Because of the special season that we’re in, I decided to take a brief break from the Chaplain Program specifics and share some thoughts about this time of year that means different things to different people. Some celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and even Festivus J (If you would like to share your experiences of “airing your grievances” or “feats of strength” around the Festivus pole, let me know). Regardless of what you celebrate, this month of December and the holidays that are celebrated bring about certain emotions and traditions. There is a buzz in the air regardless of the environment in which you find yourself. To those that live in the colder areas, this time of year brings pictures of snowy pastures and evergreen trees. To those who live in warmer climates like I do here in Florida, it definitely doesn’t mean snow. It means beaches and an ocean that is only inhabited by tourists because it’s too cold for us Natives. As I finish this up on Christmas Eve, it is a warm 79 degree day, and we are wearing shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops. Even though the beach and the palm trees are gorgeous, I miss the scenic snow-covered fields and the crisp air.
I had the privilege of growing up around Kansas City, Missouri, and my grandparents lived in North Central Kansas. Every Christmas that we spent at their house, we hoped and prayed for snow. There was nothing better than waking up in that cold house under the electric blanket and smelling the bacon and eggs and toast that Grandma was cooking for us. Then after making our way downstairs we would see the snow covered trees and the barn. The smell of Christmas dinner cooking kept us occupied as the day slowly passed. Football was on the television, and at some point we would all go outside and try to emulate the players we had just watched. Then of course at some point in the day we would get to open up the presents that Santa had left the night before. In fact, all of the kids would get to take turns passing out gifts to everybody else year after year. Even as I write this, memories flood my mind. There were priceless, treasured memories and traditions that came with our Christmas celebrations!
Christmas day was almost always at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, but the memories of the Christmas season are mostly from our small house in Blue Springs, Missouri. It was a tiny little house on the corner of 120 acres that was owned by our church and school. We had become caretakers of the property while the church and school buildings were being constructed, and we stayed there until after I graduated from high school. Every year dad would pull out the tractor and the buckets of lights, and we would start stringing up the old-style bulbs on the gutters of the house. We would do this by pulling the tractor up to the house, and then dad would raise the tractor’s bucket up to the gutter. The next step was him walking on top of the tractor and hopping into the bucket and placing each set of lights on the house. As I sat on the wheel well of the tractor, I would just sit in awe at how cool my dad was, how great is was that we had a tractor, and how beautiful the house looked once it was fully decorated in lights.
One of the greatest memories of this season came during November somewhere during the late nineties. I can’t remember the exact year, but what I do remember is that my dad decided to go out in the woods behind the house and chop down our Christmas tree. He said that everybody should chop down their own tree at least once in their life. Now, I don’t know if that’s the real reason or if he just wanted to save money by not going down to buy one from the Christmas Tree lot. The reason doesn’t matter. We were going out in the woods on the tractor to cut down our Christmas tree! It was awesome! We picked out the tree that was the right size, dad cut it down, we strapped it to the tractor, and we brought it back to put it in our house. IT LOOKED PERFECT! I never remember how my mom felt about the idea of going out into the woods to cut down our tree, but I DO know that she didn’t like the idea after a couple of days. This tree started shedding needles like a hairy dog in the middle of a heat wave. They were everywhere, and we had thick carpeting. I’m pretty sure we were finding pine needles years later. Of course, that wasn’t as bad as the sap that started dripping out everywhere. I’m not sure what kind of evergreen tree we cut down, and I’m not sure what was different from the trees at the lots, but this was definitely not a tree made for the inside of a home. But here’s the thing: It is still my most memorable Christmas tree. I remember every detail of that tree. You see, it doesn’t always have to be perfect to be memorable. Some difficult memories become treasures to us over time.
I speak and pray at a holiday memorial service every year during the first week of December. The cemetery is transformed into a “garden of memory” with a large tent, Christmas lights, Christmas cookies, High School Choirs singing Christmas carols, luminaria-lined streets, and lots of people in attendance remembering their loved ones that were lost recently or decades ago. This year I shared the above story about the Christmas tree because I was reminded that death is the ultimate “change in plans”. We have these great plans for the lives we lead and the time we will spend with the ones we love. Then suddenly that person is gone, and there’s nothing we can do about it. When we think about the ones we’ve lost, we are often overwhelmed with sadness. None of us was ready to lose the ones who have left.
As I sat writing this blog a few weeks ago, it was at this point that I was going to begin commenting on how good can come from bad and how it’s about our attitude and reaction, not the loss itself. All of that is true, but after the events that happened in the days that followed, I knew there had to be more to share. Two of my dear friends at Palm Beach County Fire Rescue suffered devastating losses, and my thoughts about this issue were rocked in a different direction altogether. One of my friends lost his elderly father. It was a sudden loss after an injury, and I led the service that was a celebration of a legacy that was earned over a lifetime of selfless service and encouragement of others. Four days later I led the service for my other friend’s daughter who died after an ATV accident. She was in her early 20’s, and we also celebrated a life well-lived that left a great legacy. It was a shorter life, but it wasn’t any less important or memorable. In fact, what I witnessed in both services were descriptions that mirrored each other. This elderly gentleman and young woman both made it a point to encourage others and make them smile. The legacy each one left was that each had touched the lives of countless people by simply making it a point to make others better. They smiled and made others smile.
These memories and stories were amazing, but it didn’t mean that no one was sad. It didn’t change the fact that lots of tears were shed as we all mourned the loss of a life. Death makes us sad-not for the person who has died, but for ourselves. We don’t want to live life without that one as a part of it. Death also makes us stop and think. It makes us evaluate, and hopefully it makes us better. And that’s the point I made at the end of both of these services: We honor the ones who have passed before by living a life that is better than it was when we walked in that place to mourn the loss of a friend or loved one. How is it better? It’s better because we focus on our faith and the things that matter most. It’s better because we make the most of the time we have with those we love. It’s better because it focuses on the legacy that our loved one left, and we mirror the good that was lived before us. It’s better because we begin to leave behind a legacy that others can mirror one day in the future when we’re gone
But even still, none of this changes how much hurt these two families still have and will continue to have in the days, weeks, and months to come (and countless others who have suffered loss this year). This brings me to the reason for this post: When God puts the name of someone on your mind, do something with it. Call them, text them, email them, visit them, hug them, pray for them, or just spend some time with them. Do something! You can encourage those who are hurting, begin to build a legacy of love with those you care about most, and mend relationships that need to be healed. The Bible says, “You’re life is a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.” It could all end today. There are no guarantees and no promises for tomorrow to come, so don’t wait. Don’t miss out. Don’t live with regrets.
Many years have passed since I was a child spending Christmas day with my grandparents in Kansas. Lots of Christmases have come and gone since the last time I watched my dad putting the lights on the house and chopping down our Christmas tree. Some of those years and some of those Christmases have been highlights of my life, and some of them are forgettable because of choices I’ve made. This Christmas and this next year, I want to make highlights, not forgettable moments. And that’s what I want for you. What if this was your last Christmas or your last year? What would be different? How would you live?
So in this holiday season, I ask you to think about what this past year has brought into your life and what you want this next year to bring. Have you chosen to make the most of the time you have with the ones you love, or are you taking your relationships for granted? This is the season of 2nd chances. If you have been neglecting your relationships, don’t continue on as if there is no hope. Change it now. Spend time with those you love and hold tightly to them. Change your relationships and change your legacy.