A New Appreciation of Christmas

The closer we get to Christmas day the more impatient I’m becoming with well-meaning people who are attempting to tell me how I should feel – or at the very least, how they think I should feel. Some of these wonderful friends are speaking out of their own pain and loss and experience but others are making assumptions. So, would you allow me to get on a gift-wrapped soap box for a few paragraphs? If you are one of those who have so kindly called or written, please don’t take offense. My feelings aren’t hurt.

The birth of Christ was not a time of sentiment with warm fuzzy feelings, hot cocoa, a nice orchestra, and lots of food. Joseph and Mary were under the King’s orders to travel to Bethlehem and it was a grueling journey. For three to five days Mary – who was about to have a baby – walked, rode, and stumbled along a path.

There were no Super 8 motels along the way, no paved road, no rest areas with toilets. They must’ve stopped often looking for a tree or rock Mary could lean against to urinate. Most likely they looked in vain for clean, fresh water using only what they carried in old, stinky skins or moldy jars. The risk of thieves, storms, and cold only added to the discomfort of the impending labor and birth of Mary’s first child.

Was her mother there? A sister maybe? Probably not since Mary got pregnant out of wedlock and brought shame on her whole family, they most likely stayed away as if she’d had leprosy. We know there wasn’t a hospital; instead they found themselves in a stable. No running water, no electricity, no space heater to chase away the chilly night air. There were “meadow muffins” and “cow pies” on the ground and some of them were fresh enough to throw off steam – the smell must’ve been overwhelming.

The whole situation was untenable. None of us would’ve stuck it out. We can’t even begin to imagine the pain and disappointment and loneliness. Mary and Joseph must certainly have wondered where God was in all this. Why now? Why here? We could go on to describe the poverty, hardship and rejection that Joseph and Mary and Jesus endured in those first few days but nothing we can imagine comes close.

This year God is allowing me a new appreciation for the incarnation. It was far from romantic, nostalgic and sentimental. The events surrounding the birth of Jesus were difficult and full of disappointment and pain. Christmas has taken on a new, deeper meaning. If Mary and Joseph and even Jesus as a baby were not spared hardship and difficulty, why would I expect anything else?

I can’t explain away the reality of grief or the myriad of ways I miss Lois but I do know that God is more real than I have ever experienced. His presence and power shove the clichés out of the way and strengthen my resolve to “come near to God “so He will “come near to” me. (see James 4:8)

When Paul wrote in Romans 8 that nothing will separate us from the love of Christ – not "trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword" – he was writing to me and you. Yes, he was also referring to struggles that were dangerously real to him but those words are for me. We are more than conquerors in hardship and sorrow, not because it isn’t painful, nor because God will somehow make it vanish, but because none of these things can take away what we have of God through Jesus Christ. God’s love and presence and comfort is more permanent than famine or suffering. It’s stronger than death, as unyielding as the grave. How do I put this in writing without tears and trembling? How do I explain this new appreciation of Christmas?

Christmas 2009

I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:20-21)

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.” (Job 1:21)

These were the Scripture passages that kept running through our conversation as Lois and I talked and prayed for over two hours late at night on Wednesday, September 9. We knew that Lois’ journey on this earth was near the end because her kidneys hadn’t functioned in over 24 hours. We prayed and cried and talked. Mostly we prayed that God would reveal His will in us; that whatever He chose to do we would be faithful and obedient and humble.

Since May 20, 2008 when Lois was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer which had metastasized to her liver, we understood that there was no cure, no perfect surgery, no radiation, no chemotherapy which would give her a long life. We didn’t give up but trusted God to be God as we tried 29 aggressive chemo treatments and waited to see if God would work a miracle. He did.

God showed us what it means to trust Him completely – especially when life didn’t turn out the way we expected. Lois learned to have Christ exalted in her body and lived out the meaning of “to live is Christ and to die is gain.” I learned – and am still learning – to say, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” What a miracle!

On August 19, 2009 Lois had a CT scan and a full set of labs and later that morning our oncologist walked into the exam room with tear filled eyes, sat down and said, “We’re done. The cancer has broken through the liver and is growing and the chemo is no longer effective.” When asked how long he thought Lois had to live he estimated 6 weeks to 6 months. Twenty-three days later, on September 11, just before noon, Lois breathed her last.

We were so blessed that Hospice helped Lois stay home to the end. In the final days the whole family was able to be around; to say good-bye; to acknowledge that only through Christ will we have sufficient courage and strength of character to go on.

Now we are celebrating Christmas. It is both joyful and puzzling. On the one hand we know Lois is experiencing all the glory and wonder of Heaven and yet we miss her. And even though she is physically absent her influence is all around; she is not forgotten. Some have said, “This must be a difficult Christmas.” So far I have not found it difficult – just different.

Joy and Tony continue to be busy at the bank. Their four boys, Brady, Broc, Brandt, and Brently (Bo) are growing and changing so much. Brady is now a first grader and Broc goes to pre-kindergarten every day.

Peter is still living in Des Moines, looking for more steady work but very involved in his church.

Kari and Jeremy have had quite an adventure this year as they took advantage of one of the stimulus programs and qualified for financing to build a home. Their new house is just south of Joy and Tony. Yes, Lois did get to walk through the construction mess a week before she died. Sarah and Natalie enjoy being close to their cousins.

Clarice, my Mom, is in a care facility in Sigourney – about 20 minutes away. It will be two years in March since she fell and broke her neck. While we are grateful there was no paralysis, we know the fall, surgery, recovery and rehab exacerbated her arthritis which is producing lots of challenges. Mom’s address is listed below – she appreciates cards and notes but has too much arthritis in her hands to write back. She will celebrate her 86th birthday on January 16.

I continue to enjoy my position of “pastor to pastors” for the churches of Christian Union. In spite of all the time with Lois and family, I still drove forty thousand miles in 2009 and spent over 90 nights on the road. What a privilege to come alongside so many who are partners in the Gospel and witness firsthand what God is doing in and through the local church. “There’s nothing like the local church when the local church is working right!”

Thanks for being such an important part of our lives.

Psalm 28:7The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped.

Just Different

I’ve had many gracious emails, phone calls, and notes from those who were concerned about me, and our whole family, celebrating Thanksgiving last week without Lois. I appreciate the concern, notes of encouragement, prayer and love that people continue to extend to our whole family. It is yet another example of the “body of Christ” living together and gives me the opportunity to share my personal experience of Thanksgiving 2009.

First, giving thanks was not difficult – just different. I found myself thanking God for what Lois is no longer dealing with. No more Chemo infusions! The Chemo “cold” with its dripping nose and clogged sinuses is gone. The neuropathy – the constant tingling in her hands and feet – has ended and the microwave is no longer heating up a rice bag every hour. There’s no more gradual hair loss to contend with, no more CT scans, no port to flush and keep clean, no need to sort a score of pill bottles. No more pain.

Second, spending time with the whole family was not a constant reminder that Lois was not there – just different. We all gathered at Joy and Tony’s house – all 29 of us! It was great fun to try to polish off enough food for 50 people. The kids had fun together and the adults sat around and talked for hours. Lois did enter the conversation at times but not in a mournful way. Instead, there were comments of fond memories.

Third, I didn’t experience any intense loneliness – just a different sense that I no longer had a partner to share with. I didn’t find that disconcerting or troubling but found a different kind of freedom. I arrived at Joy’s house when I felt like it – didn’t check with anyone about the schedule – and I left when I wanted to and didn’t wait for Lois to finish dishes or a conversation or . . .

Did I miss Lois? Yes, of course. But I am committed to trusting God more than I miss my wife. And I remember that Thanksgiving is about Him not me. So I join with David who praised the Lord with these words:

"Praise be to you, O LORD, God of our father Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, O LORD, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all. Wealth and honor come from you; you are the ruler of all things. In your hands are strength and power to exalt and give strength to all. Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name.” (1 Chronicles 29:10-13)