This time of year, many of us are frantically searching Amazon, shopping malls, and sales flyers and catalogues for the perfect gift that will delight our loved ones.
When I was a teen, I was hoping for the perfect gift for myself. My wish list always included fashionable clothes, items for my horse (tack, horse blankets, or a load of hay,) and books. And my mom and dad, even with their limited budget, always managed to get a few things that were just what I wanted.
My grandmother celebrated Christmas with us, too. She had been widowed young, and after the sale of their farm, she rejoined the workforce. She must have thought too many years had passed for her to teach again, and she took jobs as a live-in assistant for the elderly. She barely made enough to cover her own expenses, but she wanted to give each of her three children and ten grandchildren a gift. So, she bought plastic lacing and spent hours braiding it around wire coat hangers.
We knew every year exactly what we would get from Grandma. The only surprise was the variety of colors. I hope I was gracious when I received them, but I certainly can't say I was delighted.
My grandmother has been in Heaven for many years now, but I wish I could tell her how wonderful her gift was. I still have sixteen of these hangers. They never break, they hold clothes securely, and they take little room on the rod. For fifty-plus years, my dressy blouses and sweaters have not slid off or gotten creases from the hanger. How many gifts that you received as a teen are you still using?
I am now the grandmother myself, shopping for the perfect gift for seven grandchildren. Maybe I should just get some wire coat hangers and plastic lacing.
As you are unwrapping gifts, don't forget to say thanks for the most perfect gift of all - a Saviour, wrapped in swaddling clothes. A very blessed Christmas to you!
This isn't my story, but I believe it is one that every American should read. He was my father-in-law, Paul Lawrence. He was very young here. He enlisted at the tender age of 15. He lied about his age, and they took him. He was eager to serve his country, and perhaps to see a little of the world.
About three years later, his mom received this telegram.
This is his story, written after he came home to Des Moines.
The “Death March” Across Poland
by Paul Lawrence
At four o’clock on the morning of February 21, 1945, our German guards routed us from our bunks in the prison farm at Rummelsberg, near the Polish border and informed us that we were to be marched from that place, our destination unknown. There were ten of us Americans who had been captured and had spent our days since at long hours of hard farm labor. Although our captors worked us hard and our fare consisted of turnips and potatoes and weak soup for the most part, the trial which was before us was to be more harsh and inhuman than we ever dreamed of.
We had no overcoats, overshoes or anything that is necessary for protection in that climate. I was thankful for a good pair of U.S. Army shoes, and a jacket that helped me keep going. We only had one blanket apiece to protect us from the freezing night air we were to experience sleeping on the frozen open fields. We marched on an average of 23 miles each day our column constantly swelling from numbers of other prisoners added along the line of march.
As we progressed on this march the weather became bitterly cold, often dropping to fifteen or twenty degrees below zero, with the addition of rain, snow and sleet, which soaked our clothes and shoes. Then came night with its terrible penetrating cold and many of our men froze their feet, being unable to dry their socks or shoes and being herded out into open fields to sleep or occasionally allowed the shelter of a barn. Of course no fires could be built as allied aircraft would have immediately bombed us.
As daylight appeared, we were aroused by German guards and forced upon our aching feet, to resume the march. For sustenance we had one meal a day consisting of 3 pieces of black bread (about 8 oz.) and two small cooked potatoes. Added to the lack of food was the scarcity of water. We were soon exhausted from such treatment, but a single complaint brought a curse or blows from a rifle butt from our guards. soon men began to fall exhausted or unable to longer stand on their frozen feet. Gangrene set in, so we improvised slings to carry some of our comrades, but we couldn’t carry them all and as our captors relentlessly drove us at increased speed to keep us from falling into the hands of the victorious Russian army, men fell by the roadside and lay in the ditches and we never saw them again. I saw four men die one day from exhaustion and lack of food and medical help.
The American soldier somehow manages to keep up his morale. Even in the midst of this living, walking death, there were some who managed to carry along a guitar and their singing and playing buoyed up our spirits. I think the grandest morale builder was the sight of American bombers and fighters ranging the skies over us. Sometimes they machine gunned our column, not knowing we were prisoners and we would have to scatter for the roadside ditches and lay there while American bullets kicked up the dirt around us.
The days and nights finally merged into a sort of horrible nightmare. Often I wondered as did so many of us, could I make another mile? We staggered along impelled only by a grim determination to live. So passed these terrible days of marching until at last we arrived at a German airport near Hamburg on April 1, 1945. Here we halted and our captors tried to force us into labor battalions to repair the badly bombed airport. We stuck by our rights, as prisoners of war are not compelled by military law to perform such labor. The Germans retaliated by starving us with one bowl of turnip soup each day and quartering us at night in exposed positions so that we got no rest from the nightly air raids on this airport. We were reduced to skin and bones. My weight dropped to 135 pounds, but many were much worse off than I. During the day the American bombers visited us and searched for the hangars and blew great holes in the runways of the airport. The ground fairly rocked from the terrific concussion. Tons of loose dirt almost buried us alive. Then at night the big British Lancaster bombers took over. They would remain over the target often as long as two hours and sometimes they dropped big four ton block-busters. They really did make a noise. I have seen them lift boxcars into the air like match boxes, and the damage to everything in the vicinity was terrific. Many of us were wounded by flying fragments of bombs.
On the sixth of April we were again on the move. This time our guards marched us harder and faster than before, because the Americans were getting closer each day. Our captors informed us that any stragglers or anyone attempting to escape would be shot as spies. Our treatment made us desperate so my buddy and I planned to escape in spite of certain death we knew awaited if we were caught. We made our escape at ten o’clock on the evening of April 10, 1945 and lay hidden for four days. At night our desperate hunger drove us to forage for food which we found practically unobtainable. We ate anything we could find, even a frozen turnip was a delicacy.
As soon as we could, we resumed our search for the American lines. After five days and nights of hiding by day a skulking the forests and fields by night on the fifteenth of April, in the morning, we sighted an American tank. We lost no time in identifying ourselves and I confess that the joy of deliverance was too much for our shattered nerves and worn bodies, and we cried like babies. From then on our troubles were over, and how we did eat! And then we began the best part of all--our journey home.
Of course, he is a hero. He was recognized and received a Purple Heart. But in my opinion, he is also a hero for what he did afterwards. He came home and got the job that he worked at until retirement. He married Peg and they were together for 60 plus years until death parted them. He raised three children, all exemplary citizens, community members, and parents themselves. Although he carried the scars of his wartime experiences for all of his life, he never complained. He did his job, provided for his family, and became a man any of us could (and should!) admire. Well done, Paul Edward Lawrence. Thank you.
God works every day through believers to implement His design for His Kingdom here on earth. Sometimes we are not aware of His plans unfolding. Then, other times, we are allowed a miraculous glimpse of the heart and mind of God as His will is accomplished through our humble efforts.
Such was the journey of a simple little story, Shepherd of eSwatini.
In 2016, my husband, Gary and I traveled to the tiny country of eSwatini (formerly called Swaziland) to visit the first Hope for Life Children's Home built by Pour International, an organization we supported.
We fell in love with the beautiful people of eSwatini, especially the children. We visited two carepoints--a place where children can get an after-school meal. I noticed the lack of books there. We had brought books with us to establish a library at the children's home, but those were not written for or about the children of eSwatini.
Even before we left Africa, I knew God was leading me to write a story. I interviewed Babe Elliot, a kind, older man who patiently answered all my questions about his country and its people.
I chose the 23rd Psalm as the foundation and told the story of Sandile, a young boy who cares for his family's goats in eSwatini. When his grandmother reads the beautiful words of the Psalm, he compares God's care of him to his caretaking of his goats. He concludes with joy that God is indeed his shepherd.
Scott and Marcia Borg, the founders of Pour International and missionaries to eSwatini, helped me to get my words translated into siSwati, the native language of eSwatini.
But the story had no illustrations and I knew no artists--certainly none who would donate the considerable time and work for a book that was intended for children living in 3rd world poverty.
I shelved my little story and Gary and I left for a winter trip south. While camping in Louisiana, a fellow camper noticed our Iowa license plates and introduced herself. Kris Grover and her husband lived in Elkader, Iowa.
Our two dogs, Molly and Maggie, enjoyed each other's company and Kris and I walked them and chatted. I learned she was an artist.
The morning we were leaving the campground, Kris appeared at our door with warm coffee cake and a project she was currently working on. The canvas was a torn paper collage showing Jesus cradling a lamb. The sweet, contented expression on the lamb's face brought tears to my eyes. Kris told us she called the painting, "The Good Shepherd."
Gary and I told Kris that when she finished the painting and we were all back in Iowa, we would purchase it.
Two months later we met and I received the beautiful finished canvas of "The Good Shepherd." I had brought with me a copy of my story, Shepherd of eSwatini and I asked Kris if she would consider doing illustrations for the book.
She didn't say "yes" immediately. She knew it would require a tremendous amount of work, and it involved doing things she'd never attempted as an artist. But God kept nudging, and finally Kris agreed.
The process wasn't smooth and easy. Kris struggled with some of the details of the drawings. One lovely image wasn't culturally sensitive and had to be changed. She suffered a dog bite on her hand and was unable to work until it healed. When the pictures were complete, the process of formatting for publication frustrated both of us.
We never gave up. And now Kris and I present our small part of God's Kingdom work, Shepherd of eSwatini. The book is written in both English and siSwati and 100% of the proceeds of books sold will be donated to Pour International to support the Hope for Life Children's Homes.
There are now three homes where twenty-two children thrive. I hope sometime in 2020 to be able to hand out books to the children in person.
The book is available on Amazon.com.
It's just a simple wooden pole. I bought it years ago on a trip to the Smokey Mountains. Handcrafted by an artist in the heart of Appalachia, it caught my eye and I bought it. At home in Iowa, I didn't use it much. On our mostly flat and paved trails, it didn't seem to be needed.
But on the mountains of Virginia, this stick was a steady companion. The majority of the hikers on the Appalachian Trail used modern trekking poles. However, I had one hand occupied with Molly's leash, so this worked very well for me.
My hiking pole was helpful on the uphills, hauling my out-of-shape, slightly rounded body up the steep slopes. I also used it on the downhill, helping me balance and make my way around boulders. In areas of fallen leaves or overgrown weeds, I employed it to make sure there were no snakes lurking. And I even swung it in front of my short-legged hiking companion to remind her that dogs needed to "go behind."
In our walk with Christ, we need a "hiking pole" as well. Prayer is what hauls us up the mountains, helps us maintain balance in our lives, and can even alert us to danger on the trails.
Too often, we are like me walking on the trails in Iowa. Things are not so tough, and we leave prayer in a corner of the garage.
Don't wait for the steep inclines in your life to resort to prayer. No matter what trails life has you on right now, don't step out with your hiking pole of prayer.
1 Thessalonians 5:17 Pray without ceasing.
Beginning September 8th, I hiked the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Forest, a dream that was years in the making. Here are the wrap-up statistics:
3 women - my friend, Leigh, who accompanied me days 1-11, my friend, Angela, who was there for days 10-13 and me
1 dog - Molly
2 shuttle drivers - my husband, Gary, and Leigh's husband, Shaune
13 days of hiking - 1 day of rain, 2 foggy mornings, 10 sunny days
112 miles hiked
22 mountains, 2 rocky knobs, 3 unnamed hills
3 bears - all in the area of the campgrounds
5 snakes, including a dead rattlesnake on the road
Countless deer, chipmunks, squirrels, and birds, and one critter only Molly spotted and jerked the leash from my hand and went for her own romp on the AT.
38 insect bites - for some reason the bugs preferred me over my friends
4 blisters - on my feet. Leigh and Angela each had at least one.
132 bottles of water
12 miles on the longest day, day 13
33,818 steps - most in one day
It was the most difficult thing I have ever done. And I would do it all again in a heartbeat. Or at least after recovering for a week or two.
This one is for the OOFPAs (Ornery Old Folks Peddling Along) - my group of bicycling friends. I took my last training hike on the Great Allegheny Passage, a rails-to-trails bikeway. Molly and I walked about 2 1/2 miles out and then back and I spent most of the time trying to figure out how the OOFPAs could make a summer bike trip to Pennsylvania.
The weather was perfect. And so was the trail.
I overcame my fear of high bridges to take pictures of the river. It was sparkling clear - no mud bottom!
Of course there were wildflowers everywhere.
A glorious walk in the woods!
Gary and I have had a wonderful two days in Confluence, Pennsylvania. This was my first trip to this lovely state, and Gary's first time to meander and explore. We are at the confluence (meeting of two rivers) one of which is a major river in this part of Ohio - the Youghiogheny. It's pronounced Yawkaganey. Don't ask me why.
Our first full day here we packed a lunch and went to Ohiopyle State Park. It is a beautiful natural area - lots of waterfalls, overlooks, deep canyons and forest trails. We looked at the main falls and visitor center, then went to my personal favorite - Cucumber Falls. I did some climbing around there to get the best pictures. Picture large boulders, fast flowing water, and one crazy gray-haired woman.
We also drove to the campgrounds to look around, then to Fern Cliff Peninsula where many unique plants grow. It is sheltered by the river on 3 sides, so it has almost a tropical climate. Gary suggested a hike and Molly and I never turn down an opportunity to hike so off we went.
An hour later we returned to the truck after tromping through mud, climbing over fallen trees, stepping carefully on rock strewn paths, tripping on tree roots, and almost losing the trail entirely a few times. I pulled out the park map and found out that the trail was classified an "easy" hike. What???
Yesterday we drove to the National Memorial site of Flight 93 which crashed in Pennsylvania. It was a beautiful monument and quite emotional. The remainder of the day we spent at a Mountain Craft Fair with 150 vendors. We loved the crafts, entertainment, and of course the food.
Today is a laundry-doing, trailer-cleaning, catch up kind of day. And Sunday we head to Shenandoah National Park. This trip has been two years in the planning. And I can't wait.
See, he's a hiker too!
Taking time to rest and view the river.
We are in Cedar Lake, Indiana. Yes, that is the lake. And that is Molly, longing to swim in the lake. Her left foot is raised so she can run her fastest if I would just take the leash off her. She is prepared to swim.
I am longing to be in Shenandoah, hiking the wooded hills. My friend, Leigh, who is hiking with me posted the question on her FB page. Am I prepared?
We have trained all summer. Leigh goes to the gym. Molly and I walk. And we have hiked the highest hills we could find in central Iowa. But the true test of our preparations will be when we finally arrive and begin the hike.
Sometimes God asks us to do something new, some new adventure with him. And we often react as Moses did when God told him to rescue the Israelites in Egypt. "Who am I that I should go to Pharoah?" Exodus 3:11
We don't feel prepared to do what God asks us to do. And we may even argue with Him as Moses did. God answered every one of Moses's objections with a solution. But still Moses said, "Please send someone else." Exodus 4:13
Is God calling you to something new? Are you wondering if you are prepared?
There isn't a trail we can walk here on earth or beyond that God doesn't walk with us. "I cling to you; your right hand upholds me." Psalm 63:8
Don't argue with God, lift your foot like Molly and race to your new adventure with joy!
The day was cloudy, but enough light prevailed to cast some perfect reflections in the still waters of Easter Lake. I corralled Molly and paused to drink in the beauty and snap a few pictures. The majestic trees and cloudy sky are shown in perfect duplicate on the water's surface.
Proverbs 27:19 cautions us: "As water reflects a face, so a (wo)man's heart reflects the (wo)man.
If the lake had been surrounded by garbage, the water would have reflected the garbage. If turmoil and chaos were on the shore, the water would have reflected turmoil and chaos.
My heart is still water. I deeply desire to reflect peace and joy, but if I surround myself with garbage, I'm in danger of reflecting that. If turmoil and chaos control my life, I will reflect them. But, if I am learning to live a more godly life, I will reflect those positive attributes.
This is the time of year when the question is standard: Did you have a good summer?
Perhaps a more challenging question would be: Did you do something to draw closer to God this summer?
Camps, retreats, even family vacations can be opportunities for time with God, drawing closer to Him, and then reflecting His nature to our world.
What are you reflecting today?
My prayer is that you can say with Paul: "And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord who is the Spirit." 2 Corinthians 3:18
A few days ago, Molly and I were walking on our Easter Lake Trail when we met a dad and his young daughter.
He was walking, but she was pedaling a miniature pink and white bike with training wheels still attached. She worked hard to keep the bike moving and to steer it along the trail.
As she passed us, I said, "You're doing a great job!"
She didn't respond to me, but pedaled harder to catch up to her dad. Then breathlessly, she exclaimed, "Daddy, I'm doing great!"
How often we ignore those Holy Spirit prompts to speak to, call, or make a visit to someone. A few moments of our time, and it can mean the world to another person.
There's someone you know today who needs a word of encouragement. They're pedaling hard and the trail is winding. Take time and be an encourager.
1 Thessalonians 5:11 Therefore, encourage one another, and build up one another, just as you also are doing.
Susan Lawrence taught elementary school for 33 years before hanging up her chalkboard to write and speak. She writes novels for both adults and middle grade children. Susan lives in Iowa with her husband and short-legged Lab, Molly. She has 3 children and 7 grandchildren who love to hear her stories.