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Christmas is a season of interesting contrasts. In many parts of the world, for example, Christmas comes in the darkest, coldest part of winter—and yet Christmas is a season of light and warmth, characterized by the warm glow of lights on houses and trees. People are kinder and filled with more compassion and love, but at the same time the stress of the season can make people busier, ruder, and more impatient. And while Christmas is traditionally a time of joyful gatherings with friends and family, so many feel uninvited, forgotten, and alone. Contrasts like these are with us all year long, but at Christmastime they are amplified, more tender and poignant.
Christmas lasts much longer than one day. Weeks in advance, decorations are hung, and stores and streetlights are lit up in happy anticipation. Music...
Isn’t it interesting that sometimes those who have the least are the most grateful, and yet there are others who seem to have everything—except gratitude? As religious leader Henry B. Eyring observed: “We so easily forget that we came into life with nothing. Whatever we get soon seems our natural right, not a gift. And we forget the giver. Then our gaze shifts from what we have been given to what we don’t have yet.”
Sometimes we feel like pilgrims on a sea of strife. A pilgrim is one who has journeyed far from home, and that journey can leave us feeling wounded, lost, and weak. But a pilgrim isn’t a lost or aimless wanderer. As pilgrims, we journey with a purpose. We know that this unsettled world—with its strife and pain and disappointment—is not our true home. So we set off in search of heaven’s strength and grace. When all else fails around us, we search in faith for something secure to hold onto, someone we can rely on, someone who will never let us down.
More than 20 years ago, Gene Scheer read a book about the creation of the Constitution of the United States. He read about the passionate dedication of the founders of this nation—a nation that would one day become a symbol of freedom for the world. As he read, he felt inspired—so inspired that he wrote a song and called it “American Anthem.” The song has been performed at presidential inaugurations and was featured in a popular documentary about World War ll. Scheer said he wanted it to be a “rallying call,” reminding citizens—including himself—of our responsibility “to get out there and … do something” for the country.
Sometimes we see things so often that we don’t really look at them anymore. When was the last time you stopped to watch a beautiful sunset, gaze at a canopy of clouds, or look up in wonder at a cluster of stars? We are surrounded by the natural world, but we can only understand our place in it—our connection with all of creation—when we take the time to reflect on the beauty around us.
In one of George Bernard Shaw’s plays, a successful young woman challenges the idea that we are victims of our circumstances. “I don’t believe in circumstances,” she declares. “The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them.”1
A beloved children’s book from decades ago contains this keen observation: “A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts, they will shine out of your face like sun beams, and you will always look lovely.”
Whenever we see a wildflower pushing through a crack in concrete, we marvel at its determination to thrive. A seed landed in a difficult spot, but it had the tenacity to grow and bloom anyway.
To have a name is to have an identity. Our names give us a sense of both individuality and belonging. They distinguish us from others while at the same time connecting us with our family or culture, teaching us about our origin. A name can be a sign of a special emotional bond, endearing us to loved ones. Besides identifying who we are, a name can inspire us to become who we want to be.
Living things need light and food and water. And these aren’t just physical necessities—we need spiritual light and nourishment too. Amos was a prophet from the Old Testament who foresaw a time when the world would seem dark, even “in the clear day.”1 He also predicted a future day when there would be “a famine in the land, not a famine of [food], nor a thirst for water, but [a famine] of hearing the words of the Lord.”2
For all of their differences, there are some things that many of the world’s religions share in common. One of these is the symbolic tree of life, representing a connection between heaven and earth and our longing for the eternal. Somewhere deep inside, we all want to know that life continues, that our existence has meaning beyond the here and now, and that its purposes do not begin with birth or end with death.
I’m here in Essex County, New Jersey at the Eagle Rock September 11th Memorial, overlooking Manhattan Island. On that morning, twenty years ago, I was in the city, co-anchoring a national network news program.
Labor, by definition, is hard. It can be exhausting, uncomfortable, even painful at times. So why do we do it? There are many possible motivations for labor, but the greatest is love. And the interesting thing about a labor of love is that it leads to more love. When we put loving effort into something, it becomes more meaningful to us. Whether we’re preparing a meal, a handwritten card, or a little homespun work of art, we care more about the things we make when we care about the person for whom we’re making them. The labor and the love become intertwined, and somehow, we weave a little part of ourselves into our creations.
When Gideon George arrived at New Mexico Junior College, the newest member of the Thunderbirds’ basketball team, he found things to be quite different from his home in Minna, Nigeria. He had an air-conditioned dorm with indoor plumbing, for example. The basketball courts were not made of cracked concrete or hard-crusted dirt. And in Nigeria, you didn’t typically see a pair of almost-new basketball shoes in the trash.
If we open our hearts and listen, we can learn a lot from those who are a few steps ahead of us in life’s journey. This is especially true of the elderly people in our own family. Their lives are rich with treasures to be passed on to future generations. Long ago, the Psalmist pleaded, “When I am old and grayheaded, O God, forsake me not; until I have shewed my strength unto this generation, and thy power to every one that is to come” (Psalm 71:18). A family’s shared legacy survives and endures only as those of earlier generations share their stories—stories about the difficulties and heartaches they faced and how they persevered and found joy. Such stories are an inheritance more valuable than wealth.
On a particularly hot summer day, a woman jokingly asked her husband to go online and order some cooler weather. The husband got on his computer and a few minutes later reported, “Done. It should arrive sometime this fall.”
Decades ago, researchers measured the effects of diet on the heart health of rabbits. Not surprisingly, rabbits that were fed fatty foods developed cholesterol problems. But something else was surprising—one group of rabbits had significantly better health outcomes. They had eaten the same foods as the other rabbits, but they had also been cared for by a particular researcher—one who happened to be “an unusually kind and caring individual.” She didn’t just feed the rabbits. “She talked to them, cuddled and petted them.” She didn’t know she was altering the results—she was just being herself.
A beloved poem from the 1800s tells of six blind men who wanted to find out what an elephant is like. So they went to visit one. Each man approached it from a different direction, each taking hold of a different part of the elephant and describing what he discovered. One felt a tusk and concluded that an elephant is like a spear. Another, feeling a thick, sturdy leg, decided an elephant is like a tree. Still another, grabbing the trunk, declared that an elephant is like a snake, and so on.
From here in Copenhagen, Denmark, between 1850 and 1900, nearly 20,000 Danes set out across the ocean. Their final destination was Utah Territory in the western United States. Their purpose was to gather with fellow believers. They were pioneers of faith. Along with thousands more across Scandinavia and tens of thousands from other parts of Europe, they traveled to Liverpool, England, to cross the Atlantic and then make their way by foot, wagon, and handcart to the Salt Lake Valley.
If you’ve ever been to a baseball game, you know that something special happens in the middle of the seventh inning. It’s called the seventh-inning stretch. Reportedly, this tradition began way back in 1910, and baseball loves its traditions. So to this day, right before the home team’s half of the inning, all the fans stand up for a minute or two, often singing a song together. After all, they’ve been sitting in those seats for quite a while now, and it’s nice to get a good stretch in before the last two innings of the game.
As big as this world is, it can sometimes feel crowded. Not crowded with people, but crowded with facts and opinions, with tasks and demands. Sometimes the hectic pace of life doesn’t leave us much time to process the experiences that bombard us. As a result, we can feel trapped—like we’ve been hurried onto a high-speed train before we have time to find out where it’s going.
I am standing today at the World War II memorial at Pointe du Hoc on the northern coast of France. In the early hours of June 6, 1944—better known to us as D-Day—American rangers scaled these 100-foot sheer cliffs. Their mission was to seize German artillery to clear the way for the invasion later that day of the Normandy beaches below. It was a key element of the strategy to liberate Europe after four years of Nazi occupation.
Sometimes we might look at events going on in the world—or in our own lives—and see darkness. It may even seem like the darkness is bound to get worse in the days ahead.
Not long ago, a young couple was on an airplane with their new baby. As the plane prepared for takeoff, the flight attendants gave their usual preflight safety instructions—how to buckle the seat belt, how to find the nearest exit. The father was only half-listening until he heard this instruction about what to do if oxygen levels dropped: “Secure your oxygen mask first, and then assist others.”
This year has been unlike any we can remember—and one we’ll never forget. We’ve been stretched and tested, and in the process, we’ve learned...
Some time ago, a motorist driving along a stretch of highway was intrigued to see three elderly women with large plastic bags, picking up trash along the roadside. The driver knew that highway cleanup was often assigned to fill a community service requirement—usually for those who had debt to pay to society. He smiled as he tried to imagine what these women could possibly have done to deserve this duty.
Addressing the troops before launching the campaign, General Eisenhower said: “The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. … I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!”1 Against all odds, the hard-fought invasion of Normandy was a success, and the course of history was forever altered.
You’ve heard it said that nothing is permanent except change. Perhaps no one understands this principle better that those who go sailing. On land, traveling is relatively simple. You can usually count on the ground to be steady, and the route from point A to point B is often a straight line. But those who sail know that the sea can be unpredictable—smooth as glass one moment and raging billows the next. What’s more, sailors depend on the wind for direction and momentum, but wind does not always blow the way you want it to, and it changes frequently. With this knowledge, the sailors simply adjust their sails. Their course may not be a straight line, but it does finally bring them to their destination.
“In God we trust” is the national motto of the United States of America. Those four words, found on coins and bills, buildings and license plates, remind us of our ultimate source of confidence and security, peace and prosperity. That’s a healthy reminder because our natural habit is to trust ourselves—our own limited views and limited strength. When that fails, as it often does, it’s comforting to know that a loving, trustworthy God neither slumbers nor sleeps as He watches over us.1 That doesn’t mean life will be easy, but we can trust that the future is in God’s hands and will be filled with evidence of His goodness and grace.