Sunday, December 26, 2010

Letter from Jesus

Before you open your presents,
here is a letter from me
to remind you of the reason
these gifts are under your tree.
I came to you as a baby so small,
sent from my Father above
to be a Savior for one and all
 and to share with you gifts of love.
At Christmastime as you remember my birth
and share gifts of love with each other,
remember the reason I came to earth:
to teach you to love one another.
So, who is this man you call St. Nick,
Father Christmas, or Santa Claus?
He's another reminder to always be quick
to share your love, no matter the cause;
to always remember the best gifts of all
do not come in paper so fine.
Sharing your love each and every day
makes me proud to call you mine.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

An Important Tradition Begins this Christmas

      My family who gathers around the Christmas tree each year has grown exponentially as each child has left home and married.  And, much like my childhood Christmases, the chaos of the gift opening has increased exponentially, as well.  Our traditions begin with attending the church's beautiful Christmas Eve candlelight service.  The golden flicker of the candles in the darkened sanctuary as the congregants sing "Silent Night" always leaves me with a warm glow of Christmas spirit.  Exiting the church, that warmth overcomes the coldest of nights, as we drive home for a family meal and gift exchange with my husband's family. 
      The joy of family warms my heart as I listen to the laughter and reminiscing of the cousins, close in age, and close in family ties.  Their noisy chatter escalates with the same level of their laughter as we play "dirty Santa".  As one gift is opened, someone else decides that's the very gift he wanted, and takes it from the original owner, forcing that person to open another one, and the game continues.  Never do we spend much money on these gifts, and very little thought is put into puchasing them, since we don't know who will end up with each present.
       The grandchildren  are sent to bed, and after everyone leaves for the night, we follow suit.  Of course, sleep eludes me as I mentally check off the following day's tasks of meal preparation, stocking stuffing, and doublechecking my own list.  Did I wrap all the presents?  Are any of them still in their hiding places?  I don't want anyone to feel forgotten as he watches everyone else but him opening a gift because I didn't complete my list!
     Christmas morning comes early as the youngest grandson wakens by 5:00, his normal morning routine.  Of course, no one can convince this rambunctious two-year-old to return to bed when he is alert and ready for his day.  That means the rest of us wake, as well, some pretending sleep longer than others.  After breakfast, usually a simple one, the Christmas meal preparation begins while the mamas entertain their young ones.  Of course, the most frequent question is 'When are we going to open the presents?' and the anticipation causes the overly-excited youngsters more than a little consternation to wait until after dinner. 
     With experience, I have managed to slow this gift exchange from the chaotic tearing of wrapping paper by everyone at the same time to a more calm youngest-to-oldest strategy.  This allows all of us to see each gift, and it allows the recipient the opportunity to acknowledge the giver.  But by this time, I am left wondering, do these children even know why they are receiving gifts?  Will they, as they get a little older, come to expect more and bigger gifts, just because it is Christmas?
      The warm glow of the Christ child from the previous night's service seems to have disappeared, only to be replaced by a different glow, that of family.  And I truly appreciate that joy and happiness; yet, I feel something missing.  That is why this year I plan to start a new tradition which I am borrowing from an object lesson my minister told us about during the Advent season.
       Beneath the tree will be a large, beautifully wrapped gift, more exquisite than any of the others.  Before any gifts are handed out, we will take turns guessing who the gift is for, and what do you think could be in such an exquisite package?  Then I will have the oldest grandchildren carefully unwrap the box, only to find that it is empty.  Why an empty box, you ask?  Isn't this a mean trick to play on everyone?  Not at all!  Because the object lesson will include a discussion about the most meaningful gifts of all, things that cannot be boxed and wrapped.  The truest gifts include acts of love, kindness, forgiveness, sharing of ourselves, hope, faith, peace...and light - the light of the Christchild who was born to save us all.  The Christchild, the smallest of babies yet most powerful of kings, provides all of these gifts to us through His grace.  All we have to do is accept them and use them for His purpose.
        Will my young grandchildren understand this lesson?  Maybe not yet.  But I think as the years pass, the tradition of presenting an object lesson before the actual gift exchange will eliminate the chaos and put us all in the proper frame of mind, that of celebrating the birth of our Savior.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What's in a Name?

           What's In A Name?
A person's surname is a coat of arms
given to him at birth.
Through generations from father to son
it reveals a man's true worth.
For a person is known throughout his world
by the reputation he has earned.
That name is known as evil or good
according to the deeds he has turned.
Your last name has been given to you
and is one in which to take pride,
for behind that name is a positive creed
that should be your lifetime guide.
Now before you judge too harshly
the mistakes your father made,
please value the lessons he taught you
and learn from the price that he paid.
He learned by default the great value
of earning a college degree,
and he had high expectations of you
from the time you could sit on his knee.
With the utmost respect for knowledge,
his absolute greatest desire
was for his son to go to college
and not be stuck in Life's muck and mire.
Like his father and grandfather before him,
he sacrificed much at great cost
just trying to earn a living,
not realizing how much time he had lost.
And the patriarchs of the family
knew the importance of working hard:
"A job worth doing is worth doing right";
against mediocrity never let down your guard.
You must choose your friends carefully,
both plain folk and those of renown,
knowing that friends are like hot air balloons;
they will help you up or bring you down.
You were bequeathed this noble gift
and all that it represents.
Now upholding the value of your last name
is your inheritance.

The Second Best Christmas Pageant Ever

Oh, how I could relate to the mother who gained directorship of the church Christmas pageant by default in Barbara Robinson’s "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever." In fact, so well could I relate, I decided to adapt that very story about a group of misfit kids invited to church with the promise of refreshments, who eventually bully their way into taking the main roles in the church’s Christmas pageant.
                  I was a second-year middle school teacher and a mother of three – soon to be four. I taught Sunday school but really had no desire to direct the church Christmas pageant. Unfortunately, I had yet to learn the art of saying “No” and meaning it. No one else stepped up, and so here I was, eight months pregnant, organizing our first practice.
                 My adapted version of this familiar Christmas story was purposefully written with a narrator and few actual lines for the kids to memorize. With most of my young actors' sporadic attendance, I knew the struggle I faced in scheduling productive practices. And, almost like the bullying Herdman kids from the original book, I coerced a high school student into the role of narrator.
               Beginning practices were scheduled for Wednesday evenings and Sundays during the Sunday school hour for the month of November. Two full weeks later, the cast was assigned and enough people in attendance to finally read through the entire play. Just two weeks from delivering a newborn, the stress mounted. At the last November practice, I handed out a modified practice schedule: Wednesday evenings, Sunday mornings, and now Sunday nights. I sent a note home begging the parents to make sure their sons and daughters attended each practice.
               I delivered my fourth child, a son, December 1, the first scheduled Sunday night practice, so I had no idea how many parents actually drove through the snow to ensure their sons and daughters were at the church while I lay in the hospital bed holding the newest addition to my family. The following Wednesday, I showed up for practice exhausted and just a wee bit short-tempered. I explained that only two weeks remained before we would be putting this production on for the congregation.
                “What’s the congregation?” asked one young actor. Oh, what a fitting story for this group of children to perform, I thought. In the original story, the misfit children who took over the main parts of the pageant had never been inside a church, had not heard of Jesus or Mary, or any other reference to religion that my regular attendees had portrayed in pageants over the past few years. At the end of practice, I reminded Abby for perhaps the fortieth time to bring her decorative bags that her mother had promised to make to represent the gold, frankincense and myrrh the three wise men would carry.
                  Sunday morning of pageant day arrived, and still, no bags. Groaning with frustration at the irresponsible parent who had promised to help with this small task, I realized if I wanted bags, I’d need to make them myself before tonight’s performance. Hmph! But that afternoon, Abby called to say she had the bags and they were already in the car so she wouldn’t forget. Very few costumes or props were needed for this production. The cradle, the large star, and the robes and halos would take little time to turn this misfit group of regular church youth and their non-attending friends into the roles they represented.
                           That evening, forty-five minutes before start time, we gathered in a room in the education wing as far away from the sanctuary as we could so our excited babbling would not detract from the holy-child-anticipation of the gathering congregants. I began to relax and think, “This is going to go okay, and in 45 minutes, it will all be over.” Then "Mary" came up to me with the news that she had left our “baby Jesus” doll at home after Sunday school.
                           Our church nursery had numerous dolls, mostly Barbies with missing arms or chopped
hair, none of which would serve as Baby Jesus. Frantically, I glanced around the room; my gaze rested on my newborn peacefully sleeping in the car seat in the corner of the nursery. In a panic-forced moment of insanity, I decided my newborn would have to become the star of the pageant. He had been fed, was dry, and would surely sleep. At the appointed hour, we marched down the steps, filing into the sanctuary at the signal of the narrator.
                                  The performance proceeded amazingly well, given the disorganization of our earlier dress rehearsal. The congregation laughed in all the appropriate places, the students quietly cued each other when necessary, and the story of the Herdmans who took over the pageant knowing
absolutely nothing about church or Jesus was clearly portrayed by my young actors.
                                   When the narrator gave the cue for the three wise men to enter from the back of the
sanctuary, I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that this scene would conclude our pageant. But from the back of the church I heard some minor scuffling and the first king stumbled through the
entryway into the center aisle as if being shoved from behind. Standing upright and regaining control, he stopped abruptly when he realized all eyes in the sanctuary were on him.
                                    From the front pew, I suddenly realized his fear. We had never practiced in front of an audience, and this particular student was one of our friends-of-a-member, occasional-Sunday-school
-only attendees who had never been inside the sanctuary with people in the pews. I leaned toward the aisle and beckoned him forward, worried that we might never re-enact the full manger scene if our wise men didn’t have enough nerve to put one foot in front of the other. Finally he moved. As practiced, precisely four steps behind followed the second wise man. Wise man number three counted four paces and followed suit. All three carried their beautiful gifts for the newborn king.
                        As they slowly marched toward the front, I heard snickers and muffled giggles from the congregation. Not until they reached the front pew did I fully understand these mirthful moments. Their very elegant purple velvet bags had once held Crown Royal whiskey, clearly labeled on the side of each one.
                 I silently groaned, anticipating a later rebuke from the minister and more certainly, from one of our elderly members who seemed to view all youth activities with a critical eye. Then our baby Jesus began to squirm and emitted a tiny squeak as a prequel to his normal wake-up wail.
               “Not yet!” I thought. But immediately “Mary” picked him up and gently cradled him in her arms, as any mother would do, soothing him into sleep again. And, like the ending of the story upon which we based our play, a look of sheer wonder passed over her face as the "angel of the Lord" threw her hands into the air and yelled loudly, “Hey! Unto you a child is born!”
                   I received no criticism, no rebukes, but rather laughter and praise for the fresh view of the traditional Christmas pageant. The following year when the time arose, I politely declined the request to direct the pageant with the excuse that baby Jesus would no longer fit in the cradle, and surely we should allow someone else to experience the Christmas pageant joy. And this time, "no" meant no.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

I Am an American

I am an American.  I am part of the melting pot that creates the America designed by our forefathers, a merging of peoples from all walks of life who choose to live here.  Like a stained glass window, America is made up of many colors and many shapes; parts of her that sparkle and shine, parts more dark and grim, but all pieces melded together for a better place to live. 
The diversity of people in America is what makes her strong.  From various cultures and races, we learn tolerance.  Despite the history of racism and ethnic fear mongering, the melding of ideas and practices from a rich and diverse population educate us about our ever-shrinking world.  By learning about and from one another, we will accomplish the dreams of our founding fathers.
We celebrate the occupational opportunities in America, which strengthen our work ethic and thus, our economy.  Hard work is praised and rewarded in most occupations.  Those who choose to rely on Welfare or other public assistance their entire lives never truly experience the full measure of what being an American means.  But those of us who toil hard enjoy the benefits and satisfaction that accompany hard work.
Most importantly, Americans enjoy freedoms many others across the globe will never experience.  We live in safe homes that we either rent or own; we drive cars when and where we choose on highways and roads well maintained; we make our own choices regarding religion, education, and families.  This freedom came at a high price and our servicemen and women continue to fight to maintain these freedoms. 
I am proud to be a part of the stain glass beauty that is America.

Friday, December 10, 2010

This I Believe

     St. Francis of Assisi once said, “It takes only one sunbeam to chase away a shadow.” Even a child understands the literal meaning of this quotation. Figuratively speaking, however, one must have experienced some shadowy periods in life, and the subsequent people or events that enabled one to see the light at the end of the tunnel in order to fully understand the meaning of this phrase.
     As someone who attended Sunday school and church weekly as a child, I learned early the song "This Little Light of Mine" and eventually made the connection that the light of the SON could shine through me. Later still, I memorized John 12:46: "I have come into the world as a light so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness." My faith has been a guiding force for as long as I can remember.
     During my lifetime, many people illuminated my pathway on my occasional walks through the shadowy valleys. When my husband contracted chicken pox at 35, and with it, varicella pneumonia, my church group began a prayer chain before he was even loaded onto the Lifewatch helicopter. Hours of agony passed as I worried about how I would ever raise four children on my own if he didn’t make it. I knew many prayers were being sent heavenward on his behalf, but it wasn’t until I finally took time to breathe a prayer of my own that I felt immediate peace and knew that he was going to be all right. Within the hour of my prayer, he became stabilized, but the physical danger lingered much longer than I had ever anticipated. Still, in my heart, I knew he would eventually come home. Seventeen days later he did.
     One weekend early in my teaching career, one of my seventh graders took his life. Having spent the weekend out of town, I learned about it on Monday morning when the principal called a brief faculty meeting to inform those of us who had not received the news. Facing my first class with that empty seat and the knowledge that Jason's face and voice would never fill that seat again was a challenge. What words could I say to begin class, knowing full well my own words would be choked with emotion? I did the only thing I knew how. I informed the class of his death, and told them we would begin class with a few moments of silence in his memory. Those who wanted could say a silent prayer. How inadequate that seemed, but it allowed us to make it through that day, and each subsequent day became a little easier.
     In December of 2000, Jonathan and Reginald Carr unleashed their murderous rampage on five innocent victims in Wichita, Kansas. One of those victims, Jason Befort, was a former student of mine. I had close connections to many of his family members through church and 4-H. The immediate weeks and months following the murders was a truly dark time, a deep valley from which some family members seemed forever lost, especially once the trials began and they were forced to relive the excruciating details of that night in a snowy soccer field. Even people of faith are tested to their very limits, and questioning God's purpose became like a mantra. Reading and rereading the book of Job and daily prayers eventually helped illuminate the path back to faith.
     My darkest walk in the valley took place during the 2001-2002 school year. Of course, 9/11 affected us all, some more personally, and all of us politically. Then in December of that year, I received news that my only brother had been killed in an elevator accident. The pain of this loss seemed unbearable. Almost one month to the date of his death, my mother had a massive heart attack, leaving her near death and quite weak for months.
     Our methods of grieving are as individual as the number of people who grieve, and my weekly visits to the cemetery and monthly flower deliveries were comforting to me. I found peace and solace there, knowing in my heart Tom was not there, but still feeling a sense of closeness as I updated him regarding my mother's condition and other family matters. Despite well-meaning acquaintances who told me I was lingering too long in mourning, I continued this ritual, gradually decreasing the weekly visits to monthly, until the pain of his death rescinded into memories.
        Surrounded by my church family and compassionate friends who understood my relationships with my brother and my mother, I climbed out of my dark dungeon of depression with their enlightening words of comfort and found a brighter outlook. Eventually I could speak of him without dissolving into sobs, and gradually, my pathway began to brighten.
     It is being the recipient of light through these human Sonbeams that I have grown in my faith and become more knowledgeable in scripture to be able now to shed light where shadows threaten. We can learn from and become stronger through adversity if we but allow His light to show us the path to follow.
     God gave me the strength to offer comfort and support at the bedside of a friend whose terminal illness took him far too soon from his family. He died peacefully, surrounded by family holding his hands, his wife quietly reading his favorite scriptures, and me keeping his grandson occupied. While I went to the house to be a source of comfort for the family, I received a blessing of my own. Given the choice, this is exactly how I want to go out of this world, surrounded by family, peaceful music playing softly in the background, and my favorite scriptures being read.
     When my teenage son flipped a pickup end-over-end in the early morning hours one Sunday morning, fear and anxiety gripped my soul. When the immediate crisis had abated with the knowledge that he was not seriously hurt, I gave thanks to God for the teachable moment that allowed my son to recognize he had been given a second chance at life and must make the most of it. I praise Him daily for sparing my son's life so that he would later find his soul mate, marry, and begin a family of his own.
     When my own daughter miscarried, not once but twice, I comforted her in the only way I knew how, through verses from the book of Job and through prayer. My words may very well have fallen on deaf ears during this time of grief, yet God’s word cannot be refuted. He gave me the words to offer her, and she found her way past the grief and into a stronger person who later bore two more children.
     Not all people are willing or ready to leave their individual shadows, but I have learned to seek the light and to surround myself with other beams of light, ready to shine wherever shadows threaten. I have come to understand that to the world, I am just one person, but to one person, I may just be the Sonbeam that allows that one person to experience light again in their world.

Riding the Mamba

Sweaty palms and a stomach in knots should have been my first warning that this decision might truly be the rashest one I had ever made in my 52 years on this earth.  In fact, I might not survive to see my 53rd birthday in a mere six weeks!  What was I thinkin’?
            I closed my eyes in dread and my knees shook as I heard the screams of terror in the distance.  People surrounded me on all sides, and I could see their mouths move, their open-mouthed smiles which should have brought the sounds of their laughter, but I heard none of their conversations, none of that laughter - only the terrorizing screams getting closer and closer.
            I stood on the platform, unable to step away from the situation in which I now found myself.  The rapid clack-clack-clack-clack of metal on metal began to slow and grow louder and louder until the open train of cars came to a complete rest in front of me.  The cars emptied from the opposite side, and I wanted to follow that crowd right on out the other side, but was blocked from doing so by the people in front of me.
            Over the loud speaker rang the voice of trepidation, directing us to climb into the nearest cars, and like lemmings to their deaths, I put one foot in front of the other, hearing nothing but the pounding of my heart, and followed the crowd.  The day was cool, yet my shirt clung to my back, and my clammy hands gripped the hard metal bar in front of me.  I felt it latch into place across my lap and took several deep breaths to calm my racing heart. 
            Slowly the train began to move out from under the protective overhang and into the warm sunshine.  I looked to my side and could see midget-sized people far below me on the ground going about their ways, sometimes glancing up toward this train and pointing, as if in warning:  we’ll never see those people again.
            Clack-clack-clack-clack, faster and faster, higher.  I could see the parking lot on the far side of the park and everything in between from here.  The train track sprawled out in front of us, rolling gently to the side and circling lazily around this end of the park.  Other tracks poked their steel beams up in the distance, and the tall skyscraper tower of the Fly Ride was just below us.  This doesn’t look so bad, I thought.  But now I was on my back, looking straight up at the cloudy sky, and the clack-clack-clack had slowed to a near stop. 
            With a death grip on the bar and my throat closing in near panic, my heart seemed to pick up speed with a rhythm equal to the quickening wheels on the track.  Earlier, when viewing this track from a distance, this first drop had seemed the worst, so if I lived through it, surely I would enjoy the rest of this trip.  With a sudden jolt, we were moving again, a dramatic drop so fast my stomach surfaced to near throat level and threatened to choke the very life out of me.  Laughter and screams of joy and screams of panic filled the air.  My car partner yelled something, throwing her hands into the air with an abandonment and sense of freedom elusive to me.  My grip tightened on the bar as my throat tightened with anxiety.
            No sooner had we reached the bottom of that first steep pitch and I mentally relaxed in the mistaken belief that first drop was the worst of the ride, when suddenly I found myself tilting sideways and speeding over the heads of onlookers far below at seventy-five miles per hour.  This speed on a freeway seems benign, but in this open car on this metal track whizzing far above the ground, twisting and turning from left to right and then circling back again, I silently prayed for deliverance from this metallic deathtrap.  With eyes tightly closed against the view speeding past with a velocity that defies human reason, I felt my jaw clenching as forcefully as my fingers, nor did they relax until the clack-clack-clack of the wheels became more pronounced with the slowing of the ride. 
            Finally, pulling into the station after what seemed an eternity but in actuality had lasted less than three minutes, I felt my stomach drop back to its normal position no longer choking my throat, my jaws unclench, and my body decompress.  Climbing out of the seat and onto terra firma, I pushed toward the exit with my students close behind.
            “Oh, that was awesome!  We need to do that again!” said Stonie.  “Mrs. Foster, you were funny.  You screamed the whole way!”


Sunday, December 5, 2010

What Guides You?

    As a middle school teacher, I see the influence peers have on one another, both positive and negative.  Middle schoolers are so easily buffeted this way and that, guided by that innate desire to fit in, to belong.  Their moods can vascillate from one minute to the next, solely because of a comment or a look from another person.  Some adults, too, allow external forces to guide their moods and decisions.  Are you having a "bad hair" day?  Did your horoscope tell you this would be a two-star day or a five-star day?  Were you late to work because of some old geeezer in front of you?  Why do we so willingly attribute our moods and behavior to these external forces when we have no control over anyone but ourselves?  I choose, instead, to place the reason for my sometimes erratic mood swings and actions where it belongs - on myself.  Because if I blame someone or something else, then I am giving up control of me.  I like to be in control.  That's why I sometimes struggle listening to God, who is the Guiding Force in my life.  Because He likes to be in control, too; in fact, He IS in control, but sometimes I won't admit it. Having God as the guiding force in my life brings me so many blessings, not the least of which is sharing my thoughts through this blog.  I hope you enjoy it.