Take a little time during holiday activities and read something together: a story, a poem, an Advent devotional, a Psalm, Luke chapter 2, a children’s book. You’ll create closeness, meaningful traditions, and enrich your Christmas celebration.
Beauty, comfort, and caring community can come to us in surprising ways.
Ouyang is a Chinese friend of our author Susan Elaine Jenkins. They became acquainted while she lived and taught school in China for many years. Ouyang appears in Susan’s memoir SCANDALON: Running From Shame and Finding God’s Scandalous Love. If you read Scandalon, then you know how Ouyang helped Susan adjust to life in China and how Susan helped Ouyang better understand Christianity. Their conversations shared in the book are deep and moving and show God’s hand at work across cultures.
“Bobo the Hedgehog” relates a moving childhood experience of Ouyang during the dreary days of the Communist Revolution in China—a period of time with very little beauty, comfort, or caring community. Seemingly by accident Ouyang found all those things—beauty, comfort, and caring community—when he happened upon a rare thing, a rose garden, one of the few gardens sanctioned by the government. And inside that “secret,” gated garden was a kind old gardener who befriended Ouyang. When the old man found a hedgehog by the river, he kept it hidden and let it be Ouyang’s “pet” for a while until the risk became too great and the hedgehog was released back into the wild. But the comfort and joy a pet hedgehog brought to the boy never left him and became a part of who he is today.
The kind gardener (however clandestinely) sharing the creature with him, at a time when families were not allowed to own pets, a terrible time when starving people were eating whatever animals, including pets, they could find … is the type of experience that can give needed hope to a child in a bleak environment.
Ouyang’s childhood memory, written for him by Susan, provides a rare glimpse into what life was like in those difficult times. It also gives a glimpse into the life and character of the boy who became the man, Ouyang.
Soon after The Animals In Our Lives was published, Ouyang found this little hedgehog (pictured above with him) on a river bank. Happy, formative, hope-giving memories again flooded back to his heart and mind.
Ouyang’s story of “Bobo the Hedgehog” is one of many included in The Animals In Our Lives, that demonstrate how animals of all kinds can give us companionship, the experience of awe, and a sense of God’s presence.
We have never experienced a Christmas like this one. No children’s programs at church, school, or community. No concerts to attend. Not much “window shopping.” No caroling door-to-door, no dinner parties, few gatherings or family reunions. I do think I see more people putting lights on their houses and trees outside.
In this season, as during this whole pandemic year, my husband and I have found great comfort in nature, even right in our backyard, especially the many birds that visit our feeders, birdbath, and trees and shrubs.
On a more normal Christmas a few years ago, our young grandchildren came to visit. We enjoyed playing in the snow and other activities, such as making pine cone suet feeders for the birds. Later I wrote these verses (below) and even illustrated them in a little Advent / Christmas book for the grandchildren. Two years ago I published this story-in-verse, entitled Something Is Coming To Our World.
These verses tell something of my own hopeful vision for the world, how our loving God is present to all creation, and has come into our world in the form of Jesus, the Incarnate Christ, whose coming again we await with anticipation, and with whom we can now be “partners,” co-laborers, caring for creation and loving people. (May God’s reign soon fully come!)
• • • • •
What Is Coming To Our World? (How a Backyard Bird Sees Christmas)
Seasons have passed of warm, wiggly worms,
bountiful gardens and bright wildflowers,
plentiful insects on leaf and wing,
sun traveling high across the sky,
and all good things that make us sing.
The days grow shorter. The air grows colder.
We search now for meals and warm roost.
When the hawk and fox come hunting,
I will quickly hide in a bush.
The chill in the air tells me high on the peaks
snowflakes are drifting in piles white and deep;
soon, in this place that’s home to me
frost will sparkle and snow will fall.
Creator God, who gives sunshine and seeds,
berries and water, spring, summer, fall—
surely wants us to thrive all year long!
Bells are ringing. I hear singing.
Good aromas are increasing.
What should we anticipate?
What story does the music relate?
When the people open their doors,
I smell something warm, spicy and sweet,
and the seeds they bring us are nice.
Nippier days turn their noses pink,
but something good is coming, I think.
Anticipation fills the air.
Nights are cold, but lights are bright
and they twinkle everywhere.
It looks like stars are coming down
on trees and houses from the air.
It looks to me—all around—
like Heaven’s surely coming down!
Children come bounding out in the snow,
all rosy and bundled for winter play.
They gather greenery, seedpods, and cones—
much like we do sometimes in spring.
I wonder what they’re going to make?
A blue-eyed girl and boy look my way.
I start to fly; then I hear the girl say,
‘Hello, little bird. Here’s a present for you.
Do you know that tomorrow is Christmas Day?’
The boy says, ‘Merry Christmas to you, little bird,
and happy celebrations with your friends, too.’
I like the peanut butter and seeds they’ve pressed
into the pine cones they hang in the tree.
I’ll fly to the highest branch and sing
a song of Heaven coming down,
light in the darkness, warmth in the cold,
provision and plenty, promises of old.
As seeds wait patiently within the earth,
there’s hope for us all—even little birds.
All feathered friends, all four-legged creatures,
all living things, now hear my song.
All who Creator God called ‘good’:
God cares—and comes—for all.
I will sing the song God gives me.
I will wing the flight that lifts me.
I will listen to the glorious sounds,
for Heaven’s love is all around.
My father, G.H. Cummings, preaching on the radio as a young man
Practically being raised on a church pew helped set me on a literary path. We sang with gusto the gospel song, “Publish glad tidings, tidings of peace; tidings of Jesus, redemption and release.” During my growing-up years as my father’s daughter, watching him and my mother minister in many churches, I learned:
The potency and potential of words in a book.
In those days in church we were people of two books: the Bible and the hymnal. Every church service began and ended with opening that wondrous, heavy book, often holding it so the person next to you could share it. The hymnal united us as we joined our voices in lilting melodies and straightforward harmonies accompanied by my mother’s lively piano playing, often eliciting “amens” of blessing. All the symbols to help us make music together resided on the pages of that book, all the words to elicit such response, blended in heart-stirring, mind-engaging, and soul-satisfying rhythm, sense and rhyme.
In every meeting the Bible was also opened—and revered. The congregation stood for “the reading of the Word.” With a reverent, sonorous, unctuous voice, the preacher read a passage from the Bible, then exhorted from its inexhaustible storehouse of truth, wisdom, and life application. I saw evangelists hold their big, black, leather Bibles aloft in one large hand while exclaiming something like, “The Word of God is alive! It is sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing enough to reveal your sin.” And I quaked. But I also learned, quite young, that real comfort could be experienced from those pages. No mere words on paper. But alive! Jumping off the page and into the mind and heart of the reader or the listener. Quickening!
The joy of writing, printing, and disseminating words on paper.
I watched my preacher father as he typed the church bulletin—and perhaps a newsletter—during the week on his old black typewriter (I loved the clicking of the keys and how the little hammers hit the paper, resulting in words appearing and forming themselves into sentences that said something and that people would read and use to plan their week). On Saturday Daddy would crank out maybe two-hundred copies with his mimeograph machine. I can still smell the ink and hear the sheets of paper swoosh round the rollers and shoot out onto the pile of materials ready to be folded and stacked, then handed out and read—to inform and influence—to be published!
The importance of getting the word out.
Twice a year our churches held extended revival services with an itinerant evangelist, and, in preparation, Daddy would mimeograph a flyer about the upcoming week of meetings. I remember a few times when he paid my sister and me 5¢ each per city block to take the flyers door-to-door and invite people to the services (though “city block” doesn’t quite describe neighborhoods in these rural towns surrounded by farms). My sister and I learned the importance of overcoming our trepidation, knocking on doors, and getting out the word (much like the publicity side of book publishing).
The value of reading and sharing books.
We had few toys and TV (which we got when I was about 11) was our only “tech” entertainment. But always there were books. Books lined the shelves in my father’s study. He took my sister and me to the public library regularly, encouraging us to browse and check out books that interested us. My sister read every horse book she could find, especially those by Walter Farley. I read all the Louisa May Alcott books. And when we brought books home from school or library, our mother often read them, too, and we all enjoyed discussing together the stories. In fact, my sister and I always told each other the stories we read. As a result, I felt I’d read the Black Stallion books even though I never did. And she knew the characters and plots in Little Women and Under the Lilacs even though she didn’t read them. She didn’t have to. That ability to vicariously experience the stories really helped, because there were so many more books to discover! (A side note: When I was a girl I’d hear people argue their point in conversation by saying, “I know it’s true. I read it in a book!” Whether people were readers or not, I observed that most had a sort of reverential awe of books.)
The importance of knowing your readers, your audience, your market.
My father made it a practice to call on his flock in their homes regularly and also to be there whenever trouble hit a family. He would stop by their businesses, farms, and work places for a friendly chat. When he stood in the pulpit to preach on Sunday, he knew those people. He knew their families, their joys and sorrows, the challenges they faced. He also knew their interests, their hobbies, what made them laugh or cry.
How to recruit, train, and encourage workers.
The work and mission of the church needed people of all abilities and ages (and still does). I saw discernment in operation, encouragement expressed, and responsibilities entrusted. Organizing, scheduling, holding meetings were necessary. But loving God and loving people mattered most. Whether or not I heard that expressed in so many words, I definitely “caught” the mindset. As a publisher I want to see increased sales and distribution. I want well-edited and designed books, I want engaged authors, reliable print providers, and enthusiastic book reviewers. I want readers to be encouraged, enlightened, and entertained by our books. But most of all I want to experience God’s presence in all we do. I want to always remember that, as a Christian publisher, what we publish truly is “glad tidings.”
Ah, Christmas! Bright lights, hustle and bustle, joyous music and celebrations….
Yet, hidden behind all the glitter, many people feel the pangs of sadness and loneliness more acutely during the Christmas season. If you have ever experienced a great loss at Christmastime, the holiday season awakens that grief again each year.
I know. My mother died on December 19, many years ago. My father was the pastor of a loving church at the time, and the people were sweet to us, though they also grieved the death of their beloved pastor’s wife. Our family found comfort in togetherness—my husband and I with our two toddlers, my sister, and our dad. After the funeral, we stayed and spent Christmas in our parents’ home, with everything around us to remind us of Mother. … But no mother/wife/grandmother. She simply and permanently was not here.
At a time when we celebrated the birth of Jesus who brought new life, we learned first-hand the awful separation and finality of death. The first night after she died, I lay awake in the guest bedroom listening to Daddy sobbing his heart out in the next room.
She was too young to die—in her forties. But she was gone.
On Christmas Eve, my husband and I wanted our toddler children to have fun, not just sadness, so we borrowed little sleds and took them out to play in the snowy woods. In the fresh, crisp air, laughter came as a wonderful relief, and was exactly what Mother would want for us. Maybe she saw us and smiled with joy.
Mother had a way of infusing Christmas with music, anticipation, beauty, delicious tastes and scents, warmth and surprises. She loved decorating the house and the church, preparing special music and programs for Christmas Sunday, often sewing new dresses for my sister and me, baking cookies, and taking us Christmas shopping.
I love Christmas, too; but even after many years, the bright lights, the biting scent of pine, the taste of cinnamon and cider, the making of fudge and fruitcake, the singing of carols, the ringing of Christmas bells, the decorating of the tree, the excitement of gift giving—all is sweet sorrow.
I wonder: Did sadness mix with joy for Mary, the mother of Jesus, when she carried her baby to the temple and heard Simeon prophesy her child’s death? He said, “A sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). Mary didn’t understand yet that Jesus’ death as well as his life would bring eternal joy in the heavens and cause celebrations of his birth for centuries to come. But she would certainly experience heart-piercing sorrow and separation.
Years later, as Mary watched Jesus die a tragic, painful death, did she despair? Or did the memory of the miracles surrounding his birth and life give her hope? Life won out. His death brought our spiritual birth.
Now we know, because of his birth, life and death, we can live—and celebrate Christmas—in the certain hope that death will not have the final victory.
That one Christmas—the year my vibrant, young Mother died—has influenced every one of my Christmases since. Our bereaved family celebrated together that year with gifts and festive food. Then we drove up a snowy hillside to a fresh, flower-covered grave site. The contrast of the red roses and holly-covered grave against the icy, brown hills spoke to my warring emotions.
There, feeling the pain of death’s separation, I looked up into the evening sky and noticed the first star twinkling, and I smiled through my tears. Her physical presence is gone from us here. But someday we may be with her “there.” The realities of pain, suffering, and death are inescapable. But the hope of Christmas lives!
—Written by one of my granddaughters (age 10 or 11 at the time) during an Easter Sunday church service as we celebrated Christ’s resurrection. I found this joyful verse written on the back of a bulletin I brought home in my purse. She gave me permission to share it but asked to remain anonymous. This child’s spontaneous expression of faith inspires me anew to praise the One who is risen indeed!
An unseasonably warm winter day (here in Colorado) yesterday prompted my husband and me to go out birding. We took our nature-loving granddaughter with us. We drove toward the mountains west of us, into a little canyon formed by a ridge along which a small creek flows, where an American Woodcock has been spotted (a common bird in some states but rare in Colorado).
Our granddaughter suddenly exclaimed, “There’s a rainbow cloud. I love rainbow clouds.”
I looked out the car window, and sure enough, all the colors of the rainbow were displayed in this cloud against a blue sky. I’ve never seen such a cloud in my life. Sometimes at dusk the Colorado sky is rimmed all around with clouds glowing orange and pink. This was about 2:45 p.m., though—not even close to sunset. The day was sunny, warm (for February), and dry. Yet this one, lone cloud contained a rainbow. We quickly and excitedly took pictures with our phones.
The three of us shared a moment of awe and wonder.
The past week I had been reading an old book by the Scottish writer and minister, George MacDonald, The Hope of the Gospel. In it, he quoted the poem by William Wordsworth that begins,
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting; The soul that rises with us, our life’s star, Hath had elsewhere its setting, And cometh from afar: Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God, who is our home…
Then MacDonald quoted Henry Vaughn’s poem:
Happy those early days, when I Shined in my angel-infancy! Before I understood this place…. And looking back—at that short space— Could see a glimpse of His bright face; When on some gilded cloud, or flower My gazing soul would dwell an hour And in those weaker glories spy Some shadows of eternity; From God, who is our home
That sense of wonder that is part of childhood, that makes children spiritually sensitive, and that perhaps is a trailing cloud of the glory from which we each came when God created us a living soul, born into this world … I want to nurture this sense of wonder and awe as I grow older. I want to see the rainbow clouds when they appear so briefly in the sky. I want to see and wonder at a little bird that surprisingly shows up in cold Colorado in February to forage along a tiny, protected, flowing stream full of watercress and fallen cottonwood leaves before flying on to its faraway spring destination.
George MacDonald added, “To cease to wonder is to fall plumb-down from the childlike to the commonplace—the most undivine of all moods intellectual. Our nature can never be at home among things that are not wonderful to us.”
On Kitten Creek: Searching for the Sacred by Nancy Swihart is a remarkable, modern day adventure story about how one family, grounded in Christian love and guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit, developed a Christ-honoring community. The power of these verses is fulfilled in her book and life:
In Psalm 71:18, we are encouraged to “declare God’s power to the next generation, His mighty acts to all who are to come.”
Psalm 90:12 tells us to “number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
As I read Nancy’s story, I remembered my own family’s journey… When our first military assignment took us to Kansas, we were blessed with a life-long friendship with the Swihart family as well as our involvement with Wellspring Ministries. My three children, my wife, and I spent many a happy day frolicking on the Swihart farm, enjoying the uniqueness that only farm life can hold, as well as being impacted by the spiritual adventures that took place there on Kitten Creek. Of particular interest to my animal-loving children was the variety of animals found there, which the Swiharts wove into their ministry (and Nancy into her book) much like C.S. Lewis did in his Narnia stories!
This is a life-changing book as it points to self-introspection in regards to how our own lives might be used to further the Lord’s Kingdom here on this earth.
As a retired U.S. Army soldier and now a professor at the University of Alabama, I was impressed by the Wellspring team’s openness to so many college students… their willingness to simply be present, to listen, and to provide a relational community where young people could experience faith in action.
Nancy’s memoir guides her readers to our Savior and encourages a lifetime of focus on Him and the gospel. It reminds us that God provides, corrects, leads, and answers our prayers and needs as we continually seek His presence in our lives. The importance of remembrance is emphasized as the Lord incorporates our whole lives into the strength of our witness for Him, and the value of praying and thinking the Scriptures is encouraged.
In a personal application of this book, though us city folk do not inhabit a farm in Kansas, we do have a small cabin on a river in the Appalachian mountains in north Alabama. We are now inspired to place a Christ-focus in our times there for our family and friends.
On a professional note, I am part of research and ministry with aging congregations across the world. Our team plans to recommend Nancy’s inspirational book as an encouragement to older persons of faith to share their Christ-honoring stories with the next generation and to remind adult children to capture the stories of their parents and grandparents. Nancy provides insightful suggestions and resources about how to tailor and accomplish this. Her own book is a superb example of how one’s own family story can impact this world for the Lord and His life-saving mission.
–Dr. Mike Parker, Professor, University of Alabama, Associate Professor, UAB Medical School, Department of Geriatric Medicine, Non-Resident Scholar, Duke Center for Spirituality and Health
“When I hear the word “cancer” … There’s deep disappointment.
“I feel I am letting my family down.
“… My body has been invaded.
“Dear God, comfort them! I can’t right now.”
“The hardest part… is not being able to pick up my son when he is close to tears.
“I love you and I know it hurts. Put your faith in me.”
During chemo … it is hard to focus on anything for more than 5 minutes.
Moments together turns into hope, a hope that is reachable and lasting.
My children provide me with strength needed to move forward. I can forget my condition when they are with me.
Cancer has a strong grip, not just on the body, but also on the mind. Even though I am now “healthy” and have not had to face it head-on in a while, it still rears its ugly head. This helps:
“So we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-17 MSG)
A lot of who I am today comes from who my dad has been for years. I thank the Lord for the gift of an earthly father who just loved me!
I experienced the 2017 Senior Olympics last week in Birmingham, Alabama. My husband, Larry, and his basketball team competed at the Senior Games, representing Colorado. They played 10 basketball games (half court, 3-on-3) in 4 days, against teams from states such as New York, Ohio, Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, and Nebraska. The competition was fierce. The camaraderie was fun. The determination was palpable. The overcoming spirit was inspirational.
We wives cheered our husbands to victory. We also enjoyed watching the women’s teams and the many sports represented in the Senior Games by men and women athletes, ages 50 to 100+.
Here’s a photo from one of the games that led to Silver Medals in their division:
I’m proud of my husband. He scored 33 points in two different games. That’s him dribbling the ball in these photos.
In May (last month) Larry attended a writers conference with me (we’re pretty supportive of each other’s interests). At the conference, I taught two workshops, one for poets, and one for “senior” writers.
Senior athletes and senior Christian writers have much in common. Both have depth of experience and perspective. Both have developed their skills over the years. Both have much to offer. Both have sometimes had to push through the pain. And both have learned to give it all they’ve got! Both are living in a great time of life and in a great time in history, when opportunities abound to use their gifts, callings, and opportunities. Both are going to leave legacies and examples for upcoming generations to follow.
The athletes earns medals and ribbons. The writers may win awards on earth, but are more importantly “laying up treasures in Heaven.”
Our Colorado team with their silver medals. All except Mike, who had to go run a race in the Track & Field events.