Christmas Decorating: True Confessions

by Rebecca D. Higgins

On November 30, I pulled the Christmas tree and decorations out with good intentions of creating a warm, cozy Christmas atmosphere in my apartment. But I have a confession to make! My tree didn’t get decorated until yesterday—December 22! Oh, I put the tree together earlier, but when I tried the lights, the same problem that seems to occur most years had happened once again. Seemingly half of the lights were dark. I really am beginning to think that to entertain themselves in the box after they have been put away each year they have “fight nights” until it literally is “lights out” for the losers!

Christmas tree lights

At the time of discovering this light problem, I was too busy and distracted by other things to be bothered with trying to track down the bulb that caused others to go out or to go to the store to buy replacements. I finally got around to trying to do the latter this week. Guess what?!! Stores are completely sold out of strands of white Christmas tree lights the week before Christmas. If you want icicle lights for the outside of your house, you can buy those. If you want strands of the large colored bulbs like we used to have when I was a kid, you can buy those, but nowhere—and I mean nowhere—could I find strands of the miniature white Christmas tree lights!

At this point I seriously considered taking my tree apart and putting it away, but the truth is I love Christmas decorations too much to do that. So yesterday, I found the strands of lights that had the least amount of burnt-out bulbs and figured a way to put them on my tree so that it wouldn’t be noticeable. I marked a section of one strand in which the bulbs were burnt out. That section got stuffed into the center of my tree in the back (since my tree stands in a corner and not in a front window). Once the lights were on in a way that looked okay, I proceeded with the rest of the ornaments. The ones that are my favorites were put on the front of the tree, and some that have become scratched and don’t look as nice joined the burnt-out lights on the backside of my tree.

I was reminded as I performed this Christmas subterfuge of just how much we behave this way in life. We hang the best of ourselves out where people can see just how wonderful we are—our list of do-good activities, our gifts, our amazing social media status updates– while stuffing the burned-out lights and broken ornaments in the back corners where we hope no one notices. Those are the parts of our lives that are an utter mess. (As I typed the previous clause, my fingers accidentally typed “lies” instead of “lives.” Hmm, maybe my fingers have a point!)

So, why, you may ask, am I writing about this on Christmas Sunday? Couldn’t I have found a more Christmasy, cozy topic on which to focus my attention? The truth is, this IS about Christmas. As much as we try to hide our mess from others, it is into the mess that Christ came. Our beautiful crèches and Nativity scenes clean up and sanitize Christ’s birth, but He was not born into a barn that had been creatively converted by a makeover team into a beautifully, rustic living space. Next to the manger on which His young mother laid him, was the manure and urine of the animals that sheltered in the stable. The rough shepherds who were his first visitors didn’t scrub in and don sterile hospital gowns, gloves, and masks. Dirt from the Judean countryside was caked under their fingernails, and the ripe odors of the outdoors and animals clung to their soiled clothes.

That description of Jesus’ arrival is just one of the ways that God shows us that Jesus came into the mess of our world to make it right. He doesn’t want us to attempt to hide our mess and sin from Him. It’s a futile activity! Though we may on occasion have some success in hiding such from others, He sees and knows us–nothing is hidden from Him! The Christmas message is that into that filthy, unholy mess of our lives stepped a righteous and holy Savior—One who can take what is broken and make it whole, One who can take what is shameful and offer pardon and forgiveness, One who can take what is dark and make it light.

In Romans 8, Paul writes about this transformation. The Message paraphrase puts it this way:

“God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all. The law code, weakened as it always was by fractured human nature, could never have done that. The law always ended up being used as a Band-Aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it. And now what the law code asked for but we couldn’t deliver is accomplished as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us. Those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life. Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God. Anyone completely absorbed in self ignores God, ends up thinking more about self than God. That person ignores who God is and what he is doing. And God isn’t pleased at being ignored. But if God himself has taken up residence in your life, you can hardly be thinking more of yourself than of him. Anyone, of course, who has not welcomed this invisible but clearly present God, the Spirit of Christ, won’t know what we’re talking about. But for you who welcome him, in whom he dwells—even though you still experience all the limitations of sin—you yourself experience life on God’s terms. It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s!” (Romans 8:3-11 MSG).

And, that, my friends, is really “Good News” this Christmas! So, from one “mess” to the rest of you messes out there, Merry Christmas! We have a Savior—Jesus Christ, the Lord!

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Christmas Memories: Swauger’s Gift

by Rebecca D. Higgins

I was probably in the third or fourth grade when I had the revelation that I must be destined to be an artist! I just “knew” that I was going to do wonderful chalk drawings just like Mrs. Boggs, our school’s art teacher! Oh, the blissful ignorance of children! As Christmas approached, I let my parents know that the deep desire of my heart was to develop this budding talent. Oh, if only I had the tools necessary to do so!

Colorful chalk pastels in box on color wooden background

In our little eastern Kentucky town of Jackson, there wasn’t much in the way of art supplies to be found anywhere in the sparse offerings of the five and dime store on Main Street or at the frequently visited Maloney’s, Jackson’s version of a Dollar Store at that time. Oh, sure, you could find a box of Crayolas, but no art chalk or artist paper. Those could be found only in a larger city like Lexington. Our family didn’t make very many trips to Lexington. Mom and Dad’s responsibilities at Mt. Carmel, the boarding school where they worked, weren’t conducive for getting away very often. However, there were people at Mt. Carmel who did make frequent business trips to Lexington on behalf of the school. Mr. Raymond Swauger was one of those people.

Mr. Swauger, or just “Swauger” as we campus kids sometimes affectionately called him, had been an integral part of the history of Mt. Carmel from its very beginning. He was the architect who had designed and built the very first buildings on the campus back in the swauger1920s and he’d been there ever since. He and his wife had never had any of their own children; and when she passed away, that left Swauger alone. However, all of us adopted him and the feeling was mutual! Swauger was always jovial and kind with all of us campus kids and other students. We loved him, and he loved us!

Evidently my parents asked Swauger when he made a trip to Lexington to look for a box of pastel chalks and a large pad of artist paper and gave him the money to make the purchase.

As was our family’s custom, we were going away for Christmas that year to celebrate with relatives. We opened some presents before we left so that our car would not be as loaded down for the trip. While I loved the pastel chalks and art pad, my favorite present that Christmas was something else.

One day shortly before we were to leave for our Christmas trip, I looked up the gravel campus road that led to our house to see Swauger making his way to our door. Even now all these years removed I can picture his distinctive gait as he approached carrying something I could hardly believe. He almost always gave some type of little gift to campus kids at Christmas—a box of chocolate-covered cherries or something. However, this year his gift for me was extra-special. In the shop in his basement where he made so many creative things over the years, he had made me a wooden easel. It was complete with adjustable legs, a tray to hold my chalk, and a board with clips to hold my art paper in place. In fact, he had clipped several pieces of art paper to the board. On the first page with a red marker he had scrawled the words “Merry Christmas!” I couldn’t believe my eyes! I was beyond excited!

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An old, grainy photo I found in my mother’s boxes of the easel Swauger made for me that Christmas

I confess that as I type these memories, I get a bit teary. Perhaps at the time I thought Swauger’s special gift to me that Christmas was an easel. But what makes me remember it with great fondness after all of these years is something for which the easel was simply a tangible symbol. You see, Swauger’s real gift to me was NOT an easel. His real gift was that he had taken his personal time and had given of himself to believe in and affirm a little girl’s dream and by so doing had communicated something in actions that sometimes words alone fail to convey. His gift said to me, “You are loved, and you are valuable enough that you are worth my time.”

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, so often we get caught up in rushing here and there, crossing things off of our to-do lists in an effort to make our parties and decorations the perfect Currier and Ives print, to find the perfect present to give everyone on our list, and in the process we fail to realize that the best gift we can give to others is ourselves—our time, our love—not just in words but in actions. Sometimes what people want more than presents is PRESENCE. For those of us who have said goodbye to loved ones, when Christmas rolls around we don’t say, “I sure wish _____ was still around to give me a present this year.” No, what we really long for is their love and their presence.

When you really think about it, that’s the true message of Christmas: Immanuel—God WITH us. “So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son” (John 1:14 NLT). The Message puts it this way: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son. Generous inside and out, true from start to finish” (John 1:14 MSG). May each of us learn to be a true reflection of that Christlike spirit of giving of ourselves in our interactions with others this Christmas season and throughout the year.