Tag Archives: Christmas

“Consider it Joy” (Again)

"Consider it Joy" (Again) [CaD Ps 86] Wayfarer

Bring joy to your servant, Lord,
    for I put my trust in you.

Psalm 86:4 (NIV)

For centuries, followers of Jesus around the world have annually recognized different seasons of the calendar year as they relate to celebrated holidays (or Holy Days) of the faith. We are currently in a season called Advent, in which followers of Jesus prepare hearts and minds to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas.

One of the metaphors that followers use in this season is the advent candle. Each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, and then on Christmas Eve, candles are lit reminding us that with Jesus’ birth the “Light” of heaven had come to earth. Each of the five candles represents a theme. This past Sunday was the “Joy” candle. “Joy,” as it was described among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers on Sunday is the soul’s deep happiness, contentment, and sense of well-being which is experienced regardless of circumstances.

Joy has a specific meaning for Wendy and me. Over the years I have shared in these posts about our journey through the valley of infertility. Joy was something Wendy and I found in that journey, and not a Christmas goes by without being reminded of the story of Elizabeth’s miraculous deliverance from barrenness, Mary’s miraculous conception, and of course Jesus’ humble birth. Each year I am reminded of the verse tatted on Wendy’s forearm, where it can be a constant visual reminder for both of us:

“Consider it joy when you encounter various trials…” (James 1:2)

She and I learned that sometimes joy must be consciously considered, sought after, and found as one finds buried spiritual treasure. Finding joy requires surrendering the momentary, circumstantial pain in order to seek something deeper; We reach for joy which is always “further up and further in.” The joy of Christmas is found despite the often unconsidered circumstances that stare me right in the face: a socially outcast little girl, her scandalous teen pregnancy, her equally outcast husband, and the exilic, compulsory, uncomfortable journey to a strange town. The humility of having nowhere to stay, the realities of childbirth, not in a luxurious modern birthing suite surrounded by talented caregivers, but alone in a dirty barn. I sing Joy to the World but only because I’m looking back with 20-20 hindsight at the larger story, knowing where it led.

As I read today’s chapter, Psalm 86, I was a few verses in before it struck me that it’s the first song of David I’ve encountered in Book III of the psalms. The lyrics are so personal. They are coming from deep in David’s heart. It’s another song of lament which was written at a time of personal distress. What fascinated me is that David doesn’t share any real specifics about his personal distress until the very last stanza. The song is front-loaded with David’s faith, hope, and trust. He dwells on God’s goodness, faithfulness, love, and deliverance. Only then does he describe his circumstances in light of these things.

Today’s psalm is David’s version of “Consider it joy.” And how many of his songs contain that theme? “Consider it joy” is not a one-and-done deal. It’s a perpetually repeated exercise along my spiritual journey.

It often amazes me how this chapter-a-day journey leads me right to the thing I need to read on the day I need to read it. Like David, I’ll spare you the specifics. Suffice it to say that there are days when I have to be reminded, once again, to consider joy: Surrendering the circumstances of that day in order to reach further up and further in to take hold of it.

Devastation, Dinosaurs, and Spiritual Development

Devastation, Dinosaurs, and Spiritual Development (CaD Ps 79) Wayfarer

Pay back into the laps of our neighbors seven times
    the contempt they have hurled at you, Lord.

Psalm 79:13 (NIV)

It’s Christmas season! Yesterday, Wendy and I had the blessing of hugging our children and our grandson for the first time since last December. Milo got to put the ornaments that celebrate each of the four Christmases he’s been with us on the tree. Around the base of the tree is my father’s Lionel train set, and Milo became the fourth generation to experience the joy that train chugging around the tracks.

As I experience Christmas anew this year through the eyes of a three-year-old, I’m reminded of my own childhood. Each year I would get out the Sears Christmas Wish Book catalog and make my bucket list of all the toys that I wanted. It was usually a big list and included a host of big-ticket items my parents could never afford and probably wouldn’t buy for me even if they could because there’s know way that the giant chemistry set was going to accomplish anything but make a mess, require a lot of parental assistance, and probably blow up the house. I couldn’t manage such mature cognitive reasoning in my little brain. All I knew was it was really cool, it looked really fun, and all my friends at school would be really jealous.

Along this life journey, I’ve come to understand that my finite and circumstantial emotions and desires are often incongruent with the larger picture realities of both reason and Spirit.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 79, is an angry blues rant that was written after Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians. It is a raw description of the scene of devastation after the Babylonians destroyed the city and razed Solomon’s Temple to the ground in 586 B.C. Blood and death are everywhere. Vultures and wild dogs are feasting on dead bodies because there aren’t enough people alive and well to bury the bodies. The strong, educated, and young have been taken as prisoners to Babylon. The ruins of God’s Temple have been desecrated with profane images and graffiti. The songwriter pours out heartbreak, shock, sorrow, rage, and desperate pleas for God to rise up and unleash holy vengeance in what the ancients described as “an eye-for-an-eye and a tooth-for-a-tooth.”

As I read the songwriters rant this morning, there are three things that give me layers of added perspective:

First, when God first called Abraham (the patriarch of the Hebrew tribes and nations), He made it clear that the intent of making a nation of Abraham’s descendants was so that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through them, not destroyed.

Second, God had spoken to the Hebrews through the prophet Jeremiah warning them that the natural consequences of their sin and unfaithfulness would be Babylonian captivity through the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, to whom God referred through Jeremiah as “my servant.” It appears that the songwriter may have missed that.

Third, I couldn’t help but read the songwriter’s plea for God to pay back their enemies “seven times” the contempt that their enemies had shown them, and think of the time Peter asked Jesus if he should forgive an enemy who wronged him “seven times.” Peter was trying to show Jesus that he was beginning to understand Jesus’ teaching. To the Hebrews, the number seven spiritually represented “completeness.” When the songwriter asked for “seven times” the vengeance it was a spiritual notion of “eye-for-an-eye” justice would be complete. Peter’s question assumed that forgiving an enemy seven times would be spiritually “complete” forgiveness. Jesus responds to Peter that a more correct equation for forgiveness in the economy of God’s Kingdom would be “seventy-times-seven.”

I come back to the songwriter of Psalm 79 with these three things in mind. The first time I read it, like most 21st century readers, I was taken back by the blood, gore, raw anger, and cries for holy vengeance. Now I see the song with a different perspective. I see a songwriter who is devastated and confused. I hear the crying out of a soul who has witnessed unspeakable things, and whose emotions can’t reasonably see any kind of larger perspective in the moment.

This morning I am reminded of what I discussed in my Wayfarer Weekend podcast, Time (Part 1). Humanity at the time of the ancient Hebrews was still very much in the early childhood stage of development. The songwriter is expressing his thoughts, emotions, and desires like a child desperately asking Santa for a real dinosaur for Christmas. Not just any dinosaur, a real T-Rex to put in the backyard.

Today’s psalm is another example of God honoring the need that we have as human beings of expressing our hearts and emotions in the moment, as we have them, no matter where we find ourselves in our spiritual development. As my spiritual journey has progressed, I’ve gotten better at processing my emotions and having very different conversations with God about circumstances than I did when I was a teenager, a young adult, a young husband, and a young father. It doesn’t invalidate the feelings and conversations I had back then. They were necessary for me to grow, learn, and mature in spirit.

In the quiet this morning, I’m identifying with the songwriter of Psalm 79, not affirming blood vengeance and “eye-for-an-eye-justice,” but affirming that it was where the songwriter was in that moment, just like I have had some rants and prayers along the journey that I’m kind of embarrassed think about now. This is a journey. I’m not who I was, And, I’m not yet who I will ultimately become in eternity. I’m just a wayfarer on the road of life, taking it one-step-at-a-time into a new work week.

For the record, Milo. No, you can’t have a real dinosaur. Sorry, buddy.

The Latest: Wayfarers Travels

Wedding in Mazatlan, Mexico

A few months ago I posted about the chaotic season of travel into which Wendy and I were entering. Don’t get me wrong. It’s all good stuff! Nevertheless, the coming and going have left us grasping for even a few nuggets of normalcy and routine. We are on the downhill side of our gauntlet of travels. It’s been a while since I’ve posted an update. So, away we go…

Two weeks after our daughter, Madison’s, wedding weekend in South Carolina, Wendy and I flew to Mazatlan, Mexico. Wendy’s sister, Suzanna, got married to Emmanuel (a.k.a. Chino) in a gorgeous sunset wedding right on the shore of the Pacific. It was an amazing, multi-cultural event. Chino’s family speaks little or no English. Our family speaks very little Spanish. Nevertheless, there was no shortage of love, laughter, and warmth as we celebrated their wedding.

Not a bad view from our condo balcony.

Our family rented a large condo right on the beach with lots of bedrooms and living space. I will say that the accommodations were in desperate need of updating, but it was still very comfortable. There was a lovely view of the ocean and the sounds of the surf resonated non-stop. When we opened both the doors to the condo and the patio doors to the balcony there was a constant ocean breeze that blew through the living area. It was really lovely.

Chino and Suzanna welcome everyone to their rehearsal and dinner.

On Friday evening we hosted the wedding rehearsal in our condo. A large contingent of both family and friends from Suzanna and Chino’s YWAM (Youth With A Mission) base gathered. Chino’s mother made an amazing, authentic Mexican meal for everyone. There was lots of love, laughter, and joy as Suzanna and Chino blended their worlds and prepared for their big day.

“I don’t think that’s heavy cream. I really want heavy cream.”

One of my favorite memories of the weekend was making multiple Walmart runs with my father-in-law. He desperately wanted some heavy cream for his coffee, but how do you say “heavy cream” in Spanish? We were shown the shelves of Coffee-Mate creamers (sorry, that’s not it) and found several cream products in the dairy case, but which one is the right one? It was a hoot.

The wedding day dawned and the condo was overrun with females. Cakes, flowers, dresses, and various other wedding accouterments were being baked, decorated, assembled, judged, revised, and improvised (rinse and repeat). I slipped onto the balcony with a cup of coffee and stayed out of the way.

Wedding chaos inside, but it’s quiet on the balcony!

The wedding venue was the courtyard of a home along the pacific shore north of Mazatlan. Wendy had joined Suzanna and the wedding party in getting their early. I joined my in-laws, including Aunt Barb, in a YWAM people mover with lots of young people (some of them holding cakes on their laps). As the people mover took off my mother-in-law pointed to the driver and asked me, “Does he know where he’s going?” I remember thinking, “I certainly hope so because I definitely don’t know where we’re going and I don’t speak Spanish!” All was well.

The outdoor venue was beautiful and the wedding began as the sun was setting in the Pacific Ocean behind the wedding couple. I had very little do to with anything, but Suzanna did ask me for suggestions of music to play as the bridesmaids and groomsmen entered. Suzanna asked me for something kind of moody and bluesy. I immediately suggested a song which she immediately loved. What she didn’t realize was that the song (I am Yours by Tracy Chapman) was one of the songs Wendy and played at our wedding. Suzanna was in our wedding, but I forgive her for not remembering. She was, like, ten years old. Anyway, it was awesome that the song began just as Wendy and her groomsman escort started towards the front. I got some nice looks from Wendy. She and I enjoyed the moment, for sure.

After the ceremony, we enjoyed a lovely catered meal as the sunset behind the wedding party. Wendy gave her sister a lovely toast (by that time she needed a little iPhone flashlight to see her notes). The dance was really a lot of fun. There may be cultural differences between the U.S. and Mexico, but everyone loves a wedding dance whether the music is Tejano or R&B. I even was blessed to get in a step or two with the beautiful bride that I’ll always treasure.

Here’s a gallery of photos from Mazatlan (Keep scrolling! There’s MORE afterwards!)

Christmas in London, New Year’s in Dublin

It seemed that we had no sooner gotten home than we were packing again. This time we were heading across the pond for Christmas with Taylor, Clayton, and our grandson, Milo. Taylor’s friend, who lives in London, offered her flat to us for the holidays. Wendy and I flew out of Des Moines on the 23rd (DSM-ORD-DUB-LHR) and arrived in London early on the 24th.

It was really a wonderful week together. We went to the annual Christmas concert at Royal Albert Hall and Milo was transfixed… for about ten minutes. It really was a cool event. We made it just past intermission before Milo throwing his cars at fellow concert-goers prompted us to beat the rush and head home.

Milo was mesmerized by the Christmas lights and music (for about ten minutes)

We went for walks. We played in the park. Taylor made a wonderful Christmas meal complete with figgy pudding (ugh!) and brandy butter (yum!). We played Christmas games (balance an orange on your forehead for a minute), and binged the second season of Fleabag.

Christmas lights at Kew Gardens! Amazing!

A lot of the week was simply spent enjoying one another’s company, but Taylor did a nice job of planning an itinerary that included about one event per day. We went to see the Christmas lights at Kew Gardens (spectacular). The adults got away for the Harry Potter studio tour at Warner Brothers (fantastic), and also got away for a show on the West End (The Play that Goes Wrong). Wendy and I found a pub that was playing the Iowa State vs. Notre Dame bowl game (depressing). It was a great week of just getting to spend time together with this trio that we miss so much.

The Westin Hotel, Dublin

Wendy and I flew out of London City airport on the 30th and made the short flight to Dublin. Our anniversary is New Year’s Eve, so we figured it would be a lot of fun to celebrate our 14th year of wedding bliss with a pint o’ Guinness on the Emerald Isle. Regretfully, our time there was far too short. We were blessed to have a room at the Westin, which is an old bank building. The hotel bar was in the old bank vaults in the basement. It was really pretty cool.

We didn’t arrive until late afternoon on the 30th. After settling in we took a stroll up Grafton Street and stopped to buy Wendy a charm for her bracelet to mark the occasion. We enjoyed a pint at the Stag’s Head pub, a place I’d enjoyed when I was in Dublin twenty years ago. We had dinner at the Exchequer before making our way back to the hotel for a night cap.

Waiting for the Hop-On Bus

On New Year’s Eve day we took a hop-on hop-off bus tour of Dublin which allowed us to get a good overview of the sites. It also allowed Wendy to start planning our next trip to Dublin (“We are coming back here,” she informed me). We ate lunch at the Brazen Head Pub (which opened for business in the year 1098… that’s not a typo). We ended up back in the old bank vaults for a nibble and great conversation with the eclectic patrons sitting with us.

Happy New Year from Dublin. A kiss over the River Liffey!

Just before midnight, we walked the block or two up to the River Liffey where thousands of revelers crowded the streets and we kissed in the year 2020 as fireworks exploded overhead.

Then we quickly high-tailed it back to the hotel and went to bed.

We flew home on New Year’s Day.

Here’s a gallery of photos from the UK:

The travels are not done! Stay tuned….

The Pressure of Preparation

But Jesus turned and rebuked them.
Luke 9:55 (NIV)

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, it has been a crazy year-end for Wendy and me. A lot of travel for both business and personal reasons, two family weddings on separate shores of North America separated by only two weeks of time. Now we are packing for a trip across the Atlantic to spend the holiday with our family living there. Oh, and it’s year-end which means that for work we are wrapping up 2019 projects for clients, getting out 2020 proposals, and buttoning up all of the loose-ends of business before year’s end.

There is a certain pressure one feels when facing deadlines and feeling the pinch of time.

In today’s chapter, Dr. Luke continues to provide a series of short episodes from Jesus’ ministry. The countless times I’ve read this chapter my lenses have always been focused on the individual episodes and the spiritual lessons they have for me. In the quiet this morning, however, I found myself shifting focus to look at the larger context of what’s going on.

Luke has fast-forwarded the narrative on us. The last five chapters have concerned Jesus’ early ministry. Today, the story shifts:

As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.

In two separate episodes within today’s chapter, Jesus predicts his impending death. He knows that when He gets to Jerusalem that He will be arrested and killed by His own people.

Jesus, quite literally, has a dead-line.

Going back and looking at the chapter in the context of Jesus knowing His time on earth is limited, I see that this is a time of intense preparation:

  • He sends the twelve out, on their own, on a ministry practicum (vss. 1-6), and tells them to trust God for all their provision, including food.
  • In the next episode, the disciples have returned from their practicum, but don’t seem to have learned much about faith in trusting God for one’s daily bread, as instructed. Jesus gives them a lesson in faith and provision as He feeds 5,000 people with a few loaves and fish. (vss. 10-17)
  • Jesus then predicts His death and attempts to impress upon his followers the seriousness of what it will ultimately mean to follow Him. (vss. 21-27)
  • Jesus gives His inner circle (Peter, James, and John) a glimpse of His true self and the glory of His being. Perhaps this was to inspire them with a better understanding of who He is and prepare them for becoming the leaders they will need to be after His departure. (vss. 28-36)
  • Jesus once again tells his followers that He is about to be executed. That’s twice in one chapter. Could it be that Jesus realizes that His followers don’t seem to be understanding and internalizing what the succession plan is going to mean for all of them? (vss. 44-48)
  • When his followers see a stranger performing miracles in Jesus’ name, they quickly bring Jesus their case for infringement and copyright litigation. But Jesus will have none of it. The work of His kingdom is not an exclusive enterprise of “Jesus & His 12 Associates Incorporated,” but inclusive of all who follow and embrace God’s Kingdom. They are going to have to understand this when the events recorded in Acts begin to happen. (vss. 49-50).
  • The chapter ends with Jesus still recruiting more followers to become a part of His earthly enterprise, and rejecting the applications of those who are unfit for the job (vss. 57-62).

Jesus is looking forward. Jesus continues to plan, and He continues to work the plan. In all of the preparation, I also observe an undercurrent of Jesus feeling the pressure:

  • Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 was not just a “Look what I can do” event. It was a “Hey, boys, don’t you get it?” event that comes on the heels of the twelve’s return from their individual ministry practicums in which they were sent out with nothing (no food, no money, and no extra clothes) and were expected to have faith in God’s provision. Immediately upon return, they come to Jesus spiritually blind to the possibility that just as God provided for one person on their missionary tour, He could also provide for 5,000. (vss. 10-17) For cross-reference read John’s testimony of Jesus’ subsequent rebuke to the crowds (John 6:25-71) which was so harsh even the twelve were rattled.
  • A demon-possessed boy is brought to Jesus, and Jesus is told that even His twelve couldn’t drive the demon away. Jesus is frustrated by His follower’s lack of faith. His response is harsh: “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you and put up with you?” (vss. 37-43)
  • After the second prediction of His upcoming death, His followers are still arguing about who among them is the greatest. Once again, Jesus immediately tries to provide them a word picture of the humility that will be required of them after His departure when they will be expected to carry on the Kingdom’s work. (vss. 46-50)
  • The twelve also don’t seem to understand the grace and mercy required of them. When a Samaritan village (good Hebrew men like the twelve had been taught to hate the racial half-breed Samaritans) does not welcome Jesus and his entourage, James and John want Jesus to kill them all with hell-fire. This earns them a stiff rebuke. (vss. 51-56)
  • While recruiting and taking applications from followers, Luke records that Jesus’ demands of those who would follow were intense. It feels like He is feeling the pressure to find the right people for the job as the window of training and preparation is closing. (vss. 57-62)

As I look at the task list this morning with all the things that must be accomplished before our impending departure, I admit to feeling the pressure of the preparation. I’m taking heart this morning that my pressure and preparation are minor earthly issues and not the issues of eternal significance Jesus was feeling in today’s chapter. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to be reminded that even the Son of God knows the feeling.

And, I’m reminded that this is what Christmas was about. The Son of God sent into exile on Earth to live as one of us, to feel our pain, to experience the human pressures common to all of us, and to show us the way of love, faith, peace, and perseverance.

And with that, I leave you to persevere with the items on my task list as I wish you a blessing addressing the tasks on your own.

Grappling with the Unexpected

She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
Luke 2:7 (NIV)

A few years ago, our daughter called late in the afternoon and asked if she could stop by. The last thing on Earth we expected to hear that evening was that she was pregnant. She and Clayton had been divorced for three years and we had no idea that they had seen one another. As the story unfolded, it became clear that Milo’s conception was as improbable as it was unexpected. There are times that God makes it perfectly clear that a baby is meant to happen.

I recommend you click on the image below and read Taylor’s post:

Ironic, isn’t it? The juxtaposition of yesterday’s post and today’s post is not lost on me. What a fascinating journey.

As I read the very familiar story in today’s chapter, I couldn’t help but recognize the poor interpretation that many of us were given in the bathrobe Christmas pageants of our childhood. The familiar King James version of today’s chapter says that there was no room for Mary and Joseph in the Bethlehem Motel. The translation “guest room” is more accurate, and it gets to the bigger picture that is lost on most readers.

Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem for the census because that was his family’s hometown and ancestral home. In those days, families all lived together communally. If Joseph had to go to Bethlehem for the census, so did his parents, siblings, and cousins. Many scholars also believe that the genealogy of Jesus that Luke provides in tomorrow’s chapter is the lineage of Mary, in which case all of Mary’s family, siblings, and cousins would have been required to go to Bethlehem as well. It was a full-scale family reunion thanks to the Internal Revenue Service of the Roman Empire.

A big family reunion in the ol’ hometown. And, there was no guest room available for a very pregnant Mary and her betrothed.

At the beginning of John’s biography of Jesus, he states: “{Jesus] came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” The prophet Isaiah wrote of the Messiah: “He was despised and rejected.” These things were true of Jesus from the very beginning before he was even born. An unwed teen mother telling stories about an angel saying she’s pregnant with God’s child didn’t receive a favorable response from the fam.

Wendy and I have been overjoyed the past two weeks to have our kids and grandson back in the states with us. Milo may have been an unexpected and improbable addition to our family, but there is no doubt in my mind that he was intended.

In the quiet this morning I find myself reminded that this life journey is filled with unexpected circumstances. I’ve observed along the way that our journeys rarely end up being what we thought they would be or what we planned for them to be. Nevertheless, it’s easy to feel disappointed, cheated, or somehow surprised by this reality. I’m not sure how or why I ever came to the notion of life’s predictability in the first place. The further I get in my journey the more I try to not fight the unexpected but to trust and flow with it instead.

Grappling With “Never”

“And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.” Luke 1:20 (NIV)

“I don’t know what to with never,” Wendy confessed to me one afternoon.

There are some moments in this life journey that are etched indelibly in my brain’s memory bank, and this is one of them. When the two of us were married Wendy inherited two teenaged daughters. Still, we had always desired to have a child together. After multiple surgeries and what seemed like endless months of fruitless attempts to conceive, Wendy’s admission of fear as we stood silently in our despair on the back porch felt like a giant weight on our souls.

The story of John the Baptist’s parents in today’s chapter holds a special place in my heart. There is so much happening in the subtext of Zechariah’s conversation with the angel Gabriel that is completely lost on any reader who has not walked through the long, depressing, desolate path of infertility.

A few of observations:

  • I find it ironic that Dr. Luke diagnoses Zech and Liz’s infertility as “Elizabeth was unable to conceive.” Perhaps there’s more to this story than is told. Nevertheless, having walked this journey I know that it’s also possible the low sperm count or poor motility were the culprits of their childlessness. Of course, this medical knowledge was not available in their day, but it makes me sad that Elizabeth got the blame.
  • I’ve been digging into the theme of exile on this chapter-a-day journey over the past months. The truth is that Elizabeth and her husband were in a personal exile of their own. When you are walking the path of infertility you realize that the vast majority of people don’t understand and it’s usually emotionally painful when they try. Furthermore, you’re not sure you want to talk to those who’ve been through it themselves. Those who walked the path and ultimately conceived are just a depressing reminder that it hasn’t worked for you. Those who never conceived are a reminder that “never” is a possibility which you don’t want to face and don’t know what to do with (a la Wendy’s confession). Infertility can be horrifically isolating for the couple going through it.
  • When the angel tells Zech “Your prayer has been answered.” My husband’s heart shoots back with a cynical “Which one?” If Zech’s heart was like mine, then there’s a section of it calloused over from month-after-month, year-after-year of fervent, unanswered prayers and wiping away his wife’s river of tears.
  • When Zech asks Gabriel “How can I be sure of this?” he is, once again, being defensive and protective of the hearts of both his wife and his own. Infertility is a vicious cycle of summoning faith, raising hopes, and having them dashed again and again and again and again. The last thing the elderly husband wants to do is put his wife through it one more time.

It’s easy for the casual reader to point the finger at Zech’s lack of faith. I’m sure many Jesus followers will hear messages this Advent season comparing Mary’s simple acceptance of Gabriel’s message to Zech’s rather obvious doubt. My heart goes out to the dude. He’s been made the Steve Bartman of the Christmas story for two thousand years, but I get where he’s coming from.

In the quiet this morning I find myself contemplating the long-term effects that disappointment and unanswered prayer can have on one’s spirit. As for what to do with “never,” Wendy and I worked through it together with God. We discovered, and continue to discover, deep lessons about joy, grief, faith, perseverance, character, maturity, and hope. At the same time, there is a lingering sadness that rears itself unexpectedly at odd times, which in turn pushes me back to the lessons already learned. I plumb their depths once more.

Still, if Gabriel showed up in my office this morning and told me Wendy was going to have a baby, I totally believe that the subtext of my reaction would land somewhere between sarcastic and cynical.

Zechariah would understand.

The December Celebration Gauntlet

When Wendy and I married, December suddenly became much more than just a Christmas holiday. Wendy’s birthday is December 21, and we married on New Year’s Eve. That means that I have, arguably, the three most important gift-giving days of the year in an 11 day stretch. After 12 years (a number rife with Biblical significance) trying to find balance in this celestial conjunction of celebrations, our first grandchild unexpectedly, like the star of Bethlehem, appeared on the horizon last year and plotted his arrival on December 11th. An already crazy month just got crazier.

Milo and his parents (I state it this way because, let’s be honest, it’s all about the one-year-old) arrived home from the UK in early December. I picked up them up and drove them home from MSP. The kids made our house command central out of which “Operation Celebrations” would be conducted. Milo has four sets of grandparents, a full contingency of living great-grandparents, and at least one great-great-grandparent. Long story short: There’s a lot of people needing a Milo fix.

Our celebration of Milo’s first birthday happened the night of the 12th. We had a small cadre of family over for a relatively small affair. Ya-Ya Wendy made Milo both a chocolate cupcake and a white, funfetti cupcake. He seemed to prefer the funfetti cupcake, proving that his taste bud genes are inherited from his paternal DNA coding.

Walking is a lot easier with one of these things!

The rounds of family visitation continued on the 19th when Taylor, Milo, and I stopped by my folks retirement community to have lunch with the folks. Milo was, of course, a huge hit. Milo also had a fascination with all of the various walkers with wheels. As he is in training to get the whole “walking” thing down (we’re up to about six consecutive steps without falling at this point), it was a huge discovery for him that there are devices designed and manufactured to assist in this basic human motor skill (special “thanks” to Mary for letting Milo run free with her walker).

Skol! Vikings!

Wendy and I began celebration of her birthday on the 15th when we headed to the Twin Cities. On the 16th we went to our first Vikings game at their new “mother ship” stadium. An annual trip to see the Vikings had become a bit of a tradition for us until it was announced that the new stadium would be built. Wendy and cold get along like Hamilton and Burr, so we skipped the seasons they were playing at the U of M’s outdoor stadium. We finally decided to all the trigger on  our old tradition. It was a lot of fun. We’ll be back.

Wendy’s birthday was otherwise fairly quiet except for the doorbell ringing incessantly. She got a trifecta of flower bouquets on her big day. The florist here in Pella was grateful for the business, though they somehow couldn’t get the deliveries consolidated. On the following weekend our friends Kevin and Becky came to Pella to celebrate Wendy. A pint at the Cellar and a pizza from George’s was in order with the rest of the evening relaxing at Vander Well Pub.

Maddy Kate flew in from her home in South Carolina on Christmas Eve day. We visited Grandpa Dean and Grandma Jeanne before I drove her back to Pella. She joined Wendy and me at Christmas Eve services at church while Milo and his entourage were making an all day tour stop at Na-Na Brenda’s.

Christmas day, I’m happy to say, was an all-out, love-and-laughter, food-and fun, lazy lounge-fest with just the six of us. Wendy made her traditional Christmas morning cinnamon rolls, along with an awesome breakfast. I threw French Dip into the crock pot for the evening meal. Lunch was a charcuterie menagerie for all. We opened gifts together after breakfast, then moved a mattress into the family room next to the sectional for a blissful day of binge watching (This is Us took up the entire afternoon), eating, and napping together.

Christmas 2017

This year might well have been named “Christmas de Milo.” Our grandson (our first grandchild), Milo, was born on the 11th of December. He was five weeks early and spent much of the first two weeks of his fledgling journey in the NICU. He was allowed to go home just two days before Christmas. As a result, our holiday plans were largely in flux as we waited to see how things were going to play out.

Wendy with her mom and grandma.

On Saturday (Dec 23) Wendy and I played host to the Vander Hart Christmas gathering. The family spent the afternoon celebrating together. Wendy’s sister, Suzanna, spent the night with us and we received our first measurable snow overnight. We woke on Christmas Eve day to a white blanket of new fallen snow. I got the driveway cleared and headed to Des Moines to pick up our daughter, Madison, who flew in from SC.

Madison holds her nephew, Milo, for the first time.

Madison was anxious to meet her new nephew, so we stopped to see Milo who had just spent his first rocky night at home. After our visit, we left Taylor, Clayton and Milo to rest and recuperate. Madison and I headed back to VW Manor where Wendy’s family had reconvened to spend some time together and visit with Madison. They left late in the afternoon. Wendy, Madison and I snuggled into the sectional to watch Star Wars The Force Awakens in anticipation of seeing The Last Jedi in a few days.

It was a blessedly quiet Christmas Day, just the three of us. We told Taylor and Clayton to continue to rest up at home. Wendy made our traditional Christmas breakfast, which was wonderful. We opened gifts and then cleaned up and headed into town to be greeters at our church’s annual community Christmas meal. After returning home we once again snuggled into the sectional and embarked on a marathon binge of The Crown.

On the 26th we headed to Des Moines to celebrate Christmas with the Vander Well clan. The snow that fell on Christmas Eve Day gave way to bone-chilling cold through the rest of the holiday. The family all met in the community room at Grandpa and Grandma’s apartment. All of my siblings were home, which is always a rare treat. After spending the afternoon with the V-Dubs Wendy, Madison and I took in Star Wars The Last Jedi at Copper Creek.

Madison with Grandma Jeanne.

Wednesday, December 27th was another Christmas celebration as we welcomed Milo to our home for the first time. Taylor and Clayton arrived just before 10. Taylor and Clayton were both tired from the lack of sleep and the infant routine. We opened gifts and let them rest as Wendy and I made homemade pizza and breadsticks for lunch. Milo, of course, was the center of everyone’s attention. We ate, and chatted and enjoyed one another’s company.

Methinks Grandma Wendy is in love.

Taylor and Clayton took Madison back to Des Moines with them in the afternoon. After five straight days of family and celebrations Wendy and I began the transition back into some semblance of normal. More family gatherings to come as Wendy’s sister and family arrive from Denver on Friday night. And, Wendy and I celebrate our 12th anniversary on New Year’s Eve.

Wandering and Waiting

Therefore tell the people: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the Lord Almighty.
Zechariah 1:3 (NIV)

Over the past few days Wendy and I have thoroughly enjoyed having our daughter, Madison visiting us. It’s become a bit of a ritual for our family to see the newest Star Wars movies together when we have the opportunity. On Sunday evening we watched The Force Awakens together on DVD, and then last night we went to the theater to see The Last Jedi.

On the way home last night we had fun discussing the themes of the story. One of the themes that stuck out for us was that of orphans, children, parents, and awaiting a return. Rey awaits the return of her parents. Han and Leia await the return of their rebellious son. The Resistance awaits the return of Luke. The wait and the return are powerful themes.

The Christmas story echoes these same things. There was 400 years between Malachi, the last of the prophets, and Gabriel’s visitation to Elizabeth and Mary. The people of Israel had been defeated and scattered by empire after empire: Assyria, Babylonian, Greek, and Roman. Their hope was in a deliverer. Simeon and Anna served in the temple awaiting a glimpse of hope. Later, Jesus pushes into this theme in His story of the prodigal son. At the end of His earthly ministry Jesus promised His return at a day and hour known only to the Father. We’ve been waiting ever since.

In today’s opening chapter of the prophet Zechariah’s visions, we once again see the theme. This time it is Father calling out to His children in a foreshadowing of the prodigal’s story: “Return to me and I will return to you.” The image is that of a parent sitting on the front porch, eyes fixed on the road, hoping desperately for a glimpse of a wayward child making his or her way home. Jesus describes so beautifully what happens when the child is spotted:

“But while he [the lost son] was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”

This morning I’m thinking about the holidays of Christmas and New Year’s. I’m thinking about families and parents, and children and homecomings. Christmas is about that which has been long-awaited. It’s about redemption and reconciliation. It’s about new hope, and new beginnings.

There have been some stages of my life journey in which I took on the role of the prodigal. I know what it is to wander, to squander, and to wade in the hog slop of poor choices. There have been other stretches of my journey in which I have waited and hoped for a child’s return. I have felt the grace of God’s embrace. I have felt the joy of extending that grace and embrace. They are all part of the journey.

My prayers this morning are for those who wandering and wondering about the tug in their heart calling them to return. My prayers are for those whose eyes are fixed on the road, hoping for a glimpse of the child returning.

Wandering, waiting, hoping, returning.

They are all a part of this journey.

New Years 2016

New Years is always a whirlwind and a time of celebration for Wendy and me. This year was no different, and the holidays were stretched out more than normal for us.

New Year’s Eve was our 11th wedding anniversary. Wendy and I gathered here at VW Manor with a small group of friends. Last year was a bit of a blowout as we celebrated our 10th. This year was a low-key affair. We told everyone to wear sweats or pajamas if they wanted to do so. We snacked, we chatted, we played a few rounds of Head’s Up, and we laughed. It was a laid-back way to say good-bye to a very strange 2016 and welcome 2017 with all its possibilities.

Madison could not get home from South Carolina until late last week. So New Year’s Day was the first we got to see her since she joined us at the lake this past summer.  Wendy and I drove to Ankeny for a New Year’s Day gathering of the Hall clan. Taylor and Madison drove up from Des Moines to join us. It was a chance to see Becky, Court, and Lydia one more time before they flew back to Colorado and a chance for the girls to hang out with the family.

We returned to Pella in the afternoon and had our Christmas celebration with the four of us. It was fun to sit together in front of the fireplace ad enjoy opening gifts between the four of us. We then settled in for a relaxing evening together on the family room couch. Supper was a hodgepodge of leftovers on the counter to snack on. We watched the recorded Vikings/Bears game and then watched Cinderella together. It was really a lot of fun.

Yesterday was the only full day we had with Maddy Kate. Wendy made a fabulous breakfast for us. The entire morning was spent eating, drinking coffee, and great conversation around the dining room table. The afternoon was an equally laid-back affair. We opted for a Sherlock binge. We watched. Taylor knitted. Madison and I worked on editing a video for a little project she wanted to do together. Wendy scoured Pinterest and we discussed house ideas. And, in true family fashion, we baptized the living room rug with two spills that necessitated moving of the couch and cleaning up.

Wendy made a wonderful evening meal of tilapia, sweet potato wedges, and rice. We then capped our evening by planning our wardrobe for family pictures we’re taking this morning, and watching the newest episode of Sherlock which premiered on New Year’s Day.

It feels like a bit of a stretched out holiday this year. With Christmas and New Year’s on Sundays, it feels like we’ve stretched two two-day holidays into two four-day holidays. Today we take family pictures, say good-bye to Madison, and then settle back into routine.