Prov 17:22

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine... - Proverbs 17:22

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Hindsight is...

On Christmas morning, I awoke with a simple old chorus in my head. It’s not a Christmas carol. It’s not even a particularly catchy tune, especially without the harmonies. The song simply declares that Jesus is my rock. My fortress. My deliverer. The one in whom I trust. As I sat in the early morning darkness enjoying the twinkle of the lights on our tree, I wondered whether I really needed anything more.

I kept watching those lights.

The room in which our Christmas tree stands has south-facing windows. As the sun rose on what would turn into the mildest December 25th in my memory, it flooded the space with glorious sunlight (revealing, to my chagrin, the dust on every surface). Little by little, the lights on the tree were overpowered by one much brighter. On a sunny day, it makes no difference whether the lights on our tree are on or off. You can’t even tell.

Only with nightfall can you see the lights. The deeper the darkness, the brighter they shine. The warmer their glow. The more they reveal.

Maybe you’ve always felt like a tiny Christmas tree bulb on a Vegas strip. As though what you have to offer pales in comparison to what’s being sold by others more gifted, more vocal, more beautiful. You may think your little light makes no difference.

Until those dazzling lights dim.  

This pandemic is a dark time on our planet. Social workers and law enforcement officers (we have one of each among our children) tell me that incidents of domestic violence are more frequent than ever. In some cities, people are dying from drug overdoses as often as from Covid-19. Mental Health issues run rampant, and many of our health care providers feel they cannot carry on.

Meanwhile, my mother and her neighbors tell me they’ve never experienced such an outpouring of kindness, generosity, and community as they have in 2020. Altered priorities appear to be the new normal. One poll I heard about said that while the number of people who plan to eat healthier in 2021 is down from other years, the number who plan to donate to charities is up. Could it be that we are shifting our focus away from ourselves and onto others whose needs are greater than our own?

Events like a pandemic tend to bring out both the worst and the best in people. Which will it be for you? Will you contribute to the darkness by complaining, criticizing, lashing out?

Or will you shine your light in the darkness—providing hope in big and small ways, wherever and however you can? No one can place restrictions on your prayers, your encouraging words, your gratitude, your smile, your kindness.

The darker the night, the more effective the light.


Thursday, December 24, 2020

Just Like the Ones I Used to Know

 (Last in a 4-part series on popular Christmas songs)

On May 11, 1888, in the village of Tyumen, Russia, a baby was born to a Jewish couple by the name of Beilin. They named him Israel. In the mid-1890’s, the family fled the region to escape persecution of the Jewish community. They ended up in New York City and changed their surname to Baline.

A gifted musician, young Israel worked as a street singer in his teens, then a singing waiter. In 1907, at the age of 19, he published his first composition for a song called Marie From Sunny Italy. On the sheet music, Baline’s name was misspelled as “I. Berlin.” He decided to keep the name and was known as Irving Berlin from then on.

Berlin married Dorothy Goetz in 1912, but she died only months later from typhoid fever contracted on their honeymoon. Following this event, his compositions reflected his grief.

In 1925, he fell in love with an heiress named Ellin Mackay, but her father opposed the courtship because the Mackays were Catholic and Berlin was Jewish. Mackay sent his daughter away to Europe.

Again, Berlin’s loss inspired some beautiful tunes during their time apart. When Ellin returned to America, however, the couple eloped. More sadness followed. The Berlins lost their first child, Irving Berlin Jr., on Christmas Day in 1928. He was 24 days old. Three other children were born into their lifelong union. Ellin died in 1988. The following year, Irving died at 101.

Irving Berlin & the cast of White Christmas

I find it ironic that a Jewish man who did not celebrate Christmas wrote what became the most popular Christmas tune ever. The 1942 film Holiday Inn introduced White Christmas, sung in the film by Bing Crosby. His version is the best-selling single of all time. The movie won a 1943 Academy Award for the song. In 1954, Berlin’s creation became the title track of another Bing Crosby Christmas musical, White Christmas—a must-see on some folks’ December movie list every year.

The appeal of the song is clearly pure nostalgia. Written during WWII, it resonated with soldiers spending the holiday in hot climates and longing for home. This classic appeals to us now because we want our Christmas time to include snow, glistening treetops, sleigh bells, and Christmas cards…none of which have anything to do with the first Christmas. In fact, the Israelite baby born in a town in the middle of a desert probably didn’t experience any of those things for his entire 33 years on this planet.

Funny, isn’t it?

Far be it from me to criticize, though. In 2006 I wrote a stage script called Just Like the Ones I Used to Know. We performed the play several nights as part of the annual Christmas banquet at Portage Alliance Church. In 2010, the script was published by Eldridge Plays and Musicals. Since then, it’s been produced by 29 different groups around Canada and the USA (not counting any inevitable shysters who circumvent the proper registration and royalties process.) My play is a far stretch from any of Irving Berlin’s successes, but the story pulls at the heartstrings in a similar fashion as the characters remember the Christmases of their childhood. Now, every time I hear White Christmas, I think of the year we performed that play, the laughter and tears it brought to our audience, and the friends who breathed life into my characters. (Yes, I’m talking about you Nettie Neudorf, Preston Meier, Barb Knott, Melanie Ferg, Craig Smart, Evan Van Dongen, and Amy Geisbrecht.)

For my readers, I hope that hearing White Christmas this year will remind you of a not-so-white Christmas long ago when a little Jewish boy came to earth as nothing less than God with us.

Merry Christmas!


Friday, December 18, 2020

I'll be home. You too?

If any song could provide the theme for Christmas 2020, it would be I’ll Be Home for Christmas. Just like I was home for Thanksgiving and Canada Day and Mother’s Day and Easter. I anticipate being home for New Years and Valentines, too. While the song calls out a longing for home, most of us are itching to go somewhere. Anywhere other than home.

The theme could take so many forms this year. Maybe you’re like me, wishing you could be surrounded by adult kids and grandkids, but they’re stuck at home and so are you.

Maybe you’re the parent trapped at home with stir-crazy kids, or you’re the kid wishing to see friends, cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles.

Maybe you’re a senior isolated in a little apartment. Or worse, a hospital—longing to be home in your little apartment.

Maybe you expect to reach your eternal home, if not by this Christmas, maybe next.

Walter Kent and Kim Gannon wrote I’ll be Home for Christmas in 1943, from the perspective of a soldier serving overseas during World War II. The pair could not find a publisher willing to buy the song because they all felt it was too sad. The soldier is writing to his family to say he’ll be coming home for the holiday and requests snow, mistletoe, and presents. Then, wham! It ends with “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”

Talk about melancholy.

But when Gannon sang it for Bing Crosby while the two played golf together, Crosby agreed to record it. You know the rest. The song quickly became the most requested in Crosby’s USO tours and a wartime favorite, despite the BBC banning it from their airwaves for fear it would bring down morale.

What is it about this 39-word song that so appealed to the soldiers? Its haunting melody certainly gives it a pathos they understood all too well. I’m thinking it gave them permission to feel all their emotions. The words validated their longings and let them know they weren’t alone in feeling that way.

The song’s continued popularity—having been recorded by nearly every artist who ever made a Christmas album—tells us the appeal goes far beyond soldiers. The nostalgic lyrics touch a tender place inside all of us, whether we’re far from home, stuck at home, or happy to be home.

Deep inside, doesn’t every one of us long for a real home? The word itself is charged with emotion, both positive and negative. It’s as though we all know what a true home is supposed to be. A place where you are loved and safe. Permitted to be yourself. Secure, valued. Care-free, at rest. The one place you truly belong. Even those who never experienced home that way long for it.

How? How do we all know what we’re made for? How can you feel homesick for a place you’ve never been?  Could it be that your Creator built that longing into you?

I think St. Augustine nailed it with this: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

Billy Graham said, “My home is in Heaven. I’m just traveling through this world.”

And one of the last things Jesus told his disciples before he left them was, “Let not your heart be troubled. You are trusting God, now trust in me. There are many homes up there where my Father lives, and I am going to prepare them for your coming. When everything is ready, then I will come and get you, so that you can always be with me where I am.” (John 14:1-3)

When you hear I’ll Be Home for Christmas this year, go ahead. Let the feelings flood your heart. And in that, may the Christ of Christmas give you a glimpse into your forever home with him.



Friday, December 11, 2020


(Part 2 in a 4-part series on popular Christmas songs)

You may not have heard of Haven Gillespie, but he became a millionaire thanks to one little song that you know well. 


In October of 1934, Gillespie (whose real name was James Lamont Gillespie) left his brother Irwin’s funeral and took the subway to Manhattan to meet with his publisher, Leo Feist. Known as a talented composer of children’s songs, Gillespie was commissioned to write a new Christmas tune for kids. Gillespie left the office, and while still on the train, jotted the lyrics for “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” on the back of an envelope. J. Fred Coots wrote the melody, and the song became the hit of Christmas 1934. Radio audiences went wild for the song and requests for sheet music were off the charts. In the 86 intervening years, the song has been recorded by countless artists.


Meanwhile, according to the nephew who wrote his biography, Gillespie himself never felt enthusiastic about the song or its success because it always reminded him of his brother’s death.


I can’t say I’ve found the song all that appealing myself. The lyrics caution us about a Santa Claus who not only watches our every move but keeps track—even when we’re asleep.


Parents use the song as a warning for kids to behave in the weeks leading to Christmas, lest they end up on Santa’s naughty list. I’m not sure what happens then, but it can’t be much fun. A lump of coal in your stocking, I suppose. It’s enough to make you cry, but according to the song, crying is one of the things you’d better not let Santa catch you doing!


For too many, this version of Santa is also their version of God. Not an attractive image. Watch out. Be nice. He’s keeping track. Your nice deeds better outnumber your naughty ones. No pouting. No crying. He sees all. Knows all. He’s gonna getcha. So be good, for goodness’ sake. 


Here’s the irony. If any of us were capable of being that good, we wouldn’t need Christmas in the first place. God wouldn’t have had to send his son to save us because we wouldn’t need saving. If it all depended on us, would God have gone to such great lengths to make a way for us? 


Psalm 103 promises us a tender and compassionate Father who has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west. Christmas made that possible.


Psalm 121 describes a God who will never let me stumble, slip, or fall. Who is always watching, never sleeping, protecting me day and night. But never in a disturbing way.


As for that crying business, Psalm 56:8 tells us of a God who keeps track of our sorrows, collects our tears in a bottle, and records each one in his book. Who will one day wipe away our tears with his own hand because there will be no more mourning or crying or death. (Revelation 21:4) 

Yes, I believe God sees me when I’m sleeping and knows when I’m awake. The beauty in that? He sees me.

And he sees you. The real you. The one that others miss. The one hiding behind masks, both literal and figurative. The one you fear will never be enough.

And guess what? He loves that real version of you.So this year, when you hear that playful song, tap your foot and sing along. Because whether Santa Claus comes to town or not, you know the truth about God. And you know the bottom line.

He sees you. Period.