Monthly Archives: December 2022

O Little Town of Bethlehem

But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting. Micah 5:2

I knew everything would be different. There would be no stable as I’d always pictured, no shepherds watching sheep on a hillside, no patient donkey, instead honking taxis and tourist attractions. I wanted to picture Bethlehem as the Bible described it, a quiet little town suddenly filled with strangers needing to be counted, frantically seeking a place to lay their heads. But when an unusual opportunity came up that allowed Charles and me to visit the Holy Land we were excited.

In 1996 it was possible to visit Bethlehem on certain days. Our guide, a Christian Palestinian, explained that when there was a terrorist threat (as there often was), no tourists were allowed. But it was clear the day we went to Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Yes, Bethlehem was different but it was fascinating. Not only was it was the birthplace of Jesus but it was also the birthplace of David, the town where Ruth met Boaz in the field. Ruth became the great-great-great (about 14 greats!) grandmother of Jesus. It was Joseph’s ancestral home so he had to go there when Caesar declared a census be taken in Judea. All part of God’s marvelous plan.

We enjoyed buying olive wood nativity sets for family members at a huge store where there were dozens and dozens of nativity sets of all sizes, from Christmas tree ornament, to almost life size. Crafting these nativity sets is the main livelihood for many folks in Bethlehem.

When we visited the place of Jesus’ birth, the actual place, I was overwhelmed with the knowledge of what He did for me, leaving Glory to become a helpless baby. For centuries after His birth, according to our guide, folks eagerly pointed to that stable/cave and told what had happened there. In about the year 500 the Church of the Nativity was built over the place to preserve it for all to visit and, like me, to worship the Lord. There were hundreds of people standing in line to be able to kneel at the very spot marked by a large star on the floor of a recessed “cave.” When I knelt ever so briefly just to touch the tiles it was a very precious moment. That site is said to be the most authentic of all the sacred sites.

It was years after our visit that I read the account of Phillips Brooks’ visit to Bethlehem. It was something like this.

Phillips Brooks was a very famous preacher in the mid 1800’s. He was the one chosen to preach the funeral of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. After that funeral he was so depressed, so hopeless, he could no longer lead his parishioners. He took a sabbatical and traveled to the Holy Land. He rode by horse from Jerusalem to Bethlehem late one afternoon. Contemplating the little town and remembering the supernatural event that took place there, he felt a peace come over him that was unexplainable. He went in a small church where, as he wrote later, his “heart sang.” He knew that, in spite of the horrors of the last few years, God was still in control.

When Phillips returned to his flock he tried to explain to them what it was like walking where Jesus walked. He wanted them to have the peace he experienced. But no matter how hard he tried he could not convey to them the feelings that he had. It was simply too much for words. Three years after his return to his church in Philadelphia he sat at his desk trying to prepare for that year’s Christmas service. Suddenly the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” formed in his head and he quickly wrote them down. He rushed to his organist, Lewis Radner, who exclaimed, “This is what you’ve been trying to say!” Radner began trying to write music for the words but he was struggling. On Christmas Eve night he finally went to sleep knowing he would disappoint Phillips because he had no music. In his sleep the tune came to him and when he woke he was able to write it so the church could, that Christmas Day, sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

The little town of Bethlehem is different from the time when Jesus was born. It’s different from the time Phillips Brooks was there. And I’m sure it’s different from the time we walked its streets in 1996. But the story of the birth of the Messiah is the same. Our great God who sent Jesus is the same. And we can find His peace in the streets of Bethlehem or — wherever you are!

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.

Above they deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light.

The hopes and fears of all the years

Are met in thee tonight.

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A Puppy and a Camera

Photo by Kanashi on

My sister Suzanne dreamed of having a collie puppy. She all but devoured every book Albert Payson Terhune wrote about hero and heroine collies. It was 1954 and she was nine years old. In her enthusiasm for collies she even said she planned to have 1,000 of them when she grew up. Mamma, hearing her announcement, smiled as she mixed the Christmas fruitcake. “Maybe not quite that many,” she responded.

As for me, I studied the cameras in the Sears catalog knowing they were all too expensive, almost as unattainable as Charlie’s longed-for jeep. Still, as Mamma said, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”

Weeks before Christmas Charlie began teasing Suzanne. He said he knew something she might get for Christmas. He came up with new clues every day. This thing, he said, would be a little different every day. “It” would be covered with little pointy spikes. “It” wasn’t a ball but it could possibly knock a person over. I tried to help Suzanne figure out what this thing was but we both became more and more perplexed.

It would be a strange Christmas with only four of us kids still at home at Stone Gables and even Stan wasn’t there much since he had a job. Jackie had married and lived in Maryland and all the rest except John lived too far away to come home. John and his family lived in Clayton but all three of his children were sick so only he could come to our family Christmas Eve celebration. John was “too old” to wait in the kitchen for the lighting of the Christmas tree. In fact, only three of us waited for the blast of Daddy’s horn calling us to come see the tree. Where was Charlie, we wondered. No one seemed to know.

We rounded the turn at the arch, Suzanne as youngest, in front. Our eyes would usually be focused only on the beautiful tall cedar tree with real candles aglow. But that year what we saw was Daddy striding towards us with a soft golden bundle in his arms. I think we all lost our breath when he laid that collie puppy in Suzanne’s eager arms. And there was Charlie behind Daddy grinning with an “I told you so” look. Stan reached out to pet the puppy who licked his hand as if he were an old friend. Seems Charlie had kept Lassie, as Suzanne named her, in Daddy’s study during supper. And Stan had been the one Daddy assigned to purchase the dog and bring her to her new home. It was an amazing surprise, impossible to pull off without several conspirators.

The coming of Lassie was enough Christmas for all of us. But we each had a special gift. I don’t remember what the boys’ gifts were but mine, wrapped in a chunky square package, was a camera with two 12-exposure rolls of black and white film. I felt like a true reporter and wasted no time in trying to record the happiness of that Christmas. My favorite photo, even better than those of the snow that fell the next day, was that of Suzanne lying in front of a crackling fire, one arm over Lassie, reading her Christmas book, Lassie Come-Home.

Suzanne and Lassie were inseparable. The dog grew quickly and was an intelligent, smart one. Suzanne’s job at that time was to milk the cow. Soon she learned that Lassie would help her bring the cow gently to the stable for milking. Then Lassie began fetching the cow by herself from wherever she’d wandered. The dog was almost human, knowing when to play and when to lie quietly, when to frisk and run, when to show off her many tricks, and when to be a shadow at Suzanne’s side. Mamma allowed Lassie anywhere except in the bed. Getting nowhere with her pleas to have Lassie in the bed, Suzanne made herself a cozy pallet and the two slept together on the floor. Suzanne remembers that the only time she and Lassie were apart was when the family went to church.

At the age of six months Lassie became suddenly sick and died. Our whole family mourned but Suzanne was inconsolable. Even now, in her seventies, Suzanne says Lassie has always been a part of her life. Now she and her husband have a border collie who reminds her poignantly of dear Lassie. I asked her if she had that picture I made of her and Lassie in front of the fire. She couldn’t find it and neither can I.

But both of us have that picture in our minds. The sweetness of that special Christmas lingers today–the anticipation, the overwhelming surprises, the scents of cedar, oranges, and the taste of Mamma’s Japanese fruitcake full of nuts and raisins. We need no picture to remind us of all of that or of Lassie’s knowing bark, her beautiful full collie fur, her faithfulness and her cheer.

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Celebrating a Blister

Mattie, 13, came dancing into the den where several of we family members sat. She had great news, she said. Mattie is a very good dance student. She absolutely loves to dance wherever she goes–down the hallway, around the kitchen, into the living room to start dressing the Christmas tree, and of course on stage. So I naturally thought she had achieved some wonderful award.

Actually, she had, but not quite the award I expected. Astonishment is hardly strong enough a word to describe our reaction to Mattie’s announcement. Exposing a reddened ankle, she exclaimed, “I have a blister! I finally have a blister!”

Mattie explained her enthusiasm saying she’d been working very hard to perfect a new ballet step. Evidently the instructor had warned her that a blister in the right place would indicate she’d twirled, pivoted, pirouetted correctly.

Blisters are no fun. Remember those blisters when you got new oxfords in fourth grade? You applied a bandaid which then curled up and made the blister hurt worse. It took a few days to toughen your heels so you and your shoes were comfortable. I’d never considered being at all happy over a blister. But here was my beautiful granddaughter thrilled at discovering she had one on each heel.

Mattie’s excitement over having blisters made me start thinking about other hard and bad things we might celebrate.

Sore muscles after a strenuous workout is reason for celebration. Also, sheer exhaustion after a hard day’s labor or callouses from gardening. There are times when we have tough circumstances that turn out to be very good for us. No circumstances we face are any worse than those of Corrie ten Boom and her sister Betsie in a Nazi concentration camp. They were confined in a smelly, tight room with many other prisoners. They soon discovered their cots were infected with fleas and the women were all scratching, having trouble sleeping in spite of their exhaustion from hard labor. But it became apparent that the guards totally ignored their quarters because of the fleas. Therefore, Corrie and Betsie could lead their fellow prisoners in Bible study. They learned to celebrate the curse of fleas.

One of the best examples, I think, of joyful hardships is that of a mother birthing a baby. After the baby comes the mother all but forgets the pain of labor as she cuddles a tiny human complete with fingers and toes and depending on his mother for food, safety, and love.

Thinking of the pain and joy of childbirth leads me straight to that amazing night in Bethlehem when Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and named Him, as instructed by the angel, Jesus. Mary must have suffered pain and great discomfort there in a crude cave or stable. Joseph, too, would have been so troubled that he could find no better place for travel-worn Mary to have her baby. But all that hardship was followed with rejoicing. Imagine being blessed by the coming of the King of kings who left His glorious home in heaven to become a helpless baby.

The shepherds on the hillside slept on the hard ground, nursed cold blistered hands, and fought off predators that were after their sheep all through the night. But their pain and danger were rewarded. They would never have received the glorious message from angels in the sky if they’d been home in cozy cots.

Yes, hard things, painful circumstances, difficult times do bring rewards not found any other way. Congratulations, Mattie, for achieving ballet blisters!

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. Luke 2:7

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