That Night in Bethlehem: A Firsthand Account

We were still reeling from what had just happened. Had it really happened? Was this a dream? None of us were saying much on the way to Bethlehem. Yes, they had reassured us, but we were still sore afraid. It was only way we could possibly feel after seeing what we had just seen.

Why us? We are humble men who tend sheep. Day after day, we feed them, guide them, and care for them in these fields of hot days and cold nights. I lead a solitary life and have very little means. There are men far important than I in the cities, far more learned and wealthy. And yet, we were the ones graced with this magnificent, holy visitation. We were the ones now hurrying to a town to see a newborn baby. A king. THE king. 

The one we have waited for. My heart pounded as we ran, wide-eyed, adrenaline boosting our limited natural abilities. It was as if the holy messengers had bestowed on us a gift of speed when they left us. Our feet pounded across the vast expanse of the familiar fields that we cross with sheep every day, but never like this. The night had never seemed more alive. The air was still echoing with heavenly declaration. The stars beckoned us onward, especially the one that was stunningly brighter than the rest. I knew I was running toward something - someone - who was going to change everything. Somehow.

And in that moment in time, we were the only ones in the whole world who were running to him.

When we reached the city, our running feet interrupted its deep and dreamless sleep. We couldn't even slow down. Up and down the streets we ran, panting, looking, hoping, wondering. We knew we were so close, but we didn't know how to find him there. We certainly could not pound on doors in the middle of the night. 

There, a man walked alone in the street, pulling his animal along behind him. "Do you know of a baby born this night?" we asked breathlessly. He waved us off and shook his head and kept walking.

We sat down there in the streets, chests heaving, scratching our heads. We didn't know what to do.The people inside the building across the road from where we were sitting seemed to be active inside, even in the middle of the night. The census had brought many travelers to town. And when we inquired there, the innkeeper replied, "I don't know if a baby has been born. But I do know that a man a woman who was great with child are staying in my stable tonight." He gestured to the side.

My friends and I looked at each other. This was it.

No more running. Our steps approaching the open door of the stable were soft and hesitant. No more panting. I could barely breathe.

Peering around the corner, we saw a woman resting on the hay. Quiet animals. A man kneeling beside a manger. A baby inside wrapped in strips of cloth. It was all just as they had said. 

When I knocked faintly on the wood frame, the man looked up, surprised, and came to the stable door."Sir, we don't mean to intrude," I stammered, embarrassed but pushing forward. "And this may sound unbelievable to you. But tonight we were visited by holy messengers who told us to come to this very place. They told us about the baby. They even told us he would be in a manger!"

The man smiled gently and ushered us inside. "Nothing is unbelievable to me anymore," he said. 

We stepped into the small area as the cattle lowed their greeting to us. And just as we reached the manger and knelt down close, the baby awoke. He did not cry, but his little soft eyes looked right at me with an expression of recognition. He was seeing me. I felt as if I could burst. The hopes and fears of all of history and all of the centuries to come were in this little baby's eyes.

I wept. I knew. I knew that besides the man and the woman here, I was the first to see his face. Me. A poor, lonely shepherd. And he came to me. He came for me. He came for all. I knew he was going to make things right. I didn't know how he was going to do it - but this was the one. The weight of the moment was almost more than I could bear. 

We stayed quietly, wordlessly, for a few more moments and then we left, nodding at the man and the woman on our way out. Our hearts were burning with joy inside of us. We were astonished at what we had just witnessed.

The silence had been broken. So we could no longer be silent, either. The time had come for us to tell. Everyone we knew, everyone we didn't know, it didn't matter. We could never in a million years keep something this good to ourselves.

He had come.

"But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of the world and the despised things - and the things that are not - to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him." 1 Corinthians 1:27-28


The Stuff of Nightmares

The first identifiable bad dream.

It happened during the day, a shrill cry slicing through the peace of afternoon nap time, sending me rushing to the bedside. Out of the catalog of cries, the ones that erupt out of slumber are the most alarming.

He was sitting up in his crib, chubby legs curled uncomfortably beneath his rear. "A whale!" he said through his pacifier, tears falling. "A whale!"

"Ooooh, did you have a bad dream?" I asked, hoisting him out of the crib and into the rocking chair. "There are no whales here, baby. It wasn't real."

My thoughts immediately turned to possible whale exposures he has had. Pinocchio? Because that is the scariest whale I've ever seen in my whole life. Nope. He hasn't seen that. Later on, I asked his big sister if there had been any whales in that mermaid show she likes to watch. Nope. When would this kid have ever even seen a whale? And why would it have been traumatic? I was racking my brain. All I could think of was our alphabet book...

Not exactly nightmare material.

I shushed him and blanketed him and stuffed animaled him and cuddled him. He rested his little head on my chest and within seconds returned to the land of nod, safe from the terror of the inexplicable whale invasion.

Little ones don't understand about dreams. It's so easy to tell them they aren't real, but the only thing my baby knew was that there was a whale. And he was frightened.

Then it came to me. We went to Panama City few weeks ago, and dotted along the strip are these lovely, attractive storefronts everywhere, one of which was right near our condo...

That's it! I found the culprit. That thing is most definitely the stuff of nightmares. To those of us who are mature, it's just a tourist gimmick. Walk through the whale's mouth and get your tacky T-shirts for $9.99! But to a toddler buckled into his car seat, riding past this monstrosity in the minivan, it must have been quite upsetting to see for the first time. And how would that jive with everybody else in the family exclaiming, "Oooo! Look at the WHALE!" His little subconscious was trying to figure it out.

I have the wisdom. I have the understanding. I see the big picture. But he can't. He's little. He's limited and immature. The power to soothe is an awesome power to wield, to know that I can wrap a little person up in my arms and he trusts me enough to give up the tangled emotions, whatever they may be, and be comforted - simply because I am there.

Pictures in the natural world often reflect deeper, spiritual truths. The changing of the seasons outside and the changing of the seasons of life. The union of Christ and the church pictured in a wedding ceremony. The way that days of calm follow days of storms. And everyone can understand about upset children because either we have comforted them...or we have been one ourselves. God set it up that way so that we can relate to what He's trying to say.

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest," Jesus says in Matthew 11:28. And then this one - "Oh Jerusalem..." he says, probably with deep emotion in Matthew 23:37, "How often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing." He could not be clearer about His position on the matter. He has the tender heart of a parent, compassionate and strong. And His understanding of the bigger picture is infinite.

The open-mouthed whales of bad dreams are huge and scary, but gigantic real world problems have big teeth, too. Sometimes they threaten to swallow us. In my arms, though, the cement whale was rendered powerless. Mommy trumped the whale. When we allow ourselves to cuddle up in God's arms, to stop thrashing about like an upset toddler and instead are willing to be a chick under His wing, he shushes us. He blankets us and pacifies us.

Because no matter how big the cement whale is, He's bigger. The whale swims away. The waters are still. And peace comes.

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Top 10 Take-Aways from Family Beach Trip 2015

Panama City Beach, Florida made headlines this year and in recent years past for its Spring Break scene that has devolved from simply underage drinking to much, much worse.

So when people asked us where we were going on vacation, I felt kind of sheepish telling them PCB. There's a snobbery against this place, and in some ways, I see why. But when it's the place you've known and loved your whole life long, you don't want to visit the alternatives. Away from Spring Break and away from the crowds, it's a lovely vacation spot, warts and all.

This is the first real vacation we've taken as a family of five, and the age spread of the Farris kids means that we're listening to both Taylor Swift and "This Old Man" on the 5-hour drive down south, dubbed the "Knick Knack Paddywack Beach Tour 2015." It also means that our respective beach experiences are as varied as flip flop styles at Target - my husband as the beast of burden who totes chairs and coolers and umbrellas and plastic buckets all at once, me as the condo supervisor who keeps track of everyone's earplugs and goggles and doodads and wet towels, and kids who wake us up at 6 a.m. like it's Christmas or something.

Here are the top 10 things we learned this year.

10. People will set up their umbrellas right next to you, even if they have a whole stretch of beach available. Some people insist on breaking the cardinal rule of beach etiquette. It never fails. Sir, you can set up your beach camp anywhere you like on this lovely beach. It's not crowded. It's not Spring Break, even. Marking your territory six feet away from ours is like taking the neighboring booth in a deserted restaurant. Or standing too close in an elevator. Or...other ways of marking territory. Ah, people can be so people-y.

9. Pier Park Amusements is not the same thing as Miracle Strip Amusement Park. Here's how it went. We saw rides. We parked the car. We walked in through the gate. We said, "Oh yay! This is that place where you can ride the old Miracle Strip rides! Let's go get our tickets!" Lots of money later, an employee informed us that Pier Park Amusements is "not at all affiliated with that park over there." Wait, WHAT? Are you kidding me? 

The park she was referring to, the reboot of the old Miracle Strip, had the cool rides - the roller coaster and the ferris wheel. Alas, we fell for the bait-and-switch park that had shrewdly constructed itself right in front of the cool park to fool suckers like us.

The kids had fun, though - sliding down the big slide and such - and unlike their parents, didn't realize the full extent of the trickery.

8. The Homemade Ice Cream Shoppe is still going strong. Every trip, we visit the little ice cream shop on Front Beach Road. No frills, no gimmicks, just fantastic ice cream, scooped out into a small cup for $4.25. Every year, the line we stand in gets longer. This year, it was about 12 people deep, clear out the door. It seems they've been blessed in a Chick-Fil-A kind of way - there are framed group pictures on the wall of college students who participate in Beach Project, a ministry of Campus Outreach, going back 20 years or so. Our kids always like finding their uncle in the sea of faces in the photos.

7. No, we are not leaving this condo until everybody has sunblock on and it has soaked in, so sit your little greasy self down and wait on the rest of us. I recently heard my own parents fondly reminiscing about their childhoods and being told by the adults in their lives, "You can't go swimming until 30 minutes after you eat! Or you'll die!" Hardliner food-digestion enforcers have now been replaced by hardliner sunblock enforcers.

6. It's a small world after all. Odds are slim that we would go to another state and run into people we knew, but my husband, who is the ace at recognizing people and is undeterred by sunglasses and baseball caps, spotted a young couple from our former town walking the beach in front of our umbrella camp. (Emily - sorry for the blank look on my face at first!)

5. There are some folks who will walk up to you and say random, friendly things like, "Hey, y'all seen them deer down there at St. Andrews Park? They look like little dogs!" No, but your enthusiasm intrigues us.

4. Toddlers don't understand about sand. Bless them. If you fill up a bucket with sand and then dump it out toward you (as opposed to away from you), it's going to go all in your mouth and stick to the front of your wet T-shirt. And if you have sand on your hand and then you rub your eye, it's going to get in your eye. And that hurts. And then you're going to cry. These are the things I try to explain verbally, but at times like these, real life experience is the best tutor.

Also, if you've ever wondered why the Gulf Coast sand is so perfect:

"White sugar sands are made of ultrafine mineral sand with a significant percentage of organic granules. This forms fine silt that is often too light to support cars and trucks on the beach. The sand is made from pure white quartz crystal, which came from the Appalachian Mountains at the end of the last Ice Age and was deposited into the Gulf of Mexico. These quartz particles give the sand a different look and feel and distinguish it from the sands composed of heavier minerals, such as titanium, which can be found in beaches in the northern Atlantic. These minerals contribute to the northern Atlantic also having murkier waters than the turquoise ones found [in the Gulf]." - source

3. Hey little kid from the condo next door to ours, if you stick your nose up to our window one more time, I will fly-swat your face. Through the glass. In love.

2. Red flag means red flag. Rip currents are no joke. Respecting the color of the beach warning flags is like getting in your closet during a tornado warning - you just do it and you don't ask questions. When I see people swimming way out in the Gulf on red flag days, I put the fear into my kids about getting sucked into the ocean, and I don't feel bad about it at all. Good times.

1. The beach is God's playground. No swings, slides, monkey bars, or other hardware required. Red flag scariness aside, there's something about the combination of the breeze, the colors, the salty air, the laughter that gently reaches your ears, the crashing waves, the rhythm of the surf pushing in and receding - none of it can be duplicated anywhere else. It's all natural...no artificial colors or flavors. 

We're home from the playground now, and I am unpacking and smelling beach odor on everything, and it's not altogether unpleasant. I will just go ahead and admit that I may be taking some long whiffs of those sunscreen-scented towels before I throw them in the laundry. It's a happy smell of some freshly-baked memories. 

I'm ready to go back.

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Lost in Ranburne

Here in the thick of ball season with two kids involved and games most every weeknight, we don't always know where we're supposed to be in the evenings.

(On a side note, I've got this great, low-tech wall calendar, though. Sandra Boynton Mom's Family Calendar. Columns for each family member. I recommend it for busy households. BUT it only works if you copy the ball schedules onto it correctly, which I don't always do.) ANYWAY...

Last night, my husband and I were making the drive to an away game in Ranburne, AL. My son and his teammate who needed a ride were in the backseat, and daughter and baby were in the middle seats. It was a noisy van. Music on the radio. Exuberant conversations going on, like, "If an elephant and a rhino got in a fight, who would win?" "The rhino! He could stab the elephant!" "Raise your hand if you like Mr. Pibb!" "Yessss!!! I LOVE Mr. Pibb!" And the baby chanting: "Bay-ball game! Bay-ball game! Buzzer!" Then the constant correction from his siblings: "No! Buzzers are at basketball games!"

Ooooo-kay. Let's just get there fast, please? I'm ready to get out now.

We'd been to Ranburne a few times before. Not somewhere we go every day. The drive over there is very pretty, especially around sunset, but most of it looks like this...

It looks like that for miles. We thought we kind of knew where we were going. We knew enough to think we could at least figure it out. Just a few turns here and there, and you can make it to the little town. But obviously, there's not a lot of landmarks. You just have to know the way.

"I think we need to turn right, here by these houses," said my husband.

"Oh yeah, this is it. Definitely. I remember," I said.

"No," said our daughter from the backseat. "I don't think we're supposed to go this way!"

"Yes we are," I said. "We know what we're doing."

Yeah, we thought we were so smart until we crossed into Georgia and got behind a chicken truck with no place to turn around. By that time, I was starting to feel the tightening of stress and irritation in my chest (A chicken truck? Really? Right now?!?), because the game was supposed to start in 10 minutes, and we had two little players in the backseat who needed us to get them there, and we had no idea where we were.

All we did know was that we were lost, stuck, going too slow in the wrong state, and on a deadline.

Have you ever felt that way? Lost and stuck - not understanding where you are, how you got there, or how you'll get back?

I have.

It's the worst feeling in the world. I've hated it ever since I was little. "Are we lost, daddy?" I'd ask in the car whenever we found ourselves off the beaten path. "Yes, Jennifer, we're lost," he'd answer me, honestly. "Lost?!? OH NOOO!" I'd wail. Then mom and dad would reassure me that we would get back to the main road, eventually.

I've felt lost in more serious ways, too. I've crossed over lines into the lostness of anxiety and despair before, and those places stink much worse than chicken trucks. They trick you into thinking that the path you need, the path you used to walk on, the path you long for, won't ever be found again. That you don't have any hope of getting out from behind the lumbering, stinking truck that's obstructing your view of the road ahead and impeding your life. An obstruction so large that you cannot see anything else around you - no signs, no landmarks, no help.

But you know what? I found that was a complete lie. We have a Shepherd who doesn't let us stay lost. Jesus said He would leave 99 sheep to go find the one who got away, the one in need, the one who is stuck on his back. Ninety-nine! You know who those 99 are? The "everybody else's" in your life. Everybody else seems happy. Everybody else has it together. Everybody else is pinning glorious crafts and posting perfection on Pinterest. Every other sheep is grazing in the field, and they seem to be happy, settled, and full.

But here I am, you think, I'm the one that's different, way out here on a ledge, in a difficult situation that the "everybody else's" could not possibly understand.

There's One who does. His staff is long enough to reach and to deliver. Isaiah 59:1 says, "Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear."

My husband was feeling the stress, too, in our roaming and lostness yesterday - because I heard him mutter one of those, "God please help us find this place," prayers under his breath.

Shortly thereafter, a gorgeous gas station loomed before us. I implored him to stop and ask directions, and I think we were about to get into the husband/wife conflict borne from time immemorial - until we noticed the "Alabama the Beautiful" state sign just to our left - and the Ranburne city limit sign just past it.


The swagger-wagon minivan came screeching into the Ranburne sports complex on two wheels, Farris-style. The little players arrived at their game with two minutes to spare.

We feel lost, but we get found.

There's always a way back.

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5K Grace

This is a story about grace. Unexpected grace that somebody unexpected bestowed upon my unsuspecting children.

Late last night, I was beyond tired. My bed was beckoning me loudly. But a conflict was unfolding before my very own bloodshot eyes, and I was going to have to deal with it.

Our 11-year-old daughter was earnestly petitioning us for permission to run in the PTO 5K in the morning. We were reluctant to cave in. She had a softball game to play in the afternoon. Run a 5K and then play? No, we don't think so, honey. And we know best. You can run in the Kid Run. It's only a mile, but that one would be better for you.

"PLEASE mom and dad, PLEEEEEEASE!!!! I can do it! Really, I can!" Then the tears started up. They really got rolling.

Her dad and I were giving each other the "let's-be-firm" look behind her back. A united parental front.

The child was passionately desiring to run, and run big, and she had her reasons why - reasons I won't share here. We listened. We understood. The united parental front is usually pretty effective, but last night, it crumbled. It caved. It totally crashed to the ground with a resounding thud.

I crawled into bed analyzing everything about our parenting. Ok, so we said no...and then there was drama - and we caved? Did we really just cave? We're not supposed to cave! But there were things going on in her that needed to be respected and heard.  Sometimes - yes, sometimes - caving is justified. Extenuating circumstances, you see.

So early this morning, set free with the welcome news of the cancellation of her softball game, she and her 8-year-old brother showed up at the race, raring to go like Kentucky Derby horses snorting and stomping in their pens. Because if she was going to do it, he sure enough was going to do it too. We warned them to pace themselves, not to expend all their energy at once, but they blasted out of the gate like rockets.

They're going to burn out, I thought. And burn out quickly.

So we waited at the finish line, eyes peering down the hill, watching for the first runners who would round the bend and begin the long climb to victory.

"Look, here they come!" someone said. Little figures chugging forth in fluorescent green shirts. They were so far away, we couldn't make out who they were.

Then..."Is that her?" my husband asked the air.

"Is that him?" I asked a second later, dumbfounded.

No way, I thought. How could they possibly be in the lead? And then I saw. There was a man steadily jogging closely behind them. He was a real runner, you could tell. One who could very easily blow past both of them and claim the trophy. I'm sure many competitive runners would have done just that. He was someone experienced, someone who deserved it, someone who no doubt had run in these things before - probably lots of them.

But my daughter crossed the finish line first, and my son followed her, and that kind, gracious runnerman finished in third place. He helped us the whole way, they gushed to us later. He told us how to let the momentum carry us when we go down hills! He told us how to breathe and how to use our arms!

It reminded me of Lightning McQueen, the Cars hero who helped someone else finish the race first because he saw a bigger picture - and because he looked beyond himself.

That guy gave my children a memory that they'll carry for their whole lives, one that could very well inspire them to run further, run harder, and run faster into their futures. And after I finished posting the proud, obligatory pictures of "my first and second place winners," I saw this...

Thank you so much, Mr. Runnerman, for your Lightning McQueen spirit - and for extending that grace to my kids. They won't ever forget it, and neither will I.

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