Christmas Memories: A Book for Christmas

by Rebecca D. Higgins

We didn’t have a television in our home as I was growing up.  Now, before you exclaim about all of the shows we missed, let me be quick to say, we didn’t have time for TV.  Who has time for TV when there are swings to swing, trees to climb, creeks to wade, bicycles to ride, a whole campus where my parents worked to roam, hide-and-seek to play, leaf forts to build in the fall, plays to create with your friends and perform for your parents, softball and basketball to play, hills to sled in the winter, and more?  And, of course, we had our books. Curling up in the corner of the couch or under the covers with a flashlight at night to “just finish the chapter” . . . er. . . book, was an integral part of my early development. I devoured the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy books and the Marguerite Henry series of horse stories, but quickly I graduated to much more developed plots and characters, starting at a young age to read books that often are categorized as “classics.”

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That early love for reading and literature greatly influenced my choice of a college major–English education. During the semesters that I had a course load that included three lit classes, it’s a good thing that I loved reading!

Following my college graduation, I worked for several years at the international headquarters of The Wesleyan Church as an editor in the Local Church Education Department. Besides my full-time work, my out-of-work activities seemed to revolve around the church—choir, Bible studies/fellowships, Sunday school. One day it registered that I needed to be involved intentionally in the community and not just my church. When I saw the advertisement “Literacy Tutors Needed” that was put out by the Greater Indianapolis Literacy League, I knew I had found my niche. I filled out the application and headed to the Central Public Library for the required training sessions. Once I had completed those, I eagerly waited to receive the name of the tutee selected as my match.

Kassidy (not her real name) was a tall, beautiful, soft-spoken African-American young woman. She had graduated from high school and had even attended some college (since she played basketball), but she could read only on a very low level. The truth is, she had learning disabilities that had never been diagnosed or addressed.

As a literacy tutor I had certain things that were expected of me within the Greater Indianapolis Literacy League’s course of study. Helping the students to increase their reading and writing skills was our main focus, but along with that I found that real-life skills including math became a part of our study. Besides the workbooks provided by the Literacy League, I incorporated other sources as part of our curriculum that fit in with Kassidy’s needs and wants. Learning to understand written instructions on her job was a major incentive for Kassidy. She worked with machines and needed to understand measurements, so that became a focus. I found a workbook that had written exercises with practice in using various measuring tools. The same workbook also had real-life forms such as sample bank statements that we could use so that Kassidy could develop those skills as well. I learned that she hated going out to restaurants because she couldn’t read the menu and order for herself.

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One day I stopped by the local Cracker Barrel and approached the hostess. “Do you let people take copies of your menu with them?” I asked. “You see, I’m a tutor with the Literacy League, and I would like to use your menu as a teaching tool with my student.”

“That’s wonderful!” she exclaimed.  “If they can be used to help other students, take all of these!” She handed me a stack of a dozen or more menus.

Kassidy and I met for our twice-weekly sessions at a local public library that was located most conveniently for her. After several lessons with the menu as our curriculum, I arrived one night with a surprise. “Kassidy, we’re going to leave your car here, and I’m going to take you out to eat. We’re going to Cracker Barrel. The dinner’s on me—my treat, but you’re going to do your own ordering!” As I drove to the Cracker Barrel, Kassidy started to show signs of nervousness. All of the old apprehensions were coming back. What if she blundered, made a mistake in reading the menu, and embarrassed herself? I assured her that she would not do that . . . that she was ready, and that she was safe with me. I would not put her in a position that would humiliate or embarrass her.

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At the restaurant, Kassidy told me that she’d always liked Cracker Barrel, and I did what I could to put her at ease and to feel confident in being able to read and order from the menu.  Once the ordering was done, we relaxed and just enjoyed our meal together. As we left the restaurant, Kassidy had a shy smile of accomplishment on her face. She’d done it!  Her pride in herself warmed my heart and brought an even bigger smile to my face.

I found in working with Kassidy, that we accomplished more if she had input in determining her own goals and if I selected reading sources that would pique her interest.  The newspaper became part of our curriculum—particularly the sports section!

As Christmas approached, I asked Kassidy if there were any Christmas-related readings that she especially liked. She told me that she had always wished that she could read “The Night Before Christmas” to her nieces on Christmas Eve. “Okay, Kassidy!  Let’s make that our goal!” I printed out the classic poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” penned by Clement Clarke Moore so many years ago. When we first started on our Christmas project, Kassidy struggled greatly with the words and the poetic word sequence. I had to try several different methods to help her learn to read it smoothly. Now you may be wondering if Kassidy was reading the familiar poem or if in repeating it so many times, she memorized it. One of Kassidy’s learning issues was that memorization was very difficult for her, so I can answer that question without hesitation:  she was reading!

As Christmas drew near, I visited the local bookstore in the mall. (I just realized that all of the malls near me no longer have bookstores in them. Sad indeed!  Those were the stores that I regularly frequented when I was growing up. Now kids seem to be drawn to the electronics and trendy clothing stores instead.)  Just before Christmas, Waldenbooks had put their Christmas-themed books on sale. I found a beautiful hard-backed edition of “The Night Before Christmas.” The colorful illustrations were masterfully drawn and would capture the attention and imagination of children.

At our last tutoring session before Christmas, I handed Kassidy my gift-wrapped present. I knew she would appreciate it as she read to her nieces, but I didn’t quite expect her reaction. When she saw what it was, her eyes got big. She caressed the book as though it were something very precious, carefully turning the pages and smoothing them as she thanked me and said, “People don’t give me books as gifts. I love it!”

One more time we went over the poem, reading it this time from her new book; and Kassidy read it well. I spent the final moments of our session playing the role of cheerleader—praising her, encouraging her, expressing confidence that I knew that she could read the story well to her nieces. I gave her a hug in parting.

Christmas with my family that year brought the good news that I was going to be an aunt! I found myself thanking God for the gift of being able to read. When MY niece put in her appearance, I could read her all kinds of stories with no struggle. I thought of Kassidy and wondered how her Christmas Eve story-reading had gone.  I couldn’t wait to see her again and get a report.

At our first tutoring session after the holidays, the smile on Kassidy’s face as she entered our tutoring room at the library said it all:  SUCCESS!

A few months later, I received a notice from the Literacy League about a written essay contest for literacy students. Kassidy wasn’t sure at first if she wanted to participate, but I encouraged her that it would help her to develop her writing skills further.

I will admit that the writing part of our sessions was a bit hard for me. In my regular job I worked as an editor. I got paid to mark up manuscripts! With our tutees, however, we were told NEVER to do that. Instead, we were simply to be encouragers of self-expression in written form. For the essay contest we were not to correct their writing, grammar, punctuation or spelling but help them to make the corrections themselves. My way of literacybookresizedhelping Kassidy learn to write more clearly was to ask her questions:  “What are the details of an event? What did you see? What did you hear? What did you feel? Is that a question or a statement? What punctuation should go at the end of that sentence? Now write down what you just told me.” After several different rewrites of her story, she was finally ready to submit it. The theme of the contest?  “My Favorite Gift!”

Later, the Literacy League decided to print some of the writings of the literacy students (with their permission) into a booklet form under various categories. The writings were taken from the essay contest or from a student survey that was conducted. I still have that booklet in my files. All these years later, it still warms my heart when I read Kassidy’s essay. It’s not the most polished essay ever written, but I know the work it represents and it makes me smile. Here it is in Kassidy’s own words:

My Favorite Gift

By Kassidy _____ (name changed)

     The best gift I have gotten was to be able to read the Christmas story, “The Night Before Christmas.”  About a month before Christmas, my tutor asked, “Kassidy, what is your favorite Christmas story?” I told her “The Night Before Christmas.” She asked me if I would like to read it.  I said yes.  I would like to read the story to my nieces on Christmas Eve.

     We met on Mondays and Wednesdays.  First she would read the story.  I would follow along.  Then I read. I did an awful job. I stumbled over a lot of words.  I tried sounding them out.  Sometimes it worked. She asked, “Kassidy, would it help if I made a tape of me reading the story?”  I would listen to the tape and read one paragraph at a time. Then I would read along with the tape. I worked hard. I didn’t want to miss one single word. I got where I was reading the story very well. I couldn’t believe my ears!

     Then the final evening came to meet with my tutor a few days before Christmas Eve. I read the story the last time with her. She was very proud of me I could tell.  I was proud of myself.  I exchanged gifts. She gave me the hardback book of “The Night Before Christmas.”

On Christmas Eve, my brothers and sisters and their family met at our parents’ house.  I reminded the kids that I was going to read the story to them at 9:00 p.m.  One of my nieces was very excited.  She couldn’t wait to hear the story. Nine o’clock came!  I got the kids together upstairs. At first I felt scared. As I started reading I was no longer scared. My mother overheard me reading. She told the rest of the family. They came upstairs to listen. After I finished the story my family hugged and kissed me.  My mother was especially proud of me. She knew how hard I worked on the story. She told me that all the meetings and hard work finally paid off. It was a good feeling to be able to read the Christmas story to my nieces and the rest of the family. That was my favorite Christmas gift. That’s something I will always remember.

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Even though many years have passed, I have to say as Kassidy’s tutor that it is one of my favorite gifts as well. I have found that there is more joy in giving a portion of myself for the benefit of someone else than all of the gifts I could ever receive.

May your Christmas be filled with that kind of JOY!  . . . .  After all, that is the kind of giving that Christmas is all about. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. . . .” (John 3:16a NIV). “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14a NIV).

 

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Instruments of Christ’s Peace

by Rebecca D. Higgins

Charity Toys for Christmas

Sometimes when your own heart hurts, volunteering to help others brings with it a sense of peace and healing. Yesterday afternoon after one of the shopping sessions at Lexington, Kentucky’s Faith and Community Christmas Store, one of the volunteer personal shoppers came back with her empty cart to the starting point. She was in tears. When asked about it, she shared that the woman she had just helped find gifts for her children was celebrating being clean and sober. For the first time in three years she was going to be spending Christmas with her children. Stories like that are what make ministries like the Christmas Store worthwhile.

At the end of the shift, I was thanking volunteers for coming and giving their time and love. As this woman started to leave, I commented on the story she had shared earlier and thanked her for being a blessing to that mother. We talked about the busload of middle school kids who had helped during that shift, and she remarked on how important it was that they learn to share with others. “I took my son a number of years ago to help at something like this,” she told me. “When we got home, he wanted to clean out his closet and toys and donate them.”

“That’s wonderful!” I exclaimed. “Allowing children to be a part of these kinds of ministries helps them develop a greater appreciation for what they have and a generous heart to share with those in need. You’re a good mom for teaching your son that.”

Suddenly, her voice broke and tears gathered in her eyes. “My son passed away a few years ago.”

“I am so sorry!” I exclaimed as I instinctively wrapped her in a hug. We talked for a few more moments before she went on her way, and I oriented the new set of volunteer personal shoppers for the next shift.

Last night I replayed that conversation when I got home. I found myself praying for two mothers. One mother was grieving the loss of her son and not being able to spend any more Christmases with him. Even though there was an empty place in her heart, she didn’t hesitate to share the joy of another mother who, after the messiness of her life, was finally being reunited with her children for Christmas. Somehow I believe that sharing that other mother’s joy was healing and a good way to remember and honor her own son’s generous spirit.

No matter what problems or pain we may be experiencing this Christmas season, may we find healing and joy in allowing ourselves to be instruments of Christ’s peace for others who are hurting.

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!

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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!

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.

The Message of the Bells

by Rebecca D. Higgins

christmasbells1 (2)The gold-plated weighted stocking hangers on my mantle are letters that spell out the word J-0-Y. I’ll be honest–this past week “Joy to the World” hasn’t exactly been the song bursting from my lips! While Scripture talks about making a joyful noise to the Lord, I’m not sure that the noises that have been emitting from my mouth have sounded joyful at all. Can groans and moans be joyful?

The groaning has come not only in response to excruciating physical pain caused by a kidney stone, but also as I have heard reports this week from various places of pain inflicted on others by injustice and hasty judgments and as I contemplate the wars still impacting so many in our world. It hurts me to see others hurt.

I find myself identifying this Christmas season with the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (a lifelong favorite, by the way). After the death of his beloved wife Fanny in a tragic fire that left the poet badly burned and scarred in 1861, Longfellow lost a bit of his ability to get into the Christmas spirit. In his 1861 journal, he wrote, “How inexpressibly sad are the holidays.” The following year still suffering from his personal loss and the ravages of the ongoing Civil War, his Christmas journal entry was stark: “A Merry Christmas say the children, but that is no more for me.” There was no journal entry the following Christmas, the year that his oldest son Charles, a lieutenant in the Union army, was severely injured in the war.

On Christmas Day in 1864, as Longfellow awoke to the sound of church bells, a joyous sound that seemed to be mocking him, all of the emotions of the past few years pressed in as he wrestled with faith in the midst of sorrow and injustice. He penned the words to a poem he titled “Christmas Bells.” His melancholy mood comes through in the words, “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, goodwill to men.” And I will admit that sometimes in weeks like this those words do seem to express reality.

However, as the bells continued to ring–their song of hope, of joy, of peace–Longfellow was reminded that the message of Christmas is that God in His love and mercy did not turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to a groaning, moaning world filled with injustice and hate. Instead, He entered it as one of us. He came as the Prince of Peace but suffered through false accusations, a mock trial, an excruciating death, but a triumphant resurrection. In so doing, He became our Redeemer.

In listening to the song of the bells Longfellow was finally able to state with faith and certainty what he knew to be true no matter what things “seemed” to be–a fact that is still true for us today. “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail with peace on earth goodwill to men.” We may not see the right prevail exactly at the time we would choose, but one day all WILL be made right and PEACE will reign!

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this” (Isaiah 9:6-7 NIV).