For I have put my hope in your Word. . . may your unfailing love be my comfort. Ps 119:74, 76 (NIV)

What do you do with all those Christmas cards once the holidays are over? In my dining room sits a nice little stack of candy-cane, holly-and-berry, and Baby-Jesus-in-a-manger cards with photos of smiling families wearing coordinating red-and-white snowflake sweaters. We enjoy them for the season, but what to do with them come January? As expensive and gorgeous as they are, I can part with the cards. I appreciate them for a few weeks, and then into the trash they go. But the photos. . . unbearable to throw them away, even for this minimalist. I can just imagine all the effort behind getting the dog to smile, much less the two squirming kids.

A few years ago I came up with a plan. I purchased two large poster frames, filled them with those smiling faces, and hung them side-by-side in our breakfast room. There. LOTS of smiles literally from around the world, many belonging to dear friends we rarely talk with, but somehow that once-a-year communication keeps them close. Beautiful smiles, white teeth smiles, a child missing his front teeth smiles, and the never-got-around-to-getting-braces smiles. But all the same, hopeful smiles looking toward the holiday season and an exciting new year. I took down the posters today to make space for incoming photos. This has not been an annual event. In fact, I haven’t touched the posters since I first hung them. In 2003.

A few things have changed since then.
“Wow, look how this family has grown,” I thought.
“Did they divorce two years ago, or three?”
“Look how darling he is as an infant. . . and now he’s at Children’s Hospital in Dallas fighting cancer, four years old.”
The photos drew me in, and I started looking more closely. I spent a few more moments processing the smiling faces and considering what four years has meant for this particular family, for this missionary, for this cousin.

A radiant bride, clutching hands with her groom, their arms raised in jubilant triumph among floating flower petals. . . where has four years brought them? Through depression, marriage counseling, deep Bible studies with a supportive church family, now raising two young boys. Beautiful.

A single twenty-something girl with bright eyes smiling into the camera, the words and logo of her ministry imprinted on the photo as a reminder to pray for her. . . she continues as a single thirty-something with bright eyes, continuing to serve in the same ministry. Beautiful.

A toddler and her barely-older brother, both toe-heads with matching smocked Christmas outfits… they, along with their baby sister, have since endured a painful divorce and now live out of state. Their mommy is exhausted, but strong and dedicated, and overflows with Jesus. Beautiful.

A dark-headed guy with a sly grin sporting top-of-the-line camping gear… this beloved friend was killed last year in a one-car accident on an icy Sunday morning, driving to church to deliver a sermon. Beautiful.

A couple from the Northwest with gentle smiles, his head cocked back from the camera, her arm swung lazily around his shoulders. . . they’ve endured two cardiac valve-replacement surgeries since this photo was taken, one of which occurred a month before their son’s birth. Now they juggle a two-year-old boy wonder, a new baby on the way, and lifestyle choices to keep daddy’s heart beating regularly. Beautiful.

I could go on. Every photo carries a story. Amazing what four years can bring. The beauty I see is inspired by one thing – the hope that only Christ offers. None of us know what the next four years hold, much less the next few months. But I see testimony in these friends’ lives of a trust that He can bring about peace and perseverance and hope, regardless of difficulties. They are asking Him not for perfect health but for perfect peace. Not for heightened finances but for heightened joy. And not for harmonious relationships but for a harmonious relationship with God Himself. One of the greatest gifts Christ brought as a manger child is the assurance of hope in this crazy world.

Lord Jesus, please help me to take time to look a little more closely at those friends and family around me this Advent season. . . to see Your hope and beauty in their lives.

In the midst of growing families, job changes, cross-country moves, devastating illnesses, new babies, cancer, and blended families, can you see the hope of Christ in the situations surrounding you?