And God Saw That It Was Good…

Throughout the story of Creation, a certain phrase gets repeated– “And God saw that it was good..” God’s purpose and will are always to see the good. At the end of the creation process, God saw that it was “very good.” He placed mankind in a garden filled with goodness, peace, safety, plenty, and promise– a garden filled only with Good.

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The one tree that was forbidden to mankind was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good AND Evil. Humans chose to know and see and experience evil in an effort to be “like God.” We still recognize Good; but now we are surrounded by evil– lies, greed, hatred, selfishness, bitterness, addictions, compulsions, disease, destruction, and death. We cannot go back to the beginning. We cannot just close our eyes and deny, ignore, or excuse evil in our midst. And we cannot control the consequences of our evil choices. We cannot stop death or reshape the past.

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But we must make the choice to look for the Good– to look to the author and creator of all that is good, and true, and noble, and holy. It can be very difficult to do. The voices of this world will continuously call out all that is bad– all our past hurts and present difficulties; all our guilt and shame; everything that is ugly, diseased, unjust, lop-sided, dying, and ruined. And our knowledge of good AND evil will tempt us to justify evil means to “good” ends…

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God, who sees the end from the beginning, has looked through time and space, and pronounced His creation “Very Good.” God who redeems and resurrects, renews and transforms, has promised to make all things new in His time. God not only has the knowledge of Good and Evil– He has the power over both. Our efforts to find Good on our own will end in heartache, failure, guilt, and shame. God knows we cannot redeem our own actions, let alone the legacy of evil we’ve inherited from the past. But the Good News is that He has done it for us! Just as He saw that everything was “Good” in the Garden of Eden, He sees the end result of His redemption– and it is “Very Good.” We don’t have to keep trying and failing to achieve what only God can do. We DO have to trust in God’s ability and His willingness to keep His promises!

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Through prayer, we carry all that is wrong to the One who can make it all “right.” And, through prayer, we praise God for all the Good– the good that God has created in the past; the good that we choose to see in the present; and the good He has promised that we cannot yet see.

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Daring to Dream

I’ve been reading about Joseph in Genesis. He was the favored son of Jacob (Israel), and he was a dreamer. His dreams were spectacularly unpopular with his older brothers, and got him into a world (or a well) of trouble. (See Genesis 37)

Joseph’s dreams were sent to him from God…they weren’t just wishes or imaginings. But they were grand. Joseph had a dream that all his brothers (represented by bales of wheat) bowed down to him. Later, he dreamed that his entire family would bow down to him. He was just 17, and full of the arrogance of youth. His jealous brothers were so outraged, they plotted to kill him. When an easier opportunity arose, they sold him into slavery, instead. (See Genesis 39-45)

Joseph’s dreams seemed to mock him when he arrived in Egypt as a slave. And after spending years building up a sterling reputation with his master, his dreams were dashed again. Falsely accused and unable to defend himself, Joseph ended up in prison. Who would ever bow down before a convict and a slave?

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Joseph could have become bitter and angry. He could have given in to the frustration of serving those who were willing to let him do all the work and take on all the responsibility, while they got all the credit. But Joseph dared to dream– not the dreams of an arrogant 17-year-old, but the dreams of an honest and God-fearing man. He dreamed that his actions and attitudes mattered– even as a slave; even as a prisoner. He dreamed that God could and would rescue him and vindicate him. He dreamed that God had a purpose for his life– one that depended on Joseph being the best man he could be.

The Bible never records Joseph having visions and dreams in Egypt. But because Joseph had experienced grand dreams as a youth, he was sensitive to the dreams of others. He could have ignored the dreams of Pharaoh’s cup bearer and baker in prison. He could have sneered and laughed at their dreams. He could have told them all about his much grander dreams of old. Instead, he was ready to ask for God’s wisdom to help others interpret THEIR dreams. And in doing so, God gave Joseph the miracle of a dream fulfilled. Along the way, Joseph received life lessons in patience, humility, responsibility, management, integrity, and leadership. Joseph’s brothers–coming to seek grain!– bowed down to him, just as he had once dreamed they would. But they didn’t bow to him as a kid brother; they bowed before Pharaoh’s agent and the second-most powerful man in the entire known world. They bowed before a men who held the kind of power none of them had ever dreamed of. They bowed before a man they might have killed– except for God’s plan. Joseph was sent ahead, trained in the art of management, and perfectly placed to save thousands of lives.

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Sometimes our lives seem like a waste– all our dreams have been shattered, either by circumstances or by our own bad choices. But God can take our most cherished dreams and redirect them into something amazing. He has a purpose for your life. It may not seem grand, like Joseph’s youthful dreams, but in God’s hands, it may have an enormous impact. Some days, it may seem like we’re living through a nightmare, but God writes the ending– and He’s already there!

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Praying “Around” My Enemies

I didn’t pray for my enemies. I didn’t pray for their health or safety. I didn’t pray for their spiritual well-being. I didn’t pray that God might show me ways to bless them, or encourage them.

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I prayed that they would be stopped. That they would be exposed as frauds and liars. I prayed for “justice” to be done– to them. That they would be humiliated. That they would get all that they deserved.

And perhaps that is what they prayed for me, as well. That I would “see the light”, and change my mind. That I would be punished for my words and actions that didn’t agree with theirs.

I prayed “around” my enemies. I didn’t pray for them. I didn’t lift them up before the throne of grace. I didn’t pray that they would be shown mercy– I certainly didn’t pray to meet them with humility and grace…

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Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.

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God, forgive me for holding bitterness and anger in my heart. I will never meet a human “enemy” that you didn’t create in Your own image. You have commanded that I am to love my neighbor– even one who disagrees with me; even one who considers me an “enemy.” I cannot delight in evil, or rejoice at injustice; but I must reach out in Love and not Self-Righteousness.

Why Have You Forsaken Me?

Have you ever doubted? Wondered, “Where is God?” Maybe even wondered if He exists at all? And then someone came along and made you feel wicked and small for having such a thought…”How could you!?”

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I know there are people who believe that faith is not really faith if you can have moments of doubt– that true faith never wavers, stumbles, or has tough questions. I don’t think this is Biblical, nor do I think this reflects God’s relationship with us. The Bible is full of “faithful” people who had moments of doubt.

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Abraham, when told that he would become the father of many nations, believed, and it was counted as righteousness (Genesis 15:6, Hebrews 11:11, Romans 4:3, etc.) Abraham’s faith was so solid, that he was willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac, the son of God’s Promise! Yet Abraham and Sarah acted outside of absolute faith when they brought in Hagar and tried to start a family on their own. God still blessed Hagar and Ishmael, but they were not part of the fulfillment of God’s plan. And over four thousand years of bad blood between the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael are a sad reminder that Abraham did not trust God absolutely and completely.

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King David was a “man after God’s own heart.” Yet David wrote often about his feelings of being abandoned or forsaken by God. (See Psalm 10, Psalm 13, and Psalm 22 among others.) Elijah, within hours of a great victory over hundreds of angry priests of Baal, after a miraculous demonstration of God’s power and faithfulness, hid in despair and asked to die, sure that God had abandoned him to his enemies (1 Kings 19).

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Most telling is the statement from Jesus Himself on the cross. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:45-46; Mark 15:33-34) Although He was quoting one of King David’s psalms (22:1), the words still ask a very harsh question. Did Jesus Himself doubt God’s presence or His boundless love? (I don’t think so, but it is this kind of statement that often invites condemnation from those who cannot allow for any momentary doubt of any kind.)

I don’t believe any of these moments in the Bible are accidental. I believe God wants us to know that His presence and His faithfulness do not depend on the absolute strength of our faith. I believe it is one of the reasons that Jesus spoke of faith “as small as a mustard seed” (Matthew 17:20). It is not the size or the strength of our faith that determines what God can or will do. It is the size and strength of our faith that causes US to understand what God is doing and to participate more fully with Him. And taking our momentary doubts and questions to God shows a different kind of faith– one that is strong enough to BE tested and triumph. God rewards those who SEEK Him. If we never need to seek, or ask, or knock (See Matthew 7:7), could it be that we are not trusting in Him, but in our own wisdom?

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Take heart! Have faith! But don’t be afraid to go through valleys of doubt, or wrestle with difficult questions. And if someone else is struggling–be willing to listen to their doubts and questions, rather than just dismissing them. God does…

Do Not Ask…

*Warning– The following poem is a work of fiction. The first part of this post is meant to reflect emotions that may be associated with depression and suicide. The represent things I have heard, and some things I have said…

Do not ask me, “How are things going?”
Things go on around me. Things happen at me.
Things are not going– of if they are, I am not going with them…

Do not ask me, “Are you ok?”
I will say, “Sure, everything’s fine.”
Not because it is; not because I am, and
Not because I care whether you believe me.
It is what I will say because it gives you permission
To feel good about asking, without actually having to
Share the pain and fog and futility of my honest answer.

Do not ask me, “How are you doing?”
I am not doing– not much of anything.
I live surrounded by unfinished tasks–
Stacks of unwashed dishes and piles of dirty laundry;
Unpaid bills and unopened mail.
I forget to eat or brush my teeth;
I have trouble finding the energy to remember how to
Smile, use polite words, look up, function…

Do not ask, “How are you?”
For I am not…

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How do I pray for someone like this? How do I pray AS someone like this?

Depression is devious and deadly. It impacts thousands of lives, and takes thousands of lives each day.
It is easy enough for me to say, “Snap out of it!”, or to blame the person who chooses to think and act negatively. After all, attitude is a choice. We choose to look at the positive or negative in life, and no one else can choose for us what to think or how to feel.

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What we can choose– all of us– is to turn our focus on God and away from the negative. I cannot rescue someone else from their own emotional demons; I cannot save myself with “positive” thoughts. I CAN cry out to the one who loves me more than I love myself– even on my best days–that HE would transform my thinking, and bring light into the darkness of those who cannot see past the fog and mire of their own gloom.

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And I can stop asking the surface questions– “How are you?”– prying and digging without being prepared for the raw ooze and festering pus that comes with honesty. Those questions may be well-meant, but they often come without context or conviction. They can become a polite way of skirting the obvious– we EXPECT the reassurance that everything is fine; and when it isn’t, we feel obligated to come up with a quick cure for a problem we haven’t fully diagnosed.

Depression is scary– both for those who experience it and those who encounter it in someone else. Ignoring it, covering it up, or trying to force it into the background doesn’t help. Nor does it help to wallow in it, trying to micro-manage it or hyper-spiritualize it.

The same God who listened to Elijah begging to die just after his momentous victory over 450 prophets of Baal (1 Kings 19: 1-14); the same God who listened to David in exile, Jonah from the belly of the whale, Moses in the midst of rebellion and exhaustion, and Job from the ash heap– He listens to us in our weariness, our grief, our confusion, and our depression. This is the same God who Himself experienced the agony of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42), and expressed a soul “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”

If you are struggling with depression, even if you question whether God is listening, you can still pray. God will never ask, “Are you ok?”– He already knows. Moreover, He already knows the best that He has for you.

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If someone you know is struggling with depression, PRAY! But don’t stop there. When Elijah was depressed, God sent food and water. When Moses was struggling with the entire nation of Israel in the wilderness, God sent food and water– and wisdom from Moses’ father-in-law. Practical help, positive reminders, and consistent care DOES make a difference. I cannot begin to tell how many times a random smile or compliment has helped stem the tide for me. Someone I haven’t seen in awhile who doesn’t just jump in asking how I’m doing, or how I’m feeling, but instead comments that it is good to see me–someone who admits that they have struggled, and found grace and healing– someone whose primary goal is not to “check up on me,” or “fix me,” but rather to interact and connect and to be “present” with me.

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Losing someone to suicide is horribly painful, and it is tempting to carry a load of guilt and unanswered/unanswerable questions. PRAY! And then PRAY some more! God won’t send easy answers; He won’t take away the pain of loss; though He will provide healing and grace. But God will do as He has promised– to BE with us, no matter what, and to give us a peace that passes all understanding. God never punished the people in the Bible for feeling depressed, or for crying out in despair. God didn’t tell them to “Snap out of it,” or to “Get over it.” But neither did He coddle it. He did not rescue those, like King Saul, who fell on their own swords rather than falling on their knees.

For more Biblical information on depression: see https://www.beliefnet.com/wellness/health/emotional-health/depression/5-bible-figures-who-struggled-with-depression.aspx#:~:text=Even%20kings%20get%20depressed.%20King%20David%20was%20%E2%80%9Ca,Psalms%2C%20stem%20from%20any%20of%20several%20probable%20causes.

Please pray– but don’t ignore practical help. Even simple steps, like taking a shower, paying attention to sleeping, eating, and drinking habits, making sure you move/exercise/stretch throughout the day, can help. Ask for and accept help– true help–and beware of asking for “substitute” help that will enable you to continue with unhealthy thinking and behavior.

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Because I want you to “do well.” I want you to “be ok.” I want you to be!

Chasing Epiphany

Today marks Epiphany– the day traditionally celebrating the arrival of the Magi to see the Baby Jesus. (Matthew 2:1-12) The Bible does not give us many details about the Wise Men. We don’t know if there were three or thirty. We don’t know if they all came from the same region, or if they came from many different nations and regions and met up along the journey. We only know that they had studied the skies; having seen a new and very bright star (or comet or conjunction of stars), they plotted its course across the sky and “followed” it to Israel– first to Jerusalem, and then to Bethlehem. They brought gifts fit for the king they expected to meet.

What a surprise it must have been for them to reach Jerusalem. After many days (weeks? months?) of travel, they arrived, only to be met with shock and confusion by the leaders and wise men of Israel. Hundreds of prophesies pointed to the birth of Messiah, yet the Jewish leaders were oblivious to His arrival, almost under their very noses! They were not ignorant of the prophesies– they “knew” that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Yet, they showed no interest in traveling with the other wise men to meet their own redeemer. Instead, they sent the foreigners to pay homage, while they plotted in Jerusalem to help Herod kill hundreds of innocent infants. These are the same priests, prophets, and wise men who had been studying, praying for, and waiting for the arrival of Messiah for hundreds of years. How could they have missed it?!

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Epiphany is not just the name for this day of the Kings with their three gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh– it is a word that tells of a sudden realization or understanding of the essence of a truth. But how often do we chase an epiphany–pray for answers, or memorize scripture–only to miss the point? How often are we focused on the pages of history, or our computer screens, only to miss the wondrous star in the sky? Are we, like the Jewish leaders of their age, missing the Epiphany?

God is ready to show us the miracle of His Mercy, the sufficiency of His Grace, and the depths of His great Love– are we chasing an Epiphany that is right under our noses? Let’s be ready to look up, to follow the star, and to be amazed!

Prayers for the Nameless…

I keep a prayer journal. In it, I like to write the names of people I know and pray for– family, friends, neighbors, etc. For every day of the year, I have a list of people who are celebrating birthdays or anniversaries (if I know about them). And I also have a space where I list specific requests related to health or suffering, needs, grieving, and more.

But many times, I also get generic or “unspoken” requests–no names or specific details. And for every day of the year, I also have a place or region– a city, state, province, nation, continent, ocean, desert–for which I pray. Sometimes, this can be awkward. I don’t always know for whom I am praying, or for what outcome…should I pray for peace?..prosperity?..courage?..the weather?..the government?..

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So what is the point? Why not stick to more “focused” prayer? Why not pray for those things with which I am most familiar? Most comfortable? Most able to make or see a difference?

Because God calls us to pray. And He calls us to pray both for those people and things we know well, and those we can only hope to trust to Him. I don’t have to know WHY I am praying for Albania (beyond the fact that it is on tomorrow’s page of my prayer journal). I don’t have to know who lives there, or what the needs are. I don’t have to know, because God knows, and I am trusting HIM to know the who and the why, the how and the when.

The other day, I was reading in Genesis– the story of Noah, and the Ark. The Bible introduces Noah by giving us a genealogy: a list of the descendants of Adam through to Noah. And there is a curious side story about Nephilim, and giants, and wickedness. But there is something noticeably missing. The women’s names. Even in the story of Noah that follows, Noah and his sons are named. But not the wives…we know they are there in the Ark. We know they were saved from the flood. We know they were crucial to the survival and future of mankind, but there are no names. At other times throughout the Bible narrative, there are seemingly endless lists of names of people we are likely to forget–names like Peninnah (1 Samuel 1:2), Unni (1 Chronicles 15:18), Shelumiel (Numbers 10:18), Palal (Nehemiah 3:25), Tryphena (Romans 16:12), or Onesiphorus (2 Timothy 1:16).

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Names are important to the Lord. He knows each and every person’s name before they are even born. He knows the number of hairs on each person’s head (even the ones that used to be there!). But it is not necessary for US to know every name, every need, or every situation in order to lift it before our omniscient and loving Father.

So I will continue to pray for the nameless and the unknown. I will lift up unspoken and unformed requests to the God I DO know.

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Another reason I continue to pray for the nameless is that it keeps my focus outward. One of the drawbacks of the modern and post-modern world is that the “smaller” our world becomes, the smaller our focus. I can connect, via internet, to people around the globe. I can look up statistics for any country or region; I can see news reports and video uploads in real time from nearly every corner of the world. But it can be frightfully easy to turn my focus on myself and those immediately around me, to the exclusion of those whose names don’t show up on my “friends” list, or those whose faces get lost among the thousands of videos, and Facebook Posts, and Instagram shots. It can be deceptively easy to depend on what I can “know” from a computer screen, and not to depend on what God knows to be true.

Let’s open our hearts and minds to pray for the nameless among us– near and far. They are not nameless to God, and they are precious in His sight. And somewhere, someone may be praying for “nameless” people in our nation, or city, or region– US!

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Out of Time

We’ve said Goodbye to 2020–in another 365 days we will have finished the year 2021. At some point, it will “run out” of its designated time. We live in a world limited by time and space.

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But God lives outside of time and space– He rules them, bends them, and contains them in His sovereignty. I often write about the omnipresence of God– that He is everywhere. In fact, the only place He is NOT is Hell; and He’s even visited there, once… But God is also omnipresent in time. He IS the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob– always, and all at once, along with being the God of everyone who has ever called and will ever call upon His name to put their trust in Him. God IS in the past; He is ever present, and He is already in the future, acting and overseeing His plans and purposes.

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With the birth of Jesus Christ, God did not step out of time– instead, He inserted Himself into time and space and obeyed the limits He Himself had placed. He came exactly when He had determined, exactly where, and exactly how He had planned. And the same is true of His death and resurrection. His death on the cross was not a moment too soon, and not a single second overdue. Yet, Jesus was at the mercy of the very time and space He had created. Just like us, He was limited to being in one place at a time, and limited to the circumstances around Him.

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Nothing shows this better than the story of Lazarus (John 11). A close friend of Jesus, Lazarus became mortally ill. Word was sent to Jesus so He could come immediately and heal Lazarus, but He delayed in coming. He delayed for two days, continuing to work where He was before going to help friend. He knew that Lazarus would not survive. By the time He arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had not only died, but had been buried. Both of Lazarus’s sisters greeted Jesus with the same rebuke–” If you had been here, my brother would not have died…” The God who is everywhere, always, was limited by His physical form, and had to walk to Bethany. He could not continue to work in one area, and be in Bethany at the same time. Nor could He stop time and space so the Lazarus’s sickness could “wait” for Jesus’s arrival days later. But the Sovereign, Omnipresent God had not “run out of time” to save His friend. Even in His human form, in His “inability” to get to Bethany “in time,” Jesus was acting according to His Sovereign plan. He brought Lazarus out of the grave! He was “there” in all of His power and mercy. And He was precisely where and when He needed to be!

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As we enter a new year, it comes with limitations–12 months, 52 weeks, 365 days, and so on–we can’t see what will happen, or where we will be in March or September. It may seem that God is “late,” or “absent” in our circumstances. We may be tempted to stop praying when we don’t see immediate answers. We may, like Mary and Martha, be tempted to scold the very author of Life when we don’t get the answer we want when we want it.

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This year, let us remember that God is beyond time and space. This allows us to trust that He can and will do what is best, when it is best. It also allows us to trust that God can make the most of OUR time as we trust it to Him. We may be limited to 24 hours a day, but we serve a God who can stretch and bend time, and supplement even our smallest efforts and resources with the endless riches of His Grace!

AMEN!

This year is winding down, and many people are ready to say, “Amen!” It was a difficult year for many, one filled with upheaval, disease, uncertainty, and fear. We are ready to say, “Goodbye, and Good Riddance!”

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But when we pray, and we say, “Amen,” it doesn’t just mean “the end,” or “goodbye”. Amen means, “let it be so” or “so be it.” It doesn’t just mean that we are finished speaking to God for the moment. It means that we are giving God the final word– we are turning over all our thoughts, our requests, our praises, our worries, and our questions to God and leaving them in His capable hands.

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And so it is with the year 2020. We are not sending 2020 on its way, attempting to bury its memories or remove it from history. Even in the pain and uncertainty, there were blessings, and lessons learned this year. But it is time to say, “Amen!” Even so, Lord Jesus, let it be as YOU will. Whatever losses, whatever struggles, whatever blessings we have faced this year, let it be to Your Glory and Honor. And let us accept and even embrace the new year, not just for its difference from the past, but for the plans and purposes You have already put in place. Finally, let us be thankful for the year you have given, and the fact that you have been with us every step of the way, no matter how steep or slippery the road. AMEN!

God is faithful. He is steady, and kind, and good– no matter what temporary circumstances we face. Nothing that happened this past year took our Lord by surprise. Nothing escaped His notice. He did not turn His face away; He did not make a mistake, or forget any of His promises. His timing and His ways may not be the same as ours, but His purposes are eternal and eternally perfect. We can rest in peace and confidence because He is Sovereign and Holy and His mercy endures forever! (see Psalm 136).

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Can I get an AMEN?!

Let’s look forward to 2021, because God is already there, and we can trust that He will be in control.

When Christmas Wasn’t Merry

I know several people who had a very Merry Christmas this year. Some of them flew to exotic locations and spent Christmas on the beach, or in a big city with lights and dozens of family members. Some of them spent a cozy Christmas in a cabin with roaring fires and glittering snow-covered trees, eating sumptuous meals and unwrapping expensive gifts.

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But most of the people I know spent a Christmas that wasn’t “post-card” perfect. Some of them were alone in a small apartment with no presents and no heat. Some were working at a job they hate because they had no other option. Some were grieving loved ones lost in the past months. Some of them are facing economic mountains– debt, job loss, medical bills or taxes they cannot pay, no money for rent or groceries… Some are battling cancer or alcoholism, anger, or fear. Some are estranged from their families, or separated from loved ones because of COVID, or deployment, or divorce. And some are facing persecution, starvation, homelessness, disease, or war.

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Christmas comes, whatever our circumstances– and so does the Christ Child. Jesus didn’t come to the earth to bring us all “better” circumstances or worry-free holidays, but to deliver us from eternal death, and equip us to endure the circumstances we face in life. Jesus himself came in chaotic and stressful circumstances, and He came, knowing that He would face rejection, hatred, injustice, and death on a cross.

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There are millions of people who spent a “Merry” Christmas and missed the whole point. Some of us indulged in a gift-giving frenzy that left others in the cold. Some of us allowed envy, fear, greed, or bitterness to color our Christmas. In the process, many of us lost sight of the true gifts of Christmas– Peace, Joy, and Goodwill. In fact, “His divine power has given us EVERYTHING we need for a godly life through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness.” (2 Peter 1:3)

And these gifts are not temporary, like earthly Christmas gifts. They are always available, and they never break, expire, or grow dim. My prayer for this year(and the year to come) is that we all may find–and share!– these eternal and astounding gifts, this “inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade…kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4)

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Christmas Day may not always be merry in this life, but because of Christmas we can face an eternity that will never disappoint, and we have a living Hope that can carry us through even the darkest hours!

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