ARE YOU TELLING YOURSELF THE TRUTH?

Many times I tell my clients that it’s not the things that actually happen to us that upset us; it’s what we tell ourselves about those events.  I often use the following diagram developed by Dr. Albert Ellis to help folks get a visual of what is happening in their thought life.

A>B>C  

A” stands for the actual event, what really happened.  Let’s say you hear about a party or some other event and you are not invited.  “B” is your belief, what you tell yourself.  You might think, “Everyone is invited except me.  There is something wrong with me.  No one cares about me.”  “C” is the consequence of those thoughts.  You can imagine how that way of thinking  would make you feel: depressed, unloved, and ashamed.  Here is how that looks in diagram form:

A” Actual event = uninvited > “B” Belief = I am unlovable > “C” Consequence = depression

You can use this diagram with almost any event and feeling.  My favorite to use is a common event, that I confess, happens to me sometimes:

A” = Someone pulls in front of me in traffic. > “B” = “That jerk just cut me off!” > “C” = anger

I am letting my thoughts control my feelings.   The result is a bad mood that might last even after I get out of traffic.  I have learned to push the rewind button and ask myself what the truth is in the situation.

A”  = Someone pulls in front of me in traffic. > “B” = “He is just trying to get somewhere, same as me.  He is not doing it to me.  I am not even on his radar.” > “C” = I have forgotten about it by the time I get to the next stoplight.  Feeling calm.

This is an example of the cognitive therapy that I do with clients.  I help them see their situation in a different perspective.  There is a wonderful book that I highly recommend called, Telling Yourself the Truth.  Your wrong thinking may be making you unhappy.  Give the A>B>C method a try.

YOU ARE NOT A ZERO

An article about Cooper Kupp caught my attention.  In case you didn’t watch the Super Bowl, Kupp is the wide receiver for the Los Angeles Rams who was awarded MVP after the game.  Now I’m not a big NFL fan, but I am a huge college football fan, so what really impressed me was learning that Kupp was a 0 star recruit coming out of high school.  Zero!  We college fans love our big-time recruits.  We want those four and five stars.  But for Kupp, it looked like his football days would end after high school, in spite of the fact that both his father and grandfather played in the NFL.  He didn’t have a single college offer until three weeks after his senior season, when finally, he received offers from Eastern Washington and Idaho State.  Not exactly blue blood programs.  

So how did someone with slim-to-no prospects become a Super Bowl MVP?  I don’t think he believed the lie that he was a zero.   He knew he was more than what the recruiters said he was.  His self-worth didn’t come from Rivals or ESPN.  He knew he could play football in spite of what others said.  His head coach at Eastern Washington was impressed from the start.  Kupp was the hardest worker on the field and he proved that he was worth so much more than 0 stars.   He won all kinds of awards in college including consensus All American and the coveted Walter Payton award.  After college he  was drafted by the Rams who were excited to land him.  Rams coach Sean McVay said he was one of the most pro-ready receivers he had ever evaluated.  Kupp has won numerous awards as a pro and has set all kinds of records.  Not bad for a kid nobody wanted.  

There is a message in Kupp’s story for all of us.  We need to stop believing the lies and start believing the truth about our value.  We are worth so much more than our bank account, what kind of car we drive, or where we live.  The numbers on the bathroom scales or what we shoot on the golf course are only numbers, metrics.  They are not a measure of our value as humans.  We are worth so much more than the number of “likes” on our social media page or how many followers we have. We are not the failures we have had in the past or even the successes we will have in the future.  

We need to cut out the negative self-talk.  Some of us need to stop listening to the voice of a punitive parent (or spouse, coach, or boss, or ex-spouse) in our head.  We are not the grade on our math exam, our GPA, or what the mean girls in the fifth grade said about us.  We are grown-ups now, and we can know the truth about our value.

Here is the truth: we are worth what God says we are worth.  And God doesn’t have any zeroes.  Go to the Bible and read God’s love letter to you.  He tells us how much He loves and cares for us, that He is always with us, watching over and protecting us.  The same God who feeds the sparrows and clothes the lilies, cares for and provides for us.  Because he loves us!   He takes great delight in us and rejoices over us with singing (Zeph. 3:17).  I often suggest to my clients that they meditate on Psalm 139, especially verses 13-16.  And if you only needed one truth about your worth, here it is: God loves you so much that He sent His Son to die for your sins so that you could be in relationship with Him.  He wants to have dinner with you!  (Rev. 3:20). 

Cooper Kupp knows these truths.  Even with all the awards and accolades, Kupp says his greatest joy comes from knowing Christ and living out his God-given purpose in life.  He knows he is not a zero.                            

GOOD GRIEF

Types of tears

This is a repost from 2017, but I think it is timely this holiday weekend when so many are dealing with grief and the empty chair. Sending you all blessings and wishes for a happy Thanksgiving.

Have you ever wondered why we were created with the ability to cry?  I am privileged to sit alongside my clients as they shed many tears.  People are usually embarrassed and tell me they are sorry for crying, but I tell them they never have to apologize for shedding tears.  In my own life, I have gone through a seasons of tears.  There were days when I wondered how I could produce so much water!  Finally I decided to do a little research on crying and what the Bible has to say about it.

According to scientists, there are three types of tears and they all differ in their function and chemical makeup.  All tears are salt water and they drain through our nasal cavity, which is why so many of us have to blow our noses after a good cry.  Basal tears are the tears that we have in our eyes all the time.  They keep our eyes from drying out.  We produce about 5 – 10 ounces of basal tears every day.  Basal tears are about 98% water. 

Reflexive tears are those that protect the eye from irritants, such as smoke, onions, or dust.  The sensory nerves in your cornea send a message to your brainstem that in turn sends hormones to the glands in the eyes that produce tears.  These tears contain a bio-chemical called lysozyme, an antibacterial protection for the eyes.  

The third type is emotional tears.  Most scientists believe that only humans are capable of producing this type of tear. God created us with this unique ability among all His creatures.  I think it is interesting that Jesus (God in human form) also wept (John 11:35; Luke 19:41).  These emotional tears are the ones I am most curious about, and it turns out that they have special health benefits.  Dr. William Frey, a biochemist at the Ramsey Medical Center in Minneapolis, has done extensive research on tears.  He discovered that emotional tears contain stress hormones that are excreted from the body through crying.  Dr. Frey’s research suggests that when we are under stress, even good stress, our bodies produce stress hormones which are necessary for a fight-or-flight response.  However, over prolonged periods of time, these hormones can be dangerous to our health.  Dr. Frey proposes that tears are the body’s mechanism for releasing these built up toxins.  Crying is beneficial to your health, and research shows that stifling emotional tears can elevate the risk of heart disease and hypertension.  Psychologists believe that those who are experiencing grief do better through talking and crying, rather than holding it all in.  Sometimes having a good cry is the healthiest thing you can do.

The Bible has a great deal to say about crying.  In fact, there are almost 700 references to crying and tears in Scripture.  One thing stands out loud and clear: God sees our tears.  David says in Psalm 56:8: “You keep track of all my sorrows.  You have collected all my tears in your bottle.  You have recorded each one in your book.”  Tear bottles were used in ancient (and in some more modern) times during mourning.  They were used to collect the tears of the bereaved and often buried along with the deceased as a sign of respect.  

God collects our tears.  He knows when we are grieving, hurt, sad, frustrated, and angry.  He even knows when we cry tears of joy.  He sees every tear that falls.  And He records all these tears in His book of remembrance (Malachi 3:16).  God keeps a database of all our sorrows.  And He promises to wipe away all our tears when we get to Heaven (Revelation 21:4), where death, sorrow, crying, and pain will be gone forever.  

We take comfort in these things.  We are so fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14), that even our tears have a purpose here on earth.  But when we get to Heaven there will be no need for tears.  God Himself will tenderly wipe them away.

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.  Revelation 21:4 (NIV).

The Righting Reflex

So it’s been a month now and that has given me time to see the humor in what was a really embarrassing moment.  It was OU’s opening football game, and after missing all last year due to COVID, Jerry and I were excited to be back in Norman, and super excited for some football.  Jerry had gone to his seat ahead of me, as the game was about to start, while I stayed behind to chat with our grandson.  So by the time I got to our row, the stadium was filling up.  The Sooners have tried to squeeze as many people as possible into Memorial  Stadium, so the rows are VERY narrow.  I was making my way to my seat, trying not to step on the feet of the people who were already sitting, or knock over anyone’s drink or popcorn, when I felt the rubber sole of my shoe stick.  And that’s when I went down.  It wasn’t just a fall.  As Jerry says, it was a 10!  I went over the bench in front of me, grabbing the shoulder of a man innocently sitting minding his own business (and wearing a back brace!), and finally landed on my two artificial knees!  OUCH!  It was like landing on ground glass!  I know it only took a couple of seconds but it felt like slow motion.  Oh the thoughts that were running through my brain!  People gathered around me saying, “Don’t get up.”  Well don’t worry, at this point I’m hoping the ground will open and swallow me!  I managed to get up with a “Ta Da!” in a “stuck my landing” pose, but oh man, was I mortified!

It was this event that finally pushed me into scheduling a visit with my orthopedist, Dr. Keith Stanley.  I have been having some posture issues, as well as balance and walking problems. There are days when I feel like I need to re-learn how to walk.  After taking x-rays (there are problems), he sat down to talk, and that is when he used the dreaded A word.  Aging.  My spine is degenerating, my balance is not as good as it once was, and my reaction time is slower.  But here is the surprising part: my proprioceptors are wearing out.

I knew what Dr. Stanley was referencing because I studied proprioceptors in grad school, but for those of you who may not be familiar with the term, proprioceptors are the sensory receptors that help the body detect its own position in space.  For example, without proprioception you would be unable to touch your nose with your eyes closed, or to balance on one leg.  Proprioception provides feedback to the brain to enable you to detect whether you are walking on a hard or a soft surface.  It also allows our bodies to perform simultaneous actions without having to stop and think about each one separately, such as running down a football field, scanning for receivers, and throwing a pass.  

That was a bit of an “aha” moment for me, because I could recognize that yes, my proprioception is off.  And that is the last time I will use that word, but allow me to introduce another word that may be unfamiliar.  God in His wisdom created us with a righting reflex, also known as the labyrinthine righting reflex.   This reflex corrects the orientation of the body when it is taken out of its normal upright position.  When I lost my balance and fell, the labyrinthine righting reflex helped me return to an upright position and regain equilibrium.  Humans are not alone in needing righting.  Airplanes and sailing vessels have what is known as a righting moment to help restore them to the correct attitude when they have listed or rotated off course.  

I wrote about this in my book, Season, and here is an excerpt.

I wonder how many of those righting moments in life have gone unheeded.  Those times where we have listed in the wrong direction and have not paid attention to our own righting instincts. We have gotten off course and can’t seem to find our direction.  We have missed our true north.

By looking back at your own unique life story and examining the critical events, you discover how the pieces fit together to define who you are and explain how you got to this point.  Often we see that some of our worst mistakes, our biggest regrets were actually righting reflexes to point us to our true north.  No one likes pain, but if we listen, pain is trying to tell us something.  If you put your hand on a hot stove, pain sensors send a message to your brain that causes you move your hand so you won’t burn your skin.  Similarly, painful life events are sending us a message that we need to move, to change course, to do something different.  We need to be righted.  Some of us learn quickly and can right ourselves with only a little discomfort.  Others of us need a great deal of pain before we finally wake up and decide to take action.  Sadly, some of us stay stuck in pain because we don’t know what to do or don’t think we have any power to change the situation.    

I believe our broken roads get us to the place we were destined to be, if we pay attention to the road signs along the way, the righting moments.  And by the way, God also gave us the Holy Spirit to guide and direct us, and to whisper in our ear when we get off track.  No matter how badly we mess things up, Jesus can use the most broken and damaged pieces of our lives and turn it into something beautiful.  He can turn trash into a treasure.  

I love the song by Rascal Flatts, “Bless the Broken Road.”

Every long lost dream led me to where you are

Others who broke my heart they were like Northern stars

Pointing me on my way into your loving arms

This much I know is true

That God blessed the broken road

That led me straight to you.

 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.  Jeremiah 29: 11-13  (NIV).  

THE SEASON OF LETTING GO

I’m not sure I like my current season.  I am calling it The Season of Letting Go.  My friends, those in my age cohort, understand.  After spending a lifetime of acquiring—family, friends, hobbies, possessions, you name it—we are now having to let go.

This reality has been hitting me hard this month as we have been spending time with our grands before they return to school. Numbers 1,2,and 3 are already out of college and are now adulting, the older two now married with families of their own.  We have been having off-to-college breakfasts with 4,5, and 6 during the last weeks.  It’s always hard to say goodbye, even when we are simultaneously excited for their new journeys.  

I suppose this letting go thing was driven home most sharply when we said goodbye to our Hannah before she left for Nashville last week.  This wasn’t the customary off-to-college goodbye.  Yes, she is heading back to Belmont, and I am so happy about that.  But she is actually moving to Nashville.  I truly believe that Nashville is her place, that she belongs there and will find her true north there.  But it is 600 miles away!  I can tell you I actually have a physical pain in my chest.  But I have to let her go.

I have been incredibly blessed to have kept all my chicks close to the nest.  All of our children live near us, and all but one of our nine grands has attended the elementary school that is a couple of blocks from our house.  This year for the first time in about 25 years, we will not have a grandchild at that school.  The youngest is heading to middle school.  They are all flying away, creating lives of their own.  And even though I know that is how it should be, it is still hard to let go.

The letting go started some time ago.  We Baby Boomers began to lose eyesight, hearing, waistlines, and hair.  Now we are letting go of our houses, downsizing into smaller abodes.  And those moves require letting go of our carefully collected stuff.  We really no longer need the punch bowl and matching cups because now it is our daughters who are hosting the showers, not us.  (And by the way, they don’t want our punch bowls!)  Most of us have let go of careers, and I have seen how this has been particularly hard on men.   There are so many “lasts.”  And the thing is, we might not recognize a last when it is occurring.  A last trip to the beach, a last pet, a last car, and most of all, a last time to see a loved one.  

 I have watched some of my friends let go of life as they knew it to become caregivers to a failing spouse.  More and more, my friends are being widowed.  And all too frequently we are hearing about the death of a high school classmate.  

Even though I don’t like it, I think all of this letting go is necessary.  We must let go of the people and things that keep us tied to earth, because one day we will be leaving.   When God is trying to make a point to me, He often comes at me from different angles.  I often say He is a multi-media God.  So I wasn’t surprised that we sang I Surrender All yesterday in church.  I surrender all.  Do I?  Everything?  I might as well because it all belongs to him anyway.  Even the children and grands.  

We have a friend, a member of our extended family, who is dying.  I have been thinking of all the things he is losing…even the small things.  He will never again go outdoors, or have dinner with family.  No one had to ask him if he wants to let go of his car.  It’s a moot point.  But oh, what he will gain when he sees Jesus!  Who needs a car when you can have wings?  

This is my reminder, what I will gain.  As the old hymn says, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also.”  Those children and grandchildren have never been truly mine, only on loan from God.  And the stuff?  I won’t need it.  I will leave this world the same way I came into it, naked and empty-handed.  And the same God who has given me abundantly everything I have needed in this life will give me everything I need in the next.  Who knows?  There may even be a heavenly punch bowl in my future!       

THE PROBLEM OF SHAME

Out of all the problems and conditions I see in my practice, I believe shame is the worst and the most difficult to heal.  Shame is different from guilt, although both feelings are unpleasant.  Guilt can actually lead to good, helping us to change direction and turn from the behavior that caused the guilty feeling in the first place.  But shame is about who I am as a person. Guilt is about something I did; shame is about who I am.  Guilt says, “I did something bad,” while shame says, “I am bad.”  I think of shame as a toxic tar baby that keeps us stuck in self-defeating behaviors.  Researcher and author Brené Brown states that shame is an “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” 

There is a field of study that looks at the neurobiology of shame and gives us insight into its origins. From birth we are hard-wired to interact with and depend on our caregivers.  We start learning immediately which behaviors will elicit care and comfort from them.  We seem to know that without a family or a tribe, we will not survive.  When we are shamed we experience a fear of being rejected that behavioral scientists call survival terror.  To defend against this terror, we develop an inner critic, usually in the voice of the critical parent(s), that keeps us in line, and from experiencing more rejection.  This inner voice keeps us behaving in ways that the parent wants, so that we will not get more shame.  By adulthood, that inner voice has become our own, and we take it and run with it.  

Dr. Richard Schwartz, the founder of Internal Family Systems therapy, explains that we carry around multiple parts of our self.  There is the internal critic that tells us how bad we are, and the young part of our self that believes this voice.  Usually there is a third part that will do anything to get away from feeling shame, often engaging in behaviors that bring about more shame.  For example a person who is experiencing what Brown calls a “shame storm,” might get drunk or engage in risky sex to try to get away from the feeling of shame.  Of course that only serves to perpetuate the cycle of shame.

The Bible has much to say about being freed from shame.  It tells in Psalms that God does not want us to live in shame and describes Him as “the One who holds my head high.”  In the book of Romans we are told that when we come to Christ we are no longer under condemnation.  God accepts us unconditionally into His family. 

If you have been living with toxic shame, there is good news.  You can learn to silence that inner critic and see yourself in a different light.  Thanks to neuroplasticity, your brain can learn new ways of thinking and behaving.  A therapist, a pastor, or a good support group can come alongside you in a journey of self-exploration.  You can be set free!    

Little Acorns

I was doing a little work in my flowerbed this morning and pulled up this little Water Oak.  I think people call trees like this “volunteers” because they just sprout up on their own, without being planted.  It is fascinating to see that it is still attached to the acorn.  I was reminded of the saying, “Great oaks from little acorns grow.”  I like this saying, and think about it whenever I am beginning a big task.  But this morning I was thinking about our own little acorns…our grandchildren that are too quickly growing into oaks.

I know I sound really old here, but where did the time go?  It seems like only a short time ago when they were all little, and now the youngest is finishing elementary school this month.  I am especially thinking of the two graduations we will celebrate in the next few days.  

Tomorrow will be Jack Foster Day as he graduates from OU.  Oh how we celebrate this graduation!  The tiny acorn that was once a preschooler has now completed college.  But then overnight he will turn into an acorn again as he begins his working life, and he is stressing a bit about finding a job.  To Jack I want to say, don’t worry about your first job.  Trust me, it will not be your last.  It used to be that people got a job, worked at it for thirty years, got a gold watch, and retired.  But things have changed.  In our current age, people change careers (not just  jobs) three times during their working lifespan.  “Just get a degree,” we told him.  A degree is a ticket.  You will figure it out.  

When I was forty-eight I enrolled in two classes at what was then Tulsa Junior College.  I wanted to get the degree I never got when I was young.  There was a verse from the Bible that was a source of encouragement to me, and I share it today with Jack:

Do not despise these small beginnings, for the LORD rejoices to see the work beginZech. 4:10

My small beginning was a little acorn that grew into a Ph.D.  Jack, just put one foot in front of the other and trust that the Lord will lead you to the place you need to be.  I can already see the might oak you will become.

Our other graduate is Ellie Grace Herrold who graduates from Bishop Kelly next Friday.  We have watched you blossom, Girl!  There are so many wonderful experiences ahead as you enter Belmont University in the fall. You have exciting plans, and I can’t wait to watch them unfold.  I have shared many verses with you in the last days…I want to make sure I tell you everything I am supposed to share with you.  So this one more verse I give you as you spread your wings:

May he give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed.  Psalm 20:4            

We cover all our children, grandchildren, and our great-grands in prayer…even our unborn little girl.  We have a lot of moving parts in our family, and some of our acorns get more prayer than others depending on what season they are in.  I am so grateful that I can trust a God who loves them even more than I do.  To all of them, my prayer for you is to stay in God’s Word.  That is the way for an oak tree to grow and flourish.

But they delight in the law of the LORD, meditating on it day and night.  They are like trees planted along the riverbank, bearing fruit each season. Their leaves never wither, and they prosper in all they do.  Psalm 1:2-3

PUSHING THE ROCK

Do you ever feel like Sisyphus?  If you have forgotten the Greek mythology you learned in high school, let me refresh your memory.  Sisyphus was an evil king who was punished by the gods with the task of pushing a large boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down each time he neared the top.  This happened over and over again for all eternity.  Can you imagine the futility?  Sort of like a really bad version of Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day.

I imagine most of us have felt like Sisyphus at some point in our lives.  The times when you feel like you keep beating your head against the same brick wall.  It could be a situation that just will not go away.  Perhaps it is that annoying co-worker or neighbor that you keep encountering in different iterations even after changing jobs or moving.  It might be the same argument you have with your spouse year after year with no resolution.  Maybe it is your recalcitrant teenager who keeps making the same bad choices over and over.  

For some of us it might be that thing we resolve to never do again, but find ourselves repeating.  In Christian circles we refer to these bad habits as besetting sins.  A besetting sin is that one (or perhaps more) toward which we are naturally inclined.  It seems to call us…over and over.  For an alcoholic it is just that one drink, for someone who struggles with sexual lust it could be the lure of pornography.  For the one who resolves to pursue a healthier lifestyle it is the call of the bag of Fritos in the pantry or the appeal of the aptly named La-Z-Boy. 

The rock may not be an active sin, but rather the consequences of a sin.  Sin always leaves a residue.  Ironically, it was Ravi Zacharias who said that sin will take you farther than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and cost you more than you want to pay.  The life of David in the Bible is a prime example.  God forgave him for his sins of adultery and murder, and continued to bless and use him, but David had to push the rock of family turmoil for the rest of his days on earth.

Sometimes (or often if we are honest) we want to blame others for our rock.  If only they would change I wouldn’t have to keep pushing that rock!  Blaming others is much easier than looking at myself.  Theologian John Piper took an eight-month sabbatical to do what he called a “soul check.” You can read more about it here:

https://www.epm.org/blog/2018/Oct/12/piper-identifying-fighting-besetting-sins

Piper discovered that the remedy for these besetting sins was to put them in the crosshairs and consciously do battle with them.  Those sin rocks may keep tumbling downhill as long as we are on this earth.  But hopefully as we keep chipping away at them they will become smaller and smaller.

The rock is not always sin.  Maybe it is a situation you are in over which you have very little or no control.  The COVID pandemic for instance.  We have been pushing that rock for a year.  It might be that your rock is a chronic health problem.  No matter how many doctors you see or how many treatments you try, you can’t get that rock over the hill.  I have dear friends who deal with chronic pain…day and night.  But yet they persevere.  It is that perseverance that brings me back to Sisyphus (and how many more times am I going to type that name?)   

The punishment from the gods was all I remembered about this story.  I had to do a little review on Sisyphus to remember the rest.  What I discovered was that Sisyphus never gave up.  He never surrendered to gravity.  He kept pushing, day after day. But he learned to see his condition as his purpose.  And he learned to find joy in it.  As a believer I remind myself that I am not alone in my battles.  God promises to fight with for me, to hold my hand, and renew my strength.  The Bible tells us that Paul also learned to look at his trials through a God lens and find joy in them,

 “…knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame because God’s love has been poured into our hearts…”   Rom. 5:3-5 ESV.

Pushing my rock with joy is all about discipleship.  It is what Eugene Peterson writes about in his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction We may stumble and fall, but we press on. I am so thankful that God’s mercies are “new every morning” and that he gives us just the right amount of grace and strength for each day.  And He promises to come alongside us and push for us.

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

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