A Different Kind of Peace

Photo by: SuadaPhoto

“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,

Jack Frost nipping at your nose,

Yuletide carols being sung by a choir,

And folks dressed up like Eskimos.

Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe

Help to make the season bright.

Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow

Will find it hard to sleep tonight. . .”

“The Christmas Song” by Mel Torme and Bob Wells

It’s an American Christmas song, a peaceful, comfortable tune, and every year my husband, the Nat King Cole enthusiast, sang it from November through December. After a while, even our babies were singing it! But the first Christmas song (which may have been spoken) had a different message:

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace. . .”

Peace. After seeing the infant Jesus, the shepherds “went back to the fields, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. . .” I wonder if they kept that sense of awe through the hard years of the rest of their lives? Through cold nights and hot days; through hunger and danger; through injury and loss? And was their peace shattered when the Prince of Peace was nailed to a Roman cross, proving that the world was still a dark and dangerous place?

Almost two thousand years later, we still crave peace — especially at Christmas (which sometimes doesn’t live up to our expectations). Absences, insufficiencies, partings and hardships mar what should be a joy-filled holy day, leaving us disheartened and dissatisfied. We think, “It shouldn’t be like this.” And, in a sense, we’re right. The picture perfect peace we cried out for never arrived, and we are left with a sad substitute, riddled with holes, hanging by a thread.

But, what if we’re mistaken in conflating worldly comfort and peace? What if God’s peace doesn’t necessarily produce loving family gatherings, home for the holidays, and gift exchange? Although these are good and lovely things, I think we have been programmed to believe they represent the peace angels announced so long ago— a peace that had to do with connection rather than comfort.

Jesus came! Then He left. And we remain in this sin-dark, peace-poor world, understandably mourning what is missing. It is to our detriment however, when we allow grief to obscure the gift— a gift meant to inject inextinguishable joy and hope into our darkness. With the advent of Immanuel, we acquired access to a different kind of peace. We may be stuck here, but He is with us. A change is coming and already is because:

Our Savior was born in the city of David. He is Christ the Lord!

photo by: Grayson Joralemon


Love, with a Side of Pain

 She was grabbing dirty laundry from her son’s room when she saw it, scrawled over and over at the bottom of a piece of notebook paper: “I hate Mom. I hate Mom. I hate Mom.  . .” Sitting on the side of his bed, she wondered, “Is this what I get for trying to be a good parent?” For a moment, she stayed there, attempting to combine this evidence of contempt with her understanding of the situation. He was mad because he was grounded, a consequence he’d incurred for not doing his homework, and he felt justified in retaliating with unreasonable and disproportionate vitriol. She knew this scribal outburst was part of the irrational fury of adolescence, of rampant hormones, of selfish inexperience, of, well—sin. She took a deep breath, gathered up the smelly clothes and moved on. Never mind the stab wound; just keep loving, just keep loving. . .

When a child puts his arms around your neck and rests his head on your shoulder, or when your preschooler interrupts his Christmas program to wave and yell, “Hi Mom!” you feel loved, trusted and needed —important, even. And this love is gratifyingly public, a splendid reward for the exhausting hours you’ve spent feeding, bathing, reading and putting to bed; for the tracks you’ve made in the carpet at night as you walked a sick kid, for toilet training, for homework checking, for doctor trips and school obligations. Child rearing is an overwhelming job, so expressions of love feel good when they come. Unfortunately, this sacrifice doesn’t always receive a timely reward.

The mature and proper response to every situation—love— rarely reaps warm fuzzy dividends, and exercising tough love often gets us kicked in the teeth. There is a great temptation to give up and go away when love isn’t returned, and in abusive situations, it is the best thing to do. But, apart from dangerous cases, how do we deal with unreturned love? While I’m definitely not an expert on the subject,  I have lived long enough to learn a few things, and those mostly through failure.

Love is an unnatural, determined response initiated and empowered by the Holy Spirit. It is an acquired skill, honed by listening to and depending on Him. I rarely, and I mean, rarely get it totally right; portraying perfect love is impossible for us humans. But, and this is a big “but,” it is possible to improve. And that is what we are commanded to do: we are enjoined to “put on love,” to “walk in love,” to “abound and increase in love.”

 Love is a gateway to a new kind of life; enlarging our hearts, expanding our vision, and enriching others. The process may not be painless, but it is encouraging: it is evidence that we are becoming more like Christ.

“Therefore, be imitators of God as dearly loved childrenand live in love, just as Christ also loved us and gave himself for us, a sacrificial and fragrant offering to God.”

Ephesians 5: 1-2

Timeless Hope

Last summer, when I visited the beach, I decided to venture into the ocean and experience the waves after years of wading along the shore. It was a mental aberration, a failure to acknowledge my current physical status: bad feet, hips and knees, poor balance and atrophied muscles. Instead, deceptive memory took me back to a more youthful, capable self. A self who didn’t make grunting noises when she got out of bed. “How hard can it be,” I thought, “I can swim.”

Getting in was fine. I walked in on a gentle incline and enjoyed the warm water. Getting out was another matter. What I hadn’t anticipated was the shelf I encountered while trying to exit the ocean. Obviously, I’d drifted away from that lovely gradual incline. Minus the water smacking me about, I might have climbed out fairly easily after I fell, although it wouldn’t have been pretty; with age, I’ve perfected the three point stance approach to getting off the floor. But the waves interfered with my plan, walloping me fore and aft, turning me into a human tumbleweed. Eventually, I clawed and climbed my way onto the shelly shelf and crawled to shallow water where I clumsily stood up. I shudder to think what this undignified process, both funny and irritating, looked like from behind. At that moment, it became apparent that age had caught up with me, and irrationally, I got mad at Dylan Thomas.

Do not go gentle into that good night,” he urged, “Old age should burn and rave at close of day. . .” Well, that seemed useless; what I needed wasn’t rage, but handrails! Of course, Thomas wasn’t writing about ageing per se’; he was writing about dying: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” His words ring with passion- and hopelessness.

Despair, the response to the lie that life ends at death is an avoidable landing place. The prophetess, Anna, was old, yet full of hope. She had lived as a wife for seven years and a widow to age eighty-four. Considering her long and, in some sense, lonely life, she would seem a likely candidate for both bitterness and rage, yet Luke wrote, “She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers.” Anna kept praying, knowing that something good was coming; she lived in anticipation. When she met Mary, Joseph and infant Jesus at the temple, she “began giving thanks to God. . . .” Her moment had come: God had saved the best for last.

If we must find something to rage against, let it be against a destructive hopelessness which denies the truth that “God so loved the world that He sent His only Son. . .”. In spite of the beauty of his words, I think I’ll pass on Thomas’ advice. I’d much rather leave this world the way Anna did- lifting up praise rather than a fist, for, “In hope, we were saved.” Romans 8: 24

The Chilling Effect of Envy

photo by Tony Ross

The last thing I wanted to write about on the anniversary of my husband’s death was the subject of “envy.” Thinking about it took me back, and I didn’t want to go back. I lived through it once and learned from it once; now I wanted to leave it. More than that, I wanted to escape from those memories — leave them on one side of a chasm and leap to freedom on the other. However, in this life there is no “envy free” zone to jump to.

I never considered myself to be a particularly envious person. I had what I had and was pretty much satisfied with it. Like everyone else, I could do some things pretty well and stank at others. When I was young, I figured it was the luck of the draw. As I got older and was busy raising children, I hadn’t the time to take more than a cursory peek at other people’s accomplishments and possessions. When you have to wash urine-soaked bedding every day, you don’t covet someone else’s designer duvets.

I don’t know whether widowhood brought my human failings into sharper relief, or if I became a more envious person after my husband’s passing. Probably, it was a bit of both, but however it happened, I began to envy with a vengeance. I envied friends who showed me photographs of their happy anniversary trips; couples who strolled through Home Depot; spouses who sat together, shoulders touching, at church. I have no idea whether my Grinch-like attitude was obvious to others, but it was freezing me out. Every time I envied, I felt the darkness descending, cold and isolating. What was happening?

After a while, the answer came to me: envy occurred when I thought (even for a split second) that God loved others more than me. Whether I angrily positioned myself at the center of the universe and demanded answers, or miserably sunk into deep resentment, the effect was the same: I became a frozen, dormant being, unable to enter into the joy of the people surrounding me. Yet, didn’t scripture urge me to “rejoice always”? Wasn’t I supposed to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep”? The sin of envy kept me from interacting with others while it sent my spirit to sleep. The only cure for that kind of sleep was to wake up, and the only way to do that was to move away from envy toward the ultimate source of warmth and light.

After a while, I stopped wondering whether God loved others more than me. For all I knew, He might, but He loved me so much that the question became irrelevant, even when situations looked unfair. The critical choice I had to make each time envy reared its head, was whether or not to trust His love. In the end, trusting Him has made all the difference.

Standing in a Sandstorm

photo by Kyle Broad

Pregnant, barefoot and running late, she piled her four children into the car and hustled them to school. On the way, one of her sons tossed a flour bomb back and forth in the back seat. Catching sight of this in the rearview mirror, she warned, “Stop that! You’ll mess up your clothes; we’re late as it is.” He heard and disregarded her imperative, casting it off with the nonchalance of a born mischief-maker, and the inevitable happened. The bomb exploded and coated the regulation dress attire of the siblings just as they reached their destination. Mom held the younger son back so that she could wipe off his outfit, allowing her older son to cross the street alone so that he wouldn’t be tardy. At this point, the mother received a sharp reprimand from a crossing guard for putting a child at risk. She was humiliated and demoralized. She’d strained every nerve to be a good mother, but by 8:00 a.m. she felt like a failure. It’s a very common tale.

Discouragement is isolating. At the moment of failure, we feel: stupid, naïve, inept, hopeless, embarrassed, unworthy— the negative adjectives strike our souls like grit in a windstorm, pricking umpteen places at once. We can hole up, lick our wounds and wait for the storm to pass, but the subterranean sting of discouragement remains until we feel loved again.

Although some people are naturally loving; others, like me, have a hard time learning it. A cherished friend told me once that I “was truthful but not kind,” and I’ve meditated on that comment for over thirty years. It’s not that I want to inflict pain, it’s just that my tendency is to be in a hurry, to rush toward my goals without noticing the needs of others. And there’s the rub— my goals often conflict with the goals God has for me. While I want to change my circumstances, He wants to change my character. He wants me to learn to love.

All of us are, in one way or another, slow learners on the subject of love. Opportunities to love rush at us when we aren’t paying attention. In the moment, we don’t think fast enough to say, “Oh, my goodness, you’re having quite a morning! Allow me help you. By-the-way, this street can be very busy, so. . .” That type of response does not come naturally. So, seeing that we are “love disabled,” what do we do?

The apostle Paul’s advice to the Galatians was “walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal 5:16). Or, as Eugene Peterson put it, “live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit.” I see this as a lifetime endeavor: acknowledging my need to change, becoming teachable, and practicing love until it becomes the “default” impulse. Paul’s instruction to the Philippians to “look out for the interests of others” (Phil 2:4) is only possible because we have the indwelling Spirit, who is eager to show us how.

Thirty years ago, I had an idea that love somehow included triumph; if I did it right, I’d look like Jesus. It was really about me checking off boxes. Eventually, I gave up on becoming biblically picturesque, realizing that I just plain couldn’t do it. When I comprehended that neither love nor kindness resided in my “flesh,” I began sincerely asking for help, and help was given. I’m still not great at selfless love— no one would mistake me for Jesus— but, by God’s grace, I am improving at it.

Wind Dance

My four year old granddaughter pointed them out, “Them are mean ducks,” she warned. She was remembering when she got too close to a Canada goose in the park and it came after her, hissing and flapping its huge wings. Such scary behavior might nominate the wild goose as a symbol for aggression, but the crazy Celts chose it to represent the Holy Spirit. What were they thinking?

Aside from their reputation for belligerence during nesting season, wild geese have excellent qualities: they mate for life; carefully attend their young; distribute seeds and reduce pests. But these beautiful birds are primarily known for their cooperation with each other during migration. Look up during spring or fall and you’re likely to see geese traveling in a “V”, honking as they go.

As a matter of fact, geese make more noise in the sky than on land. This seems like an odd expenditure of energy when one considers the amount of power they need to generate 30 mph flapping, but they do it to keep the flock together until they reach their destination. Like feathered drill sergeants, they “honk out” position changes, letting the weary leader rest as he yields the position of highest wind resistance to another. In a carefully choreographed wind dance, geese work together so they can all move forward.

What geese do instinctively, Christians find difficult. While we find relief in the risen Son, we flinch at following the Spirit, and because it’s hard to pursue an invisible leader, we simply stop trying. We neither follow the Leader God provided nor encourage others along the way. Basically, we quit before we reach our destination.

The disciples had certainly lost their motivation; they were battered, scattered and bewildered. Their beloved leader was gone, and the light in their lives was extinguished. In the crucifixion horror, they temporarily forgot what Jesus had promised before He died:

” I will ask the Father, and He will give you another helper, that He may be with you forever. . . “ (John 14:16)

Then Pentecost came, and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit was miraculously manifest to those who were watching for it. Luke records that “Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles” (Luke 2:43). So, what happened to the awe? Where did the Holy Spirit go?

The good news is this: the strong leader who Jesus promised, and the Father sent is here within us. To our discredit and detriment, we don’t recognize the significance of this. If we think of Him at all, we think of the Holy Spirit as a quiet traveler in the passenger’s seat. Watchman Nee wrote:

“To many Christians, the Holy Spirit is quite unreal. They regard Him as a mere influence, an influence for good, no doubt, but just an influence for all that. In their thinking, conscience and the Spirit are more or less identified as ‘some thing’ within them that brings them to book when they are bad and tries to show them how to be good. The trouble with the Corinthian Christians was not that they lacked the indwelling Spirit, but that they lacked the knowledge of His presence. They failed to realize the greatness of the One who had come to make his abode in their hearts. . .”

The tragedy of our situation is that while we have unlimited access to an untiring, unerring leader, Himself, very God, we forget about Him because He is quiet. For most Christians, He exists as part of the creed and nothing more.

We are not called to passively cool our earthly heels until the heavenly party begins, or to slog through life the best we can. Christians are commanded to walk “in” or “by” the Spirit with the understanding that heavenly life begins here. Too many of us have accepted the lie that walking with the Spirit is a ball and chain kind of life, but the amazing truth is that it is unimaginable liberation. Like dancing in the wind.

Remembering Bonnie

Dedicated to Dr. Joe D’Amico, the best veterinarian I’ve ever known.

I haven’t seen them in a long time, but somewhere in my parents’ house is a box of old home movies, films which were loaded on reels and mounted on a Bell and Howell projector that played them with a clacking sound. I recently discovered that the clacking sound was made by something called the “Geneva mechanism,” so called because it was also found in Swiss watches.  A more interesting discovery was that you can watch the movies and identify traits in the children which lingered into adulthood. I recognize the quiet hunter in my brother, David, and in the ever- grinning, always- curious Dennis, the future mechanical wiz. With eerie clarity, I also recall a movie of three year old Debby walking through a sea of rough collies. Was that when my craving for collies began? If so, it lay quiescent for a long time.

Through the years, we had lots of hunting dogs— Labs of every color and a Brittany. They were cheerful canines, stoic and gentle: Nellie, Finnegan, Murphy, Mick and Dugan. They weren’t slobbery or demanding, which Jon liked; he said that a good dog should be dignified. Well, they were good dogs, but when I was old enough to have a mid-life crisis, I decided that I wanted a different kind of dog. And for some reason, maybe because I loved Phillip Keller’s books, I began looking for a border collie.

She was the last puppy to go. The breeder thought it was because she was tricolor, instead of the more popular black and white. I think she was meant for me. When I first saw her, she was barking furiously at a kitten that was sauntering past her kennel; it was not a ” come in and play with me” kind of bark, either; it was rather, “if I get out, I will render you inoperative.” I concluded that it was a very good thing that our cat was twice her size.

Like most herding dogs, she was intense, insanely intelligent, and impatient to “get to work.” She was a breeze to train—  if I couldn’t get the commands out fast enough, she made up her own and executed them. I’d never seen a dog like her before. I laughed a lot during those early training sessions. Her eyes never left my face as she waited for my words. “What,” she seemed to wonder, “is so funny? Get on with it!” Our vet observed that she was different. ” It’s unusual for herding dogs to lie quiet and look you in the eyes,” he said, “she makes contact.” Then he said, “I had a dog like this once.  Only once.”

Even “once in a lifetime” friends eventually leave us. When Bonnie was 14, she developed a chronic blood disease, and when she was 15 1/2, in spite of the extensive efforts of her admirers at the veterinary hospital, she died. There are three other dogs living here, but when I returned home after her last car trip, the house felt immensely empty. I put away the rolls of gauze, the tape, the expensive ointments. I cut the last  piece of liver into fewer pieces. Without my consent, life had gone and changed again.

I thought I saw her yesterday, lying at the foot of the stairs the way she used to when she was waiting for me to come down. I heard a thump of a tail, and automatically turned to see her, but, of course, it was one of the other dogs. He was happy enough to greet me; he wanted food, and after I fed him, he was happy to go outside. Carefree and jolly, he wasted no time searching my face for clues. He didn’t care what I was thinking— there were squirrels to catch!

Often, when a good dog dies, people will say, “That dog was almost human.” Well, Bonnie was not almost human; she was as canine as they come. But she was a daily reminder of what it means to keep your eyes on your master and joyfully follow his commands. I hope I never forget it.

Psalm 100:2

  Serve the Lord with gladness;

Come before Him with joyful singing.

Jesus and the Border Collie


The nativity set I purchased for my grandchildren has a border collie in it- not a Roman drover dog, not a Canaan dog- a border collie!  And the Scottish canine isn’t the only mistake. The smiling camel, which presumably carried the three tubby wise men, shouldn’t have showed up until much later; the angel on the roof is nowhere mentioned in scripture ; and- a PIG!  Apparently, these Jews didn’t keep kosher.

Whether or not the designer of the nativity set knows anything about Jewish culture,  he certainly understands how to attract little people.  My youngest granddaughter is completely mesmerized by our set.  She will stand quietly arranging and rearranging its components so that, in her mind at least, they are just right.  Last night, I discovered that the angel had flown away and the border collie was keeping watch from the top of the stable.  One sheep had assumed a position up a palm tree, and the prohibited piggy sat grinning in the donkey’s cart.  The holy family lay scattered around-  apparently, Mary had decided that sheep are easier than babies, and was abiding in the field.  Periodically, my older grandchildren will wander by and put the set in order, but invariably, little Elinor will come back to fix it the way she wants it- with the angel gone and the border collie back up on the stable roof.


What did the nativity really look like?   Was Jesus born soon after His parents’ arrival in Bethlehem, or had they been there for a while?  Did the birth occur in a stable or a cave, or was the couple simply assigned a room at the lower level of a house?  Did Mary have help, or was Joseph forced to be midwife?  Were animals there? The presence of a manger- a feed trough- implies it, but doesn’t prove it.

A lot of talk has been devoted to the idea that Jesus was born in the filth of a stable, but there is no mention of manure or drool-soaked hay in the good doctor’s account.  And I’d like to defend Mary here.  What mother would wade through manure to plop her newborn into a bare feedbox?  Wouldn’t she find a swept corner of the room, and insist that Joseph grab some fresh hay and  a sheet for the manger crib?  Jesus needn’t have been born in muck;  it was hard enough that He was born amidst the squalor of the human condition.

The children’s nativity set has smiling people wearing brightly colored clothing.  It has a barn and a palm tree, a donkey and cart, a tiny mouse hiding in the hay.  It all makes a happy scene, and serves an important purpose- to teach the child the elements of the Christmas story and establish the centrality of its serious message- that God came to earth as a baby to save us from our sins.  The joy of that message should be reflected on every human face.  If they could comprehend it, even the animals would rejoice.

A happy border collie by the manger?  Well, border collies herd lambs after all.  Perhaps the nativity’s designer was wiser than I thought.

“…Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”   John 1:29

Peace in Real Time

Image result for mahkeo unsplash night sky

photograph by Mahkeo on Unsplash


When my mother was a little girl, she and her siblings were separated and sent from home to live in bad places. Her brothers were shipped to an orphanage almost 500 miles away, and Mom was left to grow up with her paternal grandmother, a mean-spirited, angry woman. Upon arrival at her new home, she was assigned a bedroom in the back of the house where she wouldn’t bother anyone. She lay scared that first night; it was dark and lonely, unfriendly to the abandoned eight year old. She told me that when she asked God to help her, she was filled with peace and the assurance that He was there, and would take care of her. Her life thereafter wasn’t easy, but she survived it and grew up to pass on the story. It made an impression: times might be hard, but God was good.

Spending time with my paternal grandmother was a totally different experience. Instead of being exiled to a dark back bedroom, I shared a room with her. I still remember the feel of the pink, plaid, flannel sheets on the ivory twin bed. There was an off-white, wind-up clock on the dresser that lulled me to sleep with its loud ticking. I recall hearing trains as they passed through in the night, their mournful whistles advancing and fading. And even now, I can conjure up the comforting sound of Nannie’s rocker in the next room. It was easy to fall asleep there. Nothing was going to get me. There was clock- ticking, rocker- creaking, whistle- blowing peace.

The “Peace Candle or the Angels’ Candle is the fourth candle we light during Advent as we recall the amazing appearance of  the heavenly host, who sang or spoke  historic news while the shekinah shone around them: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” (Luke 2:14)                                                                   

Mark the moment. The Savior had arrived. The plan for cessation of hostilities between God and man had been initiated . The first part of the message made it plain: this was a God-originated, unilateral peace treaty, which men could either accept or reject. It was gift of love: “. . . not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”  (1 John 4:10)

Through the Son men could regain favor with God, although the mechanism wouldn’t be revealed for another thirty plus years, when Jesus, “the propitiation,” died on a Roman cross. The skies were dark when Jesus died. No angels sang. On that day, it looked like hope for peace had expired with him. But then — He wasn’t dead any more! At the tomb, another angelic message was delivered: “. . . you are looking for Jesus, the Nazarene who has been crucified. He is risen; He is not here. . .” (Mark 16:6).

Life is hard. It was hard for the shepherds; it was hard for the disciples; it’s hard for us. God did not send his Son to make life easy, but to make a way to eternal life. My mother and grandmother understood that. Their peace came from confidence in the one who gave himself up for them. The only one who can give us peace.


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