hard to help and hard to love (as another author has pointed out). They’re a mess!

But we all are sometimes. I certainly feel like one sometimes. Sometimes it’s when I am sick, nursing a cold like I am as I type this tonight: everything seems out-of-sorts, and as much as I want people to help me, I also want them to leave me alone. That happens sometimes when I am heart-sick, too. I feel tattered and worn and dumpy–sticky and gooey, too.  And there is an instinct within me that makes me want to hide away from the world and those that love me, especially when I seem to have forgotten how to be lovable.

But I think that God must look at us like we look at cookie dough: irresitible. Even when we are a mess, He comes after us (not to eat us, of course). If we look at His dealings with the nation of Israel, we see that He has a special place in his heart for gangrels–the nation of Israel certainly acted like that at various times throughout their long history–they needed help, but they made themselves helplessly un-helpable and unlovable. They wanted God and they didn’t want Him all at the same time. By the time Christ came on the scene, the nation was longing for their Messiah–their deliverer. An old Latin hymn captures their longing. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”: its words and music sounds like the mourning of someone who is inconsolable.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
O drive away the shades of night
And pierce the clouds and bring us light.

Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

~ Latin hymn trans. by John M. Neale 

After a while, we lose patience with those who are inconsolable–we can’t help them, so we fade away. But God does not. He even came to live the life of a gangrel Himself–homeless and poor–for a little while in order to Help His people. And when He came, they rejectied Him–crucified Him, in fact, and rejected Him and the fact of His resurrection later. But He still has not rejected them. He will still fulfil the promises He made to them.

And God did not just do this for the nation of Israel; He came for the whole world, too. He ignores the mess and the goop and the danger that He knows we human beings contain. And the Bible promises that He will continue to do that for us our whole lives through, following us with the most love we will allow Him to pour on us–even if we will only let Him get close enough to bless us in those unseen ways He blesses everyone. But if we let Him, He will be to us as He has been to His people through all the years: “a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.” He might get His hands sticky (but c’mon! isn’t getting a little sticky part of the fun of cookie dough?); I think He must kinda like being sticky like that. Even when we are gangrels.

Next time you sneak a bite of cookie dough–or next time you don’t because of possible salmonella problems–think about gangrels (even though they’re not cookies).

Family resemblances can be fun. We watch for them in movies or plays that we go to see (do the “family members” really look like they could be from the same family?). Computer programs have been made to try to predict what the babies of a couple will look like. And when we see newborn babies, we try to tell from which parent the various features come. And in each child, the blend is different. At my parents’ 30th anniversary party, someone asked my mother where I got my blonde hair, correctly deducing that Mom used to have blonde hair when she was younger.

We are not always proud of our inherited features. We may be embarassed at inheriting the big nose from our dad’s side or the strangely long middle toe. And it’s no fun to realize that you gain weight in the same places your other family members gain it! Sometimes a family resemblance can be painful, too, especially when there’s fear and heartache attached with it: a history of heart disease; a battered and abused woman fears she will look at her child and see the man who abused her; other examples could be given. There’s one family resemblance that is rarely talked about. No one is proud of it. Everyone would rather forget it, but everyone has it. I look like you in this way; you look like me. We have a common ancestor, and we look just like him. Not sure who I am talking about? The Bible gives us his name, and genetics reveals that we all have descended from him. His name is Adam. No last name. Just Adam. The father of all human beings.

The resemblance? Well, like noses and ear lobes, it comes in different shapes and sizes, but everyone has it. Its official name is “sin,” and it trips us up, discourages us, and fascinates us all. It is that desire to look out for oneself over others; it is that tendency to do lie to ourselves and others; and it is responsible for ALL the pain and suffering going on around us. Although it’s far easier to spot in others than to spot it in ourselves, it devastates us when we find it within us and realize that no power on earth can tear it from our hearts. We can get plastic surgery or liposuction to change our physical inheritance, but our spiritual one will haunt us to our graves. Within our souls, we resemble all the evil ever to have plagued the planet.

“Adam’s Family Album”

Are those dark spots
Real? or is something
Wrong with my eyes
As I look through the
Family photos?
So many sad eyes behind
Merry faces;
So many sin-discolored
Pictures, the tell-tale
Color of iniquity soaking
Through the pasted smiles.
Do You have an almighty pen
That will remove
The spots?
Sponge away
The tears behind sad eyes?
What white-out can erase
The captions I see
As I view these people?
How can I look
At those around me
With love-colored glasses,
Unafraid to find the sin behind
All the pretty faces?
How can I dare
To look at my own portrait
In the mirror?
Has Black Death disfigured us all?

~JMC

It has. Unmistakably. Go ahead. Look around. Uncover your eyes, and see the disfigurement. We match. We are related. What a family to be a part of!

All but one.

He had only one biological parent. No scientist will ever be able to explain the virgin birth of Christ, but Jesus Christ was born fully human, yet fully divine. And because God is His father, He did not inherit that evil we are all heirs to. Here begins the strangest exchange in all of history: God became a part of the human race so that humans could become part of His family. The Bible calls Jesus Christ the “second Adam” because He came to reverse the damage done by Adam’s sin. No power on earth could remove that tell-tale resemblance, but Jesus brings power from Heaven to do it. John 1:12 says “As many as received Him [Jesus], to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believed on His name.” Belief in Christ and in His power to save us from our sins re-births us into a new family. A new family with different features. Charles Wesley’s familiar Christmas carol puts it this way:

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild–
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’angelic hosts proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem.”
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ, by highest heav’n adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord:
Late in time behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail th’incarnate Deity!
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Come, Desire of Naitons, come!
Fix in us Thy humble home:
Rise the woman’s conq’ring seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Adam’s likeness now efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

~ Charles Wesley

Did you catch that last line? “Adam’s likeness now efface,/ Stamp Thine image in its place:/ Second Adam from above,/ Reinstate us in Thy love.” The idea of stamping reminds me of my favorite cookie of all time–Scottish Shortbread Cookies. My mother got the recipe from an old Scottish lady in the church I grew up in. The recipe is relatively simple and oh! so good and buttery and sweet! The last part of the process before baking involves molding the cookies with a special cookie mold. Mom has a wooden mold for “stamping” large cakes of shortbread, and she has several smaller molds for “stamping” shortbread cookies. Shortbread is funny, though: it holds the shape stamped onto it in a quiet, almost subtle way. As the shortbread bakes, the sharp edges smooth out a little as the cookie spreads. But when the cookies are done, the image is still visible, just softer. When we are born again into God’s family, He stamps the image on us of Himself. This stamp is not like a cookie-cutter making everyone exactly the same and boring; no, it’s a softer image that looks a little different on each individual. Still, we all bear that same family resemblance, a better one than the one we come into this world bearing. And, like a baked shortbread cookie, the image cannot be changed. Once we have His image stamped onto us, it is permanently ours. Because Jesus was born into Humanity’s family, because He died to pay for Humanity’s sin, any human being who chooses to may be born into His family. And with that birth comes a new family resemblance: His. The miracle is that God can take us and re-bake us. With His power, the old image of Adam does not have to be permanent. It’s a miracle beyond our total comprehension. But isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

When I was at home in California for Thanksgiving this year, I ate a gingerbread cookie at my friends’ house. Mamie showed me pictures of her husband Stephen making them. I was impressed. The cookie was good, too.

Somehow I don’t usually reach for the gingerbread cookies right away when I am hungry for something sweet. Perhaps it has something to do with the stigma of the title “gingerbread man” in my mind: I think of the story of the arrogant little guy who led everyone on a merry chase until he trusted the wrong person and was caught anyway. “Run! Run, as fast as you can! You can’t catch me! I’m the Gingerbread Man!” More likely, I just don’t reach for gingerbread because ginger is not my favorite spice (Grandma, on the other hand, would rank gingery cookies among her favorites).

The Gingerbread Man gets me thinking, though: I usually enjoy irony, but the story of the Gingerbread Man has always bothered me a little. At an age when obedience to parents and other adults was stressed, the defiance of the little cookie shocked me (so did Tom Sawyer when I first read his adventures). But inside me I see a little of his desire to do his own thing–who wants to be eaten anyway, even if that was the purpose for which one was made? I never knew with whom to sympathize: the old lady who made him for eating and was so rudely disobeyed and deprived of her treat? or the disobedient cookie who ran out of a sense of gleeful self-preservation and ended up being eaten for his troubles?

I suspect that deep down inside, my disobedience stems from my lack of trust. In my sophomore year of college, the knowledge of God’s sovereignty began to frighten me, especially as the terrible meaning of the fact that He does all things for His own glory began to sink into my soul. God began to seem like the lady who made the Gingerbread Man: He seemed to care about me merely as a means to further His own ends. And, like the main character in the story, I found myself stuck between a God who would consume me for His own glory and a dreaded enemy who would pretend to help me and then devour me mercilessly. We learn early that anyone who is out to get his own glory really does not care about us. A God like that is frightening. How could a God who made us–like gingerbread men–for His own pleasure still have our best interests in mind? Could God’s best interests and our best interests really be one and the same thing? Life usually feels more like a frantic dash away from everything and everyone that would devour us, that would take from us what they want and then fling out the unusable parts of us. And I have found it easy to “fear” God as my Creator and Master, running from Him rather than to Him when I feel the predators of life at my heels. I don’t want to be eaten!

And that’s why Christmas is so important: God did create us for His pleasure, yet He loves us completely, through and through, intimately. He will not devour us, smack His lips, and pat Himself on the back for having made such a delicious cookie. And so He came at Christmas to show us that He wants us for us. A little song from a children’s Christmas musical says it far better than I will ever be able to:

“Close to Him”
by Kathie Hill and Janet McMahan [punctuation and some other mechanics my own]

He wants to be close to His children,
So He’ll become a child–
A helpless little baby,
A Savior meek and mild.
He’ll leave His home in Heaven
To prove His love is real,
And be born as a baby
Just so man can feel

Close to Him, close to Him,
And now all of His children can feel so close to Him.
Close to Him, close to Him,
And now all of His children can feel so close to Him.

He’ll know what it’s like to be lonely
And how it feels to cry,
To love His friends and family
Then have to say goodbye.
This baby in a manger
Will be God’s pure love revealed:
Love living among them
Just so man can feel

Close to Him, close to Him,
And now all of His children can feel so close to Him.
Close to Him, close to Him,
And now all of His children can feel so close to Him.

He came to earth to be like us. He came to earth to show us that He loves us. He came to earth to be closer to us so that we could understand Him better and dare to draw near to Him. Unafraid to be His.

“We love Him because He first loved us.” I John 4:19

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light–
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

For Christ is born of Mary–
And gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wond’ring love.
O morning stars, together
Proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the King,
And peace to men on earth.

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming,
But, in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still
The dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in–
Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!

~Phillips Brooks
I could almost picture it: the tiny town of Bethlehem asleep that night. All was dark and still, countless snores in the humble buildings that night punctuated the silence. Maybe a dog barked or a wolf howled. There were no cars, no public transportations systems running all night. No street lights kept the town perpetually lit with a dingy glow. No furnaces heated the houses; the sleepers piled the blankets on and settled in for another night like any other. Why should this one be any different? As I listened to the instrumental arrangement by Linda McKechnie of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” with a Debussy piece (it’s on one of my favorite CD’s–Hymnworks Christmas), I ran the words through my head, cherishing the stillness.

“The hopes and fears of all the years/ Are met in thee tonight,” arrested my attention. Somehow I had never noticed the combination of those words in that song before. Hope and fear seem so very distantly removed from each other–one is sunshine, the other dismay; one we want, the other we spend our lives running from; one we dream about, the other we feel stuck with. Right? Still, it’s set me to wondering how closely the two are tied.

Thinking about sugar cookies puts it into perspective for me. My grandmothers love to bake cookies, but for me, baking cookies is a daunting task. And no cookies are more fearsome to me than sugar cookies. They take so much work! Rolling out the dough, cutting the shapes, keeping an eye on them in the oven, and finally decorating them–thoughts of the process exhaust me even now (or is it the lateness of the hour at which i type?)! So when my aunt suggested that we make sugar cookies last Christmas, I cringed inwardly. But I do enjoy working at projects and was ready to literally roll up my sleeves and tackle the project. The dough had already been made: all that remained was the task of producing pleasant-looking shapes. I hadn’t made sugar cookies for a very long time, but I had the basic idea, so I dove in. And that’s when I discovered what I had feared: the dough would not cooperate with me. It knew I was more afraid of it than it was of me. Mom came in to see me wrestling with it and took over–first to demonstrate that flour was the answer, then to become part of the assembly line. Eventually the dough was obeying even my commands, and the production was going. My aunt and my sister took charge of the decorating, and soon we had containers of beautiful sugar cookies.

Hope and fear join hands in the process of making sugar cookies. We make them because we hope that they will be fun to make; we hope they will taste good; we hope they will look beautiful; we hope that people will be pleased with them. But we fear at the same time . . . at least, I do. I fear that they will look ugly, that they will taste awful, that no one will like them, and–worst of all–that they will not be worth the trouble it takes to make them! Yes, I am exaggerating a little with that “fear” stuff. But looking at sugar-cookie-making helps me to understand how hopes and fears can be twins.

Basically, every hope is also a fear: we want something, and we are vulnerable to pain if that hope is disappointed. So we live lives of hope and fear. We fear disappointment. We fear loss. We fear rejection. We fear pain. We fear failure. We fear inadequacy. We fear evil. We fear disaster. We fear insignificance. We fear helplessness. We fear the future. We fear uncertainty. We fear destiny. We fear the unknown. We fear . . . we fear . . . we even begin to fear hope sometimes. It’s hard to figure out sometimes which hurts more: the hoping or the fearing. And so we all cope with it in various ways. Every religion must deal with these two things. The religion of Buddhism is built around banishing this fear stuff by banishing hope altogether. Sometimes I try that, too: don’t hope–it hurts too much!

At first this song seems to make an outlandish claim–that all the hopes and fears of the ages could meet in that one town on that one night. But upon examining that claim further, I think I can see how it is true. In coming to God, I come with a multitude of hopes and fears. I hope to be accepted; I fear the rejection I know I deserve (and so does everyone else because we know how much trouble we carry around in our heart of hearts). I hope for success; I fear the failures I carry around with me. The unknown terrifies me: it could bring good, but so often it brings bad. I fear my own helplessness to handle all that life throws my way or I fear a time when I may be helpless. And in facing the God of the universe I can’t help but wonder “will He notice me? will I be valuable to Him?” Put your own fears there, and you will find that every hope and every fear is met at the manger in Bethlehem. The account in Luke tells us that “all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.” We wonder, too.

The little town that night housed a tiny infant as human as they come–probably as ugly as any other newborn is. As I come to the manger this Christmas, I wonder with Proclus, a character in “The Star” (an Adventures in Odyssey episode by Focus on the Family), “Are you the Hope of the World, little one?” Could this little child be the hope for ALL my fears? Because I certainly need some hope. I need more than just a set of directions to follow: I need someone who knows how to make the cookies of my life turn out better than I can ever hope to make them by myself. I need Him, Emmanuel–God with us.

God rest you merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our Saviour
Was born on Christmas Day,
To save us all from Satan’s pow’r
When we were gone astray;

O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy.

Am I the only one that finds this song ironic? It tells of rest and comfort and joy in a minor key and is sung either as a funeral dirge or as a race to the sales table (depending, of course, on who is leading the song). In fact, my favorite arrangements of this piece give the sensation of being swept off my feet and into . . . the great swell of traffic on the freeway . . . the harried atmosphere of a busy workday . . . the frenzied rush to finish things before due-dates . . . any moment but a restful moment.  I don’t dislike the song. I enjoy it (especially an older arrangement on a cassette tape with the Mantovani choir we had when I was a child). I simply find it ironic. Ironic like the whole Christmas season: in what other season of the year do we rush around desperately trying to make life simple, beautiful, and peaceful?

“Rest . . . Let nothing you dismay . . . Remember . . . Comfort and joy”

The Christmas season, like no other season in the year, reminds us of the important things in life: generosity, peace, love, and simplicity. We set out to make it a special time for ourselves and those around us, planning the perfect party, seeking just the right present, focusing on giving rather than on receiving. Yet, we find ourselves so tired. Somewhere in the midst of it all there is no rest–not physically, not emotionally, not spiritually. Somehow, in the midst of the focus on giving, there is little peace. And in a season that is supposed to be merry, many of us are left feeling disappinted somehow. By the end of the Christmas season, we are left wondering where in the world the “comfort and joy” could have been hiding. Did we miss them at the store? Were the malls sold out of them? Are these “tidings” no different than the sale ads we see on television and get in the mail? Maybe the comfort and joy are in limited quantities: only those who are first in line for the food at the Christmas party get them; only those willing to camp out on the steps of the stores the night before the sale can afford them.

But the God of the universe couldn’t possibly be that way, could He? Wouldn’t He have enough to go around to everyone–with more to spare? Enough rest for everyone? When He grew up, this baby proclaimed “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” That’s a wide-open welcome. A sale that never ends. Maybe it’s like a batch of brownies: it doesn’t exactly fit the description of what we usully think of when we hear the word “cookie”; it doesn’t take a lot of work on our part; we simply bring the few ingredients we need to add and combine them with the mix (yes, I make brownies from mixes) then bake at the right temperature. Most of it’s been done for us. And around the Christmas season, I feel a little short on ingredients–time, for one! And so, maybe, having comfort and rest and joy is about bringing my few ingredients to the Chef and adding them to His mix: as simple as that! Could it really be that easy?

But are brownies allowed at this cookie party?  I can only really rest when I am comfortable and when I know that things are ok between me and those around me. And that is something we are short on–the knowledge that we are “ok,” not in the sense of mediocrity, but in the sense of acceptance. Are we allowed to come as we are? Somehow nothing in life seems to be good enough or done enough. And so we burn the midnight oil to accomplish the things that we feel ought to be done. And we have trouble being comfortable enough in God’s presence to rest.

Victor Hugo is quoted as saying this: “Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones; and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace. God is awake.” Maybe I’m so busy trying to find my peace and joy and wrap it up and put it under the Christmas tree for others (and maybe a little for myself) that I won’t take the time to unwrap God’s gifts to me–the very things I am looking for. Maybe it’s time to realize that I don’t have to be perfect to be accpeted by God. I can get into my comfy clothes around him and rest. Maybe it’s time to do that this Christmas.

And have a brownie. It’s ok.

Oh, God of dust and rainbows, help us see That without dust the rainbow would not be. ~ Langston Hughes

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