The young lady pictured with me here had a birthday yesterday, and I intended to send her this message, but my screen time got interrupted, and that didn’t happen. So I’ll tell her today, and you may as well hear this too. When you’re done reading, is there someone to whom you owe a belated birthday greeting or thank you?
Happy (belated) Birthday, Dawn!
I’ve been meaning to thank you for that session you lead during the 2019 mission trip to Hawaii—the one where you introduced a plan for reading the Bible. I know you didn’t create the plan, but you’d been living it. And that was clear. I thought about starting on January 1 of 2020, but then decided to do my own thing. It took me 18 months to get through the entire Bible, but I did, and that was a fruitful 18 months.
Midway through 2021, I started over, in Genesis, and was doing fairly well, but got discouraged because I saw that I wouldn’t finish in six short months. Plus, I had let a lot of worry creep into my thoughts. My worry became anguish, the kind of anguish I hadn’t felt since my 1st husband took his own life over 35 years ago.
COVID didn’t help, but my anguish had little or nothing to do with that sort of virus.
Looking back at the last half of 2021, I was experiencing depression. There’ve been times when circumstances have dumped me into a depressed state, and then abandoned me there for a while. That’s probably happened to you as well. I fight and shake off the crap. But it’s the Lord who eventually lifts me up and opens the blinds. I get a good whiff of fresh air (nearly always in the form of scripture or song) and I’m on track again.
This past December, however, my spirit had been down so long that hopelessness threatened. I began to identify with friends who suffer from chronic depression in a way that I’d never been able to do before. Funny thing: One of them didn’t know it, but she was ministering to me as she labeled, even alphabetized, her struggle with anxiety and depression, then posted it online. I hope she’s better for that exercise! I know I am.
Hang with me. I’m close to the reason why I need to thank you!
My son and his family sent me a new Bible and a journal for Christmas. Guess what?! The Bible has a plan laid out for reading it though in a year. The SOAP plan!! And the journal … it’s got all the standard blank lines. Each turn of the page represents a new day and has these headings: Scripture – Observations – Applications – Prayer.
It was all I could do to wait until the New Year to start. But I did.
Dawn, it isn’t you who speaks to me every day. It isn’t you who lifted me from depression and gives me hope. It isn’t you who urges me to stick to a purpose and think on lovely things. But it was you who planted the seed.
Thank you, Dawn. The SOAP you told me about has been good for my body, heart and soul.
I think there might be sandy beaches in Heaven, like the one we enjoyed in Hawaii. And the pedicures will be free. If not, we’re taking some great memories with us.
I was walking along with no place to go.
No invitation. No gifts to bestow.
I wouldn’t be seated at a table of friends?
My purpose in life seems a means to their ends.
“Come to the stable.” I heard a child say.
“I’ll be the Mary. I’ve a big role to play.
My costume’s pale blue, but the fabric’s quite plain.
Come to the stable, by the tall candy cane.”
So I changed my direction toward a noisy downtown.
Families and lovers. People mulling around.
The darkness between all the lanterns and lights.
Made my path to the stable on that chilly night.
No one seemed to notice, or they just didn’t care,
That I’d no invitation. No right to be there.
The wind brushed my face and I stopped where I stood
To close my coat tighter and pull down my hood.
I pass “Santa’s Village,” fake toys and fake sleigh.
Fake beard and fake laughter give the fat man away.
Crying toddlers, stressed mothers, bored fathers in line,
Adhere to tradition! Afraid to decline.
A man rings a bell near a bucket for change.
I drop in a coin for a smile. He refrains.
I don’t see a good reason for all of the fuss,
And my lips turn slightly to utter a cuss.
“Come to the stable,” the sweet girl had said.
But where is the show. I believe she misled.
Some pallets of wood shape a child-sized barn,
Held together with rope and pieces of yarn.
I tuck in my chin. The crowd dawdles around.
The actors move little without making a sound.
A farmer’s provided a couple old sheep.
A porcelain baby's pretending to sleep.
What is the attraction? What is the worth?
Oh, I’ve heard the story. A virgin gives birth?
I know about Santa. I sat on his lap.
And what did I get but a boat load of crap!
This Christmas is turning out much like the others.
Cold in a crowd and looking for cover.
My friends behave friendly without letting me in.
My family is busy. No time for their kin.
I’m longing for solace, not vain, empty chatter.
A real conversation before everyone scatters.
But this group, I'm sure, plays the same sly con game.
They want what I give without knowing my name.
I take a step back and then head for the street,
When the girl begins waving and shuffling her feet.
“Hey Lady! Don’t leave! You’ll miss the best part!
I’m telling the story. It’ll tug on your heart.”
Well the girl is a stranger. She don’t know what I’ve done.
Her parents look proud. I should high-tail and run.
When I was her age, I had what she’s got.
But a few short years later, my future was shot.
A part of me fears that she’ll end up like me,
But mostly, my thoughts are of how I can flee.
I should’ve known better than to follow her voice.
But something inside me won’t give me that choice.
Every part of my being says, “You don’t fit in.”
So I try. Appear casual. And put on a grin.
I stare as the snow falls and melts on my face.
Then I slide back my hoodie, defying my place.
These people will think I belong to someone.
A mother, a sister, an aunt who has come.
At the end of her story, whether Seuss or Shakespeare,
I’ll applaud and shout bravo, then quick disappear.
The microphone squalls when she clears her scared throat.
Her hands to her ears wrinkle pages of notes.
But her eyes keep on glancing and twinkling at me.
Enough that the guilt on my face she can see.
A few feet away, Santa shouts “Ho Ho Ho!”
All the children go silent and street traffic slows.
The girl gains composure and the kid’s play begins.
So sad the performance. “No Room at the Inn.”
The story? I’ve heard it. I’ll hear it once more.
Her voice pure and honest, like others before.
“It’s a Charlie Brown Christmas,” I say to myself.
Remembering the words from a book on some shelf.
She’s reading the lines of a well-written part.
When her gumption kicks in with fervor and heart.
Her hands drop to her side with her shoulders upright.
She recites from her memory to the audience’s delight.
Is that moonlight and glitter, that make her face glow?
The young girl was right. She’s the star of the show.
I forget that my own feet and hands have a chill,
As the moment waves through me with comfort and still.
I’ll be honest. The story? While good, can’t be true.
That babe? He ain’t done what a savior would do.
Where’s the peace? The good will? He's had two-thousand years?
It’s a scam. A bamboozle for my cash and my tears.
Yet my hands come together for earnest applause.
And my heart skips a beat, for no reason. Just because.
“Halleluiah,” yells a man from the back of the crowd.
There’s a word I’ve not heard—in person, so loud.
I don’t understand what is happening tonight,
But I’m lingering. Content, with no urge to take flight.
“There’s coffee and cookies. ‘Cross the street,” the girl begs.
Her parents both nod, and I drop my head.
My senses return. I remember my place.
I’m the oddball. The weird one. A human disgrace.
“No thank you,” I say, without explanation.
The innocent girl too excited to listen.
“I’m drinking hot chocolate. It’s still got caffeine.
There’s no school tomorrow and it gives me good dreams.”
She assumes I am joining the cast and her crew.
Her eyes are stuck on me like paper to glue.
“Are you married? Did you put up a big Christmas tree?
Did you know that your eyes are the same color as me?
Do you have a job in a school or a store?
If you want extra cookies, I can get you some more.”
Between all her queries I barely catch breath,
But this child, with ease, grabs my soul at its depth.
This mini-adult says, “We’re so glad you came.
I’m Gracie Marie. Won’t you tell me your name?”
Well that was the Christmas my life took a whirl.
When I went to the stable and followed that girl.
I’m changed, now and forever, by a Savior, through grace.
I’m still odd. Still the weird one, but the Lord changed my face.
So come to the stable. Downtown ain’t the same.
But we’re easy to find, near the tall candy cane.
There’s coffee and cookies. Hot chocolate if you like.
It’s become my tradition. I’m the one to invite.
So come to the stable. Dress warm. It might snow.
I know it seems corny, like it’s put on for show.
But the Spirit of Christmas breaks through and brings cheer.
My daughter’s the Mary at “The Stable” this year.
A few people have asked if this story is true. Well, it's almost true. Her name isn't Gracie Marie, although I love that name, and the setting was not exactly as I described. What happened, in fact, didn't take place at Christmas time, but for sure, the girl, the lady and what they mean to each other are real. The story that would have been told in the stable that night can be found in the 2nd chapter of Luke. We’ve let the reading of the Christmas Story become nothing more than tradition—a ritual without remembrance of what actually took place. A promise made to us, from the moment we chose to sin, is fulfilled. So, go to the stable. You never know who you will meet when you get there.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 this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one 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.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, 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.
And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.
And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.
And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen …
Luke 2:1-20 (KJV)
Were you the kid wildly waving a hand in the air because you knew the answer to the teacher’s question? Perhaps you were confident in your knowledge, and desperate to prove it. I was that kid sometimes, and I was persistent to the point of being annoying. Never the teacher’s pet. My heart goes out to the kid I see doing that today, as their arm grows weary and the palm of the opposite hand must offer support.
The occasional humiliation of having an incorrect answer lasted only a short while, and I was over it. There would always be a next time. I relied on those “next times.” I excelled whenever a teacher gave extra credit for participation. I’ve so much volunteer built into me that I should move to Tennessee. Some of my good friends won’t know what I mean by that statement, but I’m not asking for a show of hands here.
Or were you the child with elbows glued to your sides and lips sealed? The teacher’s view was of the top of your head. Your prayer life increased. “Please Lord, don’t let her call on me!” The teacher could usually tell when I hadn’t done my homework, because I could be that child, too. My favorite teacher, Mrs. Curry, used to take advantage of those moments to humble me and force a confession.
One or two of my friends always came to class prepared, but still slumped in their chairs and tried to hide in the crowd of twenty-two other third-graders. Did they not like the sound of their own voice? Did they lack confidence? I didn’t understand. They were smarter than me, prettier than me and less obnoxious. Why would they lessen their profile and try to hide. It made no sense to the third-grader me. Why would they assume a position of shame?
We’re grown-ups now, and I work at not making shallow judgements. I get that we were created with unique and surprisingly effective personalities. God is good that way. So why have I worked to quiet my enthusiasm, soften my tone and respond rather than react? Why are some of my friends taking risks so unlike their personalities would dictate? As grown-ups, we’ve found our place on either side of the middle. It’s not always comfortable here, but we’re not in the third grade anymore. The psychology of it is interesting and all, but I’m not prepared to raise my hand on that question.
But here’s part of the answer—I think.
We all seek to be noticed and known, but on our terms. Some risk being noticed for the wrong things. Some risk not being noticed at all. It takes time (for some of us way more than others) but eventually we become pretty good at weighing the cost of jumping ahead versus missing an opportunity.
The verse that sent me on this morning’s rabbit trail of thought is 2 Chronicles 16:9a:
“For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him…”
Does God call only on those with a hand raised? Of course not. Is he able to see through both confidence and insecurity? He is. Does he expect that we should have our answers prepared? Of course he does. But he’s running “to and fro throughout the whole earth,” to give support to that blameless heart. Can I fathom what it means to be “blameless?” No. But Jesus took the blame already and he knows my heart.
I wonder what tomorrow’s rabbit trail has for me. The God of creation WANTS to meet me there, and I didn’t even need to raise my hand.
The book is published. The book release party was a huge success. So what’s next? Book #3?
Hold on. I’m still basking in the afterglow. Real Life. Real Ladies: Short Stories from the Pew and the ladies who collaborated with me to see this project through deserve some extra time in the spotlight. The room decorations are packed and ready to go again. There is plenty of factory-wrapped candy to go for another round or two of book signings. Already scheduled. The fun stuff!
But marketing this book – any book – to strangers on the internet? Necessary, if anyone outside our small circle of friends and family is to notice our eye-catching cover and then read our stories, but not so fun. I’m tempted to call it done and move on. Book # 3 is calling. Her plot is thick with characters and surprises. She’s lived far too long between my head and my computer files. A little re-writing, and she too will be set for the spotlight. I’m sure readers will love her almost as much as I do.
A few more minutes to bask in afterglow, and then its time to get serious. Editing and marketing. Two of the ugliest words in my writer’s dictionary, but without them, I can’t spell success.
If you will check out this short presentation, I’ll be able to call it my marketing task for the day, spend the next few hours editing and then get back to my basking. These ladies and their stories have an effect on me. If it’s been a while since you read a story that made you say “Ahhh,” you gotta read the book!
My parents called a family meeting to order. They had hired an attorney to help with those end-of-life documents that are awkward, with potential for conflict, yet essential and dreadfully serious.
Mom said, “Your dad and I wanted to do this while we are of sound mind. . .”
My two sisters, my brother, and me chimed in unison, “Too late.”
The meeting was off to a fine start. One of us asked if a secret family fortune was about to be revealed. My older sister asked mom who was going to have to accept “custody” of her ugly orange dishes. My younger sister asked who would be responsible for cleaning out the back bedroom in the basement. We all laughed, and it wasn’t a nervous laugh. It was genuine; all around the room. Mom and Dad had been great parents.
Then Dad, who was in the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s at the time, said something both funny in the way he said it and eerily sad in its reality. “I don’t want anyone to pull the plug on me. I don’t ever want to get plugged in.”
I felt five sets of eyes turn in my direction, even before being told I was to have power of attorney over healthcare for my parents.
I loved Dad as much as any of my three siblings, but Dad and I were often the source of uncomfortable conflict during family gatherings. Among his four children, I was the one he could count on to feed drama into a discussion of politics, religion, or the weather—if that was the only topic left on the table.
The two of us had the perspective that what was taking place was a debate. We thought the weaker, less competitive, and less interested family members had dropped out. But to the casual observer, Dad and I were arguing, and the battle for who could support their stated facts or which one of us could say it best or loudest was about to close out a holiday or otherwise happy family occasion.
There was never a concern that my father didn’t love me or that he wasn’t proud of me. Over the years he’d kept friends and coworkers apprised of my accomplishments, and plenty of the stories he’d told found a way back to me. I’ve heard a dozen times (or more) about the time he was in the emergency room and wanted his daughter, the nurse, to come down from the 7th floor cardiac unit to see how badly his groin was burned. The guys at the factory where he was injured got a kick out of that one.
Dad’s physical health had been excellent, but once in a while he would mention a pain or anomaly. I’d do a nursing assessment, maybe grab my stethoscope and give his heart and lungs a listen, but then my usual recommendation would be to have his doctor check it out. He’d grumble and say, “If that guy can’t see it on an x-ray or charge me a bunch of money for my blood, he won’t be able to fix it.”
The first time I exercised my power of attorney over Dad’s healthcare was at the office of that same physician. “Oh. So you’re the daughter. The nurse. Your dad never wants to take my advice until he runs it by you first.”
There was no lack of love between my dad and me. We just hadn’t used words to express it.
The signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s complicated life for our elderly mother long before the rest of us realized this wasn’t Dad being his difficult and usual self. The four of us kids eventually came to the conclusion that Mom wasn’t safe at home alone with Dad and that Dad needed care outside the home. There was a minor crisis and, soon after, we placed Dad in an assisted living facility.
Mom visited him as often as she could and stayed for as long as she could stand his constant questioning, “Why do I have to stay here? When can I go home?”
I visited often, but my visits were short. Alzheimer’s hadn’t taken Dad’s ability to stir up an argument. Sure, it was “the disease” doing most of his talking, but the accusations were coming out of my father’s mouth and they cut through my heart.
“You finally got your wish!” “You never took me at my word. I’ve always had to prove myself to you!” “Don’t you worry! I’m fine without you!”
He used curse words that I’d never heard pass through his lips. He called me names.
I could have gone for weeks without seeing the man whose brain had been attacked by this disease, except I was the one to manage his healthcare, including setting up his daily medication.
“Just shoot me now,” he mumbled as I walked out of his room one afternoon.
It angered me that he would stoop to that sort of emotional manipulation. But my gut wouldn’t allow me to digest those words. This was the moment Mom had prepared for when she made that appointment with an attorney. I was not so prepared.
I turned around, stepped back into his room and said, “If I didn’t love you, I would.”
“You would do what?”
“Shoot you,” I said. No emotion.
He smiled—one of those questioning, hesitant smiles that you’d recognize if you knew my dad.
“I love you too, Rita.”
I sat on the side of his bed and took his hand, pale and wrinkled, but his grip was still strong. The hint of calluses from his guitar-playing days helped me to know this was my dad. If his heart and lungs had been transplanted, if some body parts had been amputated, or if his face was unrecognizable, he would still be my dad.
After that, I made a point to tell him I loved him at least once during each of my visits. It hadn’t been something either of us had said often. He started responding with “I love you too, Baby.” But sometimes he’d say my name, and sometimes he’d say it first. If I was there late at night, or if he was snoozing in the afternoons when I went to set up his medications, I would be quiet while I did what I needed to do and then whisper the words on my way out the door.
The lights were dim one night, and I had some trouble opening the lock on his pill box. I dropped the key and had to move a chair to retrieve it. I grunted in frustration, but Dad seemed undisturbed. I stubbed my toe on his over-bed table and created a chain reaction of clumsy noises.
“Who is that?” he asked.
“It’s me. Rita.”
“Did you come to tell me you love me?”
I stated a partial truth, having had some practice answering his questions in my teen-aged years. “I did.”
“I hope you don’t go around saying that to just any man.”
“You know I don’t. You taught me better than that.”
I pulled his blanket up to cover his shoulders, although he was still capable of doing that for himself. And I made sure to place his insulated water mug within an arm’s reach before I stepped away.
“Thank you,” he said. “You know I’ve always loved you.”
Genuine words, I thought, and sound words coming from a man who hadn’t been of sound mind in years. He reached a hand out from under the blanket I’d just straightened, and I accepted it.
“You’ve always been the prettiest and strongest woman in any room,” he said.
Sound words, but they weren’t intended for me.
I couldn’t say my usual “I love you, Dad.” It didn’t seem the right time to re-orient him. It was clear he thought I was my mother. Anyone who knew my dad knows he thought she was the prettiest and strongest woman alive. He’d said those very words many times.
I’d had a long day at work. The hour was late, and I hadn’t the energy to settle him down after reminding him that Mom had passed away weeks earlier. The other residents were quiet, and the staff was busy doing their nighttime tasks. I thought, let the old man see and believe what he wants.
When I’m in my old age and enjoying a moment with the love of my life, real or imagined, please don’t take that away from me.
But when Dad reached out with his other hand, pulled me close, and puckered his lips I knew what I couldn’t let happen. I turned my face so that a wet kiss, that lasted a little too long, landed on my right cheek.
A streak of meanness came through my sound mind and caused me to say, “I love you, Dad.”
The look on his face! He’d had a moment of sound mind. Maybe his last. I’d “plug” my dad in long enough for one more exchange of sound words if that were possible, but before another one of those kisses, I’d pull the plug.
By the time I had reached kindergarten I knew I was a leader. I had friends, and plenty of them. They all wanted to come to my house to play, and nearly always, they played by my rules. The goal was for everyone to have fun, and when playtime was over we’d all had fun, sometimes to the point of exhaustion. That made me a good leader. Right?
It never occurred to me that maybe it was my mom’s lunches or the fact that she never watered down her Kool-Aid that attracted so many of the neighborhood children to our yard. I hadn’t considered that because Mom let my friends inside to use the bathroom or that she always had a supply of Band-Aids, and other mothers trusted her, might be the reason for my popularity. I thought it was me, and my leadership style.
My extroverted personality landed me positions of leadership in the classroom as well. I was early to volunteer, eager to help, and almost always obeyed the rules. Adults could count on me to get things started and keep things going.
The first real frustration I recall as a leader didn’t happen until I was sixteen. One comment and gesture caused me to understand I was in the lead, but not much of a leader.
It was a boy, another sixteen year old, who knocked me off my own pedestal. This tall, handsome, and usually quiet boy stood in front of the group of teenagers and adult chaperones. He faced me, then bowed as he said, “Yes Queen.” He’d made me realize that my leadership style had room for improvement.
After the meeting, he apologized for mocking me. He repeated the words “I’m sorry” three times, each time adding another layer of sincerity. His attitude, as much as his smile, made me feel weak in my knees.
He eventually knocked me off my feet.
Would you, please, consider one or more of these questions. Then, let me know your thoughts.
Do you consider yourself a leader? Why or why not?
What sort of leader do you get excited about following?
Would you consider following a leader who is younger or less experienced than you?
Have you ever fallen or failed because you followed the wrong leader?