“Garment of Praise”

Please note: This is not at all the post I meant to write today. Actually, I was going to entitle it, “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas Tree”, write something light and fluffy for the day after Christmas, and leave it at that. However, halfway through writing this, the Lord impressed upon my heart the lessons He wanted me to take from the intertwining experiences I’m about to relate. Especially if you happen to be sorrowful or suffering at the moment, I hope you can find the same encouragement I have.

For the past few weeks, I have vacillated between joy and dread. First, strongest, and most important was the joy–joy in Jesus, joy in the restoration He was beginning in our lives, joy in His Word and His presence, joy at His ability to heal that which was broken… joy, joy, joy! There were long evenings spent overwhelmed at His absolute glory. Moments riding in the car and listening to “Sunshine in My Soul”, entirely ignoring the fact that we were all about to stop for coffee and eschewing my loved-ones’ questions about whether I would like a peppermint mocha or a hot chocolate. Evenings of watching in wonder as the Lord restored a relationship I thought had been damaged indefinitely. Yes, there was joy.

Yet, lingering somewhere in the background, there was also that sense of dread. It reared its head when I was presented with a box of ornaments that we had purchased in 2006. Since that year marked the beginning of the worst six-month spiritual valley I had ever encountered, I could not bring myself to hang those ornaments because I did not want to be reminded of that time. Likewise, I refused to attend any church whose Christmas Eve service was designed to accommodate more than five hundred people–no PowerPoint sermon outlines or percussion carols for me, not since last year’s service encompassed those elements, and last year had been trying. Oh, the Lord has so much work to do with me! And, if you can believe it, I’m actually better than I used to be…

Worst of all, though, were all those secular Christmas songs. Now, before you begin thinking that I’m simply saying that out of false piety, you must understand that my first real exposure to “White Christmas”, “Suzy Snowflake”, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, and “Silver Bells” came at a time so traumatic that it was a five-year struggle to put most of the heartache behind me. Somehow, my anguish at hearing those songs extended to all Christmas songs that did not directly mention the birth, life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ while delivering a five-point salvation message. Of course, some of this is hyperbolic; I do believe that “O Come, O Come, Immanuel”, “O Come, All Ye Faithful”, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”, or “O Little Town of Bethlehem” were all written before five-point sermons came into being, but the bottom line is that all Christmas songs I listened to had to include the manger, shepherds, and angel of the Lord while entirely avoiding bells, holly, and trees.

My sister, whom I shall allegorically refer to as Hannah, saw it differently. Perhaps, she had seen videos featuring some of those greenery-oriented songs; perhaps, her mind simply works differently than mine. Whatever the reason, she was quite nonplused by many of the songs I took such pains to avoid. One of her favourites was “Holly, Jolly Christmas”. Now, not only had I heard that one during a difficult time, but the singer had been a professional musician-don’t ask me his name–who sang the song with a note of such profound despair in his voice that it made you depressed just to listen to him. So, no matter how upbeat future versions were, I always imagined weeping music notes surrounding the singer. Not a holly, jolly song.

No, no, I am not penning this post as a bitter rant. I have a point in all of this. Let’s return to the joy for a moment–the all-consuming exultation in the Lord Jesus that ruled most of my days and nights throughout December. With everything within me, I wanted to truly celebrate this year, to make it sparkle with meaning. Recalling how miserable I had been last year–another spiritual difficulty, which I could have prevented had I been a little more attentive while I was training to get my guide-dog–and remembering the way I had refused to do much of anything with the tree, people’s gifts, or random Christmas decorations, I resolved to make the most of this year as a thank offering to God. I spent hours traveling to the Christian bookstore and browsing through devotionals until I had found the perfect ones, tracking down gift wrap with crosses and doves on it, knitting ribbons for certain loved-ones’ gifts, working to provide a sister in Christ with heart-stirring worship music for her under-the-tree enjoyment, assembling gift baskets, etc. It was wonderful! Together, Jedediah and I went to the crawl space and unearthed the carousel that’s been a traditional part of Christmas past since 1994, but that had been missing since 2004 because–let’s face it–no one really wants to risk fibre glass exposure in an unfinished room under the basement stairs.

And the tree! We couldn’t get a real one this year, but we did get the friendliest artificial one we could find. Three varieties of “pine” branches made of different materials, pine cones attached to the branches, a rotating stand. Unlike the scraggly, stationary, uniform tree we had been living with since 1999, this one had personality. During previous years, the person who was closest at hand and who was in possession of the greatest mental fortitude decorated the tree–or I would decorate it, if I felt that too much time had elapsed without so much as a strand of garland on our poor, bare evergreen. This year, every last one of us participated. We decorated both the tree and the banister railing with garland–something we had not done since 2004–and festooned our tree with a cinnamon-scented freshener and snowflake ornaments. Then, it was time for my favorite part–all the mismatched, hand-made, or other highly-individualized ornaments. I don’t care how many display trees feature nothing but uniformity of Christmas bulbs and tinsel, and I’m not sure I’ll care if/when the Lord should choose to heal me–being visually-impaired has absolutely nothing to do with the sentimental cortex, corresponding sections of the heart and brain that I can’t get a single scientist to acknowledge but that I am convinced exist. Back to the ornaments. We hung my harp and Hannah’s cat; a train car; a Christmas bulb with four sunflowers on it; two candles on the same ornament; stained-glass ornaments depicting the Last Supper and the feeding of the five thousand and more stained-glass ornaments featuring Bible verses, much to Hannah’s dismay, since she made them in fourth-grade as part of a private-school project; ornaments cut from aluminum foil, much to my horror since I had made them out of desperation back in third grade; a bell shaped like society’s concept of an angel; a tiny doll that looked much like an antique spool doll; a cross Hannah had made in a high-school ceramics class; two doves in different flight positions and constructed of different materials…

Then, we adorned the top of that beautiful, valuable, love-filled tree by attaching a wire cross to the top of it. I had made the cross in my sophomore year of high school, and it was jagged and imperfect. So was the original, you know–it wasn’t an ornament or a decoration, but a true and beautiful gift of grace. Anyway, we wanted the cross to stand out this year, so there we were–my less-than-six-foot sister and my much-less-than-six-foot self, standing on chairs and finding additional wire and other mechanisms to use in affixing this cross. It was one of those hand-over-hand, cooperative, Body-of-Christ closeness moments that will not soon be forgotten. And, really, isn’t the cross the very best possible ornament to put at the top of a tree? Doesn’t it say so much about the real reason for Jesus’ coming, denoting a gift rather than simply speaking of a single event?

So, we had a lovely Christmas tree. But let us return to the holly and the ivy and everything in-between for a moment, shall we? About a week before Christmas, Hannah and I went to the local Hallmark store in search of a last-minute card. And what do you suppose was playing, incessantly, for the first five minutes of our shopping excursion? Hannah loved it. “Have a holly, jolly Christmas–it’s the best time of the year…” I grinned and bore it, relieved beyond all measure when the song finally ended. But then, it seemed to have gotten itself firmly implanted in Hannah’s mind, because she didn’t stop singing or humming it for the rest of our fifteen-minute card-hunt. Once, I ventured to speculate that perhaps Christmas, beautiful though it is, is not “the best time of the year”–but that that honorable designation belongs to Resurrection Day. The rest of the time, I gritted my teeth and continually admonished myself, “Righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost… Forgetting those things which are behind, we press on… Behold, I do a new thing… But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, PATIENCE, kindness, goodness, faithfulness… Love is patient and kind, does not seek its own, is not puffed up, does not behave rudely, does not parade itself. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things… And now abide faith, hope, and love. The greatest is love…” In other words, “Ready Writer, control yourself and let God strengthen you!”

My breakthrough came when I was loading my guide-dog and her harness into the car. As I bent to make sure my dog’s tail was safely in the car, I could still hear Hannah singing, “Have a holly, jolly…” Then, getting side-tracked and perhaps a bit tired of the tune at hand, she added, “Christmas tree!” I’m not sure whether she had intentionally decided to altar the words, if she was bored and in search of a distraction, or if she had decided to begin on “O Christmas Tree”, but the effect was hilarious. A holly, jolly Christmas tree? Was our rotating tree, then, the best one of the year–from house to house and city to city? I mean, really! A jolly Christmas tree!

I burst out laughing. “Hannah, did you really say what I think you did?”

“Oh, did I?” But there was no use concealing the musical blunder. So, she did what any self-respecting singer would do–she began adding pieces to the composition as though the lurch had been intentional all along. Lines about crosses atop trees, about sunflower ornaments and garland and rotating stands and lights and pinecones perched on branches…

Now, my beloved readers, don’t try this at home. If this sounds like a beautifully-constructed rendering, please know that inserting the word “tree” in this song to begin with threw off the entire rhythm. The result was imperfect, hand-made, like the artificial subject that waited at home. But it made us laugh, don’t you know? And that broke away at some of the tension in my heart. A despondent-sounding man singing about unnecessary mistletoe was one thing, but a song about a lovingly-decorated tree was quite another. Will I ever come to embrace the original version with any degree of fondness? Likely not.

And yet, and yet… The Lord has shown me that He can restore even what I have long associated with crises–that He can turn my mourning to laughter and fill me with praise and rejoicing, that He can take something that had turned to jagged heartache and soften it little by little. He still has much work to do with me–that is why Scripture compares us to fruit trees–but I know what He can do. First, it’s an accidental song about a Christmas tree; then, perhaps someday, He will help me to listen to the original without shedding a tear; and a few more months or years down the road, perhaps I will find something beautiful in the 2006 ornaments I could not hang this year. And why stop with Christmas-themed items? The popcorn I can never bring myself to eat now because it tastes of loneliness may one day be sanctified through the giving of thanks. The hated, dreaded task of waking others up in the morning–a chore I avoid with a passion better spent on other pursuits because it puts me in mind of still more brokenness–may be used of the Lord one of these days; perhaps He will show me ways to have coffee brewing and worship music playing next time. Or the blanket I used in the hospital for two weeks during a series of simultaneous bleeds and clotting episodes, if you can imagine–may the day come when the Lord will bring to mind the careful weave of each fibre and remind me of how He forms us with even greater care?

My point is this: Jesus Christ is able to heal and restore absolutely anything–any memory, any trauma, any heartache, any pain or affliction in my life. And then there’s this: I may have an unconventional way of writing about it, but I know that I cannot possibly be the only Christian who suffers, to some extent, from PTSD (post-traumatic stress) or DESNOS (a disorder of extreme stress not otherwise specified). I used to believe I was all alone–that Jesus came to bring life and to give it more abundantly, and that if I were not constantly rejoicing then I was a flawed, sinful person. Guess what? That isn’t true. Note, if you will, that Jesus rebuked anger, that He even rebuked unbelief, but that He showed great compassion on those who were crushed in spirit. And if He can restore me, whether gradually as now or instantaneously as at some other times, then He can do the same for you. No matter how destructive the sorrow or grief, He is faithful, He is merciful, and He will cause all things to work together for the good of those who love Him. And, what is more, He is able–able to either transform the trial so that it becomes less painful and glorifies Him, or to heal the wound left by any amount of damage, leaving behind either a painless scar or nothing at all. Do not lose heart; keep on praying, keep on seeking and worshiping and trusting. He is with you–He will provide the grace or the strength or the restoration or healing that is needed, and He is always, always a very present help in time of need. Hannah’s impromptu song was something the Lord used to begin to teach me that—that, no matter how frustrating the situation may appear, the garment of praise will eventually be mine again–given to all who trust in His ability to take away heaviness.

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