Monday 22 December 2008

The two of us

Here's a happy snap of Carole Anne and I, taken during our potluck Christmas lunch with some of the other members of our pastoral care department at The Canberra Hospital, during a very pleasant "perfect weather" day, last Friday -- just outside the chapel area under a canopy, where staff or patients often eat lunch under the open sky amidst several large magpies seeking the scraps.

Quite the different experience having Christmas in the middle of the summertime!

Yesterday (Sunday evening) - the longest day of the year here - we sang special music and carols in Telopea Park near the church, lead by a choir which I joined. About 250 people were sitting around in portable chairs or laying on blankets eating their supper, singing along. As the crowd joined in singing "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" several huge white squawking angels (cockatoos) flitting around overhead amidst the gum trees, joining in with "Arrrck, Arrrrrrrck, Harrrrrck" !!


Jingle Bells, Aussie-Style!

I got exposed to THIS piece of Aussie "culture" at a Christmas outdoor BBQ party last Friday evening, hosted by one of the families from Canberra Baptist. Here they are referring to a Holden Ute (an old Aussie version of a pick-up truck) and an "esky" (cooler.) You will want to go here for more "translations" - just a sampling of why it's really a cross-cultural experience to live here. The Aussies are very proud of their own unique brand of the English language, but for Carole Anne and me it has necessitated a significant "overhaul" of our vocabulary!


Friday 19 December 2008

"Awaiting the Christ Child" (by Christine Sine)

This wonderful Advent meditation by Christine Sine encourages us to await the coming of Christ with expectation and joyful anticipation. The music is "Christ Child Lullaby" played by Jeff Johnson.

If it seems to take a bit longer than usual to "load" after clicking on the "play" arrow above, while you are waiting it will also be worth your time to check out the stuff mentioned below inside another window or tab, until you hear music starting up on the piece above.

"Awaiting the Christ Child" is included in an excellent list called Web Wanderings - the Peace on Earth Edition published in December's Peace Signs online newsletter (by the Mennonite Church.) So...I also encourage you to check out this great little collection of multimedia inspiration, some thought-provoking cartoons, and other neat stuff.


Sunday 14 December 2008

Christmas Greetings & Inspiration - For My Family & Friends

One of my favorite motivational pieces of poetry, "The Work of Christmas" by Howard Thurman is as timeless and just as prophetic in nature today as it was during his prime back in the turbulent times of the 1960's. Thurman was a spiritual mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr, introducing him to the ideas of Ghandhi and the way of non-violence.

I shared that poem with a colleague here in Canberra, Charles Foley, who returned the following comment and quote (in the next paragraph) in response: It bears repeating, when we meditate on our chaplaincy opportunity to serve humanity, that we are profoundly blessed by the effects the patients can have on us as fellow travelers on the shared journey of Life:

"It was not until the summer after his first year in the seminary that he (Howard Thurman) finally made the decision to be ordained. The moment of truth came while he was serving as assistant to the minister of a Baptist church in Virginia, taking over pastoral duties while the minister was on vacation. On his first night in the parsonage, he received a call from the local hospital, where a patient who was dying had asked for a minister. Thurman explained to the nurse that the regular minister was away, and she asked him if he was a minister. "In one kaleidoscopic moment I was back again at an old crossroad," Thurman remarked in his autobiography. " A decision of vocation was to be made here, and again I felt the ambivalence of my life and my calling. Finally I answered. 'Yes, I am a minister.'" "

Somewhere along the way I edited and adapted Thurman's piece (updated a couple of words with synonyms, added in the last three lines, and made the language inclusive throughout) so I want to share this once again, with a slightly different title:

"The Real Work of Christmas"

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with the flocks,
then the work of Christmas begins:

to find the lost,
to heal those broken in spirit,
to feed the hungry,
to release the oppressed,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among all peoples,
to make a little music in the heart
to radiate the Light of Christ
every day
in all that we do and in all that we say…

Then the real work of Christmas begins!

(Adapted by Clair Hochstetler from "The Work of Christmas" by Howard Thurman)

Now, click here to enjoy the 2008 version of my annual animated Christmas card! (It includes music & artwork by the renowned English artist, Jacquie Lawson.)

Grace and peace,


Christmas is...

Friday 12 December 2008

"The Rifle" - A Story Conveying The True Meaning of Christmas

I want to warn my Australian friends now that you might want to go bundle up because the goose bumps could freeze you after reading the story below! It's a true one from North America way back in the 1880's, but really worth sharing now with family and friends at Christmas time.

My source: 137 inspirational stories collected by James Collins into his book "Tears In My Heart." (The story below is entitled "The Rifle", pp 159-163.) I found the whole book available at Google Books, and you can read all of it online right here!

I hope you aren't getting too busy to pass along an inspiring story like this to your own friends and loved ones. So count your blessings and find some good ways to share them this year during the Christmas season, a time when other people throughout the world - and possibly in your own neighbourhood - might once again be facing some dire circumstances!

-Clair (in Canberra, Australia, and getting a bit nostalgic for snow, because it's summer here at Christmas time!)


Pa never had much compassion for the lazy or those who squandered their means and then never had enough for the necessities. But for those who were genuinely in need, his heart was as big as all outdoors. It was from him that I learned the greatest joy in life comes from giving, not from receiving.

It was Christmas Eve 1881. I was fifteen years old and feeling like the world had caved in on me because there just hadn't been enough money to buy me the rifle that I'd wanted for Christmas. We did the chores early that night for some reason. I just figured Pa wanted a little extra time so we could read in the Bible.

After supper was over I took my boots off and stretched out in front of the fireplace and waited for Pa to get down the old Bible. I was still feeling sorry for myself and, to be honest, I wasn't in much of a mood to read Scriptures. But Pa didn't get the Bible, instead he bundled up again and went outside. I couldn't figure it out because we had already done all the chores. I didn't worry about it long though, I was too busy wallowing in self-pity.

Soon Pa came back in. It was a cold clear night out and there was ice in his beard. "Come on, Matt," he said. "Bundle up good, it's cold out tonight." I was really upset then. Not only wasn't I getting the rifle for Christmas, now Pa was dragging me out in the cold, and for no earthly reason that I could see.

We'd already done all the chores, and I couldn't think of anything else that needed doing, especially not on a night like this. But I knew Pa was not very patient at one dragging one's feet when he'd told them to do something, so I got up and put my boots back on and got my cap, coat, and mittens. Ma gave me a mysterious smile as I opened the door to leave the house. Something was up, but I didn't know what..

Outside, I became even more dismayed. There in front of the house was the work team, already hitched to the big sled Whatever it was we were going to do wasn't going to be a short, quick, little job. I could tell. We never hitched up this sled unless we were going to haul a big load. Pa was already up on the seat, reins in hand. I reluctantly climbed up beside him. The cold was already biting at me. I wasn't happy.

When I was on, Pa pulled the sled around the house and stopped in front of the woodshed. He got off and I followed. "I think we'll put on the high sideboards," he said. "Here, help me." The high sideboards! It had been a bigger job than I wanted to do with just the low sideboards on, but whatever it was we were going to do would be a lot bigger with the high side boards on.
After we had exchanged the sideboards, Pa went into the woodshed and came out with an armload of wood - the wood I'd spent all summer hauling down from the mountain, and then all Fall sawing into blocks and splitting. What was he doing? Finally I said something. "Pa," I asked, "what are you doing?" You been by the Widow Jensen's lately?" he asked. The Widow Jensen lived about two miles down the road. Her husband had died a year or so before and left her with three children, the oldest being eight. Sure, I'd been by, but so what?

Yeah," I said, "Why?"

"I rode by just today," Pa said. "Little Jakey was out digging around in the woodpile trying to find a few chips. They're out of wood, Matt." That was all he said and then he turned and went back into the woodshed for another armload of wood. I followed him. We loaded the sled so high that I began to wonder if the horses would be able to pull it. Finally, Pa called a halt to our loading, then we went to the smoke house and Pa took down a big ham and a side of bacon. He handed them to me and told me to put them in the sled and wait. When he returned he was carrying a sack of flour over his right shoulder and a smaller sack of something in his left hand.

"What's in the little sack?" I asked. "Shoes, they're out of shoes. Little Jakey just had gunny sacks wrapped around his feet when he was out in the woodpile this morning. I got the children a little candy too. It just wouldn't be Christmas without a little candy."

We rode the two miles to Widow Jensen's pretty much in silence. I tried to think through what Pa was doing. We didn't have much by worldly standards. Of course, we did have a big woodpile, though most of what was left now was still in the form of logs that I would have to saw into blocks and split before we could use it. We also had meat and flour, so we could spare that, but I knew we didn't have any money, so why was Pa buying them shoes and candy? Really, why was he doing any of this? Widow Jensen had closer neighbors than us; it shouldn't have been our concern.

We came in from the blind side of the Jensen house and unloaded the wood as quietly as possible, then we took the meat and flour and shoes to the door. We knocked. The door opened a crack and a timid voice said, "Who is it?" "Lucas Miles, Ma'am, and my son, Matt, could we come in for a bit?"

Widow Jensen opened the door and let us in. She had a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. The children were wrapped in another and were sitting in front of the fireplace by a very small fire that hardly gave off any heat at all. Widow Jensen fumbled with a match and finally lit the lamp.

"We brought you a few things, Ma'am," Pa said and set down the sack of flour. I put the meat on the table. Then Pa handed her the sack that had the shoes in it. She opened it hesitantly and took the shoes out one pair at a time. There was a pair for her and one for each of the children - sturdy shoes, the best, shoes that would last. I watched her carefully. She bit her lower lip to keep it from trembling and then tears filled her eyes and started running down her cheeks. She looked up at Pa like she wanted to say something, but it wouldn't come out.

"We brought a load of wood too, Ma'am," Pa said. He turned to me and said, "Matt, go bring in enough to last awhile. Let's get that fire up to size and heat this place up." I wasn't the same person when I went back out to bring in the wood. I had a big lump in my throat and as mu ch as I hate to admit it, there were tears in my eyes too. In my mind I kept seeing those three kids huddled around the fireplace and their mother standing there with tears running down her cheeks with so much gratitude in her heart that she couldn't speak.

My heart swelled within me and a joy that I'd never known before, filled my soul. I had given at Christmas many times before, but never when it had made so much difference. I could see we were literally saving the lives of these people.

I soon had the fire blazing and everyone's spirits soared. The kids started giggling when Pa handed them each a piece of candy and Widow Jensen looked on with a smile that probably hadn't crossed her face for a long time. She finally turned to us. "God bless you," she said. "I know the Lord has sent you. The children and I have been praying that he would send one of his angels to spare us."

In spite of myself, the lump returned to my throat and the tears welled up in my eyes again. I'd never thought of Pa in those exact terms before, but after Widow Jensen mentioned it I could see that it was probably true. I was sure that a better man than Pa had never walked the earth. I started remembering all the times he had gone out of his way for Ma and me, and many others. The list seemed endless as I thought on it.

Pa insisted that everyone try on the shoes before we left. I was amazed when they all fit and I wondered how he had known what sizes to get. Then I guessed that if he was on an errand for the Lord that the Lord would make sure he got the right sizes. Tears were running down Widow Jensen's face again when we stood up to leave. Pa took each of the kids in his big arms and gave them a hug. They clung to him and didn't want us to go. I could see that they missed their Pa, and I was glad that I still had mine.

At the door Pa turned to Widow Jensen and said, "The Mrs. wanted me to invite you and the children over for Christmas dinner tomorrow. The turkey will be more than the three of us can eat, and a man can get cantankerous if he has to eat turkey for too many meals. We'll be by to get you about eleven. It'll be nice to have some little ones around again. Matt, here, hasn't been little for quite a spell." I was the youngest. My two brothers and two sisters had all married and had moved away.

Widow Jensen nodded and said, "Thank you, Brother Miles. I don't have to say, May the Lord bless you, I know for certain that He will."

Out on the sled I felt a warmth that came from deep within and I didn't even notice the cold. When we had gone a ways, Pa turned to me and said, "Matt, I want you to know something. Your ma and me have been tucking a little money away here and there all year so we could buy that rifle for you, but we didn't have quite enough. Then yesterday a man who owed me a little money from years back came by to make things square. Your ma and me were real excited, thinking that now we could get you that rifle, and I started into town this morning to do just that,but on the way I saw little Jakey out scratching in the woodpile with his feet wrapped in those gunny sacks and I knew what I had to do. Son, I spent the money for shoes and a little candy for those children. I hope you understand."

I understood, and my eyes became wet with tears again. I understood very well, and I was so glad Pa had done it Now the rifle seemed very low on my list of priorities. Pa had given me a lot more. He had given me the look on Widow Jensen's face and the radiant smiles of her three children. For the rest of my life, whenever I saw any of the Jensens, or split a block of wood, I remembered, and remembering brought back that same joy I felt riding home beside Pa that night. Pa had given me much more than a rifle that night, he had given me the best Christmas of my life!

Monday 8 December 2008

Lights Out in Gaza

In conversations and contacts regarding justice in Palestine - and specifically the current travesty in Gaza - here's a very good resource.

These perspectives are being shared by a Jewish organization greatly concerned about awareness of what is really going on, and how to wage peace and justice in the midst of a place where strife is a constant.

Educate yourself, and consider helping to circulate this link rather widely and writing some letters! (Or at least one.)