Saturday, December 14, 2013

The White Christmas That Wasn't

My five year old son wanted his daddy (my ex-husband) to come home again. With the faith of a child, he began to pray and to fast (sweets) for his daddy to "come to Jesus and come home to live with us".  After what appeared to be a miraculous transformation and the answer to a child's prayers, I remarried him. It may have seemed a naive decision, but I fully recognized the risk of the old problems resurfacing. I never expected what happened, however.

I certainly wasn't blameless, don't get me wrong about that. I could see something was awry, but could not seem to fix it, and pretty soon I began to wonder. Were the old problems back again?  

That particular Christmas Day was the best ever. All the children were home and we had a wonderful time. No one was ready to leave, so my husband went to visit his parents alone, and didn't come home that night.  In fact, he never came home. it was months before we saw him again. 

Christmas Day was the beginning of the worst few years of my life. I soon learned that he was having an affair with a much younger woman. Things went from bad to worse, and before a year had passed, she would bear him a son. 

As the summer months were waning, I began to think about the coming holidays. My dread was so great that I could hardly talk about it. Somehow, his leaving and Christmas Day seemed hopelessly intertwined. How could I celebrate the birth of my Savior on the anniversary of the death of my marriage? 

When I mentioned it to my sister, she had an immediate solution. She had been thinking that renting a cabin in the mountains where we could all be together for a white Christmas would be the very thing to do. Somehow, Cookie the Super Sister managed to convince our Mama, her husband, all her children, her son-in-law and the grandchildren that this white Christmas was what everyone wanted to do (or at least what they should do for me and my son). Ever the organizer and maker of lists, she soon had the holiday organized into easily divided tasks. Cookie the Super Sister assigned each of us a meal to cook, a time to clean, chores to do. It wasn't all work, though. She had planned games and activities that we could all enjoy. We laughed and played together.  We loved each other right out loud.  We enjoyed being together. Not once did the avid hunters in the group complain about missing prime hunting season. Not once did anyone complain about missing holiday traditions or long time routines. No one grumbled. No one argued. There was hardly any whining about the lack of snow!

What could have been a black cloud overshadowing the birth of Christ for years to come was transformed into the sweetest of memories by the agape love of God demonstrated by my family. Even now, the depth of my sister's love and my family's sacrifice astounds me and moves me to tears.  I didn't deserve it, but I will never forget it. In fact, I was transformed by it. Yesterday's pain has become today's cherished memory. 

I've begun to decorate my home for the holidays, dragging out all those cherished ornaments and nativity sets, again this year. The traditional family Christmas I have planned with my son this year will be all the sweeter because of the white-Christmas-that-wasn't and the love that was lavished upon us that year so long ago. 

There's a Christmas song that says "Love came down at Christmas". It certainly did!  Because of the love of a tiny God-man more than 2000 years ago, love came down again at Christmas in the form of a loving sister and sacrificing family. So much love...

Blessings of joy this Christmas season, dear ones. Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Friday Night with Friends - Dean C. Lamb

I'm so excited to introduce our first-ever guest blogger! I have known him for more years than we want to admit, and he was the first person I knew who not only dared to call himself a writer, but actually was a writer. He is that most mysterious of souls, for he is a writer who writes from his heart.  Dean Lamb teaches creative writing to inner city youth. He is a gifted weaver of stories and words, and has shared his heart with us tonight. It's a timely word. Enjoy!

The Christmas Lights by Dean C. Lamb

I’ve always loved Christmas lights. Almost always…

When I was a child, living in a rural home where my daddy worked long hours on his farm and in his general store, we had a humble – but beautiful to me --Christmas tree. My dad liked simple candles, though, for our other lighting. I loved going to a neighboring town and seeing the varied, colorful lights. 

I also savored traveling to Memphis, at least some Christmases, to see my Irish-American grandmother. The lights of the big city, even when it was not the holiday season, fascinated me, as we drive up old Highway 78 and it turned into neon-lit Lamar Avenue in Memphis. Daddy later told me I called those luminaries “jumping lights.” Even as an adult, more than one lady I squired asked for me to take her for a drive in our more affluent suburbs to see the Christmas lights. I gave out a masculine grunt or two, but in my heart of hearts, I liked the lights.

Then, the lights went out.

I lost both of my parents at a relatively early age, and my Christmas spirit dimmed a bit. Then two years ago, my wife died, just before Thanksgiving, and the lights went out. It was not a perfect marriage, and much of the problem lay with me – but she was a soulmate, a beautiful lady inside as well as on the surface. We talked of retirement together, perhaps in the mountains we both cherished – Smokiest, Ozarks, or the majestic Rockies where we had vacationed together. 

Grief is sometimes defined as the loss of dreams. And I felt that. I went through depressed, lonely periods and tried to be an agnostic. But God wouldn’t give up on me. As Christ told of leaving the 99 sheep in the fold to find the lost lamb, the Holy Spirit kept sneaking up on me, almost like a stray puppy hoping you’ll acknowledgeand feed him. I don’t like comparing our Lord of Lords to a stray pup; it was I who was the one who was astray, wandering for a tidbit of faith.

I would like to tie this story up like a neat Christmas package by saying I found my way back that yuletide…but that’s not true. Some great theologian said that true Faith is like a candle’s light – the flame may die, but the ember is not extinguished if one has embraced God’s sweet salvation. That winter I had but the tiniest of embers – as I’ve experienced in other times in my life. But, in time, the Gospel of John had avoice shouting in my ear – not the small, still voice God most often uses on us – but a loud Word I needed.John 1:5 has perhaps become my favorite verse: “The light shines in darkness and the darkness has not overcome it…”

As scripture tells us, even the tiniest light means that there is not total darkness. So it has been with me. The small ember has gradually become a bright burning light, again. I have come to realize, my God has more plans for me…great plans. Through the winters of grief, I am seeing the Light once again. It’s not always easy or clear – I’ll be bluntly honest – but the Light is there. Praise God for the Light.

My daddy was right all along. Amid the darkness, a candle can shine more brightly than any choreographed, fancy lights. God’s candle never goes out, and I am so grateful to be saved by it.

Last man in the boat (Luke 5:9)

For amazement had seized him and all his companions because of the catch of fish which they had taken; (Luke 5:9 NASB)

Seized by amazement! That's pretty surprised, isn't it? Simon Peter was seized by amazement because of the boat-sinking catch, but all his companions were also seized by amazement. Note the word ALL. It does not mean some of his companions were amazed, it means every single man present that day was seized by amazement at the work of Jesus.  That immobilizing astonishment made all the extra work well worth it, didn't it?  I imagine those men spent the rest of their lives telling about that astonishing morning.

It makes me want to be where Jesus is at work, just in case He does a big and flashy miracle, doesn't it you?  The big catch seems impossible, but what is even more impossible, even more astonishing, is when the Spirit of God catches the heart of a man and utterly transforms him. That IS impossible without divine intervention. 

There is one more point we need to see. Those companions were merely bystanders to the action. They entered in only at Simon's request, and after the miracle was over except for the receiving. Nevertheless, they received equal astonishment, equal blessing with Simon, who was there at the start. Even the last man in the boat received the wonder and gifts of Christ in full measure. I don't know about you, but that is incredibly encouraging to me. 

Pray today that we and our loved ones will position ourselves in such a way that, like those companions, we will find ourselves astonished by what God does without our help and when and where we least expect it. Take heart in the full-measure blessing those last-in-the-boat companions received. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Open Hands

A friend of mine stopped by recently with a wonderful gift. These open hands, she said, were a reminder to hold everything loosely, with open hands. 

That's the way we are supposed to come to God, isn't it?  When our hands are clenched, we are not only unable to release that to which we cling, but we are also unable to freely receive from God. The releasing and receiving are intricately interwoven. 

A beautifully written prayer card was nestled in the palms of the hands. 
"My Lord and My God - 
Take from my hand everything that distances me from You.
Put into my hand everything that brings me closer to You. 
I lift up my hands to You, 
That I may give my all to You."

What is it that distances you from God?  Perhaps it's time to loosen your grip, open your hands, and allow God to have it. What joy awaits when you willingly close the gap between you and our Lord! 

Seeing our sinfulness (Luke 5:8)

But when Simon Peter saw that, he fell down at Jesus' feet, saying, "Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!" (Luke 5:8 NASB)

Finally, Simon got it! He not only recognized Jesus as Lord, he recognized himself as a sinner. The word he used here, hamartōlos, is a Greek word that means more than just "I have sinned a time or two". It is used here to mean "I am devoted to sinning" or "I am preeminently a sinner".  Simon Peter recognized that the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man cannot comfortably coexist. 

We don't want to see ourselves as thoroughly sinful, but when we do, our tendency is to run away from God rather than toward Him. Seeing ourselves as a sinner in the presence of the holy, righteous God is a terrifying place to be. We know so much of mercy and grace these days, that we've forgotten that truth, but in the presence of the flesh and blood, wonder-working Jesus, that reality slapped Simon in the face. 

Isn't it wonderful that, when our response to Jesus, on seeing our sinfulness, is "Go away from me, Lord," His response to us is, "No. You come here to Me"?  Simon's first thought was not purification, it was escape. Jesus was on a mission of cleansing, however, and with it, He brought the beginning of transformation in Simon Peter's life. 

That's what He would like to do in our lives, and the lives of our loved ones.  Today, pray for the awareness of our individual sinfulness, our hamartōlos, to be so profound that it drives us and our loved ones to our knees before the Holy One. Pray, too, that we will embrace the purification and transformation that Jesus longs to bring. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Unnecessary Burden

Maggie the Wonder Dog curls up on the foot of my bed and snoozes away at night. Mornings are not her favorite (unless it's "Camp Tupelo" day), so she generally sleeps through my 5:00 am trip to the barn to feed the horses. By 5:30, she is usually ready for some snuggle time while I have quiet time. This morning, I patted my lap and invited her up, just like always. Today, however, Maggie started up, looked distressed, and sat back down.  I invited her again, and she very slowly struggled to my lap. Her delay was so unusual that I took a closer look.  Maggie's collar had somehow gotten caught in the edge of a decorative pillow and she couldn't get loose. Rather than whimper and let me know she needed help with her problem, she had opted to drag the pillow along. She was keeping her burden all to herself. How silly, and how unnecessary! I had her unhooked in a few seconds and she was soon snuggling to her heart's content.

Maggie's not the only one who drags around unnecessary burdens, is she? We all have a tendency to hang on to hurts, embrace unforgiveness or bitterness, and drag it around for years. We worry about finances, health, the future, and haul those burdens around like a ball and chain from which there is no escape. How silly and unnecessary!  Relief is available to us from the One who daily bears our burdens. He's carrying them anyway. Why would we try to carry them, too?  

Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears our burden, The God who is our salvation. Selah. (Psalms 68:19 NASB)

This evening would be a good time to look at the burdens you carry. Are they necessary or do they belong in the capable hands of God?


Think about that for a while.  Think about it, then place those burdens right where they belong.  

Merry Christmas!

Spillover Blessings (Luke 5:7)

so they signaled to their partners in the other boat for them to come and help them. And they came and filled both of the boats, so that they began to sink. (Luke 5:7 NASB)

Simon was a businessman with partners. He had employees in the boat with him and, when they could not handle the catch alone, they called for the partners in the other boat. Simon, however, was the one who had the budding relationship with Jesus. The partners are mentioned only in passing in these verses and their status with Christ is not yet clear. 

What is clear is the blessing they received because of Simon Peter's faith that day. They were not at church. They were not at a Bible study. They were cleaning and repairing fishing nets, minding their own business. When Simon moved the boat out for Jesus, they stayed on the shore. When Simon moved to the deep water at Jesus's command, they stayed on the shore. Only when the blessings poured out were more than Simon could receive did they even get in their own boat. At last, they finally moved their boat out, and they, too, were nearly sunk by blessing. 

This miraculous incident reminds me of 2 Chronicles 7:14 "if My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land." (NASB). God doesn't require everyone in the land to repent for forgiveness and healing of the nation to come. He only requires His people to seek His face and turn from their sin. He promises that, if His people obey, He will heal the land and everyone will share in the blessing. When He pours out a blessing that is too large for us to contain, it "spills over" on those around us. 

We will see what happened with the spill-over-blessing people later, but you can be sure they were astounded by what they saw God do that day, just as those around us will be when God moves in miraculous ways. In the meantime, our job is humility, prayer (repentance), seeking The Lord (Bible study), and turning from our wicked ways (purification). We are to handle the repentance part; He is more than able to handle the blessing part. 

Today, actively do what is required by God (humble ourselves and pray and seek His face and turn from our wicked ways) and pray that the blessings He sends will spill over onto our loved ones in such a way that their doubts and rebellion are washed away. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Order vs Chaos

The new kitchen floor was long overdue. There is not much I dread more than the disruption of renovation, but this had to be done. For more than a week, most of my downstairs has been one big jumble. There has been a very narrow, winding path to the coffee pot and the 'fridge.   Every countertop covered with the detritus of the project, there has been no room for chopping or slicing. For one who uses chopping, basting, and sautéing as therapy and a way to unwind after a difficult day, it has been especially hard. 

I generally have multiple projects in various stages underway at any given time. It's not unusual for me to keep those projects at hand for easy access, so a degree of clutter is not unexpected, but this has been tough, even for me. As the days have dragged on, I have become more and more unsettled by the project and the chaos, and more unhappy with any disorder at all in the rest of my environment. 

Today, at last, Bill the Magnificent completed the work, but there was still considerable clean up remaining. I worked steadily for several hours this evening. All of a sudden, I realized I just needed to take some boxes back to the storage building and I'd be done. What a relief! Everything that could be done tonight was done. 

Maggie and I settled into my big green chair for a quick snuggle and I thought, "I am not a woman who can take this much chaos." Oddly enough, what immediately came to mind is that we do not serve a God of disorder, but of peace. That is exactly how I have felt. I can't take the disorder and I have craved peace. It sure didn't seem like it at the time, but that building unhappiness in me as a result of the turmoil here at home was really a God-designed emotion. We were created in the image of the One who is a God of order, and chaos is not our home. Isn't that an interesting thought? There is much to ponder in that. 

Peace. Isn't that a lovely word? The new floor is good, but a return of peace to my home... That makes all the difference!

Lord of the Catch and the Boat (Luke 5:7)

so they signaled to their partners in the other boat for them to come and help them. And they came and filled both of the boats, so that they began to sink. (Luke 5:7 NASB)

How about that?  Simon did what Jesus said, Jesus blessed him back (because you can't out give God), and it was such a huge catch that both his boat and his partners' boat were totally filled with fish. The boats were SO full that they began to sink. 

Selah. Pause and ponder here. 

I can imagine what Simon and his buddies thought. "What??? Jesus, you need to get your superpower under better control here! We are all going to sink and drown, and the boats with us!  You have destroyed us!"  Don't you know they must have been scared half out of their minds? They had an enormous catch, with seemingly no way to get it back to shore! It had stopped looking like a blessing. 

What they didn't understand was that the Master of the catch was also Master of the boat. Jesus was right there, and He could handle an overloaded boat. He could handle two overloaded boats, especially when they were overloaded with heaven-sent blessings. All Simon could do was watch in utter amazement. 

I've had a few of those blessings. You probably have, too. At first, you are stunned and amazed with what God is doing, but before long you are saying, "Whoa! This is killing me!" My usual response has been to bail out. I wonder, though, how it would have turned out if I had stayed in the boat the way Simon did. Of course, I will never know, but next time, I'm stepping back, doing what Simon Peter must have done, and letting Jesus "get the boat to shore".  

During one of the busiest seasons of the year, you may also be feeling a little overloaded with the blessings God has entrusted to you. It's important to remember that, even when it is too much for you, it's not too much for God. The only sensible solution is to step back and allow the Author of the blessings to be the Manager of the blessings, as well. 

Today, pray that our loved ones, also highly blessed, will recognize our Lord as the source of all their blessings and will allow Him first place in their lives. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Maggie and the new floor

All the action in the kitchen has totally disrupted Maggie the Wonder Dog's usual domain. Bill the Magnificent has been laying the new flooring, and everything from the kitchen has been moved to the great room, including Maggie's bed, her feed bowl, and her water bowl. Our house is a wreck!  Maggie has adjusted nicely, as any Wonder Dog would. 

There has been one little problem, however. Maggie usually goes out the back door to "do her business."  That little foray outside is VERY important to me. Well, it's probably pretty important to Maggie, too. Getting the business done in the proper place is, of course, essential for maintaining Wonder Dog status. Here's where the problem comes in. Maggie has been very suspicious of the subflooring where the previous tile was removed. In fact, she looks at it, woofs, and sits down. She is not taking one step into what she considers treacherous territory. No matter how much she needs (or wants) to go outside, she is not moving. She is set like a stone until I pick her up, carry her past the scary place, and get her on solid, comfortable ground. 

For a dog who eagerly tackles a herd of cows and moves them all around, this is really out of character, and I haven't quite known what to think about it. As the days have passed, though, I've begun to appreciate her caution. She could have charged ahead, been completely in the way, and delayed progress considerably. Instead, she's been careful and cautious,  steering clear of the work, and making herself at home in her new area. 

We could probably learn a few things from Maggie about uncertain times. When you don't know what to do, sit still until you do know what to do or until your "owner" comes to move you. I've plunged ahead far too many times, haven't you?
If you are not sure an action is wise, sit still until you do know. If it's not smart, don't do it. I wish I'd understood this thirty years ago, too. 
Sometimes the shortest distance between two points is best traveled in your mama's (or father's) arms. There's much to be said for the comfort of your father, earthly or heavenly, especially in uncertain times. This is one I also wish I'd known. There are no prizes for total self reliance, but intimate times with our heavenly Father are their own reward. 

The next time you encounter an unfamiliar, uncertain situation, do what Maggie would do.  Sit still and wait for better understanding or help from the One who cares for all your needs. 

The gift of the fish (Luke 5: 6,7)

When they had done this, they enclosed a great quantity of fish, and their nets began to break; so they signaled to their partners in the other boat for them to come and help them. And they came and filled both of the boats, so that they began to sink. (Luke 5:6, 7 NASB)

I've always thought that Jesus gave the great haul of fish to impress Simon and recruit him as a disciple, or maybe to show who was actually Lord of the Catch. This morning, however, as I looked over this passage, two words come to mind. "Pressed down". It's a reference to a verse in Luke 6. We will visit this verse again, but I wanted a quick preview today. 

 Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure-pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return." (Luke 6:38 NASB)

Here's what happened. Peter was both obedient and generous with what God had placed in his hand (boat, employees, nets, time). He had a nevertheless faith and an obedient heart. He gave freely. He never once said he was tired. He never even mentioned that two word source of downfall to many of us, "NO", to Jesus. In response, Jesus did a miracle that simply demonstrated the way God works. He is immensely generous to us. There is no way to out give God. The fish in that boat, however, suggests it would be fun to try. 

Simon gave freely to Jesus that morning, and without any limits.  Jesus gave back to Simon with that same measure, freely and without limit. In fact, Jesus gave back so much that two boatloads of fish could not contain it. 

The Christmas season is a mixed-up hodgepodge of giving to friends and family, shopping frantically, and leaving Jesus until last. We would do well to pause, be still, and direct our generosity toward Christ and His desires first. I'm not suggesting we leave out those we love. I'm suggesting we focus our attention on Jesus during the celebration of His birth. Look for opportunities to give to Him. There is no telling what He will do in response!

Today, freely give the burden of your loved ones to Jesus. Just let Him have them. He knows your weariness and is eager to take control of the situation. Let Him. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Maggie the Wonder Dog

Maggie the Wonder Dog now has her own celebrity Facebook page (Maggie Hollis) and has already started getting friends. She has links to all the stories about her, as well as lots of pictures. Be sure to friend her on Facebook! She's a fun friend to have!

The Sabbath Rain

After returning home from church, I enjoyed a quick lunch, then sat down with Maggie the Wonder Dog for a snuggle and to decide what needed to be done first.  I have a to-do list that's a mile long, and I don't want to do any of it. Well, that's not entirely true. I want it all done. I don't really mind doing it. I just don't want to tackle such a big job all at once. Of course everything needs to be done by later this week (company's coming), so I don't really have much choice. Despite how big I am on honoring the Sabbath, I had begun to think I might need to make an exception today. 

Almost all my tasks on the list begin by hauling the Christmas decorations in from the storage house. I started it yesterday, but somehow the green and red boxes seem to have been reproducing in there this year. I didn't even make a dent in the stacks! What I'm going to do with whatever is in all those boxes is not clear, so now I'm hesitant to even tackle the job. 

Here's how I envisioned this work proceeding: I would roll my wagon to the storage house, pile on a few boxes, haul them to the house, dump them in the living room, then head back for more. A ladder was an integral part of the plan.  Hauling boxes down while perched on a ladder brings back bad memories of falling peanut butter jars and broken hands, so I decided to wait for Bill the Magnificent. The most wonderful thing happened. Bill the Magnificent decided to take a Sabbath. He's just feeding livestock today. 

I piddled around a bit, then came back downstairs to start loading boxes. Can you believe it? A steady rain was falling. 
No Bill. Steady rainfall. No boxes getting moved today. No boxes getting unpacked today. No decorations going up. Can you believe it? I have been forced into a Sabbath rest after all! How wonderful is that?  Instead of working on the to-do list, I spent time resting, playing with Maggie the Wonder Dog, and reading. What a wonderful Sabbath rest I've had, courtesy of the Sabbath rain that kept me inside!

The list still needs to be done, and I still have company coming, but tomorrow I will start back rested and refreshed. I think it will make the week much easier. Tonight, I'm saying my thank you's for the pesky Sabbath rain that called a halt to my busyness and gave me the Sabbath rest I desperately needed. I hope you are rested as well. 

Have a Christ-filled week!

No sooner said than done (Luke 5:5-7)

Simon said, “Master, we’ve been fishing hard all night and haven’t caught even a minnow. But if you say so, I’ll let out the nets.” It was no sooner said than done—a huge haul of fish, straining the nets past capacity. They waved to their partners in the other boat to come help them. They filled both boats, nearly swamping them with the catch. (Luke 5:5-7 MSG)

"It was no sooner said than done." That's quite a mouthful of faith and obedience, isn't it?  Perhaps one of the reasons Jesus loved Simon so much, and kept him close at hand, was because of his instant obedience. Some might even call it impulsive, but Simon was definitely an "instantly" kind of man. 

In this brief passage, Jesus asked Simon for the use of the boat for preaching, and "it was no sooner said than done".  Simon arose from the nets he was mending, scrambled into his boat, and moved out. No grumbling or whining. He just did what Jesus said to do, despite his fatigue, lack of sleep, and pressing business responsibilities. 

Jesus said move out to deep water, and it was "no sooner said than done." Despite the fact that Simon had just returned from deep water (which he did take time to mention), "it was no sooner said than done". His recent failure in that very same place did not stop Simon from obeying, nor from obeying instantly. 

Jesus said to cast the nets, and Simon picked them up and threw them out. Those nets are heavy and hauling them back in, even empty, is no small job, especially for a man exhausted from a night of work. "It was no sooner said than done", however. Jesus said to do it, and Simon obeyed.  

It's a lesson for us, isn't it?  That Still, Small Voice speaks in our heart and we sometimes whine and complain as if He had asked us to give up all our worldly goods. If we could see the other side of our obedience, it would "no sooner be said than done". Of course we can't see the future. That's where faith is required. Faith obeys even when the outcome is unclear. Faith obeys even when the task seems pointless. Faith obeys, just because Jesus asks.   

Today, pray that the voice and direction of Christ will be crystal clear and that our obedience will be instant. Pray, too, that when the voice of Christ calls our loved ones, their response will be just as instant.