Archive for the 'Holiday' Category

Bottling Christmas

If there were ever a time to freeze frame time, it’s most certainly the week of Christmas. Bottle the spirit of this season and become a billionaire. Easily.

Nights are cold. Hearts are warm. Days are short. Light strands are long. The anticipation of a gift received is surpassed only by the joy of giving.

If you’re like me, your list of people to buy for is longer than you ever imagined. Six months ago, you had no idea you cared about half of them. Suddenly, like an angel in a dark sky, you want to say thank you. Maybe even I love you.

It’s a season of miracles. You find a unique gift at a department store. You find an affordable one at a boutique. Traffic is lighter than you expected. You don’t mind hearing Carol of the Bells for the 234th time.

You think about families who have too little and people who have no families. You think about bare cupboards and sparse fridges. You consider trees with no gifts and homes with no trees. You even do something about it.

You grab a paper angel off an artificial tree. You fill a shoebox and wrap a gift. You wonder what it would be like to receive them. You remember life is relative and that kids in trailer parks laugh as hard as kids with a view. It’s about joy, not stuff.

You drop a few bucks into a kettle and say a prayer for the man at the stop light. You might also lift one up for his dog. Even animals get prayers this time of year.

You hit a movie, maybe a love story, and the popcorn tastes even better than you remember. You stay through the credits. You don’t dwell on tomorrow’s trials. You don’t dread getting up early to face them. You relax.

You recall the highs of the year but also the redemption in the lows. “I didn’t get that job, that relationship ended, my daughter struggled to carry on, but I can now see why. The smoke has cleared.”

You attend a Christmas Eve service and hear the town’s best voice belt O Holy Night. You close your eyes and it’s Mariah to your untrained ears. You go to dinner afterward. You leave 35%.

You see a child and remember what it’s like to want something so much, you can’t sleep. You try to imagine what that might be for you today. You may even write things down and review them come January.

You hear the year’s best jokes from Uncle Larry. You see Susie’s dance recital on Grammy’s smartphone. You cry with an aunt who retired too early. Her husband of thirty years just left.

You give someone the benefit of the doubt. You notice something redeeming in an in-law. You linger at the table a little longer and give more of yourself than usual.

You ponder joy and its source. You think about the sources you’ve tried and the mixed results you’ve gotten. You question whether a virgin birth really happened, and, if so, why God came so humbly.

You recall the baby who, for the joy set before him, endured a tortuous death, rejected its shame and returned whence he came to prepare a place for us. Joy – to the world and back.

Kevin Thompson writes weekly for The Boerne Star in the Texas hill country. Follow him at http://www.kwt.info.

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Different reasons for gratitude

“Do you know what ‘gratitude’ means?” I asked my 8-year-old a while back.

“It means you have a great attitude?” he answered, less than certainly. I smiled and assured him that was as good a definition as any dictionary could give.

As I write, two funeral programs stare back at me. Both men, young men, died earlier this year at ages less than mine. I’ve kept their faces on my desk as a reminder: Live this day with gratitude.

Gratitude opens my eyes to a world unseen by a clamoring, grasping nature. It slows me to the speed of appreciation. Here, people return to being fellow God-image bearers, not merely conduits of my advancement.

From this lookout, I bring a different cornucopia of blessings for which I’m thankful:

1. A cup of clean water – A missionary to Peru returned to the States on furlough recently. His most striking culture shock? The sheer availability of drinkable water. I’ve since quit complaining about the taste of tap water.

2. A high in the 70s – The stock market has averaged a 12% annual return a year since 1928. But in how many years has the return been 12%? Two. The average high temperature in Texas may be in the 70s. But on how many days is the high actually in the 70s? Not many. I’m thankful when it is.

3. A disability – We are all disabled in some form or fashion. Some of us more noticeably or more severely than others. But nothing puts life in perspective like a handicap. It seems irrational not to want to send back an illness, an injury, an abuse, a catastrophe. But many “victims” wouldn’t trade their stories. They learned too much. They became too much.

4. A vehicle – It may be sixteen years old with rips in its leather and a busted taillight, but my Land Cruiser still unlocks opportunity. Transportation creates disproportionate returns. It delivers knowledge, relationships, employment and enjoyment well beyond its raw value.

5. A good woman’s love – I can’t put it better than a song by Roots & Wings:

“A good woman’s love is sweet like the summer / It saves you like a shelter just when you need it the most / A good woman’s love is solid like a mountain / Like a road that just keeps winding, it goes on & on & on”

6. The strength to respond – Again from Roots & Wings:

“An honest man would know, once he’s finally found her / He better put his arms around her and never let her go / ‘Cause once you have a woman’s love / Treat her like no other, place nothing else above her / She’ll love you more than you could know / That’s a woman’s love”

7. A child’s resilience – As a parent, how many do-overs could you use? Instruction given more gently, patience given more liberally, perspective maintained more consistently. And yet kids bounce back like a trampoline: ready to forgive, willing to forget, hoping for the best from the people who brought them into this world.

In the words of my spiritual mentors, The Oak Ridge Boys:

“When you look down in those trusting eyes / That look to you, you realize / There’s a love that you can’t buy / Thank God for kids”

Kevin Thompson can be reached at kevin@kwt.info.

A Herculean Halloween

Our family has have never really prioritized Halloween. Oh, we’ll make it to a party or two. We’ll hit a few houses (“hit” in the non-vandal sense). But our kids’ costumes have generally consisted of whatever they can find in the dress-up box (race car driver, puppy dog, Elmo) or in the garage (Olaf painted on a cardboard box). It’s the creativity that counts, right?

The real excitement, at least in recent years, has surrounded The Candy Bowl, an annual early November neighborhood football game that my kids throw. To the victor go the spoils: all leftover Halloween candy.

But this year, with Halloween on a Saturday and a daylight savings hour to spare, we decided to splurge.

First, we planned to hand out actual candy instead of fruit snacks. Then, we planned to eat chili and cornbread with some friends. Finally, and most surprisingly, I agreed to spend hard-earned money on NEW costumes (thrift store purchases have occasionally occurred over the years).

Don’t let your imagination run wild. It didn’t mean we were surfing Amazon for three weeks selecting every last accessory. It meant we were in Wal-Mart at 10:00 a.m. Saturday morning. I was pleasantly surprised by the selection.

Our five-year-old son requested Superman. He had worn his cousin’s hand-me-down kangaroo costume to a preschool party two days earlier. Evidently, he was the only non-superhero among the boys in the room. But kangaroos can jump twenty-five feet!?!

His first grade brother requested Captain America. Remarkably, I found both costumes in just the right sizes.

I thought my luck was running out, however, when the nice kid helping me uncovered no “Batgirl” or “Secret Service” outfit. But then, time stood still as I gazed into the eyes of a handsome male model on a costume’s packaging. The costume: Hercules. The size: Adult.

Initially, I struggled to wrap my mind around paying $22.47 for a costume for myself. Last year, I broke my string of twelve straight years as a referee when I bought a pair of disposable white coveralls and went as something of a beekeeper.

But when I remembered that I had to teach David and Goliath the next day at church, I decided to pull the trigger. It was like slaying two hydras with one imaginary sword.

Back home, batgirl became a beautiful butterfly with some face paint and wings we had bought a while back. The aspiring Secret Service agent stuck a pillow under a white button-down, grabbed a walkie talkie and became Paul Blart, Mall Cop. We were set.

When I appeared in mythological form, I was not greeted by fear. My five-year-old said I looked like a girl, my seven-year-old said I needed some fake muscles, my nine-year-old asked, “What in the world is that?” and my twelve-year-old observed, “You’re obviously not Goliath.”

Rrrrr. That’s it. I’m stealing Almond Joys from all your plastic pumpkins! And Hercules is dressing out for The Candy Bowl!!

Well before sunset, the costumed crew trick-or-treated at a few nearby homes before driving to a tract home neighborhood. The subdivision was a land flowing with Milk Duds and Bits-O-Honey, some of which will end up at The Candy Bowl where a  certain middle-aged Hercules plans to reveal his deity to childlike mortals.

Follow Kevin Thompson at www.kwt.info.

Herdmans, herdsmen and me

“What do you want for Christmas, Dad?” my six-year-old asked. “Maybe some floss?”

“Some what?!?” I replied, hoping I had misheard him. Surely he thinks I have more compelling Christmas wishes than dental floss! Full disclosure: As a 15-year-old I did request a file cabinet from jolly old and organized Saint Nicholas.

To my chagrin, I had heard my son right. (At least my hearing’s not going!) He actually asked me if I wanted floss for Christmas. Woe is me. My offspring thinks I’m mind-numbingly boring or that I have really bad teeth. Or worse, both.

Later that day, our family attended a heartwarming holiday classic in the league of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. A story of hygiene-free rugrats who commandeer an annual Christmas tradition: the church Christmas pageant.

Barbara Robinson’s comedy The Best Christmas Pageant Ever has been a favorite of mine since I saw it performed in a community playhouse in the mid-1980s. It probably sparked my love of redemption stories.

By way of review if you haven’t read or seen it in a while, the Herdman kids are a ragtag, uncouth, welfare-dependent bunch of bullies. Their parents are nowhere to be found. A social worker attempts to bring order to their chaos.

When the oldest, Leroy Herdman, is tipped off that Twinkies are served at the local Sunday School, the scraggly siblings suddenly find their religion. In Sunday School they hear about auditions for the church Christmas pageant.

“That sounds interesting,” they think.

After intimidating the buttoned-up church kids into relinquishing their starring roles, the Herdmans secure lead parts. Ralph is Joseph. Imogene plays Mary. Gladys gets her wings.

Church members are appalled:

“How could such riffraff be let into God’s house to perform God’s sacred nativity?”

“Mary and Joseph will look like poor travellers looking for a place to stay!” (Heaven forbid.)

“No one will come to the pageant!”

In fact, everyone came to the pageant – to see what the Herdmans would do.

The play unfolds as a story of redemption within a story of redemption. The Herdmans get swept up into the remote possibility that an all-powerful God just might care about them.

“Magi” Leroy Herdman offers a canned ham to the newborn king out of the family’s welfare box. Angel Gladys Herdman announces Christ’s arrival with “Hey! Unto you a child is born!” The story even broke through the hardened Imogene Herdman.

After the play and the crowd disperses, Imogene returns to the stage alone to take in the events that just occurred, to treasure them up in her heart, if you will. In tears, she clings to the swaddled savior of the world.

Imogene was as unlikely a carrier of the baby Jesus as the mother of Jesus herself. And therein lies the glory of the story of stories: God, acting in the lives of ordinary people – people who get dental floss and file cabinets for Christmas.

Just like the Herdmans on stage, the story of Christmas is equally unpredictable. From virgin birth to shepherds witnessing history to a daring midnight escape…nothing is as you or I would have drawn it up.

And how relieving is that? If a saving, gracing Creator can break through to the Herdmans and the herdsmen, just maybe he can break through to me.

Merry Christmas, 2014.

 

Kevin Thompson writes weekly for The Boerne Star in the Texas hill country. Contact him at kevin@kwt.info.

A Holy House of Horrors

For good or bad, Halloween strikes at children’s imaginations (and taste buds) like no other holiday can. Think about it: You get to dress up like something you’ve always wanted to be, run around the neighborhood after dark with your friends and eat as much candy as you want.

Not even Santa can match those specs.

Halloween wasn’t perfect. There were inefficiencies, such as the houses that gave out raisins or pennies or pencils. Sometimes Mom insisted on driving along the street as we went door to door. But for the most part it was – and is – a kid’s dream.

My earliest Halloween memories occurred at church youth group parties. As a grade schooler, I blindly stuck my hand through holes labeled “Eyeballs” and “Brains.” Wet grapes and cooked pasta noodles never tasted the same.

Plenty of innocuous fun filled those parties: bobbing for apples, scarecrow dressing, pin the tail on the skeleton. But there was a next level that I couldn’t wait to experience.

A visionary youth minister (with perhaps a few skeletons in his closet) dreamed up the attraction. High schoolers would concoct and conduct a haunted house for the middle schoolers. Except for the fellowship hall where the G-rated party was held, the high school students had free reign on the entire church building.

Now when I say church building, please don’t picture a 10,000 square foot metal building with a few offices attached.

Picture a 3-story, red-bricked, multi-columned, fully-steepled, 60,000 square foot urban fortress on a 2-acre spread. Built in the Sunday School heydays of the 1950s, it was an imposing monstrosity and an ideal place for monsters.

The building had plenty of spookiness without the high schoolers’ help, especially since declining attendance left many sections minimally utilized.

For instance, the “Room in the Inn” homeless ministry took over the west wing of the 3rd floor once a week. Sleeping cots filled the rooms. An eery plastic molded shower was installed in the hallway.

Legend had it that a man simply known as “George” lived in the building for months, maybe years, without ever being caught. How else could the empty cans of beanie weenies in the church’s commercial kitchen be explained?

All this provided more than a fair share of fodder to freak out ‘tweenagers and early teenagers. The 20-minute tour of terror wound its way from the fellowship hall, through the industrial boiler room in the basement and past the baptistry, dyed red for the occasion.

Limp bodies hung from chandeliers. Masked monsters filled Sunday School rooms otherwise home to flannel board Bible characters. The haunted house was as good as any commercial attraction I ever saw.

Before I got to do my share of scaring, a more mature church leader nixed the annual Halloween party and haunted house tradition. Better to leave seldom-used adult education classrooms boringly neutral than to formally commit them to the dark side, I suppose.

But it was too late for me. Evil had already taken root. My best friend and I began building our own house of horrors in his attic each October. We eventually added a haunted woods.

Kevin Thompson writes weekly for The Boerne Star in the Texas hill country. He can be reached at kevin@kwt.info.

Summer memories last a lifetime

Blessing to educators, bane to stay-at-home moms, summer is in full swing. With its long days and warm weather, summer arguably makes more memories than all the other seasons combined. Here are some of mine.

***

Nothing spells summer like VBS (Vacation Bible School). Before the days of VBS-in-a-box complete with soundtracks and t-shirts, a plump preacher conducted “sword drills” in a stuffy auditorium. John 7:37? I got it! “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.” Yes!

Drink we did on those humid middle Tennessee mornings: McDonald’s orange drink by the yellow cooler full.

VBS is where I first learned the meaning of JOY (Jesus – Others – You), an acronym only recently challenged by the Christian Web site: I Am Second.org.

Our kids will attend three VBSes this summer. My kindergartener wants to add a fourth: “VBS-ta Texas.” He really wants to learn that God stays with us through the ups and downs of life.

***

We weren’t members, but someone invited us to a private pool tucked in the trees of a manicured south Nashville neighborhood.

Mom’s car must have been in the shop, because we took Dad’s extra work truck, a 1976 Ford. No AC, no power steering, no power brakes, no fun. The flatbed had wooden sides that barricaded the indiscriminately dumped trash Dad cleared from behind shopping centers.

Swimming must have been a non-negotiable on the day Mom agreed to wrestle the beast to the water source. I’m sure our arrival caused the cosmopolitans to rethink their commitment to diversity. I didn’t notice. I simply swam up a huge appetite.

At the poolside snack bar, I learned that nothing satisfies post-swimming hunger like a sandwich, an ice cream sandwich.

My kids will learn some things at the pool this summer. Someone will teach my pre-schooler that the game is Marco Polo, not Marco “Pillow.” It’s not going to be me.

***

For several summers, Mom borrowed an Apple II computer from the school where she taught. Our family rarely adventured beyond a Motel 6, so Oregon Trail became my gateway to the frontier.

An educational computer game, Oregon Trail taught children the realities of 19th century pioneer life. It mainly taught me worst-case scenarios:

1. A wheel could come off your wagon. 2. Your kids could starve because you can’t hunt worth a darn. 3. Your wife may drown while fording a river. 4. You could die of dysentery. Crap.

***

Oregon Trail prepared me for our church camp located in the shadow of the tallest waterfall south of Niagara, Fall Creek Falls in east Tennessee. The falls were fatal to go over but a rush to swim under.

The waterfall wasn’t the only water that washed over me at that camp. At age eleven, I was baptized into Christ after a campfire devotional on the last night of camp. A great cloud of witnesses consisting of seventy-five campers and thirty staff members surrounded the swimming hole.

Thirty minutes later I was filling water balloons in preparation for a midnight raid of a rival cabin. Salvation is instant. Sanctification takes time.

In retrospect, it was a night for obeying Jesus, including Matthew 18:3 – “Unless you change and become like little children, you shall never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

 

Kevin Thompson writes a weekly column for The Boerne Star in the Texas Hill Country. Follow him at http://www.kwt.info.

Suffering can lead to doubt or faith

“I can’t believe in God when there’s so much suffering in the world.”

If you talk to enough people about religion, you will inevitably hear this line. And it is understandable. Human anguish, brought to us in ever-increasing color by digital technologies, can be a major roadblock to faith.

“How can an all-powerful, supposedly compassionate God not intervene in the face of such misery? That’s not love; that’s hate.”

Yes, we’re in a mess. We’ve always been in a mess. The pages of history read like a CNN ticker. Tragedy runs throughout. But while suffering drives some to doubt, it drives me to faith.

Some people can’t believe in God because of the hurt they see in the world. I have to believe in God because of the hurt I see in the world. Belief in a suffering savior is the only way much of this makes sense.

But that doesn’t make suffering any easier to bear. We all dread pain. Even Christ.

“If it be your will, take this cup from me,” he prayed the night before his torturous death. A part of him wanted no part of it. Yet his willingness to endure suffering opened the tomb door to joy.

“To the extent a man can experience pain, that is the extent to which he can experience joy,” a sage once told me.

It is true. Easter Sunday came after Death Friday, not before. The path to resurrection always goes through the cross.

It’s hard to argue that our sufferings in 21st century America measure up to the travesties we hear about from around the world. And it’s hard to argue that my sufferings compare with those of the family with the sick child, the man with the deformity, the woman in the shelter.

They don’t, but they don’t have to. Suffering comes with the human condition and takes many forms. It’s life in a world where the Supreme Being refuses to dictate tranquility. Dictating tranquility would weaken our constitution.

So the question is not “Will I suffer?” The question is “How will suffering shape me?”

Will I harden in the belief that God could have stopped my suffering and didn’t?Will I assume he couldn’t care less for me?

Or will I consider that he didn’t stop my suffering for a similar reason he didn’t stop Christ’s? That he’s about something greater than a pain-free earthly existence. That he’s after resurrection joy and reconciliation.

I’ve come to believe that in the midst of pain, God strengthens the sufferer. He helps break harmful cycles. He comforts and consoles and suffers alongside.

“For we do not have a High Priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses…”

On the cross, Jesus questioned the faithfulness of God. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

At that moment he faced the same crossroads of faith and doubt that comes with any suffering, whether local and personal or distant and universal.

By Friday night, he fell to the side of faith. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” And with that, Easter was just two days away.

 

Kevin Thompson writes weekly for The Boerne Star. Follow him at http://www.kwt.info.


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