The words to Christmas carols are hitting me in a new way this year. We sing them every year, but certain phrases are jumping out this time around and sticking with me.
Like “tidings of comfort and joy.” Wow. Who doesn’t need some comfort? Who among us doesn’t feel a little bit beat up by the frenetic pace of life, the difficulties of today’s economics, the greediness of politicians, the abuse of power by those who have it, the unfairness of society, or maybe just by the selfishness of those around us? Especially this time of year, when you add Christmas shopping and holiday traffic and expectations of The Perfect Holiday Decorations/Food/Gift to the normal grind. I’m raising my hand. I could use a little comfort. The emotional equivalent of fuzzy slippers and hot chocolate in front of a nice warm fire would be good just about now.
And joy, too. I like to people watch. It’s what I do at red lights to pass the time when I’m first in line – you get a really good view of the faces of drivers who are turning left onto the street you’re on. So I can tell you, for the most part, people look miserable. We need some joy. Not happiness, which is fleeting, but joy, that deep joy that roots in your heart and can’t be budged by circumstance and situation.
So yes, some tidings of comfort and joy are just the kind of news people want to hear. Where do we get this comfort? Where does this joy spring from? People want to know. People need it.
I went to a Christmas Eve service tonight. It was packed – the semi-annual Christmas and Easter crowd was out in full force. I wondered, though, how many of them were searching for comfort and joy in the traditions of religion and church attendance, but were not finding it because their favorite carol wasn’t sung, or the decorations weren’t like they remembered at the church they grew up in. It’s easy enough to do – to look for the right thing in the wrong place.
The problem is that when spiritual matters are relegated to the realm of personal choice and cultural preference, as opposed to the realm of fact and truth, it is actually hard to find comfort in faith. In fact, when faith is considered, as it is by so many today, to merely be a form of personal expression, it’s pretty empty faith.
It might feel good for a little while — along the lines of Christmas Spirit and That Holiday Feeling — but if these tidings of comfort and joy, this good news that is sung about in so many of the traditional carols, is not based on truth, then it is actually of less use than the Santa Claus myth.
Faith is not something you experience or feel. It’s something you believe, and if you are trying to put faith in something while at the same time keeping your options open as to whether or not this thing is actually true, you will not reap the benefits of your faith. Faith is not the thing that brings the benefits – the truth of the person or concept in which you put your faith is the only meaningful source of benefit.
The writers of these carols meant it when they offered tidings of comfort and joy. It wasn’t just a Hallmark sentiment, like dreaming of a white Christmas. They were referring to something with which they had first hand experience.
Like this verse from It Came Upon A Midnight Clear:
O ye beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow;
Look now, for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
Oh rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing.
These words were not written along the lines of Rudolph and Frosty. These writers sincerely believed in “glad and golden hours.” They were talking about something they were counting on. They had experienced relief from “life’s crushing load” and wanted others to know about it.
Did they want to tell others about this because they would earn points by doing so? There are religions that foster some kind of a point-earning system, but in this case, no, these writers weren’t trying to impress anyone. They wanted people to know because it worked.
If you were to visit a primitive tribe somewhere, and noticed that they were constantly sick because they didn’t wash their hands, would you withhold the information you had about the existence of germs because you didn’t want to influence their culture or offend them? No, you would tell them you knew a better way, because you wouldn’t want them to suffer with sickness any more.
The world today suffers under a great sickness of heart. A quick glance at the headlines of any given day will tell you that. So when someone says they have any answer that will bring peace, joy, comfort and salvation, it might be worth looking into. Maybe that person is not just participating in a cultural ritual. Maybe they are telling you the truth. Perhaps their delivery is not flawless. People are, well, human. But even if the messenger is not perfect, maybe the message is true. Maybe it might be worth having a discussion about it with someone whose life reflects the sincerity of their belief, because if it truly works for them, it will work for you too.
But the angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today a Savior, who is Messiah the Lord, was born for you in the city of David. This will be the sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in cloth and lying in a feeding trough.” Luke 2:10-13
A nice story to read at Christmas time or a history-altering event wherein God Himself came down to earth in order to set people free from the things that so easily entangle them? People are spiritual beings, so just as it’s worth reading up on foods that will help your body function better and exercise that will keep your body healthy, it’s worth spending time looking into the things that heal and nurture your spirit. It’s worth your time to explore tidings of comfort and joy.
I must admit I was nervous about driving in Mexico when I went last week, but quickly discovered that it wasn’t all that bad. Because as crazy as some of the intersections get, and as optional some of the stop signs seem to be, it all somehow works out.
After a few days of coping with Rosarito traffic, I returned to the States, and it was on my way out that I almost got in an accident.
Just as I approached the border, the lane I was in unexpectedly turned into an offramp that would take me back to the road to Rosarito, so I had to quickly slow down and cut over a lane. Unfortunately, someone was at that moment parked horizontally across that lane, waiting for traffic to clear so that he could shoot over to the offramp. I checked the mirror and started to drive around him on the right, when all of a sudden someone was honking me, loudly and long. My daughter told me there was someone trying to cut around me from behind. I stopped and let him go first, and as he drove past us I looked at him. He was a very harried-looking overweight American with a very sour expression on his face. He looked exactly like a character in a movie about a grumpy middle-manager.
I was a little shaken and upset at first, as I maneuvered into line in the lane next to him. We had reached the point where the border lines began, so I knew there would be no going anywhere fast for the next hour or so. I tried to catch the man’s eye so I could wave and say sorry, but he just looked away. A few minutes later, the car in front of him didn’t pull up right away when the line moved forward a few feet. The man laid into his horn with the same gusto he had honked me. It was so ridiculous to honk when you’re going to be sitting in line for the next hour, I burst out laughing. What exactly did the man think he would gain by moving up those few feet right away instead of waiting a few seconds?
While he was busy honking in the left lane, I was quickly working my way across the lanes to try to get into one of the right lanes. I had discovered on my last trip that the right lanes at the San Ysidro crossing open up two or three times down the road into multiple lanes, so they go much faster than the two left-hand lanes, which only split once at the very end. If you don’t get into the right hand lanes right away, however, you lose your opportunity to change lanes, as the space between the lanes is filled with vendors and their carts all the way to the border. Within a few minutes, I was 5 or 6 cars ahead of the man. Again I heard the angry honking.
“Oh no,” moaned the 12 year old. “Is he going to keep that up all the way to the border? For the next hour or two?”
“Don’t worry,” I assured him. “We’ll soon be out of earshot. We can just use his honking as a gauge of how far ahead we’re getting in this lane than if we’d stayed in that lane.”
Sure enough, about 10 minutes later we couldn’t hear him any more. He had honked at least twice more before he faded into the distance, however.
All I could do was shake my head and think, “That poor man.” His honking was making no difference to his wait time. It was only fueling his frustration. Suddenly all the stress of the incident with him, which I had realized by then was simply his preponderance for horn-blowing and not actually a near-miss, melted away. I sat back and enjoyed the wait, watching the vendors and talking with the kids.
The vendors have a tough job, standing in the sun all day, threading between constantly moving cars, but many of them (the successful ones, as it turns out) maintain good humor. One vendor walked in front of my van just as traffic started to move, so he quickened his pace and crossed himself with a twinkle in his eye. They don’t let the grumpiness of the drivers get to them. They hawk their wares, exchange pleasantries with each other and help each other out when needed. Smiles sell more goods, and the ones who have found a way to smile sincerely sell the most.
Something clicked into place in my head that day. How many times do I get upset about circumstances outside of my control, fuming and ranting and raving about it? It makes no difference. Even if there is a point where my words might change the situation, those words need to be calm and reasonable, not ranting and raving. I can be saddened by a situation, but working myself up about it — following the excitement plan, as a friend of mine calls it — does nothing but raise my blood pressure. It’s not good for me. It’s not good for my kids. And it does nothing for the situation.
I came back to the States and jumped headlong into Christmas shopping and traffic jams and harried people and long lines, but somehow the lesson I learned at the border stayed with me. I keep finding myself pausing in the middle of chaos and smiling, appreciating details, giving away small kindnesses, stopping to have conversations and putting people above things. Just as I duck under large breaking waves in the ocean, I have been submerging myself under the Christmas frenzy and letting it wash over me instead of knocking me down.
Because the circumstances come and go, and stuff is just stuff, but people are forever.
Since my parents, my brother and I left England 45 years ago, you would think I would be thoroughly Americanized by now. Ah, but you would only think that if you had not ever been to my parents’ house. It was a little piece of England. We moved a lot, so that piece of England was transplanted quite often.
At any rate, when we finally settled in Southern California in the 70s, we had come to terms with not being able to eat our favorite British sweets and foods without a journey up the coast to Santa Monica.
And then, after many Jelly Baby-less years, we found The British Connection in Torrance.
Since then, it has become a necessity to visit this store every year at Christmas. When Alan and I got married, he became a British sweetie convert and insists on making the pilgrimage, with or without me. Other people visit the Christmas lights at Sleepy Hollow section of Torrance; we go buy Cadbury Flake bars.
So here’s a shout out to The British Connection. If you’re in the South Bay of L.A., give them a visit. They are at 4413 Torrance Blvd., Torrance, CA 90503. Very friendly people working there, without fail, and if you have no idea what to get, they can help you figure it out. You can even tell them your budget and the age of the person you are buying for and they will put together a basket.
Just a note – you can buy Cadbury at regular grocery stores, but the British Connection sells the real stuff. Yes, there is a difference!
My oldest son turned 21 today. So here are 21 Reasons I Am Thankful For My Son. In no particular order.
1. He can reach the top shelves in the kitchen.
2. Errand running
3. Errand running for items that he couldn’t buy for Mom before today.
4. He can cook for himself.
5. He still prefers it when I cook for him.
6. He works at Starbucks, so he brings me a pound of coffee every week.
7. He calls me on lazy theology.
8. I can’t get away with half-baked ideas either.
9. He writes music and I can hear him from the kitchen.
10. He’s an excellent driver (he still hasn’t seen Rainman, though, so that’s one joke that continues to go over his head).
11. He actually is a good driver though. At least, when I’m in the car. The siblings tell me otherwise.
12. He keeps it real with the 12 year old and the 14 year old.
13. He also gives the 12 year old fashion advice.
14. He scares away unsuitable suitors from the 19 year old.
15. If I ever need to let out pent up energy, I can just go to one of his hardcore concerts. (I wear earplugs, though.)
16. He helps me navigate the world of cell phones.
17. He keeps me up to date on the latest catch phrases, indie music and social networking trends, which helps a lot with my students.
18. He can move out soon (this one actually came from one of his siblings, who will remain unnamed, who has her eye on his bedroom).
19. His girlfriend is a lot of fun.
20. She also keeps him in line, so my husband and I have an ally in the “knock it off” department now.
21. Here are some pictures. What’s not to love?
One day a lady went to a meeting at her church to hear a missionary talk about the work he does in Mexico. She wasn’t able to join the next trip that went to his area, but she remembered what he had said about the church he and his wife are starting in February of 2015.
A few weeks later she went to her storage unit, and struck up a conversation with a man from Liberia whose unit was across the hall from hers. He mentioned that he had just moved to the area, but after a couple of months of paying for the storage space, he had decided that it was too expensive to keep all this furniture in storage. He and his wife were looking for a church or ministry to donate it to. So she told him she knew just the place.
It turned out to be around $6000 worth of furniture. It filled a 20-ft truck. The couple who donated it only wanted to know that it was going to a good cause. After hearing about the new church and the work that has already begun down in Baja, they got so excited they agreed to join the team on the next trip down there, for the grand opening of the church.
Soon the furniture bought in Indiana by a couple from Liberia, which was shipped to California, will be headed for Playas de Tijuana, Mexico, to be used by the members of a brand new church, Capilla Calvario/Calvary Chapel Playas. It will join the 150 chairs that were donated a week before by a Norwegian cruise ship.
When God decides to start a new work in a certain area, this is how things come together. It makes you wonder why, when we feel a nudge from God to do something or go somewhere, we ever worry about the details.
The sand, however, is suspiciously black. And not in an exotic, lava-rock type way, but in a “oh, look, there’s the Pemex Refinery and isn’t that an oil tanker out there in the water?” kind of way.
So while the effect of the oil on the sand is rather striking, photographically speaking, it also kind of makes you go, “Hmmmm.”
We went to church last night. It was the regular Wednesday night service at Capilla Calvario/Calvary Chapel Rosarito, but since it’s so close to Christmas, it was a Christmas themed service, complete with special Christmas music.
Not to mention an entire set of congregational Christmas carols in Spanish and English.
To start with, I think I have already mentioned how cool it is to have a church service in both English and Spanish. I may not have mentioned, however, how much fun it is to sing familiar worship songs in another language. This is only magnified when those songs are Christmas carols. Spanish is pretty easy to sing along with, too, once you get over the whole combining vowel syllables between words thing.
The hardest part, actually, was the clapping. Mexicans default to clapping on the on-beat (1 and 3), while American churchgoers have taken in the past 30 years to clapping on the off-beat (2 and 4) in their church services. Since the worship team at this church is half Mexican, half American, and the worship songs are largely translated American worship songs, the clapping is leaning more and more towards the off-beat.
I remember, back in the late 70s, when our ultra-hip worship leader introduced off-beat clapping to our congregation of seriously white on-beat clappers. The result was the same kind of cacophony of clapping, so last night I recognized the looks of confusion on some of the faces as people struggled to clap along with everyone else but just couldn’t seem to get their hands to obey their brains.
My British father had struggled with this clapping thing when it was foisted upon him in the 70s. He had been clapping on the on-beat for over 40 years and just couldn’t retrain himself to switch beats. Being an engineer, however, he came up with a solution. He would jerk his hands down and to the side on the beat, and then bring them together on the off-beat. I wanted to offer this solution to a couple of people I saw struggling last night, but fortunately lacked the language skills to pull it off.
I say fortunately because in hindsight, I realize that might have been rude.
We finished up the carol-singing portion of the service with a rousing rendition of Feliz Navidad. We clapped on every beat for that, so everyone relaxed and joined in with gusto.
The guitar class performed for us next – 15 guitars in unison, some strumming and some playing the melody. They did very well. The youngest member of the class, a darling little girl of about 9 with a half-size guitar, did occasionally stay on the same chord for half the song, but she smiled while she did it and sang along, so it really didn’t matter. They finished up with a rousing rendition of Feliz Navidad. We clapped along. On every beat.
After the sermon, which was on the Christmas story as told in Lucas/Luke 2, in English and Spanish, the pastors gave an altar call. I’m used to hearing altar calls, especially around Christmas or Easter, when the pastor asks if anyone wants to commit their life to Christ for the first time. This altar call, however, was not the usual perfunctory, “Anyone? Anyone? Raise your hand while everyone else’s head is bowed” kind of thing. The pastors took their time. They also insisted, since Jesus had always asked for a public confession of faith, that the people wishing to commit their lives to Christ walk down to the front of the room. This made it a little more than the quick shrug and nod-to-the-Almighty Prayer for Fire Insurance to which many altar calls have sadly degenerated. This was a commitment. People had to mean it with every step they took, all eyes on them, toward the front of the room. The pastors knew this, so they didn’t hurry. They gave them time to think it through, and asked the rest of us to pray silently.
Sure enough, after a few agonizingly quiet minutes, a man stood, accompanied by another man, and made his way toward the front. The congregation erupted into cheers and applause. And once the ice was broken, people started toward the front. The pastors crouched down and shook each of their hands, congratulating them and pointing them toward the prayer room at the side where some other pastors would give them Bibles and explain to them the impact of the decision they had just made.
The service was now technically finished, except that we had been promised a long-awaited performance by the children’s choir. In costumes. It was everything a Christmas children’s choir performance should be. The first person on the stage was a little shepherd, who stomped across the stage with a wry grin. I have led Christmas children’s choirs, so I recognized this kid right off the bat. He was The Troublemaker. But, you know, so cute, and so good-humored, the choir director would just roll her eyes and smile and ask him to tone it down and secretly favor him over the others. At least, that was always my reaction.
The rest of the kids filed on and shuffled and tripped and pushed smaller kids forward and dropped their props and clumped together and had to be physically pulled apart by the director and her helpers and told to spread out across the whole stage. While this was occurring, the sound guys were scrambling around adjusting mic stands, and the first soloist was frantically trying to check the wireless mic, but since no one was in the sound booth, no one had turned it on, so no matter how many times she tapped the mic and checked the switch, nothing came out of it, causing the panic on her face to increase exponentially with every tap.
Eventually everyone was in place and the song began. The little girls who had narration roles nailed their parts, not missing a word, and even more impressively, somehow managed to get the microphone up and down the line to the next narrator without anyone missing a cue. The mic then ended up in the hands of the lead singer for the song, a boy with a red shirt and black tie who knew the song cold. He belted it out with confidence, not missing a beat, and hitting every note… about an interval of a third or fourth below where it was supposed to be.
And it didn’t matter. It just didn’t matter. The point was, he had a solo, he had worked hard on it and he was just so happy to sing it. Nobody cared that he completely missed the key. Apart from that, he nailed the performance, and that was all that anyone wanted from him. This is one of the beauties of Mexico – priorities in the right order. So the performance wasn’t CD-ready. So the kids were singing along with a track that already had voices on it. That wasn’t important. What was important was that the kids had worked hard and were singing about Jesus and everyone appreciated it.
At one point, five children held up large glittery letters, but since the boy holding the U forgot his cue, the word they spelled was JESS. After a few seconds, one of the S-holders whacked the U-boy on the head with her S, causing the U-boy to look panicked and quickly hold up his U. The cue then came for the letter-holders to hold their letters high above their heads, and this time the U-boy was ON the cue, holding his letter high with exuberance… and promptly dropping it. He disappeared into the crowd for a moment, then emerged with the letter and thrust it victoriously back up into the air.
Towards the end of the performance, Troublemaker-Shepherd, who had actually been behaving himself quite impressively up to this point, apart from some facial expressions and elbows into the ribs of the Shepherd Number Two beside him, suddenly noticed that there was a live mic on a stand right in front of him. With a grin he leaned forward, stopped singing and yelled something into the mic. Then he stood back up and recommenced singing with a wide grin on his face. It was just too much to resist, though, so he leaned forward and repeated it, just as the choir paused for dramatic effect. Then he elbowed Shepherd Number Two and got him to try out the mic. The two looked very pleased with themselves as the song ended and the congregation applauded.
The service ended then, and the sound guys put on a CD of Christmas music. The first song was a rousing rendition of Feliz Navidad. We didn’t clap this time, but the guy in his 60s down the end of the row I was sitting in did stand there and do a little head-bobbing dance-in-place for a minute or so.
It was the best Christmas service I’ve attended in a long time.
Today I packed up the kids and went back to Mexico. You might ask me why, the week before Christmas when there are so many errands to run and parties to attend, I would leave the country for a couple of days.
Well, because I could. Because last year I finally renewed my passport just so I could do stuff like this. Because I had a small window of opportunity and if I didn’t take it, I would be delivering my missionary friends’ Christmas presents in February. And because if it wasn’t that big a deal last week for my husband to unexpectedly jump in the car and drive to the border to deliver me my green card, then it shouldn’t be that big a deal for me to drive another 20 minutes past the border to visit my friend.
And really, why not?
Even though Alan couldn’t take any more time off from work and come with us, I was confident that I could manage it. So I did. There was a horrendous rainstorm the night before, but by the time we hit the road, it was a beautiful day with spectacular clouds. Again, I apologize, but we Southern Californians just don’t get weather like this much. We must have shot 30 photos of the clouds. And by we, I mean the 19 year old and the 14 year old, because I was driving. Both hands firmly on the wheel.
Unlike this guy, who was driving in the fast lane next to us as we went through San Diego.
As soon as we crossed the border, the rules changed. For example, this is the freeway in Mexico.
So, you know, in Mexico, if you need to get somewhere, you just walk there. Freeway, whatever. It’s a road.
At some point it suddenly hit me that I was driving. Me. Driving. In Mexico. So the 19 year old took a picture for posterity’s sake.
Just in case you are wondering, I put my passport AND my green card in my purse before I packed anything else.
Today was the first official day I had off since we broke for Christmas Break last week. I celebrated by going to the dentist to get the permanent filling put on my root canal at 9 a.m. After this I went Christmas Shopping at a local mall. This leads me to believe that I may need to rethink my idea of the word “celebrate.”
After an hour and a half in Marshall’s, I finally emerged with a good chunk of my shopping completed. This isn’t all that big a deal, except for the fact that I had intended to go to Home Goods, not Marshall’s, but I accidentally went in the wrong door.
Which, again, wouldn’t have been a big deal, but it took me ten minutes to notice I was in the wrong store. And by then I had stuff in my cart so I decided to stay there.
So I’d say I was functioning on a par with most of the other shoppers I ran into. The 19 year old met me at the store, which helped a lot, because after walking up and down aisle upon aisle of miscellaneous department-store overstocks, I felt like my eyes were about to roll back into my head.
I arrived home bag-laden and foot-sore, pleased that I had finished such a daunting task, until I realized that I needed a few more items. I then broke my hardest and fastest December Rule. I went to Target at 3 in the afternoon the week before Christmas.
Also, just then, it began to rain.
Somehow, though, the rain just brought us all together, and there was a cheerful atmosphere among my fellow shoppers. I had a moment of solidarity with a young couple in the toy section when a little boy reached into the cart his mother was pushing and pulled out a toy, saying, “HEY! Why is this in our cart? I said I liked it but I didn’t put it in here!” His father burst out laughing, while his mother looked over at me and mouthed the words, “Darn it!”
The best moment of the day happened on my way out of the store. The exit was clogged with people stopping to pull out umbrellas and put on hoods, because the rain had just started up again, and just ahead of me was a family with three kids. Their youngest, a little boy who looked to be about 4, ran out the door and stopped just at the edge of the overhang, then threw his arms up into the air, exclaimed, “Bye-bye, cwuel world!” and stepped out into the deluge.
I was still chuckling by the time I got home.