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.

WE NEED A LITTLE CHRISTMAS

If there has ever been a year when we need a little Christmas, 2020 is it!  We have dealt with COVID and all the fear, sickness, and death that come with it.  The unleashing of this virus then set off a cascade of events that have left us reeling: the lockdown, jobs furloughed and lost, schools in and out of the classroom, racial tension, riots and looting, fires and hurricanes, a chaotic election season, and oh!  Murder hornets!  Did I leave anything out?  So as soon as the calendar turned from October to November I began thinking about Christmas decorations.  We are always early, but this year is the earliest we have ever had ours up.  Last night we even turned on the outdoor lights.  Because we need a little Christmas.

I suppose it is the lights that I love the most.  In addition to our tree we have lots of lighted garlands and wreaths.  Oh how we enjoy drinking our morning coffee in the glow of the Christmas lights.  

I’ve been thinking about light quite a bit lately.  Our Community Bible Study groups are studying the Book of John this year.  I have read and studied John many times, but the verses have leapt off the pages as if they are brand new to me.  And in the first few verses John describes Jesus as the light.  Of course I have long been familiar with the concept of Jesus as the Light of the World, but it has grabbed me anew and I keep coming back to it.  Why is that title so important?  

Light itself is essential.  Without it we cannot have life.  The very first thing God did in the beginning was to create light (Gen. 1:3) because the rest of creation was going to need it.  I know next to nothing about physics, but I started thinking about the properties of light.  Light travels.  It has the ability to pierce the darkness; but darkness cannot dim light.  Light attracts; it has a gravitational pull.  It causes growth and produces energy. Light changes the materials it shines on.  Light heals and purifies.  And Jesus does all those things.  He attracts us, and when we search for Him, we find Him.  He moves into willing lives and shines light on our sins.  He changes and purifies us.  He doesn’t leave us the same.  He heals us and causes us to grow in righteousness.

We so need the Light of the World to penetrate our dark world right now.  There is so much hatred and anger, so much polarization.  And so much corruption.  Light exposes those things that are concealed in darkness.  Mark 4:22 tells us that things that are hidden in the darkness will be brought into the light.

Next month we will celebrate Christmas.  When Jesus was born into the world as a baby, He came in an explosion of light that lit up the night sky.  The shepherds saw it, and after their initial fear, they were filled with such joy and hope.  The Magi were drawn to it and worshipped the new King.  That is why I need my Christmas lights.  They remind me that God is still on His throne and He still has a plan, that the Light of the World still changes hearts, and that the darkness will never overcome that Light.      

THE HALLMARK FIX

I have a confession to make: 2020 is beginning to wear on me, and I suspect I am not alone.  I’ve really noticed it for about the last two weeks or so, and it is so vague it I can hardly describe it.  Ennui comes to mind…weariness with the world in its current state.  I feel irritable and out of sorts.  As a psychologist I have tried to check my thinking because I know how much our thoughts influence the way we feel.  But why do I feel so down about things?  Because for the most part we are now living our lives as normally as we can.

 

We were pretty strict about being locked down when the quarantine first began.  After all, we are supposedly in the high-risk group.  But I got really tired of not being able to see my family, so on Mother’s Day I declared that our house was “open” and the whole clan came over.  Being with my family helped immensely.  Then slowly we began to find our new normal, although there is nothing that feels “normal” about wearing a mask.  We are coming and going, doing things like grocery shopping, eating out, trips to Lowe’s and the nursery, but we haven’t been in any large crowds.  I’m not sure there have been any large crowds to be in.  Our church has still not completely opened, but we are moving in that direction.  We have only been physically to church twice and maybe that is part of what feels so off, even though we have stayed connected electronically.  My friend groups and other organizations are meeting via Zoom, and I have met friends for occasional lunches, coffees, and dinners.  So why do I feel so off kilter?

 

I don’t have to tell you what is going on in our country.  Just turn on the news (something this former news junkie can hardly do any more).  The level of hate is something I have never seen among fellow Americans before.  It just makes me sad, and I don’t see any end in sight.  So one thing that has lifted my spirits is Hallmark’s Christmas in July.  Yes, I have been watching Christmas movies, in fact, I just finished one.

 

What is it about those Christmas movies that make me feel better?  The same 20 or so actors regularly appear in plots that are so predictable (and unrealistic) even I could write one.  Boy meets girl, they usually don’t hit it off at first but later begin to fall in love (with an almost-kiss) until there is some sort of misunderstanding that sends one of them packing.  However during the last fifteen minutes they get things straightened out, have a real kiss, and it snows.

What I love the best are those charming, picture-perfect Christmas towns.  There are quaint main streets filled with mom-and-pop shops (or shoppes), carolers, cider, and always snow.  Not dirty, slushy, day-old snow, but pure and pristine snow that doesn’t even make the cars dirty.  The part that always gets me are the Christmas Eve pageants, choir performances, or school plays.  Don’t these people have to be at Grandma’s on Christmas Eve?  Doesn’t anyone leave town?  This is where Jerry reminds me, “It’s only a movie!”

 

There is a psychology to why these movies make us feel better; in fact there is a psychologist who has studied it.  Dr. Pamela Rutledge is the director of the Media Psychology Research Center at Fielding Graduate University.    Dr. Rutledge says one of Hallmark’s cinematic shortcomings is the thing our brains love: predictability.  And oh, how we crave predictability in these chaotic times we are enduring.  And we forgive the unrealistic story lines because they allow us to suspend our own reality for two hours.  These movies allow us to experience a variety of positive emotions such as connection, empathy, love, warmth, and compassion that serve as a buffer to the stress of real life.

 

However, the feel-good doesn’t last very long.  As much as I love me a good Hallmark Christmas movie, there is something much better.  I know what to do when these negative emotions start to get to me.  I go to the One who has the answers.  I turn to the Bible, prayer, and my spiritual books.  I have been reading through a beautiful little devotional book, The Red Sea Rules: 10 God-Given Strategies for Difficult Times (thank you, Paula Carter).   There are study questions at the end of each section, and one reached out and grabbed me the other day.  “If you knew Jesus was literally standing beside you right now, how would you feel differently about your current Red Sea problem?”

 

That question has made a big difference, because of course, Jesus is here right now, in the person of the Holy Spirit who lives in every Believer.  Nothing about the world situation has caught Him off guard.  He’s got this.  When I feel worried or depressed it is usually because I have forgotten that He is present, right here with me.  Yes, the world is stressful right now, and may become even more difficult in days to come.  But Jesus is walking with me.

 

I did a little Word study on the presence of the Lord.  Here are some of the verses that spoke to me:

 

The Lord is near to all who call on Him… Ps. 145:18

 

The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything.  Phil. 4:5-6

 

Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.  Gen. 28:15

 

These verses and many more allow me to reset, to gain equilibrium.  The world may seem to be spinning out of control, but I can rest.  I feel much better.  God is right here.

 

 

A CLEAN SLATE

A clean slate.  A blank page.  A do-over.  Another New Year.  A new decade! As Oprah says, another chance for us to get it right.  What will 2020 hold for us? 

We all hope and pray for many of the same things: health, happiness, prosperity, peace, and the list goes on.  For those of us who are Baby Boomers, a new year is not as easily taken for granted as it once was.  We now think of life in terms of how much time we have left.  For some of us, a new year may mean the figuring out retirement (although fewer of us are retiring in the way we once imagined).  It may mean a second career, a new hobby, or it may bring the beginning of Social Security and Medicare.  There may be the lurking fears of declining health and finances.  But a new year also brings a new chance to live our lives with purpose and meaning; a chance to do life intentionally.  

As a Christian, I believe that God has a plan for my life.  Since I am still alive on this dawn of another year, He must still have a purpose for me here on earth.  The way to live this year to the fullest is to seek His purpose for me and begin to live it.  There is nothing that changes your life more than the discovery of your purpose.

While we may have an over-arching purpose that spans our entire lives, we also have specific purposes at different points in time.  What is my purpose now, in my senior years?  I want to be all that I am capable of becoming; all that God has planned for me.  A friend of mine says the tears that God will wipe from our eyes are the tears we shed as we enter Heaven and see the life He had planned for us that we failed to live.

Whatever wrong turns I have made on this journey, I am confident that He has used them to make me the woman I am.  He is still the God of second chances; his purposes toward me are always redemptive.  Lord, help me to treasure and not squander the New Year you have put before me.

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:  Ecclesiastes 3:1 (NIV).  

No, dear brothers, I am still not all I should be, but I am bringing all my energies to bear on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God is calling us up to heaven because of what Christ Jesus did for us.  Philippians 3:13-14 (TLB).

KEEPING CHRISTMAS

We got our Christmas decorations put away over the weekend, and when I say we it was really ninety percent Jerry.  I always hate it when it’s time to take down the Christmas decorations.  It makes me a little sad.  For one thing it’s a lot of backbreaking work.  We have to get all the Christmas things put away and back into the attic.  Then I have to find all the things that are usually out and remember where they go.  I’m still missing a few things but I guess they will turn up.  If they don’t then I don’t need them.  But those reasons are not really why taking down Christmas makes me sad.  You see I really love the Christmas season.  I love the celebrations, the music, and the anticipation.  And people are just nicer.  I guess what really makes me sad is that Christmas is over. 

I think the things I enjoy most are the lights.  One of my favorite things to do is to have my morning coffee with the tree lights on and a fire in the fireplace.  But it’s not just our own lights; I like the lights in our neighborhood and the lights around town.

The best lights of all are the lights from the candles at our church Christmas Eve service.  What a beautiful picture of Jesus, the Light of the World, coming into a dark world.  It gives me hope.  During the Christmas season I can push that dark world back a bit.  But when the decorations are packed away, reality comes back.  Sunday morning we awoke to the terrible news of an attack at a Hanukkah celebration and then later a shooting at a church.  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said it best:

And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men

So my prayer is that the Lord will help me keep Christmas in my heart.  Joy to the World shouldn’t be just for a few weeks of the year.  The Lord has come!  He is with us.  Yes, the world is still dark, but He has overcome the world.  A few years ago I came across this work by Howard Thurman that beautifully express keeping Christmas: 

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

EMBRACING MY SEASON

I’ve been feeling pretty nostalgic as we approach Christmas. Maybe wistful is a better word…combined with nostalgia. For some time I have been wanting to slow the calendar down. Time is racing past! And I feel it acutely at Christmas.

Several years ago I collected all our photos from past Christmases and scanned them into my computer. I made a slide show and surprised my family with it on Christmas morning. I wasn’t sure how it would go over with a tree full of presents waiting to be unwrapped. But everyone loved it, the adults as well as the children. They wanted to sit through the whole thing before unwrapping gifts. Maybe some things are better than bought presents. I’ve continued to add to the slideshow every year and I will have it playing again Christmas morning. But this year I also did something different. I am playing it continually on my Echo Show that sits on my kitchen counter. So every time I walk into the kitchen I am treated to a blast from the past. And that is what is triggering my nostalgia.

Where did the years go? I thought my children grew up fast, but my grandchildren’s childhood years have flown by at warp speed. Our youngest is nine this year and is the only remaining believer in the magic of Santa Claus. We have two who are grown and married, one with a baby of her own. Our two college kids will be joined by a third, leaving a high school senior, two in middle school, and one left in elementary school. Once they get to a certain age they don’t have as much time for us, especially when they get those driver’s licenses. It is not such a treat to come to JuJu and Paki’s house, and that is how it should be. They have lives of their own. But it makes me miss the days when there were lots of little feet in the house.

EPSON MFP image

EPSON MFP image

I would love to go back and visit a Christmas past. Maybe a Christmas Eve with my own dear grandparents. I miss them every day. A Christmas with all my siblings.  Or a Christmas at our old house, the one our kids grew up in. I can practically hear those little feet running down the stairs shouting with joy over a doll or a bicycle. We have been in our current house for almost 20 years, so we have many wonderful Christmas memories here too. Little grand babies that have grown into big people.

EPSON MFP image

I’m wondering what future Christmases will look like. Will they continue to be as much fun as the grands continue to grow older? Will we be blessed enough to have more together? Will we still be relevant in their lives I’m coaching myself to embrace the season I’m in. To be mindful of my many blessings. I’m reminded of the story of the Exodus in the Old Testament when God delivered the children of Israel from a life of slavery. What did they do? They complained and looked back on the “leeks and garlic of Egypt.” If I focus too much on Christmas Past or Christmas Future I might miss the joy of Christmas Present.

So I thank God that Jerry and I get another Christmas together. We almost didn’t. Not all of my friends are so blessed. We know that these are bonus days for us, and tell each other every day. I have friends who are dealing with loss this year. Soul crushing loss. If you are going through a season of loss this year, please know that Jesus sees you and longs to be your comfort. And if you are looking for someone to listen to your pain, I’m pretty good at that.

Jerry and I still have our health, although we are not moving around as well as we used to. I know we are so lucky to have all our children and grandchildren living right here in Tulsa, some just around the corner. I’m blessed that we get to host Christmas Day. With so many moving parts we might not always get everyone together.

I don’t know the future holds but I trust the One who holds it. So I will enjoy Christmas 2019 and be grateful for our blessings. Most of all we are grateful that all our children and grandchildren know the Lord and we will all spend eternity together in His presence.