Sunday, December 27, 2009

Making Merry . . .

Pardon the blogging interuption, but we are making rather merry around here. Hope everyone is full of love and peace and hope and joy this holiday season!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The kind of man he is: The Christmas Eve edition

A warning, a wish and a story:
This is a little warning for those of you who are always telling me my posts make you cry.
This one will.
Or, it is likely to, anyway.
So, if you are out of tissues, or driving (which if that is the case, please put your electronic device down, and pay attention to the road), or just plain not in the mood, you may want to skip this for now.
It is a great story, though. Worth telling.
And I feel compelled to tell it.
To remember.
To share.
My wish for you, dear readers, is that you all may know someone in your lives like my grandfather.
Thank you for reading, and joining me on the journey for almost another year. I hope you have gained a little joy here, a little hope, and a little inspiration.
The days ahead will be full of Christmas preparations, and visits from friends and to friends, and time spent with family, and as many Christmas movies as I possibly can watch. . . so I'm not sure how often I will get to post.
I hope you all have a wonderful holiday! May your days be merry and bright . . .

All through my growing-up years, my grandpa was the pastor of a small church in one of the worst cities in New Jersey.
Newark had a crime rate unequaled to any other city in our state.
And there it sat. The little church on the corner of Berkley and N. 9th Streets. A small light in a big, dark place.
Made of stone, and encompassed by a 16 ft. chain link fence with barbed wire on top, it looked so out of place among the run down apartments and houses that lined the streets around it.
The building was small, but immaculate.
The grounds were always kept clean and were tended to regularly.
My grandpa did most of the maintenance himself, but he always seemed to have help. The people who attended there were like that. Always ready to help. Always offering. And always willing to pitch in when asked for assistance.
From my child's eye view, grandpa was a good shepherd to his little flock.
It was a flock that included a wide cross section of folks, as you could well imagine, being in a big city like that.
Lots of rough people.
Drug addicts.
People with AIDS.
Punky, street-wise kids.
Dysfunctional families.
College students.
Single moms.
Single dads.
Rich people.
Poor people.
Sad people.
Dying people.
Grandpa, who worked a regular full-time job as well as being a pastor, was faithful to every one of them, and served them with love and kindness, and truth.
I lived with my grandparents for several years when I was a child, and knew it was not uncommon for the phone to ring at all hours of the night. Most times, I would sleep right through, but sometimes the briiinnnggg would wake me from slumber, and I would hear the low rumble of my grandfather's voice reassuring, comforting, praying. Many times, I would hear him get up, get dressed and walk down the hall, down the stairs and out the door.
On those nights, he was going to deathbeds, to grieving families, to domestic disputes, to the downtrodden and the detoxing.
The next day, you would find him up early, clean and fresh and off to work as a supervisor at PSE&G, the electric and gas company that made New Jersey run and hum.
He was always available to the people who looked to him as their pastor.
He was always there for the guys who worked for him.
And, he was always available to me.
He was larger than life.
And stories like the one I am about to tell are why (ah, you thought I was already telling the story, but I just laid a bit of background).
There was a man.
This man was what some would consider an undesirable.
A derelict, often unwashed and unkempt, with rheumy eyes and a constant cough, Alec sat in the back pew most of the time.
He lived not to far from the church in a little, run down place. Close enough to walk.
He was at church almost every time the doors were opened.
He carried a worn leather Bible.
He was silent, mostly.
He would nod a greeting and take his seat.
A lot of the time, he would fall asleep while grandpa was preaching.
Grandpa would pick him up for church, and give him rides home.
He would spend time talking to him after church and at church functions.
Sad to say, I never gave Alec too much thought.
I was young, and, foolishly, didn't see beyond the end of my own nose very well.
One particular Christmas Eve, snow moved through the Northeast, and gave us a Currier and Ives style white Christmas.
Not white enough to cancel our Christmas Eve service at grandpa's church, however.
The attendance was sparse, but a faithful few braved the wintry weather and put holiday festivities on hold to gather together to worship the One whose birth meant so much.
Alec was there.
Wearing a threadbare windbreaker, with his collar up against the biting wind and stinging cold, he walked into church and, silent as ever, took a seat in the back pew.
The service was lovely.
Candles were glowing, carols rang out, testimonies of God's faithfulness were shared.
It wasn't a long service.
Just a little time, set aside to worship, to remember.
When it was over, everyone greeted each other warmly with holiday good will, and quickly dispersed to their own homes and families and festivities.
Grandpa was always the last man out of the church.
He would make sure everyone was soundly on their way, and lock up.
I opted to stay with him that evening so he would not have to ride home alone on Christmas Eve. I didn't mind. I loved riding with gramp. And no one should ride alone, especially on Christmas Eve.
Grandpa was talking to Alec, who stayed, following gramp while he closed everything up, and talking about this and that. The snow. He was lonely.
And gramp was listening, and conversing pleasantly. Asking questions. Stopping his activity to look at the man who was talking to him. Taking time to hear him.
I was waiting politely but eagerly. We had a big Italian dinner and gifts waiting at home!
"Well, Merry Christmas, pastor." Alec finally said, pulling his windbreaker up around his scruffy neck.
"Alec! Where is your scarf? It's cold out there!" Grandpa admonished.
"Well, I don't have one right now . . . "Alec sheepishly trailed off.
"You need a scarf, Alec." grandpa said matter-of-factly.
He had gotten a beautiful, wool, gray and black plaid scarf from someone as a gift, and he had it wrapped around his own neck, tucked into his overcoat. He unwrapped his present in one swift motion, and, without an ounce of hesitation, he swathed it around Alec's neck. A neck that probably had not been washed that day. Maybe even that week.
Gramp tucked it in to Alec's collar and said, "There. We need to get you a warmer coat."
Alec was stunned, and was beginning to protest, but broke off, his already red and runny eyes tearing up, and said, simply, "Thank you, pastor."
"Come on, Alec. I'll take you home."
Alec rode in the front seat, and he and grandpa chatted on the short drive to Alec's home. He was going to see some family the next day. He was fine for the night. No, he didn't need anything.
It was easy conversation.
I sat in the back of the car, a sadness welling up in me over Alec. Over how little I had cared. Or even noticed him. Over how much grandpa did.
It almost made going home to all the fine food and gifts seem . . . hollow.
As we let Alec off, he leaned in the car, beginning to take the scarf from his neck. Grandpa said, "No, Alec. It is for you. A gift."
The man's eyes lit up.
"Thank you. Thank you." was all he said.
I had never wished someone Merry Christmas with more sincerity than I did that night, calling it out to him as he made his way through the fresh snow to his door.
He turned and waved, and let himself in.
We drove off, and I found that I needed to wipe tears from my eyes with my gloved fingers.
I looked over at grandpa, who seemed not disturbed in the least that he had just given his warmest, nicest scarf away.
Giving Alec that scarf was as natural to him as breathing.
That's the kind of man he is.
He did it out of love and service and friendship.
He did it because a man needed a little warmth on a cold night.
He did it because he had been taught how to give by The Giver.
I believe I grew up a little bit that night. That I began to see a little bit beyond the end of my own nose.
From then on, whenever I saw Alec, I was sure to say hi, or to nod to him when he entered the church (which he preferred. He was shy, and probably self-conscious).
I wanted him to know that I saw him.
I wanted to be kind.
I wanted to be like my grandpa.
Grandpa, who had always been an example of how to be like Jesus.
The church did, by the way, buy Alec a coat that year.
Grandpa continued to serve him in friendship, an unlikely pair, until their time together on earth was up.
Alec is gone, now.
But I believe I will see him again, someday.
And I think he will be wearing a scarf.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Missing . . .

Not that I don't miss them on a Tuesday in the middle of April.
Or a weekend when there is nothing at all going on.
I do.
But somehow, all the lights, all the laughing and family time and . . . memories of Christmas past, make me miss them more.
I miss you, Dad and Gram.
You are felt in every cookie I bake, every shopping trip I take, every flicker of the lights and every splinter of laughter.
You are seen in every smile on my children's faces.
For you, Christmas is everyday!!
You are living what Jesus came for!
What joy!
Thank you, Jesus, that you were born to turn death upside down!!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

News that warms my heart on a cold and rainy day . . .

Today, on the way to school, I was listening to a local radio station that plays all Christmas music all the time during this season.
"The Christmas Song," by Nat King Cole was on.
I love that song.
It's so mellow.
So smooth.
It conjures up all kinds of warm feelings in my heart.
After the song was over, the DJ broke in with an entertaining news brief.
She was talking about an international poll that was recently taken, ranking the most popular Christmas songs.
She rambled on about the sixth, fifth and fourth place songs.
I wasn't paying that much attention, so I can't remember very well what these were, but I do know they were all popular Christmas songs, like "It's beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" and "Jingle Bells". Nothing very religious.
"The Christmas Song" was number three out of a top ten list voted on by an international pool of people.
Number two was "White Christmas."
And then the DJ said . . ."and the number one Christmas song voted on by people all over the world is, and I have to agree with this one . . . "O' Holy Night", with 59% of the vote. . ."
I was floored.
In a world that is increasingly trying to push Christ out of Christmas by changing from "Merry Christmas" to "Season's Greetings" and "Happy Holidays", and suing towns who display a Nativity scene on public property (I grew up in a town where this actually happened), and by making the season about the gifts and food and lights, and not the Giver of every good gift, the Bread of Life and the Light of the World, this was a shocking announcement.
And I thought, "Yeah, He's still got it!!"

Sunday, December 6, 2009

An offer he couldn't refuse . . .

Joe turned 40 yesterday.
That's a pretty big number.
That's a pretty important milestone birthday.
And so, we did what had to be done.
We had a 4oth birthday bash to celebrate the day, and Joe's life.
My mom did most of the work to make the day successful.
It had to be big. And sophisticated. This is an older man we are talking about here :P.
Soooo . . . we were very mature about the whole thing . . . and dressed like gangsters!!
That's right.
It was a Godfather themed party.
We had good food, great company, cool music, a huge cake (yes, we had 40 lit candles on it!!!) and lots of fun!
It was amazing to hear friends and family (there are those people, again) share their hearts about Joe, the impact he has in their lives and what he means to them.
There were lots of trips down memory lane, lots of new memories made, lots of laughing, and lots of crying, too (good crying, though, and, happily, not too much ugly crying).
I wanted him to have a spectacular day, and later he told me it exceeded his expectations.
That's exactly what I wanted to hear.
I am so happy he had a good time.
When you love someone so much you want to give them the world, the moon, the sun and all the stars thrown in (And I do. Love him that much.), a party hardly seems able express all that enough.
Even if it is a cool party.
And this party was pretty "off the hook" (what does that even mean? I'm getting too old to figure this stuff out).
It is a little weird, I guess, to be getting older. To be hitting numbers that always seemed so far away before.
Time marches on, and we are all in his parade.
He makes us offers we cannot refuse.
Not and survive, anyway.
We get older.
And sometimes, we get better.
And sometimes, we get together with our friends to celebrate our lives. To know we are loved. To be aware that we love being here. Doing this.
We have moments that make all the other moments of our lives come together, make sense.
I think Joe had some of those moments yesterday.
I hope he has many more.
Hey, Joemanuch! I love you! Hope you had an awesome birthday!!

Little man didn't last very long. Sorry to say, he slept through most of Dad's big day!!

Everyone was talking with their hands. Fuggetaboud it!
"Hey, get that camera outta here!"Gangs of New YorkLook at the glow coming off that cake!!He's so Sinatra!
The Padrone!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

The Christmas season is in full swing here!
We got our tree last weekend, and decorated it and the house.
It looks very "Christmas-y"
It feels very "Christmas-y".
I absolutely love it.
The boys all helped with the decorating.
Isaac was helping his little brothers get their ornaments "higher up" on the tree. I got a little misty at that.
Daniel was dancing all around, putting ornaments wherever his little heart desired. The sparkle in his eyes twinkled brighter than any five-and-dime string of Christmas lights I have ever seen!
Here are some before and after pictures of our tree this year.
Joe, being the awesome man that he is, made his own switch box for the tree lights, so we don't have to keep crawling under all the scratch-ity branches to keep plugging it in. What can I say? He's amazing *sigh*. He had a little help from Small Fry.
Last Sunday, Advent began.
We had some very special guests who helped us commence this year's advent season. Thanks for being a part of our evening, Emily, Donovan and Christian!!
My family has decided to "keep" Advent this year.
What is Advent, you may ask?
Advent is the season leading up to Christmas, beginning four Sundays before Christmas Day. There is a very good, short article written by Noel Piper (John Piper's wife) about the Advent season here.
Basically, it is a time set aside to remind us of the time when God's people were awaiting the promise of his son, who would be born a babe, who would grow to a man, who would save them from their sins. It prepares our hearts for the real message of Christmas. It reminds us that it is not about gifts (although they are nice, and there is nothing wrong with them), but about The Gift. And it fills us with hope and anticipation for the next appearing of Jesus.
We have chosen to celebrate Advent in our family because it sets aside time to reflect on, to think about and to learn the true reason we, as Christians, should celebrate this season with hope and peace and joy and anticipation. I want to remember. To teach my sons. To wait with hope.
Taking time to observe Advent just kinda helps us to focus. There are a lot of distractions out there, especially at this time of the year.
Our Advent devotions consist of lighting the Advent candles, reading scriptures that highlight the theme for the week, talking about what it means for us individually and as Christians, and praying together. We do it in place of our regular devotional time.
It's pretty simple, really.
But there is profound meaning in it.
Monday night, our school participated in our town's annual Christmas parade with a float titled "The Knight Before Christmas." It featured our grade school boys, equipped with swords and shields, and donned in their new Knights sweatshirts, kneeling before a manger scene (one of our teacher thought that one up!). We also had Rachel, dressed in full armor and astride the noble steed Avalon, riding in front of the float.
Daniel participated too, throwing candy to all the kids in the crowd and yelling "Merry Chismiss!!"This weekend, we will celebrate Joe's 40th Birthday! Oh, my! This week, most of my time and efforts are going into planning and (hopefully) pulling off a killer party to honor him and celebrate his life! (Actually, my mom has done most of the planning and pulling this one off, but I am at her disposal and will think of nothing else until we are on the other side of it. Thanks, mom, for faithfully working on Joe's birthday bash, for the hours, the preparation and endless lists and . . . and . . . and.) But really, nothing I do will ever be able to express enough how much I love him, how much I am grateful for him, or how crazy-off-the-charts my heart still races when he walks into the room!
So, here's the scoop: we have several holiday parties and outings yet to attend, I have several dozen cookies that need to be baked, and I am nowhere near done with Christmas shopping.
I have so much to do.
I have so much fun doing all of it.
Really, I do.
But, this year, remembering everyday the why we are to celebrate this season with such extravagant joy and such lavish generosity, will make the how I do it so much more worthwhile.