She wasn’t wrapped in swaddling cloths in a manger; instead, she was tangled in sweat-drenched sheets in a crib. That’s how Maria spent most of her days at the Guatemalan orphanage. The 7-year-old couldn’t talk or turn over in her bed. She had little control over her body. Yet her smile could illuminate a room.
Maria (pictured) had been rescued from near starvation deep in the Sierra de las Minas, but the prolonged malnutrition left her so mentally and physically impaired that she now looked barely half her age and was bed-ridden in a room filled with babies and toddlers. Despite the intensive care she’d need for the rest of her life, her beaming grins came fast and easy.
From a natural perspective, there was no reason Maria or any of these kids should’ve been glowing with smiles. Most of them were birthed in horrific situations. A couple of the young girls had been tied to a post for two years and were merely 13 and 14 pounds when rescued. Another pair of siblings—babies only three months apart—faced severe health problems as a result of their father and grandfather being the same man. Incest, rape, abuse, drugs, divorce, murder ... these were the elements surrounding the children as they entered a dark world.
My wife and I have four girls, and I was in the hospital room for each birth. There was a normal amount of blood, but no serious complications. Our oldest took forever to be born. Our second was in such a hurry that we thought she might end up on the floor of a hospital hallway. Our third tied her umbilical cord in knots in the womb. And our youngest calmly slipped out as if to say: “OK, I’m born. What’s next?”
I had very little to do in the delivery room. My wife was the hero. She sweated, strained, pushed and gasped for hours. I stroked her arm a few times—and ate some doughnuts.
Normal births are amazing, whether they occur in hospitals or homes or the back seats of taxis. But when I consider the birth of Jesus, I’m in total awe—not just because of Mary and Joseph’s bumpy ride from Nazareth, Mary’s lack of a doctor (and no anesthesia!) and the crudeness of the manger, but also because of how Jesus was conceived. Mary was a virgin. Joseph, the “father,” had nothing to do but stand in the background.
Christmas is a time for memories. For me, putting together this issue brought back memories as we picked the very best Christmas articles over the last 36 years. While preparing, I reread all of my Christmas-related columns.
Some had to do with Christmas customs; others were about the culture wars to take Christout of Christmas. Some years, I showed pictures of my staff or my young family and shared my own Christmas memories.
When we chose to include the best Christmas articles we’ve run in the last 36 years, I thought I’d pick my best column. But we soon decided I needed to introduce this issue, share my own memories and do what I’ve done at many times in the past: encourage you to give this year at Christmas.
Are there blessings hidden amid the tinsel, the sales and the madness at the mall?
Does it bother you at Christmastime when carols are being played in shopping malls to the accompaniment of ringing cash registers? Does it upset you when the symbols of Christmas such as the Bethlehem star and the manger scene are used to sell merchandise and cards and decorations?
There’s no doubt, the commercialization of Christmas has been overdone. It would be nice if Christmas tinsel wouldn’t appear until at least after Thanksgiving. Nevertheless, I suggest we cool it on the complaining.
It’s unfair to put down people who make their living in merchandising just because they like to do a brisk business at Christmastime, and because they use the Christmas symbols and themes to help them do it. Like it or not, we are a “nation of shopkeepers”—we believe in and depend upon free business, which is a lot better than depending upon the government to feed us and tell us what to do.
Paul and Betty Neff lost four children in a fire just days before Christmas. Six years later, their only remaining son was killed. Yet through it all, they've watched God turn their grief into something beautiful.
Betty Neff was 23 and a first-time mother when she dreamed she visited heaven:
“I was a young girl, running barefoot through a soft grassy meadow. I came to a small hill and immediately recognized Jesus standing at the top. He wore a long, white robe with a blue sash draped over one shoulder and wrapped around His waist. I couldn’t see their faces, but there were four children on Jesus’ right side and a person the size of an adult on His left.”
The week before Christmas in 1983, Paul and Betty Neff’s youngsters were pleading with their dad, hammering away at his refusal to attend their Christmas play at church that afternoon: “Please, Daddy, oh, please! It just won’t be the same without you there,” they exclaimed.
Paul, a 37-year-old, 222-pound ex-Marine who had fought some pretty tough battles in Vietnam, realized that in this case it would be easier to surrender. “OK, I’ll go,” he announced.
When giving comes from the heart, God will bless the gift-and reward the giver
Luke 6:38 is a wonderful verse. But it’s also one of the most frequently misapplied, misunderstood Scriptures in the Bible. It’s so familiar to Christians, you can probably quote it from memory: “Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over. ... For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you.”
Many people assume that Jesus is speaking only of money here. In truth, He was unveiling a principle of God’s kingdom that applies to every area of human life. Back up some and read verses 36 and 37: “Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Only after making those statements does Jesus say, “Give, and it will be given to you” (v. 38).
Jesus was talking about the broad principle of giving. He was saying, whatever you give is going to be given back to you in “good measure” and “running over.”
Explaining the reality of angelic beings in everyday life
Angelic activity always increases at times of great spiritual breakthrough in the kingdom of God. Christmas was just such a moment in history. At the first advent of Christ, the earth exploded with angelic activity.
God sent angels to make announcements to all who took part in the birth of the Savior. Gabriel appeared to the priest Zacharias and told him: “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John” (Luke 1:13). Soon after, Elizabeth was pregnant with the Messiah’s forerunner, John the Baptist.
Gabriel was also sent to Mary, Jesus’ mother, to herald her as the woman chosen by God to birth His Son. Joseph was reassured of Mary’s virginal purity by an angel who appeared to him in a dream. An angel directed the shepherds to Bethlehem so they could find the stable where Jesus was. The same angel along with countless others serenaded above the shepherds’ field.
Christmas should be a time of awe and reverence. Our salvation was made possible because God took on human flesh in a manger in Bethlehem.
T he shepherds saw a babe in a manger. The wise men, arriving later, also saw a young child. But the one who emerged from Mary's womb that cold winter night in Bethlehem of Judea was much more than what was discernible with human eyes.
He was God. The sacred record is clear: "Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid.
"Then the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.'
Facing a 'different' Christmas while in Africa, our family discovered new meaning in the season
Christmas is the time when nothing ought to change."
Our newly married daughter, Liz, put into words what all of us were feeling. We had come from our home in New York state to spend the holidays with her and her husband, Alan, in their new apartment in Tucson, Ariz. Outside, on Christmas Eve, cactus-wrens hopped about the mesquite bushes beneath a glorious desert sky, while indoors the four of us gulped iced tea and thought of pine woods and falling snowflakes.
"Home in Leicester," Alan recalled of his Massachusetts upbringing, "we'd generally go skating about now."
"And tonight there'd be the midnight service at St. Mark's!" Liz said. "Remember, Mom and Dad, how you can see your breath, walking in from the parking lot?"
We did remember. We wanted every time-hallowed tradition just as it always had been. No changes. Not at Christmas.
"I am so impressed with Charisma and how it has progressed with the times without losing sight of our mission as believers."
A Virtual winner
Wow! The October issue was very powerful and informative. Awesome research on all the new digital and virtual technology for spreading the Good News of Jesus around the world. I also loved the 30-year-old picture of beloved founder and publisher Steve Strang.
Bob Weiner,Gainesville, Fla.
I’ve been carrying my October issue in my tote because it is chock-full of articles I intend to share with friends and family. Charisma is always a blessing.
Lisa Letterii DeFelice, Marlboro, N.Y.
October was one of the best issues yet. The cover looks like Moses giving the Ten Commandments. Brilliant!
DaisyMay Rader, Minneapolis
The October issue was OK for me. We are in a small town with a small-town church, so none of this stuff really applies to us.
Colleen Cobb Audette, Sebastian, Fla.
Staying true to the mission
I’m a long-time reader and I am so impressed with Charisma and how it has progressed with the times without losing sight of our mission as believers.
I also get Charisma News updates on my iPhone. I love getting kingdom news—and you certainly can’t get that in the mainstream media. Keep up the great work!
Sarah Matthews, Jacksonville, Fla.
Let’s ‘watch’ our Timing
Regarding your article “Timing the Spirit” (September, Inform), I say, “Amen.” I suggest that pastors and teachers remove their watches in the pulpit. It is a pet peeve of mine, seeing them checking their time.
I have said to them on occasion that they should not be concerned about how long the message goes; it is the Holy Spirit’s work, not theirs. I too wonder how many wonderful things have been missed because there was more concern for people-pleasing.
Thanks for all the great articles and information in your magazine. I look forward to Charisma every month. J. Lee Grady is right-on and almost every column of his gets a hearty “Amen!” from me, too.