Lights of Grace



“Room at the Inn?”

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. And all went to be taxed, everyone into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn” From Luke 2:1-20

It seemed like a great idea for our church to put the youth group in charge of the annual Christmas pageant – until they asked my son, Charlie, to take part in it.

“Please let him be in the Christmas play?” begged Julie, the teenaged head of the youth group when she corned my family after church.

“Charlie just turned four,” I said. “that’s too young to be in a play.”

“But we really want him to be the innkeeper,” she said. “He would only have one line. He talks so well and he’s not a bit shy. We know he can do it. Don’t we, everybody?”

She turned to the crowd of young people hanging back in the foyer. They answered with a chorus of “Yes!” and “Charlie can do it?” and “Please Mrs. Breeden?”

Charlie didn’t seem to understand what was going on, but he liked people shouting his name. My husband, Frank, shrugged. How could we disappoint the kids?

“As long as it’s one line,” I said.

Julie swept Charlie up. We can do it! We can do it!” She danced away with my son in her arms and the other children following Pied Piper-style, chanting with her.

“Are you sure?” Frank asked.

“Nope,” I said. “I’m not.” But I couldn’t blame the kids for thinking Charlie was a natural. He did speak very well for his age, and he was already a hit with his James Cagney impressions. Still, going onstage was a big experience for a four-year-old. And I wondered if the innkeeper might wind up sounding like Cagney!

Charlie enjoyed the play practices. At home Frank and I made a game out of helping him with his line. “I am Joseph from Galilee,” Frank said as he carried Charlie to bed. “My wife is heavy with child, and we have traveled a long way these past days. We are weary and need a room.”

“What do you say?” I prompted.

“There’s no room at the inn!” Charlie shouted. Frank and I cheered.

It was one thing to remember the line at home. Another thing entirely in front of a full house. The closer we got to opening night, the more I worried. We practiced and practiced.

On opening night Charlie showed signs of a cold. “Do you want to take him out of the play?” Frank asked as we prepared to leave for the performance.

“I do,” I admitted. “But we can’t back out now. You can’t have a Christmas pageant without an innkeeper.”

Everyone was depending on him, I thought as I dressed Charlie in his flannel bathrobe and draped a towel over his head, secured with a safety pin. That’s not fair to a four-year–old.

When we got to the church Julie and the older kids whisked him away behind the curtain. I sat down in the front row. Frank sensed my nervousness and rubbed my back for comfort. “What’s the worst that could happen?” he said.

I didn’t want to imagine it! The place was packed. Not a seat was empty.

Finally the lights dimmed and the curtains opened. One side hung unevenly, but it was hard to care. The soft lights provided an angelic glow around the children in their homemade costumes. In the center stood Charlie, looking heart-breakingly small. His lower lip was puckering, and I thought he might cry as he searched the audience.

I’m right here, Charlie, I thought, sliding to the edge of my seat. Only Frank’s hand on my shoulder kept me from jumping up on the stage and gathering him in my arms.

“I am Joseph from Galilee,” announced 12-year-old Jason, the oldest in the cast. “My wife is heavy with child and we have traveled a long way these past days. We are weary and need a room.”

Jason turned to the tiny innkeeper, waiting for his answer. Charlie look a bit startled, then dazed. Once again he searched the audience.

I gripped Frank’s hand and whispered, “Please, Jesus, be with Charlie onstage. He needs your help!”

The moment stretched on. Charlie didn’t say a word.

Jason turned to Charlie again. “Innkeeper,” he said, obviously trying to nudge him into remembering, “Inn-keeper, do you have a room for us?”

Charlie suddenly snapped to attention. He looked around the stage, and I could see he was taking it all in. the painted manger backdrop, Joseph and Mary in their sandals and robes, the makeshift props. but wasn’t the setting of that very first Christmas every bit as simple? Charlie stood up straight and considered the weary travelers. Mary, who couldn’t quite conceal her “heaviness,” and Joseph, so tall and protective. Charlie looked up at him. That’s my boy, I thought. He’d become every inch an innkeeper. Now say your line, Charlie. Go on, you can do it. The audience waited., Everyone was rooting for Charlie.

“Y’all come on in!” he sang out. “I gots room for Baby Jesus.”

For a moment nobody made a sound. Then heads swiveled to me and Frank, the parents of the wayward pageant actor. “We don’t know where that came from!” Frank mouthed.

I told them he was too young, I thought. Now I’d embarrassed everyone.

From the back of the audience a woman called out, “Amen child.”

She was answered by a chorus of amens throughout the church.

The quick-thinking Joseph didn’t take the innkeeper up on his offer. He chose a bed in the manager instead. But Charlie stood proud in his bathrobe throughout the rest of the play.

Afterward, the older kids and all the parents congratulated Frank and me, and our adorable innkeeper who had room for Baby Jesus. Wasn’t that what Christmas was all about? I had asked Jesus to be with Charlie onstage that night. But Jesus had found an even more loving spot in Charlie’s heart.

Guideposts 2007 publication

I can tell you what Christmas is all about.

Remember when we were kids and how exciting it was to go back to school and we’d make a list of all the great stuff Santa had brought us?  Barbie dolls, a red wagon, a BB gun, fruit, candy and a huge ham and cakes of all kinds for Christmas dinner.  Dad would say the blessing and carve the ham.

That is not what my childhood Christmas was all about.  Dad was away in the war and any extra money went to pay for the heat in the house and food like beans, potatoes, bread and milk, not toys.  It seemed like life sucked because I didn’t have all those things other kids had.  Dad eventually came home from the war and the warmth of his presence and his love was worth any sacrifice.

Remember how our mothers were the heart of Christmas, creating it’s meaning for all of us?  The shopping, the baking, the decorating, the wonderful secrets and always, always going to midnight communion which gave us the joyous peace that mothers know it will? But then mother died and Christmas became lonely and fake and life sucked.  At some point, I can’t tell you when or why, I began to do all of the same wonderful things with my children and we began to build on the foundation mother had provided, making it stronger with each new memory we created as a family.  Her legacy gives us joy and peace, keeping her close, and I believe – happy, always.

Then we grow up and realize that life can suck on any given day with or without notice. This hurts and with the pain, memories of what is good and right in our life are swept away by the uncertainty of just how much adversity one can withstand.

In the Charlie Brown Christmas Special where Charlie Brown asks about the meaning of Christmas and Linus, blanket in hand, explains, “And the angel said unto them, Fear not, for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you this day is born in the City of Bethlehem, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel, a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men'”. (Luke 2:10).

Like Charlie Brown, we may shout, “What’s the big deal about Christmas?”

It seems to promise good things, but bad things still happen.

It appears that many of us may not be sure what Christmas is all about either.

But if we only seek the meaning, we discover it really is all around us.

Linus ends his explanation by simply saying, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”  If we all could have the faith of Linus, life would still sometimes suck, but we would gain some of that peace on earth and good will toward others as we realize that the good in our lives gets us through those bad times.

God gave us His son, Jesus who suffered and died for us of His own free will:  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son… .” (John 3:16).

If we think about that, we can find hope in the will of  people everywhere, every day, who give their lives freely for others so that others might live. A friend of mine gave her husband her kidney so he might live, a sister gave her sister her bone marrow which put her cancer in remission, a young firefighter died of smoke inhalation but managed to rescue an 87 year old great grandmother, troops every day give their lives so we are safe.  The reality of Christmas is the understanding that God doesn’t prevent bad things from happening, but He does provide us with comfort and support as He guides us through the bad times, often using those around us to help us.

In the first days of my widowhood, Kathy, Tammie and Rosita called me every day, ignoring that I often didn’t answer the phone or return their calls.  Still their calls continued, every day, until I began to answer the phone and I began to call them back; God at work through people.

Christmas is about accepting that bad things are just going to happen, and having the faith that God is there every moment.  Anyone can be thankful when times are good, but maintaining our faith and belief in God through the bad times will give us strength to persevere and to eventually recognize and to be grateful for the goodness that still exists in our lives.

And that, my friends, is what Christmas is all about.

Christmas Is Waiting In The Mailbox

Today, my friend Judiann posted on Facebook that all of her Christmas cards had been mailed, all of her presents bought AND wrapped AND under the tree, all of her baking done, her house cleaned and totally decorated. and was rewarding herself by sitting down to relax.  “What the hay?”  I thought. “It’s only December 13th!  What’s the rush?”

Pondering on my own state of affairs, I rationalized that I had two trees halfway decorated, had hung the wreath on the door although it was missing a few flowers, but I HAD spent the morning perusing Amazon for gift ideas (for my friends reading this, don’t think you won’t be surprised THIS year!). Feeling ever so motivated, I was just about to kind of seriously think about addressing my Christmas cards, when I saw, again on Facebook, that another friend, Cheri, had requested a life on Candy Crush.   I quickly rushed to her aid and just before I could hit the button to give her that life, the doorbell rang.

Since the window to my front porch is in front of my desk (I was allegedly revising my book manuscript) I saw it was the postman with a box.  Teddie, my ferocious ten-pound fluffy white watchdog, began barking with all the intent to scare his arch nemesis into running for his life!

I’m just kidding.  He just wanted to be petted, Teddie not the postman, for they are old friends with a “love/do I really know you” relationship.

I quickly scooped Teddie up, opened the door allowing the postman to provide Teddie with a scratch behind the ear followed by Teddie licking his hand, the postman’s hand, not Teddie’s.  Without a word or look in my direction, the postman thrust a paper for me to sign while he and Teddie continued their unique communication ritual.

“Merry Christmas,” I remembered to say as the postman gunned his car, anxious to get on with his work.  Package and mail in hand, as well as a wiggling puppy, it seemed like a good time to take a break.  Candy Crush forgotten, I brewed some fresh coffee and sat down to open the mail the postman had so kindly delivered with the package.  Sure enough, there was the Christmas card from Judiann, but not just a card, it also contained her annual Christmas letter, three pages, singled-spaced, 11 font.  “Might be a 2-cup break,” I thought.

I settled in my chaise, surrounded by windows that welcomed the morning sunshine and belied the 41 degree external temperature, steaming cup of coffee in hand and with Teddie snuggling by my side, I began to read her Christmas letter.  With each word, each sentence, each paragraph, each page my eyes misted and my spirit sang “Feliz Navidad” for I was able to see, to taste, and to be part of a life so unselfishly lived that I have personally forwarded this letter to God.

I read of trips to Italy, Greece, the Caribbean, the American West, Boston, MA and Washington, D.C.   These were not just any trips.  They were adventures that enveloped friends and family as Judiann and Don (her husband) shared their lives with a special kind of unconditional caring about those of us fortunate enough to journey with them.

As I read  on, my own “mother heart” linked to Judiann’s “mother heart” as she described the notification that the fire alarm was going off in her deployed son’s house 3000 miles away.  The tension built as they confirmed the house was on fire and she couldn’t contact her son.  Frustrated and after she had done all that she could, she did what all of us would do, sat down and had a good cry.  “Why didn’t you call me to help?” I shouted out loud, only calming down when I read on to learn it turned out to be a defect in the alarm system.

Then I arrived to the part where her daughter took “Marathon Monday” off in order to attend the Boston marathon.  As is typical of her daughter’s numerous dysfunctional consumer experiences, she stopped for lunch and had to wait longer than usual for her check.  While waiting, the first explosion of that day detonated a block from the restaurant.  My heart stopped beating and I actually forgot to breathe when I read that part, finally restarting after I gasped, “Thank you God for your divine intervention in her life. Amen.”

I glided through the rest of her 2013, engrossed in her tale of organizing her husband’s army reunion, laughing out loud at the antics of these men, now sixty-something, reverting back to being young officers in a foreign county whose friendship had transcended four decades.  I cheered as she described the many birthday cakes presented to her for her “milestone” birthday, tasting each one with her descriptions.  Tears trickled as I read the bittersweet tale of a joyous family wedding followed by the mother of the bride succumbing to cancer a few short months later.  I felt her great pride in her husband continuing to be the “Belly Flop” Champion time after time on Royal Caribbean cruises, as well as being surrounded by her quiet thankfulness over having her family safe, healthy and happy as they all gathered to share Thanksgiving, remembering to be extra thankful for those who serve our country and who protect us.

Judiann thank you for sharing your Christmas letter, for sharing your way of being, and for including me in your journey.  I hope I can make my 2014 Christmas letter worth the sharing by remembering what this time of year stands for and living each moment, each day, each week throughout 2014 in honor of this gift:  “”For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  John 3:16


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