"...He will yet fill your mouth with laughter." (Job 8:21)
For most of us, Christmas is a time of memories. Like ornaments and tinsel, we pull our favorites out of storage, dust them off, and hang them on the tree of our hearts and minds. I'm fortunate, Christmas has always been a joyous and happy time for me.
It's been stated that a perfect memory can be ruined if attempted to be put into words. As I reminisce of Christmas' past, I'm confronted with that truth. Many of the 55+ Christmases past are absent from my cerebral archives and have become somewhat fuzzy. They have shrunk like a well-used bar of soap, deformed, weaker scented, and harder to hold on to. I even had to call my sister Connie--the renowned authority of Dennis' Christmas past memorabilia--for clarification and confirmation of the facts. She has alluded that perhaps my recollection was 'selective.'
Perhaps, but it got me thinking, Sometimes selective memory is not such a bad thing. We all have memories of Christmas, but not all of our memories are mistletoe and eggnog, nor love and good cheer. Our memories tend to be a mixture of random experiences confined within the seasons of time. Combined memories of loneliness and companionship, heartbreak and happiness, poverty and richness, and certainly moments of crying and laughter are the ornaments that hang on our hearts this time of year.
Luke's Gospel account of Christ's birth is an example. You don't have to dig very deep under the warmth of a starry night and the joy of a Savior's birth to reveal the oppressive requirements of government, inconvenience of travel, the awkwardness of less than ideal lodgings, and the embarrassment of a questionable situation (divinely conceived? a virgin birth?) coped with by Mary and Joseph long ago. But after Simeon pronounced his eyes had been upon the "Lord's Christ, and Salvation," I doubt they remembered their troubles, but chose to only "marvel at their blessing" (Luke 2:21-39). Good or bad, we too have the choice of which memory ornaments to carefully select and remove from storage to display and muse upon at Christmas.
My choice? My grandfather's laugh. The year is 1971. It was the last Christmas we were to spend with him before his passing the next fall. I don't remember many of the Christmas gifts we received over the years, but I do remember that year because we received a tape recorder. It was one of those new--compact--state of the art cassette recorders that weighted about 8 pounds and was the size of a briefcase. (You can almost see it in the picture above). Anyway, Christmas afternoon we all sat around the kitchen table playing some game (which game is disputed and currently under the auspices of family litigation) with the new tape recorder turned on and recording the whole event.
Now...the Dennis clan loves to play games. Rarely do we get together without playing something, and we always have a good time at it. What made this time different however, is that it was recorded, and though I haven't seen or heard the cassette recording in 46 years, (it's location is under litigation as well) its contents are one of my most cherished memory ornaments. I recall few, if any of the words recorded that Christmas day long ago, but I still hear my grandfather laughing...and laughing...and laughing.
Ultimately, we have the choice of which memories we choose to dwell on. Each Christmas, the memory of my grandfather is brought back over and over again. His laugh is etched onto my heart with a yearning that the memory will somehow fulfill itself and become flesh. I can envision my grandfather, whose absence I perhaps subconsciously still feel after all these years, will step through the door, sit down at the kitchen table, pick up his cards, glance at them, and once again laugh and say: "Sorry Denny Boy, I didn't means to keep you waiting so long."
I believe the reason we like Christmas memories so much is because they direct our thoughts towards wish fulfillment--something deeper we all subconsciously long for ourselves. That's what Christmas is you know...wish fulfillment; God's wish for mankind to be reconciled to Him, and our wish for simply something more.
"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us" Scripture tells us in John 1, and if we remember that truth and dwell securely in the fellowship of Christ, we are promised something more...the greatest gift...eternal life and the presence of His Spirit today. Reminisce on that. Nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it.
That promise tells me there will be a day when there will be no bad memories, when all wrongs will be made right, and our souls will find the contentment we wish for. On that day in the future, I will sit down again at another table--Christ's table. He will be there; my grandfather will be there; I pray that you will be there as well. Maybe we will eat, maybe even play a game or two. One thing I am sure of however...we will laugh...a lot.
“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.”
(Henry David Thoreau)
In my 10 years of ministry in Pennsylvania, I grew to appreciate the cemetery that sat less than fifty yards from my church office window. If I needed to get up and stretch my legs from sitting at my desk, I would often go out and walk around the neglected grassy roads or wander among the headstones of all sizes, shapes, and condition.
More often than not, however, I would meander across the road simple to clear my head, to think, and to pray. Although here in Michigan there isn’t a cemetery across the road from my office, there is no shortage of nearby Potter’s Fields for me to wander. No matter the season, I take full advantage of the opportunity. I’m drawn to them intuitively—perhaps many of us are.
Roaming aimlessly among the stones I see markers of unreadable dates and names askew and broken from the effects of time. The evening sun shines upon polished monuments of proudly proclaimed family names still raw with fresh brown soil. Old and new, they silently imprint upon our souls something perhaps we would rather not consider, but should.
For me, to read the names, calculate ages, contemplate the epitaphs, and ponder the possible connections of the headstone names I read with those I’m familiar with today, I find myself wondering…what was their life like, how did they earn a living, did they attend church here at Coe Church of Christ, or were they even believers? I also ask myself, “What would they say to us if they had the chance? What wisdom would they impart to their husbands, wives, or children that still dwell on this side of the grave if such communication were possible?” Would their words influence the conducting of our lives? Would we perhaps make different choices? How about our morality? Would their words alter our relationships with our family and friends? Could their advice influence our relationship with God? Would it make any difference at all?
There is an old saying that I heard my grandfather use. “Make all your important life decisions in a cemetery, because it will give you the proper perspective of their importance.” How true that is! When you gaze upon the names, dates, and the little hyphen that represents a life between birth and death, it does help to clarify the insignificance of our earthly time in light of the eternal.
“Cemeteries are full of unfulfilled dreams.” Steve Maraboli writes, “countless echoes of ‘could have’ and ‘should have’…countless books unwritten…countless songs unsung.” I hope not.
We are masters of deception when it comes to the length of days God blesses us. Yet it is only ourselves we deceive. Annie Dillard, in her book “For the Time Being” quotes an ancient text: “Of all the world’s wonders, which is the most amazing? That no man, though he sees others dying all around him, believes that he himself will die.”
On a wonderful, bright, early fall morning I spoke to a man I met who also was out among the grave markers. He told me he was searching for family, and as he grew older, it was becoming more and more important for him to discover meaning in his life, to discover his identity, and to comprehend the purpose of his existence, and ruefully wishing those whose remains lie beneath him could speak. I wished him well, but as we went our separate way it occurred to me, the dead don’t speak. Only the living speak! E.M. Forster wrote. “The two entities who might enlighten us, the baby and the corpse, cannot do so.” Jesus said: “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and they are life. Yet, there are some of you who do not believe.” (John 6:63) Why search for meaning in the silence of what we can’t comprehend? Only the living can give us advice, only in what is living can be found meaning, understanding and identity.
Today it seems like people are searching for something—anything—to give meaning to their lives. From the world’s trappings we randomly seek relief to our pains and trials; wisdom and advice to get us through the hard times, comfort to get us through lonely nights, and pleasures to make our life worth the effort of our earthly endeavors. The trouble is we search in the wrong places.
We are quick to convince ourselves that if we just make a little more money and have a few more possessions, we will be happy. We swallow hook, line, and sinker the ill-conceived tenet that if we seek advice from our horoscopes, Dr. Oz, or Dr. Phil, Oprah, or Ellen, then we can come out winners. We have become proficient at creating our self-worth and identity via the clothes we wear, the houses we live in, the cars we drive, the toys we possess, the polices of our favorite politician, and the ‘flavor of the day’ social cause. Yet, it is never enough. Discontent reigns, and we continue to wander among those headstones vainly looking for answers and affirmation. What makes us rummage through the deadness of what this world offers when it makes no sound?
“Why look for the living among the dead? He is not here?” the angels told the women as they searched the cemetery for meaning (Luke 24:5b-6a). As Christians, shouldn’t it be obvious where our meaning—our identity—our self-worth—is found? More to the point, shouldn’t our lives convey that truth to a watching and seeking, and vastly unbelieving world?
What we ultimately seek is found only in the blood of Jesus Christ. True comfort, advice, identity, and joy are revealed only in Scripture. Yet the Bible—the speaking LIVING Word—seems to be the place of last resort that sits unopened on the bed stand as we lie troubled and awake at night and dusty on the bookshelf as we seek futilely during the day.
The writer of Hebrews stated what all who proclaim the assurance of the promised resurrection rest. “…faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see…” (11:1)
That verse was on my mind as I—someone who does his best to live a life of hope and faith—was wandering through yet another small rural Michigan cemetery a few months ago, and I came across a headstone that made me pause. At the lower corner below the family name and the dates of birth and death were these words written in stone for all who ramble amongst the silence: “his faith is now sight.” I really like that.
Go ahead, wander through the cemetery on a warm and sunny afternoon; sit down, lean your back against a headstone and consider the lives of those who have gone before you. Contemplate where you are going and how you are living. Gain perspective for important life decisions, but do it with the precept of eternity, an open Bible on your lap, and the Words of Life in your heart.
"Summer afternoon--summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language." Henry James
Summer is here full swing, and if you're like I am, you are wondering how it arrived so quickly. I write staring out from my front porch at the fullness of the dark green leaves on the maple trees, the large, cotton-ball crowned clouds that are promising a warm rain this evening, and Vicki lounging under the crab apple tree as only a dog can do--not a care in the world. Her only responsibility is to enjoy the day, keep one eye on the neighbor's chickens, and rest up for the excitement of the promised walk we both take in the cool of the evening. In my busyness I envy her. The author John Lubbock wrote in his book The Use of Life that rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer's day is by no means a waste of time.
Now I doubt Vicki has read John Lubbock, but she certainly understands his premises. Unfortunately for me, I'm someone who has always believed time must be used in constructive endeavors, or that doing something or going somewhere is the only means of relaxation and contentment. I should know better. I vow again not to take these days for granted--nor the freedom to just sit here and enjoy this beautiful summer day.
Too often we fall under the world's pretense that contentment and spiritual well-being can be bought. We swallow hook, line, and sinker the commercialized mindset that for us to feel rested, relaxed, and ready to go back to our never-ending lists of tasks or work requires fun possessions and activities. It never works out that way. All that is really useful to us can be bought will little money; it is only the excessive that is purchased at the cost of contentment. What is really beneficial comes only at the price of our own willingness to be still and accept it. It is offered us as a gift by God. Think about it! We are granted the opportunity to watch the sun rise and set, the clouds sailing along in the sky, the forests and the fields changing colors from youthful greens to mature golds, and the glorious sea all without spending a penny. The birds sing to us for nothing. Wild flowers are free for the picking along the pathways and roadsides. There are no tickets for purchased to enter the magnificent cathedral of the night sky. I can't help but wonder if Vicki already knows that.
Most days in summer, I watch tractors, trucks, combines, and the like speed past on the road out front of my house. It reminds me of how important it can be to sow and reap when the weather is good. It stirs up guilt of my inactivity as my thoughts return to ministry, my calling, my responsibilities, and to all I have to do… wait…let me rephrase that… all I want to do. Here at church momentum is building and I want to capitalize on that momentum. Yet, while reading in the gospel of Mark this morning about the apostles having just returned from their ‘two by two” mission trips, I’m reminded of Jesus’ words to his disciples at a time when spiritual momentum was building and they too were at their busiest. The twelve have returned after preaching repentance, casting out demons, and healing the sick, and you can sense their excitement. “…they told him all that they had done and taught.” (Mark 6:30). What was Jesus’ response: “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (vs.31). It alieves my guilt of idleness somewhat when it dawns on me that Jesus was never, never in a hurry.
Perhaps what I most need to be effective in ministry, spiritually healthy, and to obtain peace of heart and soul never comes in busyness, but grows and strengthens in rest. Dogs are pretty smart. Vicki appears to be trying to teach me something I need to be reminded of. I think I will go lie down in the grass.
"Get up and walk it off." How often have I heard that phrase before? Outside the daily call of "It's time to go the barn," those were perhaps the most used words in my father's vocabulary. It wasn't that I was accident prone or had a propensity for hurting myself, but life on the farm--or life in general--grants us ample opportunity for bumps and bruises. For me, it seemed as if every time I got kicked by a cow, fell down, dropped something on my foot, or incurred an injury of any kind, Dad would first check to see if I was losing blood in quarts (as opposed to cups?), give me a quick once over to see if my affected limb was pointed in the right direction (or thereabouts), and finding no cause for advanced CPR, would pronounce those prescriptive words of healing that can only come from a man trained in the fine art of surgery with a Barlow jack-knife and a pair of needle-nose pliers. "You'll be alright, just get up and walk it off." So, despite a band aid of tissue paper and electrical tape, or hobbling with a limp, I would get back on my feet, get back on task, and always felt the better for it.
Perhaps there are bumps and bruises, hurts and pains that are less obvious, or circumstances and trials that aren't quite so easy to "get up and walk off." Disappointment or discouragement with family, friends, or co-workers, long-held and worked for dreams for a future that go unrealized, or perhaps simply the burdens and stresses of life risk crushing our spirit.
All of us at one time or another have felt the pang of personal disappointment and emotional pain. My father experienced those times. As a farmer tied to cows and land, he was often disappointed by the actions of those whom he counted on. I can only imagine the crushing blow to the dream of farming with his sons snuffed out by low milk prices, high interest rates, and as much as I hate to admit it, the selfish and impetuous decisions of a headstrong eldest son. Just the unbroken labor of life; going to bed exhausted and beaten--rising with the sun to face anew the same labor, disappointments, and discouragements is capable of crushing the spirit of any man. Either way, sometimes working through pain--physical and emotional-- is the best treatment and the only way to heal. That's what my father taught me, and I'm glad he did. It has served me well.
BUT THERE IS SOMETHING ELSE...A GREATER LESSON
Above is a picture of my father. It was taken many years ago on a bright spring day. Perhaps it was a day like many others, full of hard work, frustrations, and disappointment. In fact, I'm sure it was, and not just because I was there. I can tell by the worn leather gloves covering callused hands; the sweat lined brow of a dirty cap, and the oil-stained sweatshirt and pants. Perhaps someone neglected to shut the barn gate, the cows got out and stamped holes all over mom's yard and flowers. The corn planter broke and 3 days of rain are on the way. Maybe the bank said no to the year's operating loan. The hired man called in too sick to milk tonight. Oh, and by the way, this annoying newspaper reporter wants to take a picture now. (Really! the reporter showed up in-announced to a take pictures for an article on my sister Donna. She was the reigning county dairy princess.) This was a day that began early and will end late. A lesson in perseverance for sure.
You know, I believe the best lessons my father taught me came at the oddest moments. Like this one, when he wasn't trying to teach me something, but simply standing patiently to have his picture taken.
Take another look at the picture. I hope you see what I see every time I look at it.
Dad's joy-filled, optimistic, "I wouldn't quit farming for anything...tomorrow will be better" smile.
That's my dad. Despite the circumstances, trials, and disappointments, he always had--and still has today--a smile; always enjoys the company of everyone he meets, finds humor in--well--most everything, and always...always...stays optimistic in the day of which God has blessed him.
The Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 5: 3-5 "...but we rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint."
Whether Dad knew it or not, he displayed that verse in a very real and positive way to me, and I suspect to everyone who knows him.
Scripture is full of those who 'got up and walked it off," who in spite of sin and abandonment, suffering and persecution, persevered and finished strong with "hope (optimism) that does not disappoint."
So when life begins to get the better of us and our hope fades and optimism wanes, let us "fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith..." Jesus was ridiculed, rejected, beaten, whipped, spat upon, kicked, and knocked down, yet he got up and (here's the good part) for the JOY set before him, endured the cross." (Hebrews 12:2
"Thanks Dad!" I hope you have a great Father's Day. I won't make it home to see you. I'm in ministry now, and it's an everyday kind of thing. Apparently I have to work on Sundays? Doing God's work brings lots of trails, pain, and disappointments, but an abundance of satisfaction and rewards. Just like farming. Anyway, thanks for the lessons on perseverance despite pain. Thanks for teaching me character in the midst of adversity. And thanks for showing me what optimism look like even when you didn't know you were teaching me.
So here I am, trying to navigate through the ins and outs of posting on Coe Church of Christ's webpage. It is going okay, thanks to Barb. Big thanks! It strikes me every time I'm on the page how much it changes--always for the better. I trust my postings won't change that!
Webpages are always changing, always under construction, being updated and altered. Although it would be nice to have it functioning at it's best immediately, I know that isn't the way life works. Ministries change, and events come and go like the days on the calendar. Ummm...the calendar that needs updating already.
Maybe that is a good metaphor for us. We don't remain static. We change whether we want to or not. In fact, it's good to change, or better put...to grow.
Scripture speaks this truth. We are to grow in our spiritual life, and in that context our fellowship within the Body, our prayer life, stewardship, and wisdom will be changing (growing) as well. The writer of Hebrews tells us to "leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity...and God permitting, we will do so" (6:1-3).
Anyway, if I haven't bored you yet, let me tell you a little about what you will read here. First, the opinions you read are mine and may or may not be the opinions of the leadership of Coe Church of Christ. But because we read the same Bible and come from the same Restoration Movement background, more than likely our opinions will be in agreement. That being aptly stated, if I write something brainless or not deeply considered beforehand in the future, the imprudence is mine and mine alone.
Don't expect perfect grammar...I's jus writin as I's thinkin.
I'll share with you the books I read, interesting quotes I've come across, and of course the Scripture that effects my heart and mind and allows me to grow.
My opinions are subject to change. Hopefully they change as I personally leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity.
Feel free to comment, agree, disagree, or tell me I'm nuts, but I reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason. (abusive, rude, profane, or anonymous comments) so keep it affirming to Christ. You know who He is...the One who reads and judges everything we write...think...ponder...speak...