Reflections Following a Christmas Eve Candlelight Service


Last night I attended a Christmas Eve service. It was filled with music and light. The quietness of the wiggling, three-month-old representation of Jesus who sat on his mother’s lap (she, of course, was dressed as Mary) amazed me. The sincerity of young children, who carried candles and explained their meanings—peace, joy and hope—warmed my heart. The poise and clarity of the older children, who memorized or recited Scriptures, impressed me. I enjoyed special songs sung by the choir and other musicians, and I heartily joined in when the congregation was invited to sing Christmas carols.

Everything was beautiful, but the part that meant the most to me was the lighting of the Christmas candles—while the primary lights in the auditorium were gradually turned off. From a single lighted candle at the center of the communion table, ushers lit their candles; then, they walked down the aisles and lit the candle held by the person sitting in the end seat of each row; these people lit the candle held by the person next to them, and so on. Gradually, the entire room was filled with candlelight. This was the pastor’s explanation: The large candle represents Jesus, who is the Light of the world; when we receive him, we receive light; when we tell others about Jesus and they receive him, they receive light and can pass it on.

What does it mean to receive light? It means that we welcome what light shows us. What does light show us? Reality—truth! When light shines through my kitchen window onto the sink below, I see all the stains and spots in my sink that were hidden to my view. Light spreads out and shows me un-scrubbed corners. Jesus-light shows us truth about things and (especially) truth about ourselves; this can be disturbing if we discover that things (including our hearts and behavior) are not as healthy or functional as we thought they were. However, Jesus-light also gives us the wisdom and power to make needed changes. If we want to change, we will welcome his light; if we don’t want to change—if we cherish error and are hiding deceit—we are not likely to welcome Jesus-light.

There were three common responses to Jesus-light when he arrived in Bethlehem. A few people—Mary, Joseph, a few shepherds, three dignitaries from the country which is now Iraq, an old widow living in the temple and an old prophet recognized and welcomed this Light with amazement and joy. Not many other people are mentioned in the Gospel accounts, but among the other ones whom we know were aware of Jesus’ arrival were the Inn-keeper and Herod.

Did the Inn-keeper recognize and welcome Jesus-light? It might appear so—yet was the stable the best that he could offer? Yes, his guest rooms were full, but could he not have offered the Messiah his bedroom? He might have thought that was too risky–fearing about his reputation. Was the stinking, smelly, stable a gift of compassion or merely a token gift to ease his conscience? Was the Inn-Keeper a truly caring person or was he basically indifferent and self-centered? I cannot judge. Only God knew the motives of his heart.

Herod’s response to Jesus’ arrival was much clearer, although not at first.  Initially, he covered up his hatred of Jesus-light and lied to the Eastern dignitaries about his intent to kill Jesus. His evil heart was revealed when the dignitaries chose not to inform him of Jesus’ location; so malicious was he that he ordered his soldiers to murder every child two years of age and under who lived in the territory around Bethlehem, where Jesus was born.

As I think about the way these people responded to Jesus’ arrival, I see the same three basic responses in today’s world—we welcome his light; we are indifferent toward his light or we hate his light.

Who are the people in today’s world that, like the Eastern dignitaries at the time of his birth, are welcoming Jesus-light? Some of them may be ancestors of these kings from Iraq. An example is the account, a few days before Christmas, in the Washington Post of Kenyan Muslims who protected Christians from being shot in a terrorist attack. [i] These terrorists attacked a busload of people and ordered everyone to get off. The gunmen began shouting demands at the passengers, ordering them to get off the bus and separate into groups — Muslims on one side, everyone else on the other. The Muslims refused to stand apart from the Christians; instead, they surrounded the Christians and protected them.

Who are the people in today’s world that, like the Inn-keeper, might appear to be welcoming Jesus-light but, in fact, could be indifferent and self-centered?  I am not naming anyone because I am not qualified to judge the heart condition of anyone—sadly, not even my own. So, Instead, I’m inviting God to give me greater clarity about the condition of my own heart.

Who are the people in today’s world that, like Herod, hate Jesus-light and are viciously attacking and trying to destroy it? Some of them are terrorists; others are not so openly and blatantly attacking Jesus-light, but they are providing the bucks and ammunition for these terrorists. Being a part of a terrorist network is not the only clue that someone may hate Jesus-light. The startling truth is this: all of us are capable of hating that light. Eugene Peterson states it better than I do in these words from The Message:

 “This is the crisis we’re in: God-light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness. They went for the darkness because they were not really interested in pleasing God. Everyone who makes a practice of doing evil, addicted to denial and illusion, hates God-light and won’t come near it, fearing a painful exposure. But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is.” (John 3:19-21)

I am determined to keep on welcoming God (Jesus)-light—to living in truth and reality—so that when I’m ushered into the fullness of that light, I will not be afraid. I will, instead, experience unending joy.

What are your thoughts about Jesus-light, and what is your response to it?


Peace in a World of Violence and Death

Last week, I attended a friend’s memorial service; tomorrow I will attend a similar service for another friend. This morning I read a Washington Post article titled, “Guns vs. Autos: How Americans Die” and learned that for the first time in over sixty years, more people are dying from gunshot wounds than from automobile accidents. The saddest fact is that in two out of three incidents, the cause of death is suicide.

A few weeks ago, I began the following poem.

Lord, I want to cry;
Why must people die—at Christmas time?

Violence takes a stranger:
Illness takes a friend—when will it end?

You came to bring peace.
But bloodshed has increased.

Where will I find answers?
Not in the Post; not in the Times.

As I was writing, I recalled the words of the following Christmas carol that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote during the time of the American civil war.

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”[i]

In the world peace is in short supply, yet I do not despair—as Longfellow did. I feel sad about the death of friends who have died due to illnesses—at the same time, I’m glad that their pain and suffering has ended and they are with the Jesus they loved. I feel grieved about the deaths of so many due to terrorism and other forms of violence. But I am not in despair. In the following words from the Gospel of Luke, I read these words of encouragement:

“Through the heartfelt mercies of our God,
God’s Sunrise will break in upon us,
Shining on those in the darkness,
those sitting in the shadow of death,
Then showing us the way, one foot at a time,
down the path of peace.” Luke 1:78-80 (The Message)

I love the above paraphrase of the prophecy of Jesus’ birth and purpose. What a contrast to the Washington Post headline! Over 2000 years ago, as predicted in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus arrived.  Though the world around us may be in turmoil, inner peace is still available to those of us who will place our hand in the hand of Jesus and walk with him “one foot at a time down the path of peace.”



Joyce’s Gift

Earlier this week, I attended a memorial service for a dear fiend—Joyce Miller. During the service, one of the pastors read the familiar Twenty-third Psalm. While the entire psalm is beautiful, the phrase that I found most comfort in was this one: “He restores my soul.”

This year, I’ve increasingly realized that what counts in life is not our ability to perform but God’s ability to restore. Every year, every month, every week, and every day of our lives we humans mess up. This can be distressing to us, if we yearn for perfection; it’s doubly distressing if we think that some year, month, week, or day we will actually achieve it.

The most valuable gift that Joyce gave to me was her living example of contentment; she recognized and admitted her imperfections, worked on growing, but did not condemn herself for failures. She may not have looked successful to those who measure success in terms of degrees secured and dollars earned, but she was rich in the qualities that count for eternity—love, humility, generosity, gratitude, patience, and perseverance.

Joyce was someone who always accepted me. When she smiled and looked at me with her big brown eyes I had a wonderful “I’m glad to see you” feeling. No matter how she felt or how busy she was, when I came to her door she met me with that beautiful smile and invited me to sit down with her for a cup of coffee or tea and chat. I enjoyed conversations with her. She was a good listener; she was curious—eager to learn and understand—everything; she asked many questions, great questions that made me think.

At the top of a slip of paper which she gave to me one day, Joyce wrote the word “Contentment.” It was followed by a Scripture reference, 1 Timothy 6:6, which reads, “But godliness with contentment is great gain.” Beneath that she wrote four words—contentment, grateful, satisfaction, fulfillment.

Then she wrote out her desires:

  • Clean my house
  • Desire a heart that belongs to God
  • To be a servant of God
  • To be a comforter for God
  • To desire to hear the father say, “Well done”

Joyce lived out her desires in a simple but beautiful way. She had a tender heart toward children—toward anyone who was hurting or weak. She delighted in comforting or helping them. Tears, as well as laughter were acceptable to her. She was content with what God had given her, and she generously shared what she had—without stopping to consider whether or not she could afford it.

Because she lived according to these truths: 7 “For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6: 7-10 NIV), Joyce did not build up earthly assets; she gave them away, along with herself.

I feel privileged and thankful for Joyce’s friendship and example of contentment. I miss her, greatly. As I think about my goals for the coming year, my desire is to honor her. I think I can do that best by following her example.

Reflections on Christmas Lemons

100_7712Yesterday, my mail carrier drove up my long driveway, knocked on my door, smiled, and handed me a large package. Inside that “Priority Mail” marked package, I found a gold-colored Christmas box that contained a very special gift—lemons!

What makes this gift of lemons so special to me? Several things: They are tree-ripened, picked by hand, and pesticide free. They are Meyer lemons—the sweetest, juiciest, most fragrant, and lemons I’ve ever tasted. In fact, I enjoy eating a slice of these lemons like I would a slice of orange.


This gift is most valuable, though, because of who gave it to me and where it came from—a sturdy, fifty-year old tree that stands in my friend Anne’s backyard.  In this busy season of the year, she made it a priority to pick her delicious lemons, package them in a beautiful box, and take them to the post office. She knows how much I enjoy her lemons and she is very generous with them. (She also makes delicious toffee and included some to that in my box.)

A few days before the box arrived, I bought a small bag of organic lemons at my local grocery store. As I was placing them in my grocery cart, I hesitated a few moments thinking “maybe I should just wait; Anne might be sending me lemons; she usually does; well, I shouldn’t expect it.” When Anne’s box of lemons arrived, I was a bit annoyed at myself for purchasing lemons that were good but definitely inferior to hers.

Is Anne obligated to send me lemons? Not in the least. I don’t ask for them, yet I do expect them. Not in the sense that I require Anne to send them but in the sense that I know she will do it. It’s become a tradition and I’m confident that Anne enjoys giving them to me as much as I like receiving them. In a way, the gift of lemons symbolizes what I call healthy and meaningful Christmas giving.

Healthy giving is not an obligation. It’s a freely chosen action on the part of the giver. It’s also a graciously accepted action on the part of the receiver. I don’t feel obligated to pay for the lemons that Anne sends me. To insist on paying for a gift would insult the giver. Jesus gave the ultimate gift—his life, so that we could have life. Any efforts we make to pay for this gift is a total insult to him.

Meaningful giving implies that the giver knows and cares about the good desires of the recipient. Suppose that Anne liked cherries better than lemons and assumed that I would like them better, too. So, she stopped sending me lemons and started sending me cherries. That assumption on her part would leave me disappointed; I’m confident that Anne would not make such an assumption. If she did, however, would that affect our friendship? Hardly! The loving and accepting friendship from which good gifts flow is large enough and trusting enough to overlook silly things like a gift that was not what I wanted.

There’s no healthier and more meaningful friendship than that of Jesus Christ. He knows exactly what will bring us joy and gives to us out of total love and wisdom. I hope you will join me in following him and in choosing healthy and meaningful ways to give and receive this Christmas—whether it’s by sending (or receiving) a box of lemons, a simple card of appreciation, or anything else.