Saturday, December 16, 2017

Advent 2017 #16: Taking Our Confusion to the One Who Understands

Laughter isn't my usual response to reading Isaiah, but . . .

Isaiah 22:1 mentions the "valley of vision." I couldn't visualize that particular valley, and wondered if it was the Kidron. The footnote verses didn't help. They mentioned the valley of Jehosphat and the valley of decision. Further searching revealed the fertile valley, valley of bones, valley of dead bodies, and valley of the shadow of death. 

The question of whether or not the valley of vision was the Kidron still wasn't answered. Though frustrated, I decided to move on. A few minutes later, I read Isaiah 28:19c:

"and it will be sheer terror to understand what it means."

Laughter bubbled out like a geyser. Isaiah understands the struggle, I thought, then realized an important truth that struck me to the core. 

God understands our struggle. 

He knows the mysteries of faith aren't always self-evident. He knows we have a hard time understanding His ways because they aren't our ways. He knows we couldn't comprehend a life of faith and connection to God because we'd so seldom seen it. 

The only solution was to wrap Himself in a flesh-coat and come to earth to show us in person, to allow us to watch as our Lord constantly communed with His Father. 

Jesus gave us an in-person demonstration we can follow. 

"For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin." Hebrews 4:15

No matter whether we struggle with grief, guilt, despair, uncertainty, loss, anger, hurt, or the overwhelming press of life, He knows how it feels. He know how hard it is to carry on in the midst of the trial. Jesus has experienced all we've experienced, and much more. 

He understands, He can help, and He will.  

Why carry our burden alone when Jesus is willing to help? Today, let's pause in our busyness long enough to embrace the One who understands and give our struggles to Him. Take our hands off and let Him have what we cannot fix. Let's invite Him to help us in our trials and allow Him to work in the problems we face. 

God wants to help. Why not let Him? 

"For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted." Hebrews 2:18 nasb

"Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; therefore He will rise up to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for Him." Isaiah 30:18 niv
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Friday, December 15, 2017

Advent 2017 #15: When Rest Isn't Optional And Christmas Has to Wait

Yesterday, I prayed my usual prayer-before-writing-a-blog-post. "What should I write about today, Lord?" 

It might not have been the voice of the Lord, but immediately a topic popped into my head. "You could write about not being well because you won't obey." 

Ouch. That hurt, mainly because it was true.

When Sam's wife died, I became his sole caregiver. Sam was at my house almost constantly. I carried him shopping every week. I cooked all his meals. I worked full-time. I wrote full-time. I slept less and less as time went on.

We moved Sam into my house at the end of July, and I was already tired. Suddenly, those long days became long days and nights. Fatigue became exhaustion. I pressed on. 

Sam went to the Hospice House for respite care the day before I left for the Middle East. It was a great trip in many ways, but I was exhausted from the start. The sign over my bed in Ajloun read, "Be still and know that I am God." I tried to heed the instruction, but I was way behind on being still. 

I came home almost as exhausted as I'd left, and was at Hospice House with Sam within a few hours of returning. For the next five days, I spent most of my time at his bedside. When he died, I was so tired I wasn't sure I could drive myself home.

The time since then has been a blur. Cremation. Memorial service. End-of-life finances and bill paying. Thanksgiving. Return to the office. Newsletters. Christmas cards. Christmas shopping. Speaking. Thank you notes. 

It's been nonstop. 

Somewhere in all that, I got sick. First, it was a sinus infection, then a hip strain from my elliptical, followed by early plantar fasciitis.

I felt terrible. Noting I did helped. I wanted to slow down, but I had a lot I wanted to do, too, so I refused to stop. Suddenly, I couldn't go one more step. A little dab of inadvertent gluten tipped the balance, and my green light turned red. 

I had to stop. Rest was no longer optional if I wanted to get well. I went to bed, stayed until I felt enough better to get going again, and headed out. It was a bad idea and it didn't take long to realize it. I needed to rest until I healed. 

At last, I made the change that was most needed. I slept until I awakened without an alarm, wrote until I was done, went to the office when my morning routine was completed. I stopped rushing. I worked a few hours on the most pressing tasks, then came home. I went to  bed when I was tired, even if it was early. 

Since so much of my work is done online, it's easy for me to clock some serious hours. I limited work to eight hours a day. I lowered my daily expectations to one completed task, rather than several. I said no a few times, and put the unused decorations back in the storage house. Christmas preparations could wait while my body healed. 

An amazing thing began to happen. I felt a little better, and saw slow but steady improvement.

I'm not well yet from all my minor ailments, but I will be because I've finally obeyed the instructions of my Maker. Rest. Honor the Sabbath. I've slowed down and heeded "Be still and know that I am God."

The rush of holiday shopping, decorating, and parties can quickly change fatigue into exhaustion. Our "it's only once a year" mindset can propel us down a path that robs us of joy and wonder. If we're not careful, we can work so hard to prepare the celebration than we don't enjoy any of it. 

Life is not an endless to-do list of drudgery. It's a journey to be enjoyed and savored, but neither enjoying not savoring can be done at break-neck speed. 

Today, let's pause long enough to assess our lives and our schedules. Where can we carve out 20 or 30 minutes to be still today? To what good thing can we say no in order to have God's best? How can we spend time with family or friends simply enjoying their company? What's most important? What's least?

If there was ever a time to know that He is God, it's Christmas. Let's make the change that's needed and be still so we can know. 

"Be still and know that I am God." Psalm 46:10
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Thursday, December 14, 2017

Advent 2017 #14: When Decorating the Tree Was Almost Too Hard to Do

Ryan and I intended to decorate the tree after Thanksgiving, but got sidetracked and never placed the first ornament. We had the tree up and in the stand before he left for Atlanta, but that was the best we could do. I don't think either of us had the heart for it.

It was, after all, our first Christmas without Sam.

Before he left, Ryan gazed at the empty tree, standing, a little forlorn-looking, in front of the bookshelves. "I'm sorry we didn't get to the tree. Are you okay doing this by yourself?" 

"Sure. I've decorated trees before," I assured him, with less confidence than I felt.

It was true. I'd decorated dozens of trees in my lifetime, but I'd never put up a Christmas tree by myself before. This year was the first time in 28 years that I'd done the Christmas tree without Sam. 

It was, in a way, a double-whammy of firsts. 

I dreaded the task, so I delayed for a week or more. "You're a big girl. This is no big deal. You can do this," I assured myself a dozen times. Still, it seemed like a enormous job, and I wasn't sure why having a Christmas tree mattered. 

I considered skipping the tree all together this year, but it was already in the stand. To take it down without decorating it seemed a little too much like defeat. 

Finally, I fixed a cup of hot chocolate, stirred it with a peppermint stick, turned on the Christmas music, and opened the first box. I found my mama's handmade ornaments, treasures Ryan had made as a child, gifts from friends, and mementoes of speaking engagements in the boxes. 

Each ornament was wrapped in memories, and I treasured every one. In less time than I'd expected, the tree was covered with evidence of a lifetime of love and sweetness. 

There were sad memories, too, of course. The first Christmas after my marriage, Marshall's children gave me a bell ornament that looked a little like my golden retriever. I shed a few tears as I held it and pondered the pain, shattered dreams, and broken hearts the little dog represented. There'd been healing, too, I reminded myself, and thanked God for how He brought us through before I hung the ornament on a branch. 

After the tree was finished, I opened a box of greenery, berries, and garland. I stared down at it for a few minutes and put the top back on. 

It was too hard.

The plastic boxes sat for another two weeks before I finally rummaged through and found an unexpected treasure: three rolls of wide ribbon with the letters LED on the packages. The ribbon rolls each had a strand of tiny LED lights running through them. 

Could ribbon really be lighted? The concept was completely new to me. I didn't remember buying it, but it was clearly my ribbon. It was in my box, stored in my storage house. I decided to give it a try. 

I put greenery on the mantel, wove the ribbon through it, and plugged it in. Tiny red lights popped on and meandered above the fireplace.  I laughed out loud. It was the most unexpected (and frankly unusual) decoration I've ever placed on the mantle. 

Sam would've loved it.

The lighted ribbon brought with it a tidal wave of Christmas cheer and confidence. "I can do this after all," I decided, and joy filled my heart. 

The act of placing ornaments wasn't hard. The work of touching precious memories so soon after Sam's death was the difficult part. I miss him, especially at Christmas.

I'm not the only one who misses loved ones this time of year, and Sam's not the only loved one I miss. He's just the most recent. 

Grief will not be denied and it shouldn't be. It's okay to cry over ornaments and delay doing hard tasks. It's all part of the healing process. Every step matters, because the temporary pain of memory brings us to the lasting joy of healing. 

If you're in the place of sorrow this Christmas, take heart. Grief may linger a lifetime, but it won't always give a gut-punch every time it surfaces. When we allow God to touch our hurt places, He softens them with His gentle compassion, love, and peace. He surrounds our hurt with the promise of eternity and returns our hope. 

Delay, cry, struggle if you must, but don't stop walking through the valley of the shadow of death. A sweeter place of healing awaits on the other side of grief. 

"And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died." 1 Thessalonians 4:13,14 esv
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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Advent 2017 #13: When Christmas Changes for the Better

At our small-group Christmas party, we completed a Christmas questionnaire designed to learn more about each other and our Christmases past. Our favorite Christmas movies surprised me. I was the only one who preferred White Christmas and Holiday Inn. The Christmas Story, It's a Wonderful Life, and Home Alone topped the list of the other women's favorites. 

Another question was, "How has your Christmas celebration changed over the last few years?" 

Every single woman's answer was essentially the same. "Simpler. More about Jesus and less about stuff." 

We took a collective pause and pondered for a moment. Jesus. It's all about Him.  

As a child, I loved the excitement of the Christmas holiday. We had a long break from school. Family came from far and near. My grandmother cooked for days - candy, cakes, and pies. She made everyone's favorite. 

My mama was at her sewing machine until late every night, sewing clothes to go under the tree. She transformed the scraps and remnants in the dollar-a-yard box at the fabric store into our clothes for the coming spring. 

It was all about the presents and the food, but it's not anymore. 

We still have presents at my house and with my family. We still have food, and I still try to cook the favorites. It's not as big an extravaganza, though. It's much simpler.

Our celebration is different because I'm different. My priorities, my desires, and my understanding of Jesus have all changed. 

He's not simply the reason for gifts; He's the reason for life itself. 

Once I understood that simple truth, everything about Christmas changed for me. The birth of Jesus was so very simple that a simple gift of worship seemed most appropriate. 

In this country, we've allowed the media and advertising agencies to define our celebration of Christ's birth for decades. It's past time to take back our Holy Day and move our focus to Him. 

I believe a much-needed quiet revolution has already begun. Christmas is only about Jesus and the miracle of our flesh-bound Savior who came because He loved us, died to redeem us, and rose again so He could make a home for us with Him forever. Our focus should be solely on Him.

During the days leading to Christmas, rather than intensify our last-minute shopping and baking, let's intensify our focus on Him. Let's still our hearts, deepen our worship, and broaden our surrender to the One who loved us enough to come and show us The Way. 

"Be still and know that I am God." Psalm 46:10 
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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Advent 2017 #12: The Snuggling Savior

Most nativity scenes depict baby Jesus as wrapped in tight strips of white fabric,  lying on his back. He's always awake, looking around, ready to deliver a heavenly blessing to any who happen by for a visit.

I often wonder if the designers of nativity sets have ever spent time with an infant. 

Those scenes look charming, but that's not what newborn babies do. Instead, they sleep, cry, eat, and release waste. They need to be fed, changed, and snuggled. 

When Jesus was old enough to give hugs, I think he was the snuggliest boy around, mainly because Isaiah described Him as a snuggly Savior. 

"Behold, His reward is with Him,
And His recompense before Him,
Like a shepherd He will tend His flock,
In His arm He will gather His lambs,
And carry them in His bosom;
He will gently lead the nursing ewes.
                                  Isaiah 39:10b-11 nasb 

Let's pause long enough to see Isaiah's word picture clearly in our minds. The Good Shepherd gathers up His little lambs, whether they're tired, injured, wayward, or simply need extra love, and snuggles them close. He holds them tight against His chest (bosom), where they can hear His heavenly heartbeat. 

The slow, steady rhythm of our undisturbed, never-rattled Savior's heart beats a comforting song of safety and peace.

Be still and listen for a moment. Isn't it a comforting image?

I think it's how our Lord still cares for us today. Once, many years ago, I was going through a difficult time of heartbreak and adversity. I was in my prayer room, sobbing my eyes out, face down on the floor. I heard someone enter the room, but I couldn't muster the strength to look up. I assumed it was a friend I'd been expecting. 

Someone sat down beside me and gently stroked my hair as I cried. The room gradually filled with warmth, hope, and peace. I can still feel that gentle hand on my head as the light of heaven invaded me and flooded through my entire body. It felt warm and familiar. 

My tears slowed, then stopped. I rested in the most peace I'd felt in weeks. Gradually, I sat up and looked around for the person who'd touched my hair so sweetly. I was alone in the room. 

Maybe I had a tactile hallucination, but I prefer to think the Spirit of our Lord comforted me in my distress. The warmth of that comfort has stayed with me for years. It wasn't a snuggle, exactly, but, in a very real way, it felt like one.

It was only possible because I was still and on my face in prayer. My problems drove me to the place of comfort. It was the place I needed most.

The Christmas season is beautiful and filled with love, friends, family, joy, and fun. Unless it isn't. Not everyone enters this season with hope and wholeness. Many face the first Christmas without a dearly loved family member. Many are alone and wish they weren't. Some are burdened with more bills than paying power, more need than provision, more hurt than healing. 

Even if this is the most blessed season you've ever experienced, we still need that sweet sense of the presence of our Savior, who slipped on a coat of flesh so He could dwell among us. He knows, from personal experience, how sweet a hug or snuggle can be. Our Good Shepherd still gathers His lambs and snuggles them close to His heart. 

Let's set aside some time today to be still long enough to feel His presence and experience the peace of being gathered in His arms, carried in His bosom, comforted in His love. 
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Monday, December 11, 2017

Advent 2017 #11: The Heavenly Rejoicing Party

Almost every week, someone at our church comes forward to publicly accept Christ and ask for baptism. Our pastor always reminds us, "The angels are rejoicing today." 

This morning, my mind wandered around that sentence for a while, and finally landed on the idea of throwing a Christmas party for the angels in heaven. It's a startling concept, but Jesus spoke very clearly about joy in heaven. 

"I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." Luke 15:7

The word translated as joy indicates great gladness. Of course, I don't know if they have a party or not, but we do know the angels celebrate the act of repentance and the right standing with God it brings.  

Ponder this with me for a bit. In that agonizing moment when we finally see ourselves as God sees us and our heart is broken over our sin, the angels take note. They listen carefully to see how we will respond. 

If our brokenness results in repentance of sin and turning to God, the angels are filled with joy. They celebrate. 

In my pondering, I wondered what would happen in heaven if a church-full of people decided to surrender their will to God's and repent of their sin. Imagine the rejoicing there would be if multiple men, women, and children went to the altar and sincerely repented. 

A rejoicing-party would spontaneously erupt in heaven. I can imagine Jesus laughing with delight. How wonderful would that be?

It sounds fanciful, I know. 

The Heavenly Rejoicing Party is, however, rooted in absolute truth. Jesus said angels rejoice when one sinner repents. Since none of us are righteous, and we all have sin for which repentance is due, we can all participate in this gifting. 

If more of us would repent and turn to Him with undivided hearts, there would be more rejoicing in heaven. 

This Christmas, I'm praying we'll give Jesus (and the angels) the gift of repentance. Let's do it together and repent until all the work of repentance is done. It's a gift that blesses both directions. We get clean hearts and heaven gets rejoicing. What's not to love about that?

"In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." Luke 15:10 

When you like and share this post, it expands our digital reach and more people have the opportunity to read this series. It makes a bigger difference than you can imagine! Thanks for helping!

In case you missed yesterday's post, here's the link: #10 When Peace is Fleeting but Jesus is Still Our Joy

Here are the links to the other posts in this series: #9: God's Love Language


Sunday, December 10, 2017

Advent 2017 #10: When Peace is Fleeting but Jesus is Still our Joy

We light the pink candle today, the third Sunday in Advent. This candle represents JOY. At Christmas, we have many reasons for joy: the birth of our Savior, forgiveness of sin, the redemption He brought to a world filled with sinners, Holy Spirit as comforter and helper, the unity of the body of Christ. 

In addition to the spiritual joy-motivators, there's also Christmas music, Christmas pageants, snow, Handel's Messiah, and Christmas sweaters. It's a fun season, as well as a joyful one.

Today, though, I "feel" more concern for our world than joy. I'm especially concerned over the Middle East, where there has been considerable anger, as well as many protests, over President Trump's announcement on Wednesday, recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. 

It frightens me for the places I love to be in an uproar. I hate the conflict, the anger, the disdain, the venom. 

I'm not stating an opinion one way or the other about our President's decision, because I love people on both sides of the issue, but the unrest and rioting break my heart. I'm afraid of where we're headed. I don't know what's best, and I don't know how to bring peace. I wish I did.

As fragile peace evaporates like droplets on a hot skillet, I wonder, where's the Christmas joy in all the discord? 

I think of joy as a feeling, but, according to the angels who greeted the shepherds when Jesus was born, joy's not a feeling at all. 

It's a Savior.

"And the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.'" Luke 2:10-11 nasb

This "joy for all the people" hasn't changed since the angels first announced it so many centuries ago. Jesus was our reason for joy then, and He still is. 

Today, I'm turning my eyes from the troubles of this world and putting them on the Joy who snuggled in the manger while the angels sang. He loved and healed and taught and delivered. Joy sacrificed Himself as payment for all the wrong we've ever done and ever will do. He rose to conquer sin and death and He reigns forever at the right hand of God.

Joy reigns, and it gives me great hope. 

Our world is full of strife and struggle. No matter how bad things look on this earth, Jesus our Joy is still on His throne, so take heart. He has overcome the world and that's reason enough to celebrate. 

"Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer." Romans 12:12 niv
When you like and share this post, it expands our digital reach and more people have the opportunity to read this series. It makes a bigger difference than you can imagine! Thanks for helping!

In case you missed yesterday's post, here's the link: #9: God's Love Language

Here are the links to the other posts in this series: #8: The Love that Saves Us from the Maggot Bed#7: Finding the Safe Place in a Crazy World#6: The Preparation of God's Love, #5: When Joy Flowed Forth and Splashed Into My Heart , #4 The King Who Will Not Let Us Down., #3 Preparing for Transformation#2 Preparing for the King with an Humble Heart, and #1 Getting Ready for Jesus.