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.            

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.  

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.

THE RIPPLE EFFECT

 

We all have seen or experienced the ripple effect.  In the simplest example, think of a stone dropped into a pond, how it spreads concentric circles of waves of decreasing intensity as they move out from the center.  It works inversely also, as sometimes a small action (or inaction) can create a big ripple.  I’m thinking about Rosa Parks here.  But this morning I am thinking about a big event that has created many ripples in all of our lives.

 

The coronavirus is the enormous boulder that dropped in our pond earlier this year.  The virus alone has been catastrophic, but consider the ripples that have followed: the lockdown, businesses closed, jobs lost, bills that go unpaid, and we could go on and on about the ripples.  It is a very small micro-ripple that has tugged at my heart since yesterday.  My 10-year old granddaughter, Olivia asked her mother when they would get to shop for back to school clothes.  My daughter told her they were waiting until they knew for certain that school would actually have in person classes.  The district has a plan to reopen, but things are very fluid in every district right now.  Then Olivia asked if they could at least go shop for a new backpack.  My daughter had to explain that there would be no backpacks allowed at school this year.  That made me so sad for little Olivia.  One of the biggest days in the Kid Year is the first day of school with a new outfit, new backpack, and new school supplies.  And the obligatory snapshot on the front porch.

 

This has been one ripple too many for me, and yet I know more will come.  There are the things we don’t think about.  This same daughter needs a new washing machine because her old one broke down.  Did you know that you can’t go into a store and buy a washer right now?  There are none.  It’s a supply chain issue.  When factories shut down, supply stops.  My teen grands will not have lockers this year, or be allowed to carry a purse.  Our college grands have been instructed to come with emergency COVID bags packed.  If a fever is detected they will be immediately whisked away to some undetermined location (infirmary? gulag?), and will need to have a bag packed and ready to go.  Our college freshman will be allowed only one parent to help her move into the dorm.  And sorority rush will be mostly virtual.  Our pregnant granddaughter can only have her husband at the hospital with her.  We will have to wait until she comes home to meet the new baby.

 

These are minor inconveniences, but they are cumulative.  When they are piled atop the larger ripples mentioned above, life becomes even more stressful, wearing.  Many of us are walking around with sub-clinical depression (or maybe full blown) because of all the ripples.

 

Psychologists have studied the ripple affect as it pertains to emotions.  That is, how the emotions of one person in a group can trigger the emotions of the entire group, like a row of falling dominos.  It even has a name: emotional contagion.  You have probably noticed it, maybe how one person’s anxiety in an office can set off everyone else, or one family member in a bad mood can set the tone for the entire household.

 

But it can work the opposite way also, with a kind word, an act of consideration, or an expression of love.  I would like to be a carrier of hope during these trying days.  I would like to be, but some days are hard for me too.  That is when I need to go to the source of hope, God’s Word.  Honestly, I can barely make it through the day without my morning dose of hope.  Hebrews 6 tells us that when we turn to God and take hold of the hope he offers, that hope acts as “an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”  That same passage tells us that God cannot lie, that His words are truth.  I can spread hope with confidence because I am sharing the truth, and truth is a hard commodity to find in 2020.  I can be an encourager, one who inspires hope and courage.  I need to be mindful of my words because I want to create positive ripples, contagions of hope.

 

Lord, help me to be a carrier of your hope today.

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.