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  A Very Special Christmas Tree Lighting

Dear friends,                                                                   November 2014                 

             We returned from our vacation last week (Friday night, the 7th) and had to hit the ground running – preaching, clearing the lawn of leaves, speaking to two AWANA groups, finishing the next “When Swing Was King” volume in anticipation of November’s showings (five this past week alone), blogging, preparations for the quarterly VSM Board meeting, and so on.  However, despite the hectic schedule, we’re still feeling a bit of the glow from our fantastic two weeks in Branson.  And that’s especially important this morning because it’s cold and icy outside and I need all the “glow” I can get!

             Our Branson getaway was a working vacation.  They always are.  We can’t seem to truly relax unless we are taking a least a little time to work.  But this time around we tried hard to limit work, seeking to abide by a wise exhortation that came from Deb Harrold who reminded us, “Rest is productive too!”  It was a good word, Deb, and we appreciate it.  So, though I did get some good work done (i.e. over a third of the first edit of The Christmas Room), we concentrated on praying and hiking in the Ozark hills, feeding ducks, doing our Christmas shopping at College of the Ozarks, watching the election returns, and having pleasant times with friends and family.

            Allen and Cindy Nelson stayed with us for a couple of nights before moving on to their own gorgeous condo on Table Rock Lake.  As that first week proceeded, we met up with the Nelsons for a few wonderful events.  Then on the weekend, my younger sister Sherry and her husband John plus my youngest brother Ric and his wife Ellen arrived to make our vacation a mini-family reunion as well.  (My other siblings and their spouses couldn’t make it.).  We had a terrific time in the days we spent together.  There was also another aspect of this family reunion in that my Aunt Farris (my Mom’s brother’s wife) lives in Crane, Missouri with her daughter Belinda, and we love visiting them (and other cousins) when we’re in the area.  This time around Claire and I had one very sweet visit there with another a few days later involving the rest of the family.  We spent another evening with my cousin David who treated the whole pack of us for a huge dinner at Lambert’s in Springfield.

     Oh yes, Claire and I also found time to celebrate our 43rd anniversary together!

     And yet the vacation provided even more highlights than even these.  A train ride through the forests.  The White Glove evening which kicked off Christmas at Silver Dollar City.  Twice attending church on the campus of College of the Ozarks.  A pensive time of prayer together on the lakeshore. 18 “holes” of Frisbee golf. Country drives.  Playing Wits and Wagers with the family.  Catching an early morning farmer’s market at College of the Ozarks. Relaxing on our patio as we watched golfers on the 12th hole.  Reading a couple of books by Harold Bell Wright.  And did I mention feeding the ducks?  We did it three times!

    But there was one other highlight that was so unexpected, so unique, and so delightful that we thought you might like to hear about it in some detail.  The story actually starts with a disappointment; namely, our learning that the first annual Christmas tree lighting at the Andy Williams Moon River Theater, which we (and the Nelsons) enjoyed so much last year, was going to be discontinued.  What?  Cancel the tradition before it even gets started?  Rats. We had teased each other throughout the year about returning to Branson for that very event. But, okay, no big deal. In fact, we decided it would be fun to go down and have cookies and cocoa with just Allen and Cindy on the spot of last year’s event. You know, have our own little commemoration. 

    Then I had another idea, only a semi-serious one at first, but one that just might make a difference.  And, let’s face it, making a difference is kinda’ what we do.  And so, in about 10 minutes, I dashed off an e-mail letter, suggesting that the theater bosses change their minds.  And to try and give a bit of oomph to my request, I sent copies to the local newspaper, the Chamber of Commerce, the tourist bureau, and two or three media outlets.  Here is that note:

Last year we had a wonderful time at the First Annual Christmas Tree Lighting outside the Andy Williams Moon River Theater. Though the event received almost no promotion at all, there were around 300 people on hand (even before the matinee audience exited the theater) to enjoy the festivities, including remarks and music from the Lennon Sisters, the Osmonds, and other Branson stars. We also enjoyed delicious cookies handed out by the cutest of Santa’s elves. 

We are planning a return to Branson this fall and were looking forward to attending the Second Annual Christmas Tree Lighting. However, a call to the theater office resulted in the news that there wouldn’t be one. Wow. That was a bummer. We were told there had been “a change of hands” and so the event was off. That’s really unfortunate for with a minimum of effort, the tree lighting could provide a lot of community unity as well as positive publicity for the theater and the Branson area. Plus, it could make for a great kickoff to the Christmas season, completely true to the tradition that Branson’s Christmas begins when Andy Williams says it begins! 

So, what do you say? Is there any way that the powers that be might reverse their decision? It seems a pity that such a neat idea should fade away after such a promising start. Perhaps we’ll have to bring cookies from our home here in Omaha and pass them out in front of the tree there, in sad recognition of a lost opportunity.            

          The response?  Not much.  True, a few responded and in a good spirit too, agreeing that someone should keep this fledgling tradition going, but they couldn’t see how they could help.  So, too bad. We forgot about the tree lighting and went ahead with our other vacation plans which, as you’ve already seen, were full to overflowing anyhow.

      But after we had been at our condo in Branson West (complete with a $10 a day clergy discount, thank you very much), we received the following note to our email: 

Dear Denny, 

My name is Jenn ---- and I am the former Marketing Coordinator for the Andy Williams Moon River Theatre.  ------- from the chamber forwarded me an email that you had sent her about your disappointment in the fact that the Moon River Theatre was not continuing the annual tree lightning for Andy.  As a part of the planning and implementing of that event (and as the mother of the “cutest of Santa’s elves”) I was saddened too that the theatre would not be continuing that tradition. 

I am a part of the Westgate Branson family now as the Groups Coordinator and after receiving your email I spoke to my Director of Sales and we have received permission from our corporate offices to continue the tradition here on our beautiful wooded property.   Our corporate offices have ordered a 20-foot Blue Spruce Christmas Tree to dedicate to Andy and it will be planted on our property at the entrance gate. 

Our Director of Operations would like to invite you as our guest for the dedication of this tree on November 3rd, 2014.  As our guest we would like to offer you a complimentary stay here on our resort.  Please let me know what your travel plans are and we will take care of all the details. Thank you so much for caring enough about this tradition to honor our dear Mr. Christmas! I look forward to speaking to you! 

     We let the weekend run its course and on Monday Claire called Jenn and they really hit it off.  Jenn was very excited to talk to us because as she put it, “You know, this whole project is a result of that letter you wrote!”  However, they were encountering several problems.  They wanted the blessing and involvement of Andy Williams’ family but none of them were in town.  They hadn’t yet got the tree they wanted.  And they were running out of time.  So, though hearts and hopes were high, it seemed like this fun and festive event might have to wait for next year.  We thanked them for their gracious offer and pledged to keep in touch. And then, the next day, this note (along with a press release) came in. The note read: 

Hi Denny,

I spoke to your lovely wife yesterday and let her know about our planned tree lighting.  I finally touched base with the Williams’ family and they felt that they weren’t given enough time to complete matters on their end pertaining to the tree lighting to honor their beloved father this year.  They extended a Thank You to you for thinking so much of Andy to still want to honor him and I believe that we will be able to do a Westgate Tree Dedication to Andy in the next year when we have given it more time to plan in respects to the family.

That being said, we will be having a tree lighting to honor our military servicemen and women that are unable to come home for the holidays on November 1st at 6:30 PM.  

Denny, we would love for you to attend this event.  Please let me know if you are able to.

I would love to meet you as well and of course keep in touch because when we do the Andy tree dedication we would like for you to be a VIP guest of Westgate. Thank you so much! 

      Claire called Jenn and said we were honored by the gracious invitation and that we were very pleased at the transformation of the event into a veterans honor. Of course, we would come.  We had little notion, however, of the kind of reception we were going to get.  For when we found Jenn, she became really excited and warmly welcomed us. She then started introducing us to her kids, then her co-workers, then some of the Branson celebrities who were on hand to provide entertainment. The Westgate Branson Woods boss was especially gracious, thanking us for getting them started on what they thought was going to be a grand tradition -- both the veterans’ tree and next year’s Andy Williams’ tree. “And it was your letter, Denny. All because of that letter! We’re really grateful.” He proudly explained how his team had put together things in such a short time -- how they found the perfect tree, how they planted it just the day before, and how they finished the stonewall around the tree that very afternoon!  It was a really neat time.

 Christmas tree, Branson, Nelsons.jpg    And then they told me they wanted me to throw the switch to light the tree!  And so, after the prayer, the color guard and the pledge of allegiance, comments by local leaders, the national anthem by the Voices of Glory, and a beautiful rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” by the Fair Family, I was introduced and asked to hit the switch. And wow. When I did, it lit up not only the big Blue Spruce but all of the other pine trees on the hillside as well. It was gorgeous.  

     You can see why this particular vacation highlight has a special place in our hearts.  It was such a pleasant and unexpected gift for us…and for Allen and Cindy who were with us.  It also, as I had suggested in my original letter, represented valuable publicity for whatever business took it up. And it dramatically emphasizes what we’ve said for over 30 years now, something that is at the heart of Vital Signs’ letter-writing evenings -- a personal letter can be a remarkably potent tool of education, persuasion and stimulation.  Finally, that letter proved to be a winsome beginning to new friendships with some very kind and conscientious people. Neat stuff, huh? 

     Okay, that’s it until next month’s Christmas letter when I’ll tell you about our special Christmas card P.A.L.Night, our “When Swing Was King” road trip to senior facilities in central Nebraska, plans for our annual caroling in front of the abortion clinic, the latest on The Christmas Room, and more. Happy Thanksgiving. And thank you for your continued support of Vital Signs Ministries.