A Storybook Christmas

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Merry Christmas!  Our Christmas program at Cameron Presbyterian this year was called “Once Upon a Time…A Storybook Christmas.”  I wrote the story and thought it was a fitting thing to share today.  So, get yourself another cup of coffee and cozy up with those you love and enjoy the story of God becoming one of us.

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Once upon a time, in a very far-off land of dusty deserts and shining stars, there was a little boy who herded sheep, like his father before him, and his father before him.  His father woke him for the evening shift, watching the sheep from sundown to sunup to keep them safe from the sort of creatures that sought them in the darkness of the night.  This was a rare treat, you see, to get to stay up in the middle of the night and watch the stars.  Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, the little shepherd boy picked up his favorite old, worn shepherd’s crook and went to where the sheep were lazily wandering together.

It was a night just like any other – except this night, something was going to happen.

You see, at the same time the shepherd boy was awakened to watch over the sheep, there were travelers roaming from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  There was a young woman, riding on a donkey, and her husband walking beside her.  Her name was Mary; his was Joseph.  Oh, yes, and there was a baby.  You see, Mary was very pregnant, and the bumpy donkey ride wasn’t helping matters.  She was going to have her baby very, very soon.

So soon, in fact, that she told Joseph to stop at the nearest sheltered place, and as they entered the outskirts of Bethlehem, he sighed with relief.  Surely someone would take them in this night.  But each place they went, they had no luck.  Finally, they had to settle for a simple shelter at the edge of the town, one where animals often stayed.   And that is where they sat, and waited.

Meanwhile our little shepherd boy was sitting on his favorite rock, that gave him a bit of height to watch over the sheep.  He also liked this particular rock because it made him feel closer to the stars.  Every night the stars shone like diamonds glittering through a velvety dark sky.  It was a night just like any other – except this night, something was going to happen.

A miracle was going to happen.  Just at the very moment that brave Mary gave birth to her child – a son – our little shepherd boy was looking up at the stars.  And something changed.  One star became bigger and brighter than all the rest!  As if that wasn’t enough, an angel appeared!  A real angel!  This angel saw how pale the little shepherd boy had become, and how his companions were also quaking in their sandals, and so he said,


“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

And then, that one angel was surrounded by lots of angels, all singing with joy and delight about this very special baby that had been born that night.  The little shepherd boy went and woke his dad, and along with the other shepherds they hurried to Bethlehem to see this amazing miracle child.

And so it happened, that when that angel appeared to the little shepherd boy, Mary gave birth to a little boy.  For Mary, that moment first holding her baby didn’t need angels singing or brilliant stars shining to be a miracle.  Just like any mother holding her baby for the first time, it was already a miracle.   But, you see, there had been an angel: that same angel had visited Mary, too.  Nine months earlier, the angel Gabriel had come to tell her that she would have a son and that he was the son of God, and she should name him Jesus.

“A big name for a little baby,” she thought, as he curled his hand around her finger.  “Jesus,” she whispered, “you are going to be so very special.”  And as his dark eyes became sleepy, she wrapped him up tightly and set him in a manger that was usually used as a trough for feeding animals.  He didn’t seem to mind as he drifted off to sleep.

As the shepherds made their way to Bethlehem, they noticed other people along the road staring up at the brilliant star.  “Something’s happened!” they all said.  “What could cause such a star, right over Bethlehem??”  The little shepherd boy spoke up, telling them all the angel had told him of this special child who was born, who would save the whole world.  And so the group of those traveling to Bethlehem grew with the story of this great child.

Others were watching the skies that night, too.  Wise people, who studied the stars, saw the change and, even though angels didn’t appear to them, they figured out that such a bright star was a roadmap to Bethlehem to meet a child they had heard of through ancient prophesies.   So they too set out for Bethlehem, bringing the very best gifts they could offer: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

As luck would have it (or more than that), everyone found their way to the tiny cave in Bethlehem, a place as ordinary as any other, but where something extraordinary happened.  Mary and Joseph were overwhelmed as the wise people came offering extravagant gifts.  Travelers along the road came and knelt down before the manger, saying with joy “This is the Messiah – the Son of God!”  Angels sang and stars shone and, through it all, that very special baby just watched with wonder and delight, taking it all in.  And then finally, very shyly, the little shepherd boy came.

“I…I don’t have anything special to offer your baby,” he said, as he stared at his sandals.  “But this, this is my favorite thing in the world,” and he held up his weathered, worn shepherd’s crook.  “They say your son will be the best shepherd there ever was, that he will lead people wherever he goes and bring them healing and hope,” he said, with a little more confidence.  “And so I think he will need this.”  He handed Joseph his shepherd’s crook and Joseph smiled warmly and patted him on the head.   Mary wiped tears from her eyes and said, “Thank you, child, this gift is priceless.”

And so it happened that a little shepherd boy blessed a tiny baby in Bethlehem with a shepherd’s crook, and that tiny baby went on to become the greatest shepherd there ever was, tending to those who felt alone and lost, bringing hope like a shining star in the night and joy like a mother holding her baby for the first time.

We call this story Christmas.  But the most amazing thing is, it’s not just a fairy tale from long ago.  This once-upon-a-time-story actually happened, and happens still when Jesus, God’s son, comes to a world in need of good news.  And we don’t just tell this story.  We live it!  Like that little shepherd boy, we offer the very best we have to give to the baby Jesus, and the story goes on: the story of hope, of peace, of joy and of love.  The story of Christmas.  And so it begins again…in you, in me, in all of us.

(© Rev. Whitney Wilkinson, please use only with permission)

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(Advent)ures Day 25: Rejoice

No Advent journey would be complete without the music of Sufjan Stevens.  Thanks for coming along with me this past month. It’s amazing how mindfully traveling through these days of Advent have made them more substantial somehow.  I will share something tomorrow for Christmas as well.  Wishing you all a lovely eve to Christmas!

(Advent)ures Day 24: Extend Our Listening

Apologies for missing yesterday, chickadees!

Today, I share a prayer I used in worship Sunday, one influenced by Mary’s Magnificat when she found out she would birth the child of God into the world.  I find it haunting, beautiful and as relevant now as ever.

Prayer for Magnificat

(Advent)ures Day 21: Holding Your Breath

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“The house lights go off and the footlights come on. Even the chattiest stop chattering as they wait in darkness for the curtain to rise. In the orchestra pit, the violin bows are poised. The conductor has raised his baton.

In the silence of a midwinter dusk there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen.

You walk up the steps to the front door. The empty windows at either side of it tell you nothing, or almost nothing. For a second you catch a whiff in the air of some fragrance that reminds you of a place you’ve never been and a time you have no words for. You are aware of the beating of your heart.

The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.

The Salvation Army Santa Claus clangs his bell. The sidewalks are so crowded you can hardly move. Exhaust fumes are the chief fragrance in the air, and everybody is as bundled up against any sense of what all the fuss is really about as they are bundled up against the windchill factor.

But if you concentrate just for an instant, far off in the deeps of you somewhere you can feel the beating of your heart. For all its madness and lostness, not to mention your own, you can hear the world itself holding its breath.”

(from Whistling in the Dark by Frederick Buechner)

(Advent)ures Day 20: Miles to Go

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There are few things as life-giving to the body and soul as a walk through the woods.  I encourage you to find some time today, or this weekend, to have a wee dander in wildness and see the sun filtered through old trees.  It will remind you of your place in the order of things, and remind you that, though sometimes the world around us spins and frets this way and that, the life of green things goes on.  It’s a peaceful thought, that.  So, go take a walk of your own today, if you’re able, but in the meantime, here’s a snapshot of a recent walk of mine.

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Lantern at the ready…

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a charming walking companion (Carlos)…

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…and some good boots, and we’re off!

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IMG_7267.JPG(Don’t forget to notice the small things.)

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(And the big things as well.)

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IMG_7283.JPGAnd always, always, allow for some silliness.  That’s equally good for the soul.

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Happy travels, my friends.  Let your feet tell you where the rest of you wants to go, and trust God to show you how to get there.

(Advent)ures Day 19: He Did Not Wait

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He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace
He came when the Heavens were unsteady
and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He died with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. He did not wait

till hearts were pure. In joy he came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
He came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

From The Ordering of Love: The New and Collected Poems of Madeleine L’Engle

(Advent)ures Day 18: Born in Violence

The unbelievable loss of life in Peshawar continues to weigh heavy on me, and so last night at our Session meeting, we opened with this prayer from Walter Brueggemann.  It is titled, “In Violence and Travail” (from his book of prayers Awed to Heaven, Rooted to Earth).

We give you thanks for the babe born in violence.

We give you thanks for the miracle of Bethlehem,
born into the Jerusalem heritage.

We do not understand why the innocents must be slaughtered;
we know that your kingdom comes in violence and travail.
Our time would be a good time for your kingdom to come,
because we have had enough of violence and travail.

So we wait with eager longing,
and with enormous fear,
because your promises
do not coincide with our favorite injustices.

We pray for the coming of your kingdom on earth
as it is around your heavenly throne.

We are people grown weary of waiting.

We dwell in the midst of cynical people,
and we have settled for what we can control.

We do know that you hold initiative for our lives,
that your love planned our salvation
before we saw the light of day.

And so we wait for your coming,
in your vulnerable baby
in whom all things are made new.

Amen.

(Advent)ures Day 17: Waiting and Wailing

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I came across this image today as I sipped my (heavenly, wonderful) coffee in my warm bed with cheery Christmas lights bringing joy.  The morning outside looks like someone threw cold water in a volcano — fog steams up everything, making only the spindly outline of wintery trees visible against a pinkish cloud of curiosity.  A forlorn train whistles from the tracks in my wee village, and I feel content.  I read these words from Cormac McCarthy, “Between the wish and the thing, the world lies waiting.” and I ponder the significance of these words.  But my sleepy-as-yet-uncaffeinated-eyes can’t quite make out that last word in this picture — waiting or wailing?  Oh, that is the question, isn’t it?

Because while I am feeling myself to be in a fog of contentment, on the other side of the haze of my little worldview, there is troubling news.  A massacre in Peshawar, where at least 126 people, many of them children, have been killed by the Taliban.  Talks of justifying torture to get the bad guys which sounds very much like the rhetoric of extremism to me.  A shooter on the loose in Pennsylvania.  The FBI investigating the hanging death of an African American teenager here in North Carolina.  A local woman complaining that someone keeps stealing wreaths off of her husband’s and her brother’s graves.  And then I think that, yes, between the wish and the thing, the world indeed lies wailing.  Wailing in all of these places and more.  And waiting for the wailing to end.

And somehow, these two worlds merge — the one where I contentedly sip hot coffee made with clean water using my (unnecessary) extra Christmas lights in a heated home with electricity, and the one where mothers wake this morning with wails that children have been lost.  The world where God wails, as our ability to see others as human beings and hold ourselves to the high standards of justice and democracy crumbles in the face of desperation and fear.  The world where a thoughtless prank stirs up old wounds and makes grief even heavier in these dark winter days.  If the incarnation means anything, it means God is a part of this world, and so are we.

These worlds merge in the waiting and the wailing, as I dare hope that God will not leave us to our own devices, but will inspire new life, lifting the fog of our self-focus long enough for us to see who’s on the other side, desperate for news of a better world.  So, I pray:

Lift the fog, O God, between us and them.  Help us to hold the waiting and the wailing together, until you come and wipe every tear from our eyes, watering instead a tree of life with leaves that will heal the nations.  Forgive us if we have waited in such a way that silences the wails of others.  Forgive us if we have wailed without the hope that you will never abandon us.  And come, Lord Jesus, come.  Amen.