Saturday, December 25, 2010

Angels and bells

The Christmas story told in the Bible recounts how the angels told of Jesus birth and the star that lead the way.  Clear signs of Christ's birth and God's love.  This story was my first realization that God can communicate with his believers in any number of ways.  I have heard this story repeated every year at this time of year for the past 55 years.  Many of these years I sat in church and heard my dad read the scripture verses.  This year my dad is not here to tell the story but his life, especially this past year, demonstrated God's never ending love and grace.

The Reverend James McKinley Shaffer began his life triumphant early on September 27th.   A celebration of life service for him was held at the Lyttleton Street United Methodist Church.  Prior to his death he had given my three brothers and me a bell and told us this is how he would communicate with us after his death.  Some of us chuckled as we thought of Clarence, the angel, in "It's a wonderful Life" and the phrase from the movie that reported, "every time a bell rings and angle gets his wings."  My brothers and I each have our bell.  Dad has not rung mine yet but I believe he has let me know he is fine.

Several months ago my husband and I spent a long weekend at Hilton Head Island.  We rented bikes and rode 15 beautiful miles, some of them on the beach.  We walked 6 miles the next day as part of our training to walk a half marathon.  The day had started cool but quickly became very warm and humid.  With less than 2 miles to go I was tired!  Jay encouraged me and as we made the turn to finish the last mile a silent bike rider came up behind us and rang his bike bell.  I was startled by the bell.  We were over on the right side of the sidewalk and single file so there was no need to ring the bell.  We had been passed by at least 5 other bike riders who did not ring their bells but this time we were also right in front of the Methodist Church.  Hi Dad!

At Thanksgiving we gathered in Ohio to share the holiday with my in laws.  Our daughter. Megan, and her husband, Judson, joined us there.  We took my in laws out for dinner on Friday evening and as Megan and I walked down to a store in the shopping complex to pick up some wrapping paper her conversation shifted to her Papa Jim and what an easy going temperament he always had and how she had never heard him complain.  She had no sooner finished that statement when we both heard the bell at the church across the street chime once.  Hi Dad!

A month or so ago while Christmas shopping I got out of my car to go into Tuesday Morning.  Tuesday Morning is just across the street from Woodland United Methodist Church.  The bells were ringing at the church when we got out of the car, as they do every hour, but they were playing Fairest Lord Jesus, the same song Dad had asked me to play one more time in the last days before his death.  Hi Dad!

Last week as I sat in our family room next to our Christmas tree and quietly watched television with my dog at my side I saw Lily sit up quickly, her ears raised, her body on alert  she sat staring at the Christmas tree.  Several seconds passed and not a sound was heard but she did not move.   Silently an ornament dropped from the tree landing at my feet.  There was no hook attached.  The tree hadn't moved.  Lily stretched back out at my side.  Did my Dad have anything to do with the ornament or was it just an everyday occurrence with an incorrectly hung ornament? You can decide for yourself but I know all about my dad's and my relationship with Christmas trees and I am sure he was just wishing me a Merry Christmas.

Today we celebrate or first Christmas without him.  He would have loved the ham I cooked using his glaze recipe tweaked to perfection by him with years of practice.  He would have eaten his fair share of my homemade peanut brittle and been so happy to know that Amy was going to attempt to make it this year (a third generation tradition).  He would have recounted how he had rung the bells at the church on Christmas morning announcing the birth of our first child and his first Grandchild, Megan who celebrates her thirtieth birthday today.  But most of all he would have continued to show us his love and God's love by the life he lead.

Merry Christmas Dad!  Thanks for letting me know you are fine.  Enjoy your first Christmas in heaven.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Two Christmas Birthdays

Two thousand years ago in a stable in Bethlehem a woman named Mary gave birth to a baby boy and named him Jesus.  A star shined brightly over the stable leading the way for the travelers who came bringing gifts for the baby, the Savior, the Christ Child whose birth they had been told about by the angels.  Two thousand years later we still celebrate His birth.

December 25, 1980 at Saint Ann's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio I gave birth to a baby girl and named her Megan Elizabeth.  I was warm and well cared for. There was a room for me in the hospital and one for Megan.   Megan's birth had been planned for, prepared for and was waited on with joyful anticipation.  It was also celebrated by visitors bringing gifts.  As it nears Christmas day we prepare to celebrate her thirtieth birthday. 

Allow me to tell you about our trip to the hospital that night and the subsequent question we have been asked numerous times since her birth.  Christmas Eve, 1980, was cold and snowy.  The temperature was in the teens as we headed across town to the hospital.  The sky was brilliant and filled with beautiful stars and I  could not help but to reflect on Mary and the birth of the Christ Child that night so many years before.  Snow flakes dropped silently and the radio played softly as we listened to Christmas carols.  We arrived safely at the hospital and as we prepared to get out of the car I was aware that the carol that was playing was Silent Night.  What did you hear Mary on that special night?

The Nuns greeted us and we were settled in the Lamaze room.  My every need was taken care of.  Were your needs cared for Mary?  Were you comfortable and warm?  The night stretched on and labor progressed until it became evident it was time for the doctor to be called.  Dr. Cliff Raymond told us he raced across town almost spinning out on the freeway getting to the hospital in time to deliver our Christmas baby.  Megan Elizabeth was born at 6:40 AM Christmas morning.  She weighed 8 pounds 1 1/2 ounces and was 20 inches long.  The nurses wrapped her up in warm blankets and took her off to the newborn nursery to be bathed and checked thoroughly.  When she was brought into my room she was tucked inside a big red Christmas stocking!

He was wrapped in swaddling clothes and layed in the manger

I can't imagine a more perfect day to give birth than a day where people all over the world are celebrating Jesus' birth, love abounds and joy fills the air yet Megan and I continue to be asked if she feels cheated sharing  her birthday with Christmas.  Erma Bomback wrote a beautiful piece asking the same question.  I saw her column shortly after Megan was born and cut it out, had it laminated and saved it for her.

Here it is:


Happy Birthday, Jesus - and Aunt Martha and my cousin Dede, and everyone else that was born on this day.

The savior excepted, I think I know what the rest of you birthday babies are thinking.

All your gifts are wrapped in Christmas paper - as usual.

Most of the family has already whispered in your ear, "I bought you one BIG gift for both occasions."

Your Christmas cards have a P.S. on them: "Happy Birthday."

Your favorite cake is chocolate but you will get a white one with white icing, trimmed in red.

If you hear one more person say, "What a bummer to be born on Christmas," you'll slap him.

There are never any balloons on this day, only reindeer and pointsettias.

You are rarely surrounded by your friends at a party because they are at home celebrating Christmas.

My gift to you is a birthday column that is for people born on this day.

Why do you suppose you were chosen to share the most celebrated birthday in the history of Christianity?

There are 364 other days to choose from, but you were chosen to enter the world on a day when peace and joy reign. It's the best time to enter a world. Truces are sometimes called during wars - old prejudices and hatreds are put aside - and people who have never done so before reach out to one another.

No one could plan a bigger celebration of your birth. The streets are lined with Christmas greenery. Houses glow in the light of a million candles, and the anticipation of the day is almost more than a child can stand.

Whenever I hear of a person born on Christmas, he becomes special to me. Babies are always gifts, but to have an infant placed in your arms on this anniversary cannot help but invite memories of Mary holding her newborn for the first time with no less wonderment.

I think Christmas babies feel it too. Their birthday culminates in a season of magic. There has been no Bozo the clown doing magic tricks, no catered party complete with noisemakers, no planes in the sky spelling out their names in smoke. It is a day when the world turns kind.

I share a birthday in February with Rue McClanahan and Tyne Daly. It doesn't get a whole lot of attention...but then Silent Night, Holy Night is not our birthday song.

-Erma Bomback

Happy Birthday Megan!  You were and will always be the most perfect Christmas gift.  My wish for you is that you always know the love and joy that fills the world as people everywhere celebrate the other special birthday that day! 

Are you cheated if your birthday is Christmas?


Thursday, December 2, 2010

Christmas Trees

Our Christmas tree is up and decorated and it looks beautiful.  Picking it out this year was a melancholy experience for me. We stopped in Boone, NC on our way home from spending Thanksgiving with Jay's parent's.  It was a beautiful day, sunny and cool but far from cold.  There was even a Carolina Blue sky.  Picking a tree in this weather could take forever when compared to the trips where the winds have been howling and snow has been blowing every which way and any tree that looked OK would do just as long as we could get back into the car quickly.  We could take our time but we didn't need to.  The tree farm had any number of beautiful trees and after debating less than 15 minutes Adam and I had selected the tree and it  had been cut and was tied securely to our roof rack.  We were on our way.

This was probably the last time Adam would be with us to help pick the tree.  I guess I should be excited that this time next year he will have graduated from Georgia Tech, have his well earned Masters and be working in Virginia with a company he loves.  I am excited for him but sad that both of my children are going to be on their own. Sad that there will be no more arguments about which tree is the best and sad that this part of our family tradition will be changing.  This realization was not as profound as the realization that this year my dad would not be here to share Christmas with us.

Dad and I had a special love of Christmas trees.  He was the MOST patient man I have ever known.  I will never forget the year he took me, just me, to pick out our Christmas tree.  I think I was about 15 and he took me out of school early.  I was so excited to be able to have lunch with him and then go tree hunting.  We lived in Ohio and while I imagine there may have been a few choose and cut tree farms, we never went to one.  We would visit the lots with the pre-cut trees.  We visited lot after lot after lot that afternoon looking for the perfect tree.  When I didn't find what I wanted we would move on to the next lot until finally it was getting dark and Dad said this lot would be our last stop.  I did settle on a tree at that last lot but it was not a tree I was happy with.  There were some large spaces in places that would show.  I am sure I pouted and I am sure I was not happy on my way home but Dad said nothing.  He hauled the tree inside, set it in the tree stand and then went to work.  I don't remember staying around to watch him.  I do remember I walked into  the living room to see my dad wiring up branches that were too low and drilling holes in the trunk to insert branches he had cut off the bottom which filled the open spaces.  He was making me the perfect Christmas tree!  When he was done he strung the lights, all blue, and we hung the ornaments.  When we were finished and he lit the tree I stood in amazement at how beautiful and perfect my tree was.  I was ashamed of myself but Dad didn't say a word.  What an amazing gift of love and patience he showed me that day.  We picked out other Christmas trees together, sometimes even with my 3 brothers but the tree Dad and I always talked about was that tree, my tree.

This year as I look at my tree I will remember that tree and that man who loved his daughter even when she was a brat and I will pray that I have shown, and will continue to show, my children and those around me the lessons I have learned from him.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Corinthians 13)