IT’S NOT SUPPOSE TO BE THIS WAY

We had an unpleasant incident in the back yard a few weeks ago and I am left with an image I can’t erase from my mind.  Before I relate what happened, I need to remind you of our ongoing battle with squirrels.  While I still think they are fun to watch as long as they stay away from my house, they have caused so much damage that I feel like I am at war with a cute, furry enemy.  I understand they are just doing what squirrels do and I really would like to peacefully coexist with them, but they are continually tearing up the cushions on my patio furniture in order to line their nests with the stuffing.  Pretty smart, but costly to me!  When they are not doing that they are trying to find ways to chew their way into my attic or antagonize my dogs.  As a matter of fact, Max and Ruby are sitting on the back of the sofa next to me, barking loudly at a squirrel who is sitting about a foot away, separated by a window.  I think the squirrel is laughing.

And this is where the story begins.  Max and Ruby have chased the squirrels since they were puppies.  I have always just laughed at it because those squirrels are way too fast and too smart.  Ruby especially pursues them.  As you can see from the picture, she has a long vertical leap and would climb the tree if she could!  Whenever I let the dogs out, she runs for that tree hoping to chase a squirrel.  

A few weeks ago when I let the dogs out, I watched Ruby run for the tree as usual.  Then I heard the scream!  I didn’t know a squirrel could make that noise, but I instantly knew what happened.  At first it looked like Ruby had nipped its tail, and I thought it would get away as it continued to climb.  But then it dropped to the ground.  I quickly screamed for Jerry to come out.  Max was barking and Ruby was shaking the squirrel like a rag doll.  Miraculously both dogs remembered the commands, ”Drop,” and “Leave it!”  

The next part is the part that haunts me.  I stood over the squirrel, waiting for Jerry to come and do something, watching it gasp for breath.  As it did, its eyes looked right into mine.  I remember thinking, “This shouldn’t be.”  Even as I stood there I recalled the verse from Matthew,

What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.  Mt. 10:29 NLT

 I saw the dying squirrel and so did God.  I wonder if He too thought, “This shouldn’t be.”  As I have ruminated over this incident, I keep going back to the Garden of Eden.  The world was perfect.  There was no death, no killing between the species and no murderous intent between humans.  There was no COVID, no riots, no dirty politics, no anger, and no hatred.  You know the rest of the story.  Satan came into the garden, and humans began doing what humans do.  They disobeyed God and sin came into the world, and with sin, death.  Before you put too much blame on Adam and Eve, let me tell you something I know to be true.  I would not have done better.  That forbidden fruit, those lies from Satan…they would have gotten to me too.

Sin and death.  We have seen and experienced so much of it these last months.  How blessed we are that God provided a remedy when He sent His Son to earth to pay the price for our sins.  If we accept this payment, we gain eternal life.  When our earthly life is over we just slip into our heavenly life.  Romans 6:23 tells us that the payment for sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ. 

The things I see on the nightly news?  They shouldn’t be.  And they grieve the heart of God.  If he cares about a sparrow (or a squirrel) that falls to the ground, how much more does He care about our human condition?  His answer?  Repentance.  That’s a churchy word that means we agree with God that we are sinners, we ask for forgiveness and accept the sacrifice of Christ as payment for our sins, and we turn away from sin and follow Jesus.  

Repentance is the only remedy I can see for our country.  It will not come from a president or any elected official.  It will not come from Wall Street, our universities, or our entertainment industry.  It can come only from God.  I invite you to join me in prayer, for both personal and national repentance, asking God to send a new Great Awakening.  

Lord, we are a nation in trouble.  The blessings we have enjoyed have come to us not from our own goodness or superior wisdom, but solely because of your grace.  We have turned our backs on you and followed our own desires.  We have gone after that forbidden fruit, and it has left us broken and dying.  These things should not be. Please forgive our land.  Return us to you.  Heal us and help us to fulfill our destiny as a nation. We ask and believe in the mighty name of Jesus Christ, Amen.            

GOOD DIRECTIONS

Anyone want a refund on those black-eyed peas yet?  We are only one week into 2021 and already we need a do-over!  It feels like we have already made a wrong turn and have ended up right back into 2020.  It is hard to believe the events of the last few days.  This is the year things were supposed to get better.  If we could just endure 2020, make it to the finish line, turn the calendar over on January 1, things would be better, right?  And yet here we are with the brokenness of our world smacking us right in the face every time we turn on the television or pick up a newspaper.  Many of us have been praying for a revival, a new Great Awakening, but the world seems more sinful than ever.  Where is God when the world seems so dark?  Did we miss His directions?  

First of all, God is not bound by our human calendar.  He operates on His own timetable and the fact that our calendar has flipped over to a new year does not obligate Him to anything.  Secondly, God has His own agenda, His own plan.  If you read the Bible all the way through (and I strongly recommend that you do), you will see that God is moving all of history toward an end to this world.  I am not saying the end is today.  People have thought that we are in the last days ever since Jesus ascended to heaven, and we are.  There is no doubt that we are getting closer to the end of human history. 

In my last post, I shared a verse of scripture that has really spoken to me in these early days of 2021:

Your road led through the sea, your pathway through the mighty waters— a pathway no one knew was there!  Ps. 77:19 NLT

Every year I ask the Lord to give me a verse or a word for the year.  I have been trying to hear from Him and settle in on what He is speaking to me.  The scriptures that have jumped off the page at me are ones that contain the word “path” or “way” or “pathway” so I have settled on “path,” understanding that it contains the meanings of all three words.  I am loving the idea of Jesus as a way maker, the One who creates a path.  When we think there are no good options, he shows us a way we have never considered.  

Jesus tells us that He is the way (John 14:6), and we understand that He is speaking about the way to the Father, the way to heaven.  But when someone tells you the way, there is still the journey.  I might ask the way to get from Tulsa to Dallas, but I still have to make the drive.  I need to know where to turn, what towns to drive through, and where the rest stops are.  I need to know the road conditions.  Is there construction?  Bad weather?  I need to stay on the path and trust that the directions will get me to my destination, even though I will drive through a long stretch of highway that doesn’t look like Dallas.  If the person who gave the directions truly knows the way, I can trust the drive.      

So that is where we are now.  We are beginning our journey through 2021, without much of a road map, but the One who created the road has the directions.   He knows the path.  We may not know what is ahead, what will happen next week or next month, but He knows.  He will show us the way, where to turn, where to stop.  And when it looks like we are at a dead end, when we are out of options, He will show us a way; a way we never knew was there.

Fasten your seat belts! The road ahead may be bumpy!       

Goodbye 2020, Hello 2021!

Today is New Year’s Eve and we stand at an intersection between a year we never want to experience again and a year of unknowns.  We will remember 2020 as a year that would be hard to believe had we not lived through it.  Think about where you were this time last year, what you were thinking and feeling.  I think most of us go into a new year with hope and optimism.  This is the year I will—-you fill in the blank.  I will lose weight, find a new job, read through the Bible, run a 5K, find love.  Most of us set off on January 1 with goals, hopes and dreams.  We kiss our loved ones, watch fireworks and drink a toast to send off the old and welcome the new. Never at this time last year could we imagine a pandemic was on our doorstep.

As I have thought back over the events of 2020, I think the most amazing thing that happened was the shutdown.  The entire world stopped, became silent.  Commerce came to a halt.  Doors were shut and locked, even church doors.  There was no traffic on the street or in the air.  It was strangely quiet.  Can we just stop and look at that one aspect of 2020, the global shutdown?  What a remarkable event!  I do not know of another time in history when something of this magnitude happened except the Great Flood of Noah’s day (yes, I believe that really happened).  God silenced us, put us in time out.  People, WHAT does God have to do to get our attention?

I won’t rehearse all the other hardships and sadnesses of 2020.  We all lived through them.  But before we completely close the book on 2020, I wonder if you have questioned why, of all the times in history, you are living now, during this remarkable, unprecedented time.  It is a question worthy of taking to the Lord, because He tells us in Psalm 139 that He ordained every day of our lives before we were even conceived.  So what is His purpose for us, to be living during these extraordinary days?

That question brings me right back to New Year’s Eve.  What is His purpose for you and for me as we cross into 2021?  What will we be facing?  I want to share a verse with you, a verse I found the other day that really spoke to me:

Your road led through the sea, your pathway through the mighty waters— a pathway no one knew was there!  Ps. 77:19 NLT

I think some context is important here.  The psalmist is referring to the events in the Book of Exodus, when the children of Israel stood facing the waves of the Red Sea with the army of Egypt bearing down hard on them from behind.  God was about to provide a path for them to cross over, a path no one would have ever dreamed could exist.  

Like the children of Israel, we too are standing at a precipice.  The year 2020 is at our rear, and no one wants to go back to that!  But the uncertainty of 2021 lies ahead.  We thought things would be better by now.  We thought life would be more normal, that this terrible virus would have run its course, that all the unrest of a contentious election would be settled.  These are our choices: the Egyptian army of 2020 and the Red Sea of 2021.  But God.

God has a pathway, a way we have not seen before, a secret way no one knows about.  Today, in these final hours of 2020, will you ask God to show you the path He has for you?  And if you do not know God, I urge you with every fiber of my being to invite Him into your life to show you the path.  You might wonder how to do that.  It is simple, but profound.  You agree with God that you are a sinner (we all are), you confess those sins and turn away from them and ask Jesus to forgive you and come into your life to guide you.  I would not want to go into 2021 without Him.

Jesus, I believe You are God and You died on the cross in my place because of my sin. Please come into my life, forgive my sin, and make me a member of your family. I turn from going my own way. I want You to be the center of my life. Thank You for Your gift of a forever relationship with you and for Your Holy Spirit, who now comes to live in me. I ask this in Your name. Amen.

PUTTING AWAY CHRISTMAS

Today I will begin the job of taking down all the Christmas decorations and getting the house back into its usual order.  This is a chore I always dread, and I have written about it before in my book Seasons.  I love Christmas and everything that goes with it: the lights, the presents, the music, the food… all of it.  I begin Christmas early, and this year I started earlier than I usually do.  I couldn’t wait to get the tree and all the lights up.  So what goes up must come down, and it is a backbreaking chore.  

I dread all the work that goes into putting away the decorations, but this year I dread it for a different reason.  More than ever before, Christmas has been a respite from the darkness of our world in 2020.  We have left our lights on all the time except for when we go to bed.  I have turned off the news and that has made me much more peaceful.  It’s been Christmas music and Hallmark movies, and thanks to YouTube, some wonderful messages from pastors I have discovered this year.  So putting away the decorations (and I sigh as I even write these words) seems to be a signal to return to what passes for normal this year.  An end to joy and a return to reality.

But every ending is also a beginning.  There is something energizing about getting the house all clean and free of the Christmas clutter.  It is a signal that a new year is just days away, and new years bring new opportunities.  Besides, returning to reality doesn’t automatically preclude joy.  That is a choice, and I choose joy!

I have been thinking a good deal about Mary and Joseph and all the characters in the Christmas story.  I have been especially thinking about the time they lived in.  That was a dark period for Israel as they were under Roman rule.  The government issued orders that were burdensome, especially the order to return to the place of one’s birth to be counted in the census.  So we also are under burdensome rules and recommendations in 2020.  Christmas was different for many of us, and travel has been difficult.  

But what a blessing it is to be living on this side of the birth of Christ.  The Jews who lived before Christ worshipped in their temple and synagogues, but when they left to return to their homes, they left God there.  Because God came to earth on that first Christmas, we don’t leave Him in our places of worship.  He is with us all the time.  Emmanuel, God with us!  I don’t think we really stop to consider how truly remarkable that fact is.  When we receive Christ as Savior, He comes to live inside us.  Jesus said in John 14:23:

“If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

So when I put away the Christmas decorations I will not actually be putting away Christmas.  I am not putting God in a box.  Because of Christmas I can experience joy even in the darkest days.  And because of Christmas I can face an unknown 2021; God will be with me.  And so as I turn to this big chore before me, I resolve to keep Christmas.

THE WEARY WORLD REJOICES

One of my favorite Christmas carols is O Holy Night.  I heard it on the radio the other day and these words jumped out at me:

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks, a new and glorious morn

The weary world.  I know there have been many times in history when the world has been weary, but this is the weariest I can remember it in my lifetime.  We have fatigue.  Pandemic fatigue, Zoom fatigue, crisis fatigue, election fatigue…these are all real experiences.  I think weary is an accurate word to describe what many of us are feeling in 2020.  I looked up some synonyms for weary: they include exhausted, drained, disillusioned, all-in,  worn out, my personal favorite: whacked.  Sometimes I feel like 2020 has just whacked me in the face.  When I look at the word weary I see the word wear, and I think that describes how I feel.  2020 is wearing on me.  And I am concerned that January 1 is not going to make all this weariness go away.   

I am weary with this rancorous political season, weary of identity politics, weary of the notion that if I disagree with you I must hate you.  I am weary of seeing people riot in our streets, tearing down statues and burning down cities.  Oh, and I am really weary of people getting offended!  When did we become so thin-skinned that there is acceptable speech and anything else is hate speech?  I’m not an anti-masker, but I am weary of wearing a mask and of the whole mask debate.  Weary of being told what I can and cannot do.  I don’t want to be told how many people can come to my house on Christmas Day.  And I sure don’t want to be told not to hug my grandchildren.  Many of us are weary of job and income insecurity. We are weary for our children, sitting in front of screens all day because they can’t go to school.  For those of us who are grandparents saddened to miss milestone events.  We won’t get these days back.  We are weary of the long lines we see on television for Covid testing and food boxes.  And we are so weary of sickness and death and grief.  Almost everyone has lost some one or some thing.  

When you become weary you get crankier, or at least I do.  So even the not-so-important things bother me.  I’m weary of this unpredictable football season.  My Sooners didn’t get to play last Saturday and it was a disappointment.  I was cranky.  I’m weary of shortages.  The stores are out of such strange things.  Peanut butter?  Petite peas?  I wanted to buy a new Christmas tree, one of those slim pencil trees, but I guess I waited too long because I discovered that there is a shortage of both real and artificial trees.  I went to every Hobby Lobby, Lowe’s and Home Depot before I finally found one online, but Wal-Mart summarily cancelled my order!  I’m weary of tracking down all the Christmas presents I ordered that are still out there somewhere.   Where is my package that supposedly was delivered? And why is there an unauthorized charge on my American Express card?   Yesterday I received a voice mail that was recorded on last Monday.  Where was it all week?  I’m weary of technical glitches.  Why did my outgoing email suddenly quit working?  And quite frankly, I am really weary of Medicare commercials and Joe Namath’s face on TV!  

Yes, I realize that my weariness is trivial.  First world problems for sure.  I have so many friends and family members who are dealing with major problems, so I feel blessed in the midst of my weariness.  This has been a year of losses.  For many of us Christmas is going to be different.  Maybe there won’t be a family celebration this year because of COVID.  Some of us will have an empty chair at the table.  Some are facing eviction and don’t know where their table will be.  Maybe there has been bad news from the doctor.  Some of us are privately fighting battles we cannot share.  And none of us knows what is going to happen in 2021.  

I don’t think anyone gets to my season of life without some weariness, and maybe it is the weariness that gets us ready for heaven.  Haven’t you had moments this year when you have been homesick for heaven?  Longing to see Jesus, longing to see those who have passed on ahead of you, but also longing to be away from the trials and ugliness of this world?   Well I want to give you some hope today.   

I guess I’m not alone in this, but don’t sleep very well these days.  That is not a complaint, just an observation.  I find that moving to the sofa and turning on the television help me go back to sleep pretty quickly.  It’s a surprise if I wake up in my own bed.  The other night I found a soothing YouTube channel that plays scripture with a background of ocean sounds.  It plays in a continual loop, and the same words kept waking me: “…we are more than conquerors.”  

Apparently, the Lord wanted me to really absorb these words, and so I want to share them with you.  They are found in the 8th chapter of Romans, along with these familiar words:

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.

That is a promise we cling to. God causing everything to work together for good.  He speaks into our circumstances.  The same God who created the universe can redeem even our worst situations. I have been reminding myself to look for the good in the midst of the bad.  Because there have been some good things to come out of 2020.  We have had more time for the Lord.  This shaking that the prophet Haggai told us we would experience in these last days, this shaking is waking us up to what is really important.  It is a call to return to the Lord.  For me, I have never spent as much time in prayer as I have this year.  I am in several different prayer groups, both locally and nationally.  And we are praying big bold prayers!!

Paul goes on to tell us that we may have to face many trials and ordeals in this life.  We may go through seasons of intense distress.  But if we belong to Christ, nothing can separate us from God’s love.  Even if we “have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death” (Rom. 8:35 NLT), we are overwhelmingly victorious!  We are more than conquerors!  

Paul’s words are so beautiful I want to share the rest of this chapter in the New Living Translation:

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love?  Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.

 And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love.  Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.   No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The weary world rejoices.  Some might ask how that can be in 2020.  The answer to that question lies in the words that come right before: the thrill of hope.  We have hope!   Because Christ came to earth on that holy night we are no longer under the condemnation of sin.  We can be in a right relationship with God.  And nothing, nothing, can separate us from His love.  Even though we may still endure the weariness of this world, we know there is a better world to come.  And even death is not the end of our story.  So whether we are walking through a difficult season or one of fruitfulness, we are more than conquerors.

Dear Father,

Thank you so much for sending your son to come and dwell with us in this weary world.  He is our hope.  And because of that Hope we can rejoice even in the midst of our trials because we have your assurance that nothing can separate us from your love.  Oh how we look forward to the day when we will see you face-to-face.  Until that day, we take comfort in the promise that nothing can separate us from your love.  We are more than conquerors! 

There is a footnote to this story, a God wink.  As I was writing these words, Wal-Mart sent me a text.  They found my Christmas tree.  

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

Remember when you were a child how it seemed as if Christmas would NEVER come?  Oh the days and weeks and months were so long!  When my siblings and I were growing up, Christmas was really the only time during the year when we got toys.  Oh maybe a little something on birthdays, but Christmas was it!  It was an ironclad rule at our house that we put up our tree (a real one in the early days) two weeks before Christmas and not one day earlier.  My father grew up in a household where the Christmas tree went up on Christmas Eve, so he thought two weeks was a generous compromise.  I loved the night we went to pick out a tree and brought it home to decorate.  And then we had to wait two weeks.  Oh how those two weeks drug on!  Now two weeks before Christmas goes by in the blink of an eye. 

Those were days of waiting. 

When I was a child my father worked for Western Auto.  During the Christmas season the Western Auto stores carried toys and put out a Christmas catalogue just full of things to delight children.  Oh how we would pour over that catalogue, circling our favorite toys.  Days of dreaming and waiting, wishing and hoping.  There was so much hoping as a child at Christmas.  By Christmas Eve the waiting would be at a fever pitch, making sleep so difficult.  But finally the waiting would come to an end, and Christmas morning would be filled with shrieks of joy and the sound of paper ripping.

Of course those toys are long gone now.  I barely even remember them except for a few: a Western Flyer bicycle, a Toni doll, and later, a bride doll.  They brought me joy, but only for a short time.

This morning in my quiet time I was reading about two elderly people who waited their entire lives for Christmas, Simeon and Anna.  They are two examples to us of how to wait with godly expectation.  And for me as I am well into my senior years, they serve as an example that God has a purpose and plan for us in every stage of life.  In fact, the Bible tells us in Psalm 139 that God has a pre-ordained plan for us written in a book, and that every day of our lives has a purpose.  We have a day to be born and a day to die, and the days in between are days of God’s intention for us.  When we are in tune with God, spending time in His word and in prayer, He reveals these intentions to us.  Simeon believed that he would see the Messiah before he died because He spent time with God.  We are told in the Gospel of Luke that the Holy Spirit assured him of this.  But well into his advance years, did he ever doubt?  Some of us wait a long time, even a lifetime for our prayers to be answered.  Anna was married for only seven years before she became a widow.  I’m sure that was not the life she expected.  She could have been angry with God, but instead she devoted the rest of her 84 years to serving in the temple, worshipping and fasting.  She too got to see the baby Jesus.  

Today at the close of 2020, I am waiting for some BIG things.  I wait for God to send another Great Awakening to America, that we can once again be a nation that fears and honors God, and that we will fulfill our destiny of spreading the Gospel to the ends of the earth.  And I also wait for Jesus to come and rapture His church.  I too want to see Him face-to-face.  I wait to be reunited with loved ones who have passed on ahead of me.  I long for the Millennial reign of Christ on earth, to see this world as it was intended to be.  And I look forward to the wedding supper of the Lamb, and the new heaven and earth.  I can wait like Simeon, with certain expectancy, because God has promised these things in His word.  I am reminded of the words of John Wesley in the Christmas song, Come Thou Long Expected Jesus:

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

As believers we wait for the Hope of all the earth…Jesus.  He is the desire (and the need) of every nation and the joy of every longing heart.  It is a joy that cannot be found wrapped in pretty paper under the Christmas tree.  That kind of joy doesn’t last.  But the joy that Jesus brings lasts forever.  My Christmas wish for everyone is that they discover this long expected Jesus for themselves.  

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Romans 15:13 NIV

I WONDER

I wonder.  I’ve always wondered.  What was it like?  What was it like for a teenaged Mary to be told by an angel that she would be the mother of God?  As I read the story I can understand her initial fear at seeing an angel, but then it seems that belief came to her quietly and naturally, as if she had just been waiting for a chance to say yes.  She had undoubtedly heard the stories from the scriptures…that one day a Messiah would come.  But did she ever really believe that He might come through her?  It seems that Mary received Christ so easily.  And that’s how it is for some people.  In their tender years Jesus comes to them and with a childlike faith they say yes.  God was giving her a privileged but difficult mission.  Mary said yes.  Would I?  I wonder.  

I wonder about Mary’s mother.  As a mother to three girls I’ve always wondered. How could she believe this story her daughter told?  And even if she did believe Mary, what about the gossip?  Hadn’t she done all the things a Jewish mother should do to bring up a daughter?  And here she had this nice marriage arranged and then this!  We aren’t told how she received the news, but as a mother myself I can put myself in her sandals.  You want to trust your child, but this story was problematic, even for one who knew the scriptures.  Maybe that is part of the reason Mary went to live with a relative.  Maybe it took Mary’s mother time to believe.  Would I have believed my daughter?  I wonder.

And what about Joseph?  We are told he was a good man, a righteous man.  I wonder about him.  Was he a man who finally had all his ducks in a row so he could marry and start a family?  Had he been waiting to get his carpentry business off the ground?  And finally, after he had found this young virgin from a good family, after he had paid the bride price and became engaged, she tells him that she is pregnant.  Since he is a virtuous man, Joseph decided to end the relationship quietly, but an angel interceded.  I wonder what it was like to be told that you would bear the responsibility for rearing God’s Son.  Joseph needed more confirmation, but he too said yes to God.  Would I?  When God interrupts my carefully made plans, am I willing to get in line with His?    

How I would love to have been on that hillside with the shepherds.  To be smacked right in the face with the glory of God!  And to be told about Jesus by not just one angel, but a multitude of them.  Sometimes Jesus comes to us in a dramatic and exciting way because we need to be told that way.  Ask Saul of Tarsus.  After the angelic announcement, we are told that the shepherds went “with haste” to find Mary, Joseph, and the baby.  Did they just go off and leave their sheep unattended?  Leave their livelihood vulnerable to prey, both animal and human?  Would I risk my financial security, trust God to take care of it while I share the Good News with others?  I wonder.   

I wonder about the magi.  Men of science, but seeking something that was missing.  Willing to go to great lengths and to pay a dear price to find the King.  I became a woman of faith long before I became a woman of science.  Would I have been open to the possibility of the miraculous after first being trained in the scientific method?  Or would I have wanted empirical proof?  I wonder.

But the One I wonder about the most is the baby.  Jesus.  The Messiah.  God who took on human flesh and came into our world as a helpless infant.  When the Father said, “Go,” did you immediately become an embryo?  What was it like for you, living and growing in the very womb that you created?  And how was it for you, equal with God, co-creator of the universe, to suffer the indignities of becoming a human baby?  To be cold and hungry?  To have your diapers changed?  I wonder.  When did you know that you were God?  At conception?  At birth?  When you were 12 years old?  When you began your public ministry?  And when did you know that your purpose in life was to become sin for me, to pay the debt I owed, to die a shameful death on a cross?  How could you love me?  I wonder.

My wondering is not doubt; it comes from a place of wanting to know Him better.  The Lord invites our wondering in Jeremiah 33:3

Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.(ESV)

The New Living Translations says, “I will tell you remarkable secrets.”  I want to know His secrets.

I guess as long as I am on this earth I will wonder, but I’m not the only one.  One hot day in July of 1933, a folksinger named John Jacob Niles was attending a fundraiser in North Carolina for a group of evangelicals who had been ordered out of town by the local police.  A little girl named Annie Morgan stepped onto a makeshift stage and began to sing.  She was dirty and ragged, but beautiful.  She also had a beautiful voice, and she sang a few lines of a folk song over and over.  From those few lines, Niles composed the Christmas folk hymn, I Wonder as I Wander.  It expresses my wonderings simply but beautifully:   

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus my Saviour did come for to die
For poor on’ry people like you and like I
I wonder as I wander out under the sky

THE SILENT YEARS

It had been four hundred years, four hundred silent years.  Four hundred years with no word from God.  We think of it as the intertestamentary period, that time between the Old and New Testaments.  In the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi, we leave the remnant of Israel trying to restore Jerusalem, still under Persian domination and in a fallen spiritual condition.  For all practical purposes, Israel remained in exile.  The book of Malachi is an exhortation to return to the Covenant, with severe warnings for failure to do so.  And then, God quit speaking until the events surrounding the birth of Christ.  

Those were years with no fresh word from God.  It is hard for us to even imagine how that would be, with our access to so many different translations of the Bible and the presence of the Holy Spirit to breathe them alive to us.  But as we enter this season of Advent, let us try to put ourselves in the place of the ordinary Jew at this time in history.  In fact, my Advent challenge is to put myself in the place of all the characters in the Christmas story.  

Advent is a word I don’t hear very much in my Baptist church, but it is something I try to observe personally.  Oh I don’t do the wreath and the candles, but I do Advent readings in my quiet time.  For me, Advent is a time of preparing the manger of my heart for the coming of the Messiah.  Advent covers the four weeks leading up to Christmas, and this year, in 2020, Advent begins today, November 29.  We think 2020 has been a long and difficult year, and it has.  But try 400 long and difficult years!  And we have had the blessing of the Holy Spirit with us to help us navigate this year, to comfort us in our grief and to encourage us when we are afraid.  As we close this weekend of Thanksgiving, I am thanking God for access to His word and for the presence of the Holy Spirit, for the privilege of knowing Him.

Like many believers around the world, I have spent more time in prayer this year than ever before. And like many, I have clung to the words of 2 Chronicles 7:14:  

“if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

We tend to hold on to the promise while glossing over the condition: if my people, who are called by my name.  We want God to heal our land, but surely it is those other people who need to repent.  This year I have repeatedly asked God to show me my wicked ways.  Don’t ask unless you are serious.  He has pulled off layer after layer of wicked ways.  It is a part of making room for Christ.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Christmas sermons tells us that Advent “is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.”   I know I am poor and imperfect! 

So I put myself in the place of those post-exilic Jews who were waiting, because this has been a year of waiting.  Waiting for the virus to go away, waiting for a vaccine or a cure, waiting for schools to open, for jobs to return, for things to go back to normal.  But more than these things, like Bonhoeffer I am waiting for something greater to come.  I am waiting for a time when there will be no more death, nor more wars, no more hatred in our streets, no more broken families, no more children going hungry.  Though we strive to make these things happen (and we should), I don’t think we will see the complete realization until the Messiah returns.  While Israel waited for His first coming, we wait for Him to return in glory to establish His eternal kingdom.  Advent looks both back in time and forward.  We remember His first coming to earth as we celebrate Christmas.  But oh how we look forward to His second coming as we sing these familiar words:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,

And ransom captive Israel, 

That mourns in lonely exile here,

Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

GIVE THANKS

I have been doing a little reading about the first Thanksgiving, and I am once again in awe of the Pilgrims.  They endured a harrowing crossing of the Atlantic and after 65 miserable days, two deaths, and being blown about 250 miles off course, they landed in Massachusetts.  The first thing they did was to read Psalm 100 and give thanks to God.  It quickly became clear to them that they needed to establish some type of law in this wild new land.  The Mayflower Compact was written and signed by 41 men (women were not allowed to sign).  There were nine who did not sign and their number included hired sailors and those too sick to sign.  

I encourage every American to read the brief text of the document.  There are two points that stand out to me.  First is the affirmation that the venture was undertaken to advance the kingdom of God and to bring Him glory.  The second was the idea that law is made by the people, not by a king.  

I can’t even imagine the sacrifices the Pilgrims made.  Arriving in a wild and untamed land, they were led by divine providence to a village that had been deserted by a tribe of Native Americans who had been wiped out by a plague.  Here the Pilgrims found buried corn that sustained them during that first winter.  I may be getting lost in the weeds of history, but I am trying to make a point.  Life that first year was incredibly hard.  But still they set aside a day to give thanks.  

This has been a hard year for us, this 2020.  For some of us heartbreakingly hard.  But today we give thanks.  We look for the good in the midst of the bad, and we give thanks to the God who sustains us. We have hope for the future because we know God to be a good God, all the time.  He is good even when we don’t understand, even when our tears temporarily blind us to His great love for us.  We will give thanks today because He is worthy of our praise.  But we give thanks for another reason…because it is good for us.  It is good for us to be mindful of our blessings and to express gratitude to the Source of those blessings.  Psalm 92 tells us that it is a good thing to give thanks to the Lord and to sing praises to His name. 

Give thanks even though there is an empty chair at your table.  Give thanks if you are out of a job, even if the bills are piling up.  Give thanks if you can’t be with those you love this year.  Even if you don’t know what tomorrow will bring, give thanks today.  When you have no words, pray His word back to him with all the gratitude you can muster.  Today is a day for giving thanks.

1Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
    Worship the Lord with gladness;
    come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the Lord is God.
    It is he who made us, and we are his[a];
    we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving
    and his courts with praise;
    give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
    his faithfulness continues through all generations.  Psalm 100

Oh No! More Waiting!

Every year at about this time, I begin to ask the Lord to give me a verse or a word for the next year. Last year I got a very clear word: “Wait. On. God.” It was very emphatic, like three distinct sentences. It was puzzling to get that word at the beginning of 2020.  “Wait on what, Lord,” I wondered.  I had no idea what was coming.  But it wasn’t too long until we were all waiting.  Waiting for the lockdown to be over, waiting for the virus to go away, waiting to go back to work, for the children to go back to school.  Waiting for life to return to normal.  Waiting, waiting, waiting.

I have to confess that I am not very good at waiting.  I hate waiting in line, waiting in traffic, waiting for almost anything.  I don’t even enjoy getting my nails done because it takes too long.  So 2020 has been a real opportunity for me to learn lessons in waiting.  But I still don’t like it.

So as I have begun to pray for my 2021 word, I was hoping for something like, “The wait is over!” Instead the Lord has taken me to Lamentations.  Lamentations???  Really, Lord?  It’s such a dreary book and haven’t we lamented enough?  But the Lord wanted to give me a hopeful reminder In Lamentations 3:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; 
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.  ESV

This is a familiar, often quoted passage of Scripture.  In fact we even sing hymns with those words.  Think about it.  He pours out fresh blessings on us every morning and those blessings never come to an end.  Those mercies are specific to the day that lies ahead, and then tomorrow we get new ones.  I am reminded of the children of Israel wandering in the desert.  God provided fresh manna every morning, enough for the day.  

But then in the next verse, there is that word again.  Wait.

I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” NIV

I believe God is telling me that the time of waiting is not over, but I can have hope because His love never comes to an end, and His mercies are new every morning.  When we seem stuck in this sameness, God is declaring that because of His great compassion and love for us, He is doing something new every morning!  The word mercies in Hebrew is derived from the word that is used for womb, the place of the strongest love connection, that between mother and child.  Neuroscience studies have demonstrated that there are changes that occur in the brain of a pregnant woman that get her ready to respond to the cries of her baby.  Within just a few hours of becoming a mother, she can not only distinguish the cry of her baby from the cry of other babies, she can recognize what the different cries mean and respond accordingly.  She knows what her baby needs when it cries.  In the same way, our Father recognizes the cries of His children.  When we cry out to Him, He hears us.  He knows what we need and He responds.  God loves us, wants good for us, and even when it seems as if nothing ever changes, He declares that he gives us goodness every morning.

I have watched my friends this year, friends who have much to lament.  But they keep on going in the face of tragedy and adversity.  (You dear ones know who you are.)  Friends who have lost beloved family members, friends who are facing great hardships and uncertain futures, friends who have received devastating diagnoses from their physicians, and those who are waiting for an adult child to return from the far country.  They keep pressing on in their assignments from God.  I have friends who have been waiting for answers to prayers for years and they remain faithful.  The only way they can do this is because of God’s fresh mercies every morning.  We wait for God to move, but we wait with hope, with expectancy.  That is called faith.

In spite of all the hardships of 2020, I know that there were mercies as well, mercies we might not have received any other way but in our waiting.  As we come to the final weeks of this year, we are still waiting.  Waiting for a vaccine, a cure.  We wait for our country to heal, we wait for God to hear our prayers and send a Great Awakening to America.  We wait for a time when we can be with family and friends with no concern about a virus, when we can go about our lives without masks.  A time when we can return to school and work.  

We lament the losses of 2020 and recognize that the time of loss is not over.  But we can have hope because the God who loves us with great mercy and compassion is still in control.  We can face whatever comes in 2021 because of His great faithfulness.