We’ve all missed opportunities—a word not spoken, something we knew we should do, and didn’t. But me? I’m the poster child for missed opportunities. If you looked in the dictionary under “missed opportunities,” you would see my picture. I could give excuses, but who isn’t busy, overworked, and tired? And the sad thing is, when we miss an opportunity to bless someone else, we miss the blessing that comes back to us.
I live in Bethlehem. Ever heard of it? Probably not. It’s just a little village tucked in the hills of Judea. My husband, Nathaniel, and I run a small inn in Bethlehem. We keep busy running the business and making sure the bills get paid. But it’s a quiet and peaceful place—at least it used to be.
Then Ceasar Agustus had this bright idea and decreed that a census would be taken. Everyone had to go to their hometown, or the town of their ancestors, to register. Bethlehem was the birthplace of King David and so all of his descendants had to come to Bethlehem to register. Well, King David’s children and grandchildren took literally God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply.” This wasn’t a quiet little family reunion. Hundreds of people came pouring into our town. I like to make a little extra money just as much as the next person, so at first, I was pleased. But after cleaning and cooking and seeing to the needs of what seemed like a thousand visitors, I was just ready to sit with a cup of tea, my copy of “The Jerusalem Woman” and have Nathaniel rub my feet.
It was late, and we’d already had the evening meal. Even the animals had been fed. All I wanted was a quiet evening to myself. And here they came—a young couple, still dusty and dirty from the road. They wanted a room. All of our rooms were full, we’d had the “No Vacancy” sign out for days. The woman was young, just a slip of a girl, really, and she looked so tired. Then I saw she was pregnant—it looked as if she was due any minute.
My heart should have gone out to them, but it didn’t. I thought, “Don’t they have any better sense than to travel with her so close to delivery? And why didn’t they plan ahead and get here early? They deserve to be without a room. Maybe next time they’ll think.”
But Nathaniel offered to let them camp out in the barn. I offered nothing. What could I do? Well, what I could have done is slept on the floor and offered them my bed. But I didn’t. Missed Opportunity Number One.
Hours later, the dishes were all done and Nathaniel was snoring in the recliner. I couldn’t get the young couple out of my mind. It must have been my conscience working. I finally decided that the least I could do is take them some of the leftovers from supper and maybe some of the boys’ old swaddling clothes. They probably hadn’t even seen to those details. So, I gathered up the stuff and left the house quietly.
The night air felt crisp, but not cold against my face. The sky looked like laughing children had gathered armfuls of stars, tossed them heavenward, and then watched in awe as they hung, sparkling and suspended, just out of reach. I could hear singing, somewhere far away. I stopped to listen, but it faded away before I could determine where the beautiful music came from.
When I reached the barn, I heard the usual animal noises, bleating sheep, rustling straw. And then I heard voices—men’s voices, soft, as though they were keeping secrets—or praying. I heard a baby’s cry, then a woman’s tender tones. I ducked through the doorway and saw them—shepherds. There must have been 5 or 6 dirty, coarse, smelly men. I couldn’t believe it. She’d delivered that baby and now she was letting shepherds come close and even touch him.
I didn’t think she saw me, so I stepped backwards through the door. “What could she be thinking? Perhaps a call to Social Services would not be a bad idea. They are surely not fit to be parents.” I marched home. Missed Opportunity Number Two.
The next day at the well, I first heard the rumor. Not that my friends are gossips, mind you, but we do a bit of sharing while getting water. It makes the time go faster as we wait. The women said some shepherds had been in town and told a story about angels coming to them in the fields and announcing the birth of a baby. Not just any baby, but a baby that would someday be the Savior, the Messiah. The shepherds left their fields immediately and came to Bethlehem to see this baby born in a barn.
I listened to the talk, nodding, but inside my head was swirling. The baby--in our barn—could there be any truth to the story? I was sure it was impossible, but the more I sorted out the details, they all fit together, like tiny little pieces in a puzzle. I remembered the prophecies, how they foretold the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. I recalled the young, tired mother, her face glowing as she held her Child. I thought about the music I heard out in the hills and the peace in the barn as the shepherds knelt to see the newborn baby.
I should have spoken up and told the other women about the baby in our barn. But I didn’t want anyone to laugh at me, or think I believed something they didn’t. So, I kept quiet. Missed Opportunity Number Three.
I came home from the well and thought and thought and thought. All day as I cleaned and cooked and listened to Nathaniel talk about the news in Jerusalem, I considered the events of that night.
Now I know what I am going to do. I am not going to miss another opportunity. I have a whole bundle of new baby things. I'm going to find that young couple if I have to knock on every door in Bethlehem. And when I find them—I’ll meet this baby. The Messiah. My Savior.
Jesus’s birthday is drawing close. I want to find the perfect gift for him. You’d think his own mother would know him well enough, but he’s tough to buy for. Even as a little boy, he didn’t need any fancy toys. He took pleasure in a little block of wood, or a bird he coaxed to eat from his hand, or a race with the other boys in the village.
I could buy a lovely piece of wood for him to shape into a household tool, but he doesn’t have much time for carpenter work, now that he has started his ministry. I looked at a little box from traders passing through. He would probably think it pretty, but now that he travels around so much, where would he put a box?
I remember Jesus’s first gifts! I guess every mother remembers her child’s birth on their birthday. It was so long ago—31 years, yet I remember the details as if it happened yesterday. The angel Gabriel and his message—I was to have a baby!—and I had never even been with a man, not even my fiancé, Joseph. He would be God’s own son, and we were to name him Jesus. The Messiah. I would give birth to the Messiah.
I hardly had time to anticipate being a mother. I visited my cousin, Elizabeth, had my wedding to Joseph, and made ready for our trip to Bethlehem for the census.
What a trip that was! I was pregnant with Jesus. The road was crowded with travelers. It was hot, dusty, and oh so uncomfortable. I tried not to complain. Poor Joseph, he was just doing as he had been told by the Romans and by the angel. He was still trying to comprehend his marriage to a woman who was pregnant with God’s son.
Then, when we got to Bethlehem, there hundred of people. Everyone was cross and tired of traveling. We tried to find a room, but there were none to be had, not in all of Bethlehem. I thought Joseph was going to lose it. The offer of the stable came just in time. I assured him the rustic accommodations would be sufficient. I thought if I could just sit and rest a little, I would stop having those pains.
Of course, they didn’t stop, not until Jesus was born late that night. And then all the pains—of labor, of traveling, of not having a room—everything receded as the incomparable joy of being Jesus’s mother consumed me.
I held and rocked and counted toes and fingers. I sang lullabies and told stories and watched Joseph tenderly hold the son that did not come from him.
There were gifts then. The touching gift of the shepherds’ visit, the amazing gifts of the wealthy kings, the gifts of those who seemed to know who Jesus was, even when we had not said a word.
We settled in to raising our family. Jesus was like any baby—he needed his diaper changed, his nose wiped, and skinned knees kissed and made better. We taught him patiently, lovingly—until sometime, somehow Jesus was teaching us. Long before his ministry to the multitudes, he would tell us what God desired, how he wanted us to live, what he wanted us to do.
I don’t know where Jesus’s ministry will take him, or what will happen, or what he needs from me. His ministry seems to divide people—those who believe in him, and those who want nothing to do with what he has to say.
If I am one of those who believe in him, and I am, maybe I can do more than just believe what he says is true. Not just listen to what Jesus says, but make the changes in my life to do what He says. If I can do that, if I can become more like him, maybe that is the gift he would like.
Most people are proud when others say their child is a reflection of them. My gift to Jesus will be when others say I have become a reflection of Him.
Come to the manger. You have a personal, hand-engraved invitation.
Come as Mary and Joseph came—tired, poor, far from home, and a little confused. Christmas is often the season, not of joy, but of stress and exhaustion. This year, 2020, is also a season of grief, loneliness, and fear. God’s invitation says, “Come exactly as you are. This is one Christmas party that needs no preparation, no elaborate dress, no mask, and no social distancing. Step into the stable. Lay down your burden of going and doing. Right here, you can meet the Prince of Peace. Rest at His tiny feet.”
Come as the shepherds came—frightened, curious, in need of a Savior. Who cannot be frightened in our world today? Pandemic, political unrest, community violence. For a blessed moment, turn off your phone, turn off the social media. Put your political and personal concerns aside. Are you curious as to why Jesus came to earth? Are you in need of a Savior? Kneel here and meet the One who went to the cross for you. Touch the hand that was pierced for you and believe.
Come as the wisemen came—seeking, not what they knew, but only what they had heard. Are you seeking? Jesus is here. Not in the manger, but in person, the Living God who died on the cross and rose again to be our Savior. The wisemen brought gifts to Jesus, but today He has gifts for us: peace, joy, love, faith, and the greatest gift of all—salvation. As the wise men did, present yourself as a gift. Fall down and worship Him.
Come as the angels came—joyful, eager to share with the world the good news of Jesus. If you know Jesus as your Lord and Savior, this should be the time of year you are proclaiming his birth. Play the trumpet! Sing the song! Shout to the Heavens! This is not Christmas trees and Santa Claus and foil-wrapped presents and pumpkin pie. This is God, loving the people He created so much, that He sent a tiny baby, born in the stable in Bethlehem, to be our Savior. Kneel here, then rise up and tell your world.
Come to the manger. Rest. Believe. Worship. And Proclaim.
A morning walk in the woods,
Leaves strewn on my path
Like an afghan covering the shoulders of the earth.
The sun creeps up the towering pines
And peers over the top
Spilling golden light over the pond—round and still and smooth.
The circling maples drip color
Across the water, mirroring so perfectly,
I see no visible boundary between real and reflection.
The forest has shed the quiet
Green of summer,
And Autumn dances her way through the trees.
Susan R. Lawrence
I am like this little lake. Sometimes, I am so full of Jesus, and I reflect the glory and beauty of my Lord. At other times, I show only the murky shadows of what is inside my own selfish heart. Lord, help me be a pure and true reflection of your love today.
2 Corinthians 3:18 And we who with unveiled faces all reflect God's glory, are being transformed into His likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
Molly, my fearless hiking partner, is waiting to go on the trails at Dolliver Memorial State Park. You can't see it in the photo, but she is literally quivering with excitement. I'm sure she's hoping there will be a place to swim, interesting smells, and that I will let her lead.
She doesn't know what we'll find on the trail. There might be horse flies that bite. There might be steep trails and she'll have to "go behind." There might be other hikers with dogs that snarl and want to bite her.
Whatever is ahead, Molly isn't worried. She trusts me, she knows that I will lead her, and that I will be with her. She is ready for an adventure.
I'm waiting to start down a new path as well.
This is our oldest son, Ben. He's about 40 years older now, but this is the face I see when I'm with him.
He is our miracle--the baby we were told we would never have, the baby I pleaded and prayed for, the baby conceived during a time of fasting and prayer. He grew into a sweet, smart, funny, thoughtful little boy who brought immeasurable delight and joy into our lives. And all too soon he was a man with a family of his own.
We are praying for a miracle again.
Ben has been fighting chronic myeloid leukemia for over two years. He has tried 5 different medications. None have defeated the leukemia, and his body does not tolerate them well. So, in a few months, he will have a bone marrow transplant, a risky procedure with numerous chances of complications.
There are many who love Ben besides his dad and I. He has a wonderful wife, 5 beautiful children, a brother, a sister, and many friends and coworkers. None of us know what the path ahead holds. We're hoping there is healing, restoration, and a full and vigorous life for Ben.
I am not quivering with excitement for this path. But I am trying not to worry. I trust the One who leads us. And I know that He will not send us down the path on our own, He will walk every step with us. And most of all, I know He loves all of us with a love that far surpasses even our own love for Ben.
Proverbs 3:5-6 Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.
I love to walk and take care of my gardens in the morning. I call it "checking the farm" because my heart still believes I'm a farm girl. God blessed me this morning with this beautiful moment.
One of my mom's favorite hymns was In The Garden by Charles Austin Miles. I have sweet memories of my mother singing this song as she worked.
I come to the garden alone
while the dew is still on the roses,
and the voice I hear falling on my ear,
the Son of God discloses.
And he walks with me, and he talks with me,
And he tells me I am his own,
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.
How incredible that the Son of God, the Creator of the Universe, has time to actually walk and talk with us!
"I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people." Leviticus 26:12
Mom not only sang the words of In The Garden, she lived them. She spent time every day in the Word, and in prayer. What a wonderful blessing to have a mother who prays for you!
If God wants to walk and talk with us, why would we ever miss the opportunity to meet with Him? We wouldn't think of skipping out on a meeting at work, or our child's school, or a get-together with friends. Why, then, do we casually cast off a meeting with our Savior Jesus? Do you have a favorite "garden," a place where you walk and talk with God? Remember, He's waiting there, waiting to walk and talk.
A few days ago, I walked outside after one of Iowa's frequent summer thunderstorms. The sun emerged from behind the clouds and this perfect rose glowed with beauty, the drops of rain still clinging between her petals.
It brought to memory one of my mother's favorite hymns -- one she would often quote when I had storms in my young life:
Back of the Clouds by Carolyn R. Freeman
Never fear tho' shadows dark around your path may fall;
Do not let your heart be troubled;
From His throne in heaven,
God is watching one and all,
He will ever care for you.
Back of the clouds the sun is always shining,
After the storms your skies will all be blue;
God has prepared a rosy-tinted lining,
Back of the clouds it's waiting to shine thru.
Winter long is over and the spring has gone her way,
Often has the storm clouds gathered,
But the rain has only made the blossoms look more gay...
Given earth a brighter hue.
Keep the light of hope eternal dwelling in your heart,
Rest upon the Father's promise,
And you'll find that care and trouble will depart...
Heaven's peace will enter in.
God never promises there won't be storms in our lives. But He does promise:
He will be with us in the storm: When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, And through the rivers, they will not overflow. Isaiah 43:2
He will give us strength to endure: He gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power. Isaiah 40:29
His blessings never run out: This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord's loving kindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail, They are new every morning; Great is thy faithfulness.
Whatever storm you are going through right now, may you have the peace of God's promises, and the assurance that, back of the clouds, the Son shines for you.
I recently had this photo made into a canvas print for our newly remodeled bathroom. I chose it because it is a lovely image of a trail in the woods, and no setting brings me more peace and joy. I remember the day I took it, a lovely fall walk with my husband and our beloved dog, Annie, in the Chequamegon National Forest in northern Wisconsin.
The print hung on my bathroom wall for a month and I gazed at it every single day. Not until this week did I notice that Annie is in the picture. She blended in with the yellow leaves of the maple trees so well that I believed this was a photo depicting only a path.
I was delighted to find her in the picture, and now it is impossible to not see her. I gaze at it and not only imagine being on the path, but being with Annie again.
I have a Heavenly Father who places me in living scenes, some of them peaceful and filled with joy, some with heartache that seems unbearable. But just like my photo of the trail, I am not seeing all of the picture.
God, with Divine Wisdom, only allows me to see part of what is happening in my life. Most of His plans and purposes for me are still hidden from my dim eyes. Someday, I will see clearly, and for all of those scenes I don't understand there will be an "ah-hah!" moment. I will see the Big Picture. For now, I have to trust that He is in control, He has a perfect plan for my life, and He will carry me through.
Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 1 Corinthians 13:12
How about you? Did you find Annie? And are you trusting God in the scenes of your life where you don't see clearly?
I have spent the last few months sorting through memorabilia from my husband's and my courtship and wedding. Those years were a time of great angst (yes, I was 18-20 years old!) because during the school year, I rarely saw this man with whom I was madly in love. So, I wrote sappy poems about missing him.
After our wedding, and during our working, raising children, busy time of life, I still missed Gary. He traveled for work--a lot--and I held the fort at home. When he did come home, he was tired and wanted alone time. I was excited and wanted together time.
Now, our life is reversed. We are together almost all the time, especially in this interesting year of the virus. I have to be honest, all the together time has, at times, been a bit much. We have both suggested, hopefully in jest, that perhaps the other one should take a trip.
But, fifty years ago, at the beginning of this journey, we made a commitment to love and honor "till death do us part." And on our spiritual journey, we learned that love is not the fluttery feelings that ebb and flow and sometimes don't even show up for long period of time. Instead:
Love is patient, love is kind, and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails...but now abide faith, hope, love, these three, but the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13
Love is how you act. I have to admit, we have not always done this well. Both of us have been impatient, unkind, arrogant. We have been provoked and kept a running account of the ways we have been wronged. But we kept trying. Marriage is truly the most difficult thing you will do.
But oh, the joy of living life with a best friend! The joy of watching your love expand--3 children, 7 grandchildren. And the joy of serving God together with your spouse. This has been a glorious journey.
I know too well, one of us may be alone again. My sister and several of my friends have lost their spouses. One has gone ahead, while one is left grieving and missing.
So, love well, my friends. Cherish the days that too quickly slip away. Cherish the quiet moments of love, the exuberant days of great joy, and even the shared times of sorrow.
Fifty years has held a lot of moments. And I love him still. Happy 50th anniversary to the love of my life!
My husband, Gary, and I will have been married 50 years this month. So we should have learned a few things about handling conflict. One thing I know, is that 5 months before my marriage, I had no idea. I wrote this paragraph in January of 1970.
Where will God lead me? Us? It's curious and hard to trust completely. Gary is stronger than I, I think, and he doesn't worry. Sometimes I wonder what's ahead. It's exciting being a Christian, and giving Jesus your life. I've given Gary my life, too, or will be in June. That's why we need to be Christians, so we can be one, and there won't be conflicts, I guess. Two will go two ways - mentally as well as physically. One can only go one way.
Oh, how naive I was! I came to the realization rather abruptly in the months following our marriage that Christians are not immune to conflict. We were no longer 400 miles apart, and we argued about everything. We didn't know anything about conflict resolution. But somehow, we made it 50 years. Both of us valued the vows we had made, till death do us part, and we believed in commitment. We loved each other and our Lord. We weathered the conflicts.
And we continue to do so. Stay-at-home orders are not always a picnic with those you love. But we rejoice that God has given us so many years together, three wonderful children, a daughter-in-law, and 7 grandchildren to broaden our love, and adventures too numerous to count. So we still weather the conflicts.
This picture was taken at Christmas before our wedding in June. The man to my right is my brother and his son is on Gary's lap. That little boy was our ring bearer in our wedding.
The same weekend I wrote the paragraph on conflicts, I also wrote this poem:
Oh to be in your arms again!
Sweet heaven again.
It's been so long I've been away.
Tell me that you love me, love me, love me,
And I will stay.
Surely, I've never loved before -
This is, oh, much more.
Hold me, hold me, hold me,
And I'll not leave again.
Of course, I did have to leave. We both had our spring semesters of college to complete before June. But Gary had track to keep him busy, and I had wedding plans and preparations.
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.