I knew that C.S. Lewis and I had more in common than our Christianity when he said, "You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me." Welcome to a celebration of faith, tea, and the written word. I'm always engaged in a book, and whether it's one I'm reading or one of the inspirational historical romances I write, there's always a cup of tea close by. Join me in a cup as we chat about faith, our favorite books and the exciting places our reading and writing adventures take us.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Holy Innocents

Isn’t it a blessing to know that Jesus loves kids? That He embraces them in His arms and marvels in them?

One of my kids’ Christmas wish lists was a page and a half long, and included a metal detector just in case there’s treasure buried in the yard. Outlandish? Materialistic? Yes, perhaps. But the crazy-long list also reminded me that my child so trusts in my love for him that he asks me for things, no matter how excessive, because he knows I want to bless him.

I’ve learned so much about God from being a mother. My kids have helped me grow in humility, patience, and love, but I’ve also gained a deeper understanding of God’s love for me. If He feels more deeply about me than I do about my own kids, His forgiveness must be sure, and He must really, really love me.

Kids and Christmas…they do go together, don’t they? Not just because of Santa Claus, cookie decorating, and page-and-a-half long wish lists. But because Jesus was a child, too, and on Christmas we celebrate His incarnation, remembering what He gave to be born of a woman, live and die to save us from our sins. God’s gift of His Son is the biggest gift we’ll ever receive.

Following the story of Jesus’ birth in Matthew’s Gospel, we’re given a brief account of the children who were near the stable that first Christmas. In a horrible postscript, Jesus’ neighbors in Bethlehem are mentioned:

The Massacre of the Innocents at Bethlehem, by...Image via Wikipedia

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled. “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, for they are no more. (Mt. 2:16-18)

Two verses only, but they are devastating in their impact.

These little boys from Bethlehem, traditionally called the Holy Innocents by the church, were perhaps only a few dozen in number, just peasant children easily disregarded by history. Nevertheless, several denominations remember these children, who were beloved by their parents and their God, commemorating their loss on December 28.

Over the years, the name Holy Innocents has come to refer not just to those babies from Bethlehem, but has embraced other children who departed from our arms too soon. Young victims of violence or illness are remembered this day, as are infants who were never born, due to abortion or miscarriage.

bundled.Image by capturedbychelsea via Flickr

When I suffered my own miscarriage and placed my own Innocent into God’s arms, God taught me several things, but one of the most important lessons was how much He loves my children. God cares for our babies more than we do. He wants what’s best for them, knows them intimately, and cares what happens to them.

He loves them so much that He’s made a place for them, and they are safe in His arms.

As Jack Hayford writes in his book, I’ll Hold You In Heaven, “Rather, each of those little ones are present with the Father. They have identity, individuality and deserve to be known for what they are – eternal beings. They still have a divine purpose which, though it may transcend our understanding for the moment, we shall perceive clearly when the day dawns that we no longer see as through a glass, darkly, but then face-to-face.”

What a gift, to have eternity with those we love! Even if we’ve never seen each other’s faces, or the time we had to adore those faces was far too short.

That is part of the miracle of Christmas: in our world of sin and loss, of Herod’s cruelty and a mother’s grief, a Baby came and penetrated the darkness, offering us hope, salvation, and light. And a place for all of us, even those whose faces we have yet to behold.

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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Over on Inkwell: Isn't Christmas Over?

Collage of various Christmas images, made from...Image via Wikipedia

Christmas is over, right? So now what?

Over on Inkwell Inspirations today, I share my thoughts. Here's a hint: don't pack up the message and work of Christmas when you take the decorations down from your tree! As Christians, we've got a job to do!

Tomorrow, I'll post on an oft-overlooked, tragic and precious part of the Christmas story: the Holy Innocents.

Hope you're all having a fabulous holiday celebration!
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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Of the Father's Love Begotten

An artificial Christmas tree.Image via Wikipedia

Have you been humming your favorite Christmas songs for weeks now? I confess that I have: Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song" is a favorite of mine, and the Manheimer Steamroller CDs have been on heavy rotation at home. My favorite Chrismtas song is a hymn, however, and a really old one at that. "Of the Father's Love Begotten."

Of the Father's love begotten,
ere the worlds began to be,
he is Alpha and Omega,
he the source, the ending, he,
of all things that are and have been
and all future worlds shall see,
ever more and ever more!

Well, good thing I've been humming it for a while, because Christmas is practically here, and other than singing about it, I'm not at all prepared. I haven't baked a thing. I didn't finish Christmas cards. The makings of the gingerbread village are still in their original box, piled under other stacks in my cluttered house. What's that they say about the best laid plans? Sometimes in the middle of life, things happen.

Just over a week ago, our family lost a beloved grandma. Now that the services are over, we're going forward, just as we all do when we suffer loss (in faith, but changed). Nevertheless, I find myself utterly out of it, as far as the usual holiday trappings go.

It's a good reminder that much of the stuff of Christmas is just that: trappings. Trim. Gravy. The literal and figurative wrappings of our celebrations. The true meaning of Christmas is something utterly different, something so huge in its import to the universe that it changed everything.

O that birth forever blessed,
when the Virgin, full of grace,
by the Holy Ghose conceiving,
bore the Savior of our race;
and the Babe, the world's Redeemer,
first revealed his sacred face,
ever more and ever more!

Let the heights of heaven adore him;
angel hosts, his praises sing;
powers, dominions, bow before him,
and extol our Gpod and King;
let no tongue on earth be silent,
every voice in concert ring,
ever more and ever more!

Tomorrow, the gingerbread village will come out of the box, but tonight, I'm trying to restore my focus on the most essential, crucial part of Christmas: the babe born in Bethlehem, God Incarnate, Man Divine. Come to save me, remake me, restore me, and someday take me Home. I pray that this Christmas, you are focusing, too. Enjoy the trappings, the wrappings and the gravy -- but also rejoice in what God has done for us in sending His son.

Christ, to thee with God the Father,
and O Holy Ghost, to thee,
hymn and chant and high thanksgiving,
and unwearied praises be;
honor glory and dominion,
and eteral victory,
ever more and ever more!

Amen! And Merry Christmas!

I'll be back in a few days...I'm going to enjoy some family time. See you soon!

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Friday, December 18, 2009

A Stray Drop of Blood

I recently had the pleasure of reading Roseanna White’s A Stray Drop of Blood. An epic tale of salvation, passion and love, this inspirational story is rich in historical detail and intriguing characters, providing a tantalizing glimpse into the Jerusalem and Rome of Jesus’ day.

Abigail is a beautiful and intelligent Hebrew slave, raised in the Visibillus house. Her masters – a Roman official and his Hebrew wife – raise her almost as a daughter. When their handsome son Jason returns from Rome, however, Abigail’s life is changed forever. Jason forces her into his bed, and Abigail endures shame, desire, and the scorn of Jason’s friends, especially centurion Titus. Until tragedy strikes.

This is no damsel in distress tale, however, nor is it another story of a scoundrel's reformation by a lovely female. The characters are not two-dimensional, and like real people, they change, sometimes inspired by each others’ actions, but more significantly, through their relationships with Jesus. I felt warmly toward characters that simulaneously disappointed me, and I judged others which blossomed into faithful Christians. For example, I was disgusted with Jason at first, but like Abigail, I began to struggle with my feelings for him. I rejoiced in his growth, both emotionally and spiritually. Likewise, Titus goes through a transformation, from the stoic centurion who drove the spike through Jesus’ wrists at the crucifixion to something more. And as Abigail struggles through heartache, sin, and other trials, I cheered for her and her newborn faith, through which she sometimes stumbled.

I enjoyed reading how the story wove fictional characters with Scripture. The characters live through a few of the events of the Gospels; they discuss Jesus’ teaching and witness miracles. Two are present at Golgotha and receive “a stray drop of blood” on their clothing. Jairus, Pontius Pilate, Barabbas, and the woman caught in the act of adultery all make appearances here, and I was intrigued by a scene where the characters engaged the events of these verses from the Gospel of Matthew: “The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people” (27:52-53).

The spiritual journeys of the characters intrigued me. I wondered how life might have been for the early Christians, so few in number at first and so thirsty for any word of the Church. Lacking Hebrew Scripture, they relied on each other and the Holy Spirit to serve Jesus faithfully.

Just as in real life, however, the characters fall into sin even after they're saved. Sin is a prevalent theme in the story, and I found myself comparing Abigail’s universe to mine, where decisions aren’t always clean-cut and a Godless culture heavily influences our worldviews. The author explores these difficult situations, the consequences of sin, and the transforming power and grace of Jesus’ blood over all our mistakes and failings.

Published by a non-CBA press, A Stray Drop of Blood is not confined by the guidelines most Christian publishers have created. Consequently, the characters make difficult ethical choices which I’ve never seen explored in Christian fiction before, such as choosing to lie to protect someone. The plight of slaves, including their use as sexual objects even in Hebrew households, is not shied away from. While not graphic, desire and sexual sin are evident throughout the story. So, however, is the dear cost of our salvation. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross at Calvary is the crux of the novel, literally and figuratively.

Fans of Biblical-era fiction will enjoy this novel, as will readers of inspirational romance (there is a happily-ever-after -- yay!). Well-written and quick-paced, the story captivated my attention, and I could not be distracted from it.

If you'd like an autographed copy of A Stray Drop of Blood, click here to place your order. Then send Roseanna an email here and she'll be able to autograph the copy for you before it's sent out. Just tell her who to make it out to!
Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from the author for review purposes. I did not receive any payment for my review.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Setting the Holiday Mood: Anchoring the True Meaning of Christmas into your Celebration

Adventkranz (liturgisch)Image via Wikipedia

We’ve talked about our Christmas traditions and how they get us in the holiday spirit, especially in regards to the books we read and the food we prepare – the annual sorts of things which hang the holly and the ivy going in our psyches, as it were. But what about those things we do to remind us – ourselves and our children – of the true meaning of Christmas?

Somewhere, aside from the Christmas cards, stacks of presents, and to-do lists, is the “reason for the season.” Many of us have our Nativity scenes in place; we have the pageant rehearsals marked on the calendar; and we plan to attend church Christmas Eve. Those are great things. I’ve found that there are other things we can do to anchor the amazing and world-changing events of Christmas, in which the Savior of the World was made incarnate…things we can do to help us live out the true meaning of Christmas day by day. Here are some of the things we do in my family:
  • Bless Others. When my kids struggle with greed – okay, I struggle with greed too – I find it helpful to reach out to those in need who live near and far. It communicates to all of us how blessed we are and how God wants us to help each other. I love shopping with my kids for other kids, kids we don’t know and will never meet this side of eternity. Kids who have needs and won’t get a lot of presents this year. Some wonderful ministries which enable you to bless children in need include Angel Tree Ministries (for children with incarcerated parents), Operation Christmas Child (run by Franklin Graham’s Samaritan Purse, for children in other countries), and Toys For Tots. Local outreaches in your community might also have ways for your family to contribute; our local Christian radio station has a great program to help needy families. Serving in rescue missions together is also a humbling way to remember how blessed we are, and how God wants us to reach out to others.
  • Celebrate Advent. I'm an Anglican, and like some other denominations, we celebrate a season of Advent before Christmas. Other churches are already decorated with swags of greenery and singing carols, which is wonderful, but before we enjoy those, we spend a few weeks preparing for Christmas, holding off on decorating the sanctuary with evergreen until Dec. 24. In the meantime, we use this period to prepare our hearts for Christ’s coming (first as a baby in Bethlehem, and again when He returns to judge mankind). We make use of the Advent Wreath, lighting one candle (three purple candles and one pink) per week as we do a family devotional, involving Scripture and prayer. You don’t need to be of a particular denomination to use the days preceding Christmas to look at your life and prepare for Jesus. Do devotionals as a family. Read the Bible together. Pray for one another. It doesn’t have to be formal. In our house, we pick something different to pray for each day, i.e., a family member or friend.
  • Apply everything you do this holiday season to your relationship with Jesus. Just like we should be doing every other day. We aren't just Sunday Christians, right? We're supposed to live each day in full relationship with God. The same principle applies to our Christmas celebrations, even those "non-religious" things we do. Baking? Give some of your cookies away as an act of love! Do you know an older person who could use some help hanging up their lights? Or anyone lonely who might like to come celebrate with you?

    Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer CastImage by K!T via Flickr

    Use every minute to put Jesus at the center of your celebration. Even even when watching TV. I love Christmas specials: Rudolph, Charlie Brown, all those shows. Christmas movies, too, like “A Christmas Story” and “The Bishop’s Wife.” As you watch your traditional favorites, enjoy them, and then talk about them with your family. How do these shows resemble our family’s celebrations? How do the characters show love, loyalty, compassion, or other things God values? What can we learn from them? We annually watch “The Nativity Story,” a movie which came out a few years ago which follows Mary and Joseph from the Annunciation to Bethlehem. The movie is highly fictionalized, of course, and at points frustratingly inaccurate (the Wise Men arrive a few years too early), but the movie gives an idea of what it was like to live as a Jew back then, in fear of the Roman State. It also shows the type of censure and judgment Mary and Joseph must have endured.
  • Be like Jesus through the stress. Get some rest and put on a breastplate of righteousness when you go out and face the crowds. Saturday, I almost got mowed down in three parking lots, was cut off twice, and I was shoved in a store. I tried my best to smile, remember that we’re all in a hurry, and try to show patience.

What are some things that you do to keep Jesus central to your Christmas? I’d love to hear your ideas.

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Sunday, December 6, 2009

Setting the Holiday Mood in the Kitchen...and Don't Forget the Giveaway!

candy cane cookiesImage by chotda via Flickr

I must be hungry, because I'm thinking with my stomach today.

Food is a huge part of the holidays, there's no dispute there. I don't think I'm the only one who struggles with eating my way through December. The rest of the year, I'm pretty good about avoiding copious amounts of sugar, but as soon as Thanksgiving is over and the Hickory Farms stand goes up in the mall, my resolve weakens. On my next trip to the store, when shelves are lined with eggnog and Peppermint Hershey's Kisses, I'm a goner.

And of course I have to have treats on hand in case someone stops by. Yeah right, like my house is grand central station. I'm looking for reasons to have cookies lying around. Picking up your kids from a playdate at my house? How about you sit down a while and enjoy a pfefferneuse?

I'm helping supply food for a relative's open house, and before making out my shopping list, I thought I'd get some ideas by looking at ads. I made the mistake of opening the flyer for one of my favorite stores, Trader Joe's. Ugh. Why don't I have any willpower anymore? I actually wrote "two-bite cheese souffles" on my shopping list, and not because I'll take them to the open house. I'll probably hide them in the back of the freezer and then eat them all by myself for lunch.

Certain foods go on the Christmastime list no matter what, of course. They are so ingrained in my celebration of the holidays that it's hard to celebrate without them.

Here are some things I can't do without at Christmastime:
  • Oranges. Really, you say? Well, I got one in my stocking every year when I was growing up. And I adore those little clemetines (we like "Cuties"). They're perfect for snacks, easy to peel, and we can go through a 5 lb. box without even trying.
  • Candy Canes. In everything. They are the look, smell and taste of December in one tidy, red-dye-#40-infused little treat. They even have a spiritual story attached to them, not that looking like a shepherd's crook (or a "J" for Jesus, depending on what kids' book you read) and symbolizing Jesus' purity and suffering in the red and white stripes makes them less indulgent. In our house, we put candy canes on the tree, as edible decorations. I melt them in hot cocoa. We mash them and make peppermint bark (so easy for kids to do). They're even good in scones, with chocolate chips, at tea time. Mmm.
  • Cranberry Bread. My mom made it, with orange zest and juice. Nothing fancy, but I like it Christmas morning.
  • Stollen. With my German last name, you probably knew this was coming. Stollen is a huge deal in my house. For one thing, this traditional sweet bread costs a fortune to make. We spent almost twenty bucks on the candied citron alone, which we had to purchase pre-Thanksgiving (if you wait until now, the stores are sold out). For another, it takes almost twenty-four hours to make. You start the night before, soaking fruit. The next day is spent in a series of muscle-building kneadings, naps during the dough risings, and finally, the baking... Stollen is an important tradition in my husband's family, and they keep the recipe a closely guarded secret.

What are some baking traditions in your house? I'm always open to new recipes.

Don't forget to leave a comment! December 8 I'll pick a comment at random to win A Read-Aloud Family Christmas, published by Barbour. My family is deeply entrenched in A Christmas Carol now... It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas!

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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Books that Set the Holiday Mood...and a Giveaway!

Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. In Prose. ...Image via Wikipedia

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that….

Ah! The first lines of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol! I've put on my fuzzy slippers and the hot chocolate is ready, complete with a mini candy cane in the mug for a truly divine treat. Time to make a dent in my stack of Christmas-set reading material, and I’m starting with Ebenezer Scrooge.

I’ve already posted on a few Christmas-set novels. But now that Thanksgiving is over I feel like I can officially get into the holiday spirit.

I can be rather picky about my Christmas books. I prefer a rich story that doesn’t just happen to take place in December (and, with the exception of a brief mention of a pageant, gift, or snowflake, could be set in August for all the holiday oomph the author put into it). When I read a Christmas-set story, I want to feel like Christmas is coming; I want to smell the cranberries and pine, feel the chill in the air, and taste the gingerbread. And if the book is an inspirational, the true meaning of Christmas -- Jesus’ Incarnation, when He came to earth to save us from our sins -- must be a main theme.

Currently on my stack are some brand new Steeple Hill releases: Missy Tippens’ A Forever Christmas and Blessings of the Season by Annie Jones and Brenda Minton.

My To-Be-Read stack is full of old favorites, too, which set the mood for me. What would the holidays be without some sense of nostalgia, after all? Some of these books I’m enjoying are secular, Regency-set stories, and some are inspirational. One of my favorites in this latter category is JoAnn A. Grote’s Love’s Shining Hope, a 2004 Barbour release. It isn’t even a Christmas-set book, but the end takes place on Christmas Eve, and I love the family’s preparations and the Christmas shopping scene.

Most of my favorite Christmas-set books are tried-and-true holiday classics, however, books written for adults and children that have been read and re-read over the years. Each December, we read them aloud: Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry. The Night Before Christmas. The Animals’ First Christmas. Our copy of A Christmas Carol is tattered, and even the youngest member of our family knows the first page by heart. I always loved Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester, wishing I could see the little mice that were so busy on Christmas Eve.

Mice sewing, illustration from The Tailor of G...Image via Wikipedia

It’s part of my family’s tradition to read these stories aloud, and I was delighted to discover A Read-Aloud Family Christmas this year, published by Barbour. In one tidy little volume, you can find several brief Christmas readings, perfect to read alone or to your family. The Tailor of Gloucester is here, as are fifteen others, including Gift of the Magi, The Legend of St. Nicholas, The Night Before Christmas, and a condensed version of A Christmas Carol which Dickens himself supposedly used as a read-aloud copy.

I bought a copy to give away, and if you’d like to enter the drawing to receive it, just leave a comment and indicate your interest by Tuesday, Dec 8. I'll pick a winner at random and pop the book in the mail, so you have time to enjoy it by Christmas. What are your favorite Christmas stories? I’d love to find some new ones, so let me know what you enjoy reading!

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