Not Quite Home on the Range Yet

Last night I sinned. Multiple times. My son and son-in-law were with me at the time. They sinned, too, and we all had a great time doing it. Let me explain. We were celebrating my son-in-law’s birthday, so we went to a shooting range before dinner, cake, and gift giving. It’s something Micah enjoys, though he doesn’t have a lot of opportunity to do it, so we surprised him with a round at Enck’s Gun Barn. My son Drew also has more experience than I do in this area, making me the rookie of the bunch. 

I’ve shot pistols before, but only a few times in the distant past and only at Coke cans set up in the woods near my brother-in-law’s house in North Carolina. Last night we used a rifle—a Ruger AR-556, which is considerably louder than a pistol, though the kickback isn’t bad at all. Given my lack of experience, I was hoping to just get my shots on the paper target!

I didn’t get a bullseye this time, but all my shots were inside the 8 and 9 rings, and one even nicked the center circle. Not bad for a beginner. But all three of us kept missing the mark, which is one of the biblical metaphors for sin. There are many other images, too, but this one is prominent.

Judges 20:15-16 says, “At once the Benjamites mobilized twenty-six thousand swordsmen from their towns, in addition to seven hundred chosen men from those living in Gibeah. Among all these soldiers there were seven hundred chosen men who were left-handed, each of whom could sling a stone at a hair and not miss [ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ].”

The word ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ is a general word for sin, usually having the sense of missing the mark, going astray, offending, or ignoring something required by God’s law (e.g., Gen 40:1; Jdgs 20:16; Neh 13:26; etc.). It can also mean “sin offering” (e.g., Exod 29:4).

King David prays in Psalm 51:2, “Cleanse me [ṭāhēr] from my sin [ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ].” The word ṭāhēr means to “be clean,” “cleanse,” “purify,” or “pronounce clean,” as from a defiling condition. It can have a ritual context (e.g., Lev 11:32), or it can refer to the actual cleansing of impurities (e.g., Naaman’s leprosy in 2 Kgs 5:10). 

It can also refer to the removal of impurities from metal (e.g., refined gold and silver in Mal 3:3). Therefore, the word does not necessarily have a sacramental connotation (contra Goldingay, etc.) or even a ceremonial connotation (contra Wilson, the ESV Study Bible, etc.). Indeed, David’s hope of forgiveness rests on nothing ceremonial (cf. vv. 16-17). The sense of his prayer in v. 2 is, “Purify me from my defiling sin.”

Because of his mercy, grace, and compassion (Ps 51:1), God can certainly do that. And because David came to him humbly, he did. “The Lord has taken away your sin,” said Nathan the prophet. You are not going to die” (2 Sam 12:13-14). David later wrote, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven” (Ps 32:1).

Interestingly enough, all three of us last night were landing our initial shots low and to the right of the bullseye. That would seem to suggest a sighting issue on the gun. Our Range Safety Officer (RSO) helped us make the necessary adjustments to shoot more accurately. He also helped me with my stance and positioning vis-à-vis the target. He was patient, kind, and supportive, not condescending at all toward this novice.

Probably my biggest challenge as a shooter is the fact that I’m left-eye dominant trying to shoot from a right hander’s position. My impulse, then, is to use my left eye to align the sights, but that doesn’t work when you’re pressing your right cheek to the gun stock. Here again, the RSO was perceptive and gave me some suggestions to help me “not sin.”

Our night at the range caused me to think about the fact that we’re in this spiritual journey together. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23), which is why judging and condescension are out of place in the Christian life. Smug self-righteousness is just a way to justify our anger at other people because they sin differently than we do.

Our natural misalignments and daily temptations to “miss the mark” don’t go away when others scold us, humiliate us, or impose their asceticisms on us (Col 2:21-23). They tend to dissipate when those with a little more experience help us learn how to aim higher. 

We are pilgrims on a journey
We are brothers on the road
We are here to help each other

Walk the mile and bear the load

The RSO actually showed me last night how to be a better pastor. Lord knows, I need ongoing training.

Image Credits: pexels.com; nationalinterest.org; aurrpc.com.

Grantchester: My Newest Detective Binge

Readers of TNL will likely know of my affection for detective, crime solving, courtroom, and spy shows, along with a few period dramas from time to time. My latest binge is Grantchester on PBS’s Masterpiece. The British detective series is set in 1950s Cambridge, England, and features the Anglican vicar Sidney Chambers (James Norton) developing a side sleuthing gig with Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green). 

Father Chambers apparently gets replaced in a future season with a new vicar, William Davenport (Tom Brittney), but I’m just getting started. The best way to describe the series is “one part Endeavour smooshed together with one part Father Brown.” So far so good. My recent previous binges in this genre have included:

  • Alias (Jennifer Garner)
  • Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch)
  • The Mentalist (Simon Baker)
  • Covert Affairs (Piper Perabo)
  • Broadchurch (David Tennant)
  • Blue Bloods (Tom Selleck)
  • Poirot (David Suchet)
  • Father Brown (Mark Williams)
  • Endeavour (Shaun Evans)
  • Inspector Morse (John Thaw)
  • Inspector Lewis (Kevin Whately)
  • Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (Essie Davis)
  • Columbo (Peter Falk)

Past and ongoing binges in the period-piece genre include:

  • Victoria (Jenna Coleman, Tom Hughes)
  • The Crown (Claire Foy, Olivia Colman)
  • Reign (Adelaide Kane, Toby Regbo, Megan Follows)
  • Downton Abbey (Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith)
  • Pride & Prejudice (Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth)
  • Sense & Sensibility (Hattie Morahan, Dominic Cooper)

And then there’s Stranger Things (Winona Ryder, Millie Bobby Brown), which is in a class by itself, and the ubiquitous NCIS and Law & Order. Oh, and the Friday night Marvel binge with my son. (My waning love of professional sports has made more space for the arts and a better use of my brain.)

What are your favorite binges?

UPDATE (01.15.2021): As it turns out, Grantchester is rather slow moving, only marginally interesting, and unfortunately overt in its socio-political agenda. I’m not sure I’ll continue with it. Worst of all (for this genre, anyway), the viewer can never really solve the crime beforehand because important clues are concealed until the end. Where’s the fun in that?

Image Credits: mypostcard.com; medium.com.

Happy Taste Buds at Christmas

I may be rolling into the New Year. My sister-in-law, who’s an expert baker, brought a trove of goodies to our house for the Christmas break. Alas, my tongue is craving more than my stomach can handle. Among her delectable treats are:

  • Pizzelles
  • Pinwheel Snickerdoodles
  • Shortbread Cookies
  • Buckeyes
  • Pecan Tassies
  • Peanut Butter Cookies
  • Yule Log Cake Roll
  • Chocolate Covered Pretzel Sticks
  • Butterscotch Smoothies
  • Other Assorted Cookies

Joan is a high-power exec at her company, so it’s a wonder she has the time to do all this work. And not just do it but do it well. Her husband John is an expert bread maker and a boss at the grill. So, I’m raising the white flag today because I can’t come close to competing with these skills. (Not that this is a competition.) 

I will say, however, that my peanut butter blossoms—topped with Wilbur buds—are right up there in taste. And, as I like to say: Chocolate is proof of God’s existence. Peanut butter is proof of God’s power. And the two together are proof of God’s goodness.

All of this divinity, however, is giving me a sugar headache!

A Couple of Gift Pics

I mentioned yesterday that I got way too many gifts for Christmas—all of them special and much appreciated—with two from my kids that truly captured my heart. Here are snaps of those two gifts.

The wooden Phillies mug on the right is made in the shape of—and out of the same material as—an MLB bat. It’s so tall I needed a chopstick to stir the creamer! Drew has a way of getting us the most unique gifts—the kinds of things we would never buy for ourselves but bring a smile to our hearts when he gives them.

My daughter and son-in-law choked me up with a canvas made on their cricut that says, “Fall on your knees, Oh hear the angel voices, Oh night divine, Oh night when Christ was born,” a line from my mom’s favorite Christmas carol, “O Holy Night,” the same one we were singing to her when she passed away. Next year, Lord willing, I’ll write more about that carol and its history. It was an awful lot of work for Bethany and Micah to put this together.

It was a memorable day. (We even had a bit of snow for a few hours!) The greatest gift of course, was the child in the manger. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that Andrew also made each of our likenesses into a 3D-printed comic figure. (I am Batman, haha!) We’re still waiting for the USPS to deliver them, but we have printouts of what they will look like. How in the world did I get such creative kids?

Image Credit: wallpaperfx.com.

And He Is in the Manger Now

I hope your Christmas was as delightful as ours. The morning was quite leisurely—just hanging out in our pajamas and waiting for our daughter and her husband to arrive. Our son stayed over night last night after the Christmas Eve service, and we watched It’s a Wonderful Life together before going to bed. He and I had wonderful conversations and plenty of laughs this morning.

That was after I got up at 4:30 a.m. to place baby Jesus in the manger. Knowing of our tradition, my son-in-law last night placed Mary in a supine position (unbeknownst to me) to simulate her posture in labor. I chuckled when I saw it this morning, but I wasn’t sure at that point who the culprit was. I found out later it was Micah. I told him that Mary probably delivered her child on a birthing stool while holding onto an overhead rope. He said he’ll try to simulate that next year, and we’re all eager to see what he comes up with!

I made hot cinnamon rolls for breakfast, and we had a special blend of Brazilian coffee to help wake up. I then set out all the Christmas candy and goodies we’ll be grazing on over the next several days when the out-of-town family members arrive tomorrow. Many of these treats were selected because they’re the same kinds we had in my childood:

Milk and dark choloclate Wilbur buds; milk and dark choloclate covered pretzels; red and green Hershey kisses; red and green M&Ms; red and green peanut butter cups; chocolate filled straws; nonpareils; and choclate-mint truffles. The cookie collection includes peanut butter blossoms, sugar cutouts, and chocolate chips.

Before we opened our gifts, I read the story of the Magi from Matthew 2. I got a bit emotional—as I do almost every year—because I was reading from the Bible that belonged to my dearly departed father-in-law, who was also a pastor. We then gathered around the manger to remember Emmanuel, “God with us.” After that, the kids served as elves and distributed the gifts.

There are far too many presents to mention here, but I’ll note two from the kids that captured my heart. First, my son gave me an incredibly unique wooden Phillies mug—made out of an actual bat! I can’t wait to try it tomorrow morning! My daughter and son-in-law made me a gift that got me super choked up. It’s a cricut canvas that says, “Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices.” That’s a line from the hauntingly beautiful Christmas carol “O Holy Night,” the same one we were singing to my mom when she passed away. 

We then had Christmas dinner, which consisted of oven-baked turkey, Pennsylvania Dutch potato filling, green beans, dried (Cope’s) corn, salad, crescent rolls, apple pie, and sparkling cider. All of us are stuffed. And grateful.

We’re now watching a movie as the day winds down. It was Micah’s turn to make the selction this year, and he chose Elf, which is one of his favorites.

I’m so glad we don’t live in a world where it’s “always winter and never Christmas,” to borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis. Rather, the manger is full. And so are our hearts. 

Thank you, Jesus.

Image Credit: shutterstock.com.

Christmas Eve 2020: ‘She’s Still the Same Girl’

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” And the most frazzled, too! But it’s a good frazzle. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Final preparations are now being made in the sanctuary and on the sermon for the candlelight service tonight at church. We’ll be on-ground and online this year because of the virus.

Final cleaning and food preparation is also taking place in our home, as we’ll be having more guests than we did for Thanksgiving. With my mother-in-law’s cognition declining, her kids and grandkids want to gather while she still knows who they are. It’s a good reminder for all of us to live life to the fullest while we have a life to live.

Lorena is a godly woman, and she’s most like herself when she prays. I’ve asked her several times not to say, “Amen” so we can all enjoy “the old her” longer. But she forgets and says, “Amen,” anyway! 

Lorena Moore, holding the Christmas flowers she just received from her brother Tony, who lives in California.

The “new her” is still her, and we seek to honor her for who she is. God’s entire point in giving the fifth commandment through Moses was so Israel would be a good place for people to grow old. Our calling is now to live out that same vision for Lorena.

It’s often challenging (e.g., answering the same question dozens of times; adding an hour or two to cookie baking, etc.), but the Golden Rule helps keep us on track. I might be old some day, too, so I need to treat her the same way I would want to be treated if I were in a similar situation. Most of the time that approach works well, but I have lost my patience a few times. Thank God for the Savior, whose birth we celebrate tonight and tomorrow.

I also think of that poignant Twila Paris song, “Same Girl” in regard to Lorena. It captures well how I want to regard her, even today.

Look behind the lines till you remember
She’s still the same girl

So, there are lots of emotions swirling around today. There’s the awe and wonder of the incarnation. There’s the “thrill of hope” in the salvation that Jesus brings. There’s the joy and laughter of extended family members gathering to celebrate. There’s the pain and disappointment of suffering and loss. 

And then, of course, there’s a lot of nostalgia this time of year, too. Emotional triggers can come in the form of seeing old Christmas decorations, hearing old Christmas songs, writing out new Christmas cards, and smelling great Christmas recipes we don’t make the rest of the year.

One trigger for me is an old Santa pin that my siblings and I used to wear this time of year. You could pull a string, and his red nose would light up. It’s a silly thing, really. A worthless trinket. But it touches something inside me, although I’m not exactly sure what.

The Santa pin on the left is my original—now well worn and aged. The one on the right is a re-make. 

Maybe it’s the extra love we felt as kids at Christmas. Dad was a little nicer at that time, and mom was a pargon of positivity. We could also stay up later and eat more junk food. And, of course, we got a few gifts. What’s not to like about Christmas when you’re a kid?

In any event, I’ve met quite a few folks who had these pins growing up, and they always brighten up when they talk about them. They’re usually connected to pleasant memories “of Christmas long, long ago.” (We’re all getting older, aren’t we?)

So, yes, it’s the most wonderful time of the year—even when life is hard. “For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

I can hardly wait to fall on my knees tonight.

Picture with me if you can
A little girl in a younger land
Running, playing, laughing
Growing stronger
Now the aging limbs have failed
And the rosy cheeks are paled
Look behind the lines till you remember

She’s still the same girl
Flying down the hill
She’s still the same girl
Memories vivid still
Listen to her story
And her eyes will glow
She’s still the same girl
And she needs you so

Picture with me if you will
A long white dress and a wedding veil
Two young dreamers pledge their love together
Now her lifelong friend is gone
And she spends her days alone
Look behind the lines till you remember

She’s still the same girl
Walking down the aisle
She’s still the same girl
With the shining smile
Listen to her story
And her eyes will glow
She’s still the same girl

Same girl
She’s still the same girl
Wiser for the years
She’s still the same girl
Stronger for the tears
Listen to her story
And your heart will glow
She’s still the same girl
And we need her so
She’s still the same girl
And she needs you so

This Year’s Christmas Cookie Adventure

After all these years, I’m still learning the secrets of baking. Not just the recipes, but the techniques as well—things like temperature, pressure, consistency, mixing, cooling, decorating, and so forth. Let’s just say I have a long way to go! Here are the “win, place, and show” awards for this year’s Christmas cookie adventure.

Win—Peanut Butter Blossoms

The best cookie this year turned out to be the peanut butter blossoms. They’re delicious! We used an online recipe this time around and deviated from the instructions only by putting Wilbur Buds on top of them instead of Hershey Kisses. Half got the dark chocolate buds, and half got the milk chocolate. Readers of TNL will know that I’ll be eating the dark chocolate ones first! Everything about this particular cookie—the look, smell, taste, and ease of preparation—was top notch.

Place—Sugar Cut Outs

The sugar cookies turned out to be wonderful this year, too. They’re just a whole lot of work. And, sheesh, the flour can wind up in the strangest places! With all the rolling, cutting, trimming, and re-rolling of excess dough, the process can get tiring after several hours. We used my Nana’s cookie cutters, which always puts a lump in my throat. They may be 60-70 years old by now, and they bring back a lot of beautiful memories. She was a gem of kindness, and I was always in awe of her baking skills. We put red and green sugar sprinkles on the cut outs. They’re fun to look at and fun to eat!

Show—Chocolate Chip Cookies

Oh, what a near disaster! The chilled dough seemed “spot on” in terms of consistency (and taste), but I must have botched the recipe somehow. The first tray didn’t bake correctly, leaving us with greasy blobs of unrecognizability all over the oven. (I now know what a pregnant amoeba looks like.) I semi-rescued the rest of the dough with added flour and baking soda, and the subsequent bakes were okay-ish. Still, I was frustrated. Chocolate chip cookies have never been a problem before. Ugh!

My frustration led to other miscues on my part (e.g., kitchen spills, misplaced utensils, etc.), which just made me more disappointed with myself. I was not at the top of my game for part of the night, so I never got around to whipping up the snickerdoodles. 

* – bottom lip out – *

The unseen benefit was the reminder—once again—of how much I need a Savior. Fortunately, we have one in Jesus. The cookies were made in his honor, anyway. Eating them this year will be a kind of communion with him. But most of them will be given away to the neighbors when we go Christmas caroling tonight.

Except the chocolate chip cookies. Those are staying here. They’re not ready for prime time.

But, hey, two out of three ain’t bad!

Throwback Thursday: My Earliest Pictures

My apologies for the fading, but these photos go all the way back. They are, in fact, the first pictures ever taken of me as a newly minted Valentino. I’m not aware of any photos that were taken prior to #1 and #2 below.

1. This picture is the first day in my new home. I was thirteen months old at the time, and fresh out of foster care. The blond curls have since given way to brown waves.

2. Jumping on the bed is a skill every little boy should master. Apparently I’m not too upset here that my new parents were acquiring photographic evidence of my crime. Maybe I’m accusing them of fake news.

3. Eight months later I had my first Christmas in the Valentino home. I adored my Nana (mom’s mom), who lived just four houses down the street from us. That allowed for many visits and lots of love shared between us.

4. I’m shown here with my older brother, Bob, who passed away far too young in 2004. Note the aluminum Christmas tree and color wheel in the background that I’ve written about recently on TNL. I seem more eager to open gifts than my brother.

Random Thoughts as SNOWVID-20 Comes to Say Hello

1. I’m catching my breath after a long semester—just sitting here enjoying the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of the season. Jim Carrey’s A Christmas Carol was playing last night in the background, but I couldn’t watch it because I was finishing up my last class. The animation in that production is amazing (even if dark in tone and temperature), so I’m going to have to catch it later. Right now, the grading marathon begins.

2. The countertop is loaded with Christmas cookie ingredients, all waiting to be mixed in the right proportions and then baked to perfection. Most ingredients don’t taste too good on their own, but together they form a delightful treat that’s not to be missed this time of year. There’s probably a sermon illustration in there somewhere—isolation vs. interaction, and all that.

3. I’m eating a Mint Milano cookie even as I contemplate the homemade delights to come—chocolate chip, sugar, and peanut butter cookies to start. Snicker doodles and sand tarts could make an appearcnce, too, but we’ll see. Either way, Nana’s old fashioned cookie cutters are ready to go. She was a kind and gracious woman who taught me the real meaning of Christmas when I was very young. She always lit a babyberry candle on Christmas Eve to serve as the birthday candle for Jesus.

4. I changed a car battery in 24° F weather today. Didn’t mind at all since the wind wasn’t blowing. Fall is my favorite season, and winter is a close second. Spring is very nice, and summer brings up the rear. (I’m not for hot.) Snow can be both beautiful and fun, but I always want peole to stay safe on the roads. I’m hoping the snowstorm that began an hour ago doesn’t wreak too much havoc on our region. Pennsylvania has had enough challenges for one year. Nevertheless, let it snow!

5. Firewood for the new fireplace is stacked and ready to go. We have a real one and a simulated one. Both are lovely, and both are flanked by Christmas trees right now. Gifts are piling up in the living room, and the nativity set is prominently dispalyed, minus the baby Jesus. His due date this year is December 25, though some years we grant him preemie status.

6. Speaking of nativity scenes, I’m fast becoming a fan of the 1515 painting by an obscure artist depicting the first Christmas, titled The Adoration of the Christ Child. The angel next to Mary and the shepherd in the focal center both display facial features associated with Down syndrome. Yes, Jesus came for the preemies, the Downs, the miscarried, the stillborn, and orphans like me. All are precious in his sight.

7. I’m looking forward to wrapping up the grading, celebrating our Savior’s birth, and then diving into the dissertation full bore. As noted in a previous post, that’s nearly a full-time job, so I’ll have to cut back on my TNL frequency for several months. I’ll stay as engaged as I can, though, since I love to write. I find it therapeutic, clarifying, and devotional. Academic writing, however, is another matter. That’s just tedious and painful, but there’ll be no more degrees after this, so I might as well go out with a bang.

8. Here’s a delightful song called “Memories” as performed by the One Voice Children’s Choir. It lifted my spirits and made me smile. Maybe you’ll enjoy it, too. We don’t all have photographic memories, but we all have phonographic memories. 

9. Finally, in all of our merry making this time of year, it’s good to remember that the cradle led to the cross. And the cross led to the empty tomb. And the empty tomb led to the ascension. And the ascension led to the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. Some day, history itself will culminate in the return of Christ for his people. But how to convey all that in one picture? Here’s one church’s noble attempt:

Praying for the safety, health, and joy of all who pass by TNL from time to time. Thank you!

Be blessed.

Image Credits: downsyndromeprenataltesting.com; shutterstock.com.

Jesus, the Preemie

When our kids were younger, we always wanted to help them remember that Christmas was about the birth of Jesus. Everything else—the gifts, the lights, the dinner, the travel, the parties—was a celebration of that. To assist in this effort, we would set up the nativity scene with everything in it—except baby Jesus.

Every morning leading up to Christmas Day, I would take them past the manger and ask, “Is baby Jesus here yet?” It created a sense of anticipation, the kind for which Advent is well known. Finally, when the big day arrived, and we all saw that Jesus was now in his manger, we could celebrate, exchange gifts, and make merry. 

I suppose I made it a bit worse by insisting we read Matthew 2:1-12 around the tree before the first gift was opened. It takes less than two minutes to do so, but eager kids can say with their faces, “Dad, we already know the story,” even if, out of respect, they don’t use words. Message received. But we always read the story, anyway. We still do, astonished that it’s Jesus’ birthday, but we get the gifts. The very practice itself gives us a whiff of the gospel.

Last year gave us a dilemma. The family rule says, “No gifts until baby Jesus is in the manger, and no baby Jesus is in the manger until Christmas Day.” But family and work schedules required that we hold our gift exchange on Christmas Eve. What to do? We actually had a serious theological discussion about it!

I proposed that we consider Jesus a preemie. That is, he would come earlier than expected that year, allowing us to celebrate a day in advance. Would that be bending the rule too much? Some thought it did, so I offered an alternative rationale. In Jewish reckoning, the new day begins at sundown, so we could legitimately hasten the arrival of Christmas by about six hours—just what we needed to make the holiday schedule work.

Problem solved. And the family rule stayed intact. 

Silliness aside, those ponderings got me to thinking about the non-romantic aspects of Jesus’ birth—the parts that don’t make it onto the gold-foil Christmas cards with glittered edges. Things like diapers. Placenta. Giving birth 90 miles away from your home. Strange visitors and bug-eyed prophets showing up out of the blue to gawk at your baby. Political machinations behind the scenes putting your child at risk. The first Christmas was no picnic. 

Jesus was born “in the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4), but Mary probably didn’t have a specific due date in mind. Did Jesus—from her perspective—come earlier or later than expected? Was he, in fact, born prematurely? When he was born, how much did he weigh? Did he have hair? Was he jaundiced? What would his Apgar score be had he been born in our day? We don’t know for sure, but the questions themselves highlight the earthiness of it all. His conception was miraculous, but his birth took place in a most ordinary way. 

As such, Jesus stands in solidarity with babies of all kinds, including preemies. Including those who, like me, were unwanted at birth and placed in an orphanage from day one. Whenever I see a TV commercial for a children’s hospital, I think about emptying my bank account and sending them everything I have. “Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world.” He used to be one.

As noted in a previous post, the Incarnation puts me on overload. I can never fully get my mind around it. Thankfully, I don’t have to. I can just enjoy what God has done for us, and try to love him in return. Moreover, I can live with less-than-perfect devotionals that have already been written for this year. Be looking for them toward the end of next week if you like.

  • “Divine Hospitality: God at Home in a Fractured World”
  • “Impossible Journey: Our Down-to-Earth God”
  • “God Has Landed: Harry Potter and Jesus”

Until then, be a child at heart. For of such is the kingdom of God (Luke 18:16).

Image Credits: renestance.com; pexels.com.

Reflections on ‘The House Without a Christmas Tree’

Families have December traditions, but so do individuals within those families—perennial routines that need not involve everyone in the house. Last night I engaged in one of those traditions myself. I watched a 90-minute Chritsmas movie that I would try to catch every year growing up. (I say “try to catch” because streaming movies wasn’t a thing back then. We had thirteen channels and a TV Guide, and we had to make our schedule work around whatever it was we wanted to watch at the time it was on.)

Based on a novella by Gail Rock, The House Without a Christmas Tree always resonated with me as a child, not because we didn’t have a tree, but because the relational dynamics in the home seemed all too familiar. A grouchy, emotionally constipated father has a rocky relationship with his young child, who just wants to be loved. Just wants to be accepted. Alas, I could relate.

It’s a sad flick in many respects, but it trudges onward, executing a few subplots along the way and dragging itself toward a satisfying conclusion, though not in a Hallmarky kind of way. No one is happily every-aftering at the end of this no-frills, low-budget production. The characters are simply in a better place to live healthier, more integrated lives in the future. It’s a step forward, not a leap, but things are looking up when the curtain comes down.

Addie Mills (Lisa Lucas) is a feisty, precocious 10-year-old in 1946 living in rural Nebraska. She can’t understand why her prickly father won’t allow them to have a Christmas tree in the home. James Mills (Jason Robards) doesn’t communicate well with his daughter. In fact, he can barely look at her most of the time, only grunting out terse corrections of the chatty child when his annoyance threshold has been crossed. Reading the newspaper always seems more important to him.

Fortunately, Addie’s grandmother, Sarah Mills (Mildred Natwick), bridges the gap between the two combatants. Grandma helps Addie see the situation from her father’s perspective, that of a man who’s stuck in his grief, still lamenting the loss of his wife from ten years ago, shortly after Addie was born. Simultaneously, Sarah counsels her son to see the impasse from his daughter’s point of view, and the importance of loving the ones who are still with us, even if deep down we wish things were different.

As Christmas approaches, it seems Addie will never get her tree, something she believes would bring a modicum of cheer to an otherwise gloomy house. But then an act of generosity touches her father’s heart and teaches him an important lesson about the spirit of Christmas. Indeed, a universal theme in literature makes an appearance in the movie—the loving sacrifice of the weaker party softening the callous pride of the stronger party, prompting a genuine change of heart.

Addie becomes the catalyst for her father’s epiphany. It’s her sacrifice that jolts him out of the selfish rut he’s been stuck in for the past decade. Fortunately, he comes to see that God has blessed him with a truly remarkable child, whom he’s been using as a repository for his pain all these years. 

I suppose I always connected with this movie because my own father was much like Addie’s. And I likewise held out hope for relief and resolution someday. Dad was not a widower, but he did carry a lot of personal pain for other reasons. That pain came largely from his being the child of two alcoholic parents who were harsh with everyone around them. Being poor didn’t help, either.

The ensuing strife led other family members to develop ties to the mafia, first as an escape, then as a quest for acceptance, and then as a way of life. For that reason, I never met most of my father’s family. He never talked about his parents or siblings, and I only ever saw his mother one time—when she was in her casket. He was protecting us from his family, which was an act of love on his part that we knew nothing about when we were children.

Despite his pain—or maybe because of it—my father trusted Christ for salvation six months before he passed away. He came to see the kindness of the heavenly Father toward him, and it captured his heart. Genuine transformations began to take place in his life, and he was growing in grace by the time he left us. I’ll take that over a Hallmarky ending any day.

Image Credits: pexels.com; fuzzy64.livejournal.com.

A Holly Jolly Family Night

The family gathered last night to celebrate the birthday girl, and also to decorate the family Christmas tree in the newly renovated living room. (We don’t even have curtains yet!) This is the tree that gets the homemade ornaments and various other decorations that represent our interests or were given to us over the years, each bearing some special significance to us. I then fell asleep during the movie. Ooops! Too much grub at Longhorn’s, I guess! Hopefully, the “Hallmark” tree in the family room will be finished later this weekend.

The “family ornaments” Christmas tree.
First fire in the new fireplace.
An ornament I made in elementary school.
Placed on the bottom branch because the Phillies are usually at the bottom of the standings.
The goggles look more like sunglasses. And I’m breathing to the left, which my coach wouldn’t like.
An ornament made for me by a cousin who lives in Connecticut.

Image Credit: istockphoto.com.

Alvin! Alvin! Alvin!

We put up the remaining Christmas trees tonight, cheered on by the holiday music of Alvin and the Chipmunks, another family tradition from my childhood. The group comprises three anthropomorphic rodents named Alvin, Simon, and Theodore, courtesy of David Seville. It’s all very silly but part of my past, so it brought some smiles.

Two trees are now completely decorated—the green one in my mother-in-law’s addition (a.k.a., the Granny Flat) and the aluminum tree in our bedroom, described in a previous post. The two remaining trees—one in the living room and one in the family room—will be completed later this week, along with the rest of the inside and outside decorations.

Undecorated Christmas tree in the living room, with room on the mantle and bookshelves for seasonal decorations. It was nice of the chairs to share their space.
Undecorated Christmas tree in the family room. It was nice of these chairs to share their space, too. (Sorry about the glare. Better lighted pictures coming soon.)

So, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas—truly the most wonderful time of the year. And to top it off, Alvin has now given way to Britney Spears’ “My Only Wish (This Year)” on the Music Choice Channel in the background. After choking back tears all morning during worship, it’s nice to end the day with a bit of lightheartedness. Besides, tomorrow is dissertation day, on top of a whole lot of grading as the semester winds down.

Christmas candle flower arrangement in the family room.

Image Credit: famouscelebirites.fandom.com.

Getting Our Gleam On

Here in the Valentino home, we usually put up three Christmas trees every year. The first one goes in the the family room, and it has a formal look. It’s a 7.5-ft. green tree with white steady lights, red and gold ball ornaments, pine/pinecone/berry decorations, and a string of gold beads. When finished, it looks like something that might win a bronze medal in a Better Homes & Gardens magazine contest.

The second one goes in the the living room, and it has a homey look. It’s a 7-ft. green tree with multi-colored blinking lights, garland, and a variety of ornaments. Many are homemade or were hand-crafted by the kids, but all have some sort of special significance to the family. This tree is always cute and charming, but it probably wouldn’t make it into anybody’s magazine.

The third one goes in our bedroom, and it has a space-age look. It’s a 6-foot aluminum tree with a glittery gold rotating base, a rotating color wheel with four lenses, and a slew of vintage Shiny-Brite ornaments from the mid 20th century. In one sense, it’s a bit gaudy, but in another sense, it’s personally magical because it represents my entire childhood in a single decoration. Yes, this is the Christmas tree my parents had when I was growing up in Reading, Pennsylvania. If it ever made its way into a magazine, it would probably be one published by NASA.

Evergleam aluminum Christmas trees, which were originally produced in Manitowoc, Wisconson, were all the rage beginning in the early 1960s and beyond. Today, they’re seeing a rise in popularity. There’s even an aluminum tree exhibit at the Wisconsin Historical Museum. They’re also hot on eBay every year with certain models selling for well over $1,000.

The Evergleam Christmas tree display at the Wisconsin Historical Museum.
Museum display showing our model. We still have this exact box to store our branches.

This year we put up our aluminum tree right after Thanksgiving dinner as “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” was playing in the background. We removed the curtains and placed it in the corner of the bedroom so people outside could see it from two different directions. (The other two tress will go up in the coming week or so. More pictures forthcoming.)

Everything in our setup is original except the color wheel and approximately one third of the vintage ornaments. We had to replace those items because of normal wear-and-tear, along with the fragility that comes with age. But all are exact replicas. I was especially determined to match the color wheel because it fascinated me when I was a boy. I found an exact duplicate on eBay about ten years ago, and I refused to be outbid for it.

The Valentino Evergleam in all its glory.
The magical rotating base.

I haven’t been able to find an exact match for the rotating base yet. Hopefully, that won’t be necessary, as mine still works fairly well, but it’s quite old, and I keep waiting for it to conk out. I’m not sure how much longer it can last. The tree trunk is also a bit rickety, and it lists a few degrees off plumb whenever it wants to. The silver paper wrapping around the trunk is also peeling off at places.

The family always lets me place the first ornament, which we call the “Bethlehem ball.” It’s a white glitter/aqua-blue scene of the Magi following the star to go see Jesus, painted onto a shiny silver surface. It was my brother’s favorite. He died in 2004, so we hang it in his memory, as well as my parents’. We store it in a special container during the year so it preserves well.

The Bethlehem ball, a family favorite that gets stored separately in a special container.

Christmas, of course, is the commemoration of God coming to earth 2,000 years ago in the person of Jesus Christ. God sent his one and only Son—the very best he had to give—in order to redeem us and make us his own. That’s how valuable we are to him. He, too, refused to be outbid.

Image Credits: wuwm.com; pixhome.blogspot.com.