Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Christmas Stocking

Every year my family, like many families around the world, hangs stockings on our fireplace mantle, one for every member of the family. It’s a wonderful tradition that brings childhood memories flooding back. Though nobody knows precisely when the tradition began, it is said that originally, children would put out a regular sock or a shoe in hopes of receiving a gift from Saint Nicholas, or in some countries known as Father Christmas.

I remember my Grandfather saying that if we weren’t good we would get a lump of coal or an old piece of cornbread in our stocking. I had no use for a piece of coal but the consolation prize of cornbread never bothered me. I thought that as long as I could put it in a glass of milk, it would be just fine. Ha.

When I was a kid, the Christmas stocking was the only present we were allowed to open before our parents got up. So before dawn, my Brother Chris and I would get our stockings and crawl back in the bed. With only the glow from the streetlight beaming through our shared bedroom window, we would hurriedly empty the stocking of all its contents. Sifting through our new found treasure, we whispered to each other:

“I got a car.”

“I got hard candy.”

"I got a tangerine.”

"I got a set of Jaxs.” And so it went.

Eventually we tired and dosed back off to sleep, stockings in hand. Later we awoke to open the “real” presents. Stockings were all but forgotten as we ripped open our presents with Parental supervision and joy. Forgotten, that is, until next year when the Christmas stocking was the most important gift of early pre-dawn Christmas.

Even today as I hang the stocking for my family, precious memories flood back. Sadly, one stocking won’t be hanging on our mantle this year. It still remains with the others, carefully packed in our decorations box. Our family pet Buzzy, the most beautiful Collie I’ve ever seen, passed away after battling a long illness. Three times she was at death’s door and the Vet sent her home to die. Twice, our prayers were answered and God miraculously spared her life.

Even the Vet was amazed at her incredible recovery two times, several months apart. But on the third time, we had to finally release our good friend to the Lord.

With the passage of time, sorrow weakens and the joy of fond memories grows strong. As we hang our family stockings on the mantle with care, the one with Buzzy written in glitter brings a smile to our faces and warms our hearts, as we remember her and how we used to fill her stocking with chew toys, balls, and treats. Then we carefully place it back in the decorations box.

If you have lost a loved one, friend, or even a beloved pet, and are facing the Christmas season in grief, remember the good times, just for Christmas. Treasure the precious memories with an inner peace. Depend on the Lord Jesus, whose birth we celebrate, to fulfill His mission to you. The mission that this season proclaims, peace on earth, good will towards men.

“Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” (Luke 2:14 NLT)

Jesus gave us encouragement in the Bible where these words were recorded:

“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 NLT)

God loves you, and offers to you a spiritual Christmas stocking overflowing with love and peace. Merry Christmas Dear Reader!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Grace and Mercy

A young co-worker asked me, “What is the difference between grace and mercy?” An immediate answer didn’t come to mind so I resorted to humor and replied, “Grace works on the first shift and Mercy works on the second.” Laughter and chuckles came from those within earshot because we have two ladies with those names working with us.

Later, her question came back to mind, which gave pause for me to consider the real answer. I thought about God’s grace, the free and unmerited favor that He has shown towards us as a gift. And I thought about God’s mercy, His compassionate forbearance toward us showing Him kind and forgiving, even though we deserve punishment. Surely our heavenly Father is the finest example of grace and mercy.

As I considered how grace and mercy work together, I remembered a famous event from the battlefields of World War I. It was Christmas Eve 1914, on the western front, where British and German forces faced each other in fierce fighting. The following is an excerpt from a letter written by a British soldier who was present on that night.

“I never hope to see a stranger and more lovely sight. Clusters of tiny lights were shining all along the German line, left and right as far as the eye could see.

“What is it?” I asked in bewilderment, and John answered, “Christmas trees!”

And so it was. The Germans had placed Christmas trees in front of their trenches, lit by candle or lantern like beacons of good will. And then we heard their voices raised in song.

Stille nacht, heilige nacht . . . .

This carol may not yet be familiar to us in Britain, but John knew it and translated: “Silent night, holy night.” I’ve never heard one lovelier—or more meaningful, in that quiet, clear night, its dark softened by a first-quarter moon.

When the song finished, the men in our trenches applauded. Yes, British soldiers applauding Germans! Then one of our own men started singing, and we all joined in.

The first Nowell, the angel did say . . . .
In truth, we sounded not nearly as good as the Germans, with their fine harmonies. But they responded with enthusiastic applause of their own and then began another.

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum . . . .

Then we replied. O come all ye faithful . . . .

But this time they joined in, singing the same words in Latin.

Adeste fideles . . . .

British and German harmonizing across No Man’s Land! I would have thought nothing could be more amazing—but what came next was more so.

“We’ve agreed there will be no shooting before midnight tomorrow,” he announced. In minutes more, there we were in No Man’s Land, over a hundred soldiers and officers of each side, shaking hands with men we’d been trying to kill just hours earlier!

Even those who could not converse could still exchange gifts—our tea for their coffee, our corned beef for their sausage. I myself traded a jackknife for a leather equipment belt—a fine souvenir to show when I get home.

As it grew late, a few more songs were traded around the fire, and then all joined in for—I am not lying to you—“Auld Lang Syne.” Then we parted with promises to meet again tomorrow, and even some talk of a football match.”

Reflecting upon this Christmas miracle I ask myself, what could cause two opposing armies, fighting to the death, to lay down their arms and embrace each other as friends? Only grace and mercy. The same grace and mercy that first entered men’s hearts on another night more than two thousand years ago.

On that night, an Angel announced to the world through a tiny band of shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14 KJV).

Those same shepherds found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. As their weary eyes beheld Him, they witnessed the embodiment of God’s grace and mercy made flesh, and living among them, Christ Jesus!

May we follow the example of our heavenly Father, and like those British and German soldiers in the icy war-torn Belgium countryside, extend grace and mercy to all whose path we may cross. Merry Christmas!