Anticipation…

Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent. Four weeks later, we will have Christmas Day. For some, the time will pass in a frenzy of shopping and wrapping– the time will fly by! For some, the time will pass in meditation and reflection– it may seem to crawl. For some, the time will pass with no difference from any other time of year. For most of us, there is a sense of anticipation…we are waiting for something: the “Christmas Spirit,” the festivals and events, the time spent with loved ones far and near…

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Christmas, more than any other day, brings this sense of expectation. We sing songs, listen to stories, reach out to friends and neighbors– all in anticipation of a single day. And sometimes, the anticipation and expectation exceed the realities of the day. We feel disappointed in the gifts, or the weather, or the circumstances. But our anticipation shouldn’t be about the single day on the calendar. Christmas is so much more than just a day, or even just the “spirit” of the day.

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We don’t know the actual, historical day when Christ entered human history as a baby. As the Gospel of John relates– “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word WAS God.” (John 1:1) But this Word, this Only Begotten Son of the Father, this second person of the Trinity, DID enter human history as a member of the human race. He came and dwelt among us, His creation. He walked and talked, ate and slept, worked and wept, lived and died as a man. The Lord of All Creation tasted freshly baked bread and felt the first raindrops of Springtime. The King of the Universe wiggled His toes in the sand, and wiped sweat from His brow. The Lamb of God shared belly-laughs with His friends over a shared joke. The Lion of Judah wept over the death of His friend. The Author of Life knew what it was to die, abandoned and betrayed.

None of this is anticipation for us, as it was for the prophets of old. It is history. Christ has already come. He already lived a life of compassion and grace, wonder and weariness, agony and anticipation, and, most of all, Love. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that Whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting Life.” John 3:16 Christmas for us is not about anticipating Christ’s arrival. Christmas is the celebration of what that arrival means for us all these years later and forevermore. And we can celebrate all the wonder of Christ on any day of the calendar year. But there IS real anticipation at Christmas– the anticipation of Eternal Life and Christ’s triumphant return. Just like the prophets waited and wondered, we wait in Hope of a glorious reunion.

Christmas, December 25, 2022, may be a disappointing day–it may be dreary, gloomy, lonely, or disappointing in its circumstances. It may bring us bad news, or heartache. But it will also bring us another opportunity to rejoice– to rise above whatever circumstance brings to focus our thoughts forward and upward, where Christ, who once came as a baby, now reigns and rules and waits– anticipating the same reunion that brings us hope and healing.

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No Greater Love…

This coming Monday we will be celebrating Memorial Day in the U.S. It is a day to remember those who gave their lives in battle, defending our nation, our people, and our way of life over the course of almost 250 years. We decorate the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers and flags and plaques honoring their sacrifices. It is a strange sort of “holiday.” We don’t like to think of wars and battles– we ache for those who are terrorized by wars in the current days. We don’t celebrate war and violence– our highest goal is to achieve and preserve peace and safety. And it can seem somewhat morbid to “celebrate” the fallen soldiers of bygone days.

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But we are not celebrating their deaths. We are celebrating the causes for which they fought and died. We celebrate freedom, and justice; the rights of individuals to pursue liberty and fulfill their dreams. These are causes worth fighting for, and yes, even dying for. We mourn the loss of life, and we grieve the necessity of fighting and struggling to preserve basic rights. But we are grateful for and humbled by the examples of those who have shown the courage and strength to give their all. We honor these sacrifices when we decorate the graves of fallen soldiers, or hold services and memorials at cemeteries. It is not meant to be a time of joyful celebration, but a time of solemn reflection and humble gratitude.

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But Memorial Day can also be a time of reflecting on an empty grave– that of Jesus Christ, who gave His all for a cause even greater than liberty and justice in a particular nation or time or for a particular group of people. Jesus gave His life to reconcile an unholy human race with a Holy and Righteous God. He fought against Sin and Death, and conquered them both. And we cannot decorate a grave to honor His sacrifice, because, unlike all the soldiers we honor next week, Jesus did not just preserve a cause or a way of life– He became Life for us. His grave is empty as a symbol of Death’s defeat!

It was Jesus Himself who said, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13 NASB) Soldiers who lay down their lives often do so to save the lives of their comrades at arms– their friends and fellow warriors– as well as their countrymen and women, their neighbors, and their families. And it isn’t just soldiers who give their lives. Recent news stories tell of teachers, police officers, and other individuals who have sacrificed their lives for the sake of innocent shoppers, students, and neighbors. Such sacrifices are tragic, but they are also heroic, and deserving of our acknowledgement.

We take time to honor those who died for a cause. How much more should we honor the One who died to bring eternal freedom and life to each one of us! And how much more should we be willing to give our lives for the sake His Kingdom! There is no greater love that we can show.

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Commencement Exercises

We’re entering graduation season. I’m already seeing notices of friends and family members who are, or who have family members, graduating from colleges and universities. Others are graduating from local high schools in the coming weeks. It’s an exciting time, when we celebrate achievements, encourage future success, and show support.

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We often call the graduation ceremony “commencement exercises.” Commencement means “beginning.” But so often, the celebrations seem to focus on the past. We look back on memories and accomplishments, we bid tearful farewells to friends who will go their separate ways, we console parents whose children will be “leaving the nest.”

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Graduation is supposed to be a time of looking forward. But it can be difficult to celebrate things that have not happened yet. We wish all the graduates well, but we cannot guarantee that the road ahead will be filled with success. In fact, we can almost guarantee that the road ahead will hold obstacles, failures, struggles, and suffering along the way! Sometimes, it may be easier to focus on what we already know and have experienced, than to dwell on the unknown. But—

We are also heading into a season that has traditionally been one of many weddings. My parents, one set of grandparents, my brother and sister and their spouses– all were married in the month of June. At weddings, we don’t focus on the past– we look forward and celebrate all the possibilities of the future. It truly IS a time of “commencement”– a beginning of a new family. We don’t console the parents on “losing” their child; instead we congratulate them on adding a new member to the family. We don’t focus on the past achievements (and certainly not the past relationships!) of the new couple– instead, we eagerly anticipate the new life they will forge together.

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In light of weddings, graduations, and commencements, it may seem odd that I would be thinking about funerals, but I see a connection. Funerals are not celebrations in the same sense as weddings and graduations. They are solemn times of mourning loss and the end of life. We honor the memory of our loved one– we cherish the memories and achievements and relationships that were in the past, but we don’t decorate with balloons and ribbons; we don’t sing and dance and make joyful noises; we don’t speak of the future…

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This is appropriate and natural. But at some point, as Christians, we should think beyond the end of this life and celebrate the “commencement” of eternal life. This short chapter of life has ended, but our loved one has merely “graduated” to a new and better life. Of course we grieve– we will miss the relationship we have shared in this life; our loved-one’s presence; shared jokes and memories of the past, or in the present; the familiar voice and listening ear; words of wisdom just when we need them– but our grieving is tempered with hope and joy. Not only will we meet again, but we will share a new life and a new relationship. The present may seem bleak, but the future looks very bright, indeed!

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Whatever type of “commencement” exercises await us this season, I hope we will take joy and find peace in the knowledge that God is planning exciting new beginnings at every stage of our lives and in the lives of others. Commencement awaits!

Saint Patrick’s Breastplate

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day tomorrow, I am reprinting one of his prayers, called St. Patrick’s Breastplate. For more on this and other prayers attributed to St. Patrick, see https://slife.org/saint-patricks-prayers/.

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St. Patrick (also known as Padraig or Padrig) lived in the fifth century during the last of the Roman era in Britain. Held as a slave in Ireland as a young man, he escaped and returned to his home. However, he felt called to return to the land of his captivity as a missionary. Today, he is celebrated for his efforts to bring the Good News of Christianity to the very people who had enslaved him. The following prayer is attributed to St. Patrick. It is as relevant today as it was over 1500 years ago:

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of the sun,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of the wind,
Depth of the sea,
Stability of the earth,
Firmness of the rock.

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I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me;
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s hosts to save me
Afar and anear,
Alone or in a multitude.

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Christ shield me today
Against wounding
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.

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I arise today
Through the mighty strength
Of the Lord of creation.

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The Right Time

But when the right time finally came, God sent his own Son. He came as the son of a human mother and lived under the Jewish Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might become God’s children

Galatians 4:4-5 (Good News Translation– emphasis added)

At just the right time Christ died for ungodly people. He died for us when we had no power of our own.

Romans 5:6 (New International Reader’s Version–emphasis added)

Do you ever wonder at God’s timing throughout the Bible? Why did He take the Israelites up to the edge of the Red Sea and THEN send the entire Egyptian army after them? Why did He allow Haman to trick the king into signing an edict that would wipe out the Jews and THEN send Esther to try to save them? Why did Jesus wait until Lazarus was dead to visit His sick friend? Or God’s timing in our own lives? Why didn’t He make it possible to get the job I wanted when I first applied, instead of nearly a year later? Why is life so stressful all at once? Why does God seem to give me wisdom AFTER I’ve messed up? And yet, God’s timing is perfect. Not that it seems that way–in fact, it often seems like God is not paying attention to timing at all.

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Even in Christ’s birth, it seems like the timing couldn’t have been worse–Joseph and Mary forced to travel far from home, only to find that there was no room anywhere for them to rest. And then– THEN–the labor pains began! It was cold, dark, filthy, lonely, and frightening. And not just that evening: the Romans ruled a significant portion of the world with an iron fist. Jews were not forbidden from worshipping God, but they were heavily taxed, regulated, and watched over by their invaders. This newest census was just another part of the bureaucracy and endless government red tape. It seems like it would be the worst timing ever for Emmanuel to appear.

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And yet, Scripture says it was “just the right time” for Christ to come. So what can we discover about this “right time?”

  • God had been silent for 400 years before this– almost exactly the same amount of time the Israelites had been in captivity in Egypt before God sent Moses to lead them out. Coincidence? I’m not so sure…God uses patterns to illustrate concepts. Just as the Israelites had been slaves to the Egyptians, so all of us were slaves to Sin and Death. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” John 3:14 (New American Standard Bible)
  • The prophets made hundreds of statements about where and how Emmanuel would be born– some seemed completely contradictory; yet they were all fulfilled exactly. Again, this wasn’t a coincidence– God orchestrated events over centuries until it was “the right time” for them to all come to pass. Only God could have coordinated it all–the census, the genealogy of Jesus, Joseph’s hometown, Mary’s contractions coming THAT night in THAT cattle shed, instead of on the road somewhere, or in a private room where the shepherds couldn’t visit…
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  • The Jewish people had been in exile off and on throughout the centuries; under Rome, even though they were conquered, most of the Jews who had returned to their homeland were still living there, much as they had centuries before. That wasn’t the case four or five hundred years before– it isn’t even the case today– more Jewish people live outside of Israel than in it!
  • Rome had established its rule over most of the Western World– and with it, they had established a system of roads, common currency, and a complex legal system. All of this played vital roles in the advent of the Savior– from His birth, through His ministry, and even in His trial, death, and the spreading of the Gospel. Before them, the Greeks had established cities and trading centers that would form the basis of the first missionary trips of the Apostle Paul. And they had created a “common” language in which this Good News was first written and spread. Just a few hundred years earlier, the spread of Christianity through letters and traveling ministers would have been much slower, less efficient, and more dangerous. Just a few hundred years later, the Roman Empire would be in shambles; travel would require going through regions separated by differing languages and governments.
  • To me, one of the most fascinating things to imagine is what it might be like if Christ had not come until our own time. First, there would be no Christianity, and none of the work of Christians over the centuries would have been done. But even if we imagine that all of history had unfolded and the present was much as it is, Christ’s birth would not have happened in the same way. Bethlehem would not be under the rule of Rome. In fact, Israel might not even exist; as it is, it exists in hot contention between the Jews, the Palestinians, and their close neighbors in the Middle East. There would be no census, and no need for Joseph and Mary to travel– and certainly not by donkey! There might be “no room at the inn,” but Joseph and Mary would be sent to a homeless shelter, filled with other hapless travelers. The shepherds, seeing angels, might still be filled with fright– mistaking them for missiles! Even so, it would only take minutes for a team of journalists to arrive with cameras, microphones, and commentary! The message of the angels would be dubbed “false” information or “fake news”, as would most of the prophecies about His arrival. “Fact checkers” would “kill” the story, and Mary, Joseph, and all the shepherds and wise men would be “cancelled” or receive threats.
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Or not–I can only speculate. But I can say with confidence that God’s timing, even when it seems odd or “wrong” by our limited perspective, is perfect and worthy of our praise. All that seems “odd” or “wrong” about Christ’s coming when, where, or how He did, is just our limited perspective, and our tendency to doubt whatever we don’t understand.

Emmanuel came! He came at “just the right time” to fulfill all the promises and complete His ministry on Earth. Everything happened just as God designed it. And over two thousand years later, we still “Rejoice!” We sing songs, celebrate, and worship. We breathe in Hope, we give gifts, and we cherish the story of Christmas in hundreds of different ways.

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This same God has a plan for us today. Throughout our lives, He sends blessings, allows struggles, and patiently stands by, offering help and hope to each of us. There is not a single detail of our lives that escapes His notice or is beyond His capacity or willingness to restore, transform, redeem, or renew.

Emmanuel– God WITH us–at “just the right time!”

November Poem

God is:

Worthy
Omnipotent
Never changing, the
Desire of the Ages
Eternal
Revered
Father
Unlimited
Light

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Jesus is:

Forever faithful
Accessible
Incomparable
Trustworthy
Hope for the hopeless
Full of
Unending
Love

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I am:

Grateful
Redeemed
Aspiring to be like Christ
Trusting that I am
Empowered by His Spirit to
Forgive others, even as I am
Unworthy of His unending
Love

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We are:

Transformed
Humble
Able to do “all things” through Christ
No longer slaves to Sin
Known by our Love for each other
Fruitful
Upheld in the power of His
Love

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Celebrate Variety

It’s growing and harvesting season in our area for many vegetables. Gardens have been spilling over with zucchini, cabbages, carrots, summer squash, onions, green beans, peas, tomatoes, potatoes, sweet corn, and much more. Similarly, the flower gardens are blooming with every color and variety imaginable– bright yellow sunflowers, tiny blue and white blossoms, and red cardinal flowers. I’m amazed at the variety of wonderful things God designed for us.

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Did you know there are dozens of different varieties of just carrots?! Orange, yellow, purple, red, white, long and skinny, or short and fat, rounded ends or tapered…and that doesn’t begin to cover varieties of tomatoes, potatoes, squash, etc. Not to mention fruits, nuts, grains, herbs, flowers, fungi, and bark that are edible. Plants of every size, color, shape, taste, and texture. And many plants have other uses– medicine, fibers for clothing and rope, dyes, wood for building or burning as fuel, oils, and so much more.

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And that’s just the plant world. There are millions of different varieties of insects in the world, and animals ranging from bats to butterflies, pandas to pigs, geese to giraffes, wolves to whales, ocelots to octopuses, and ponies to platypuses.

God could have provided only grass or leaves for us to eat, instead of giving us such a variety of tastes and textures for our nourishment. He could have made all trees look alike with the same texture of leaves/needles, and wood. He could have made just one kind of fish to swim the lakes and oceans. In the same way, God could have created us to act and look just the same. But God loves variety. He loves for us to discover and celebrate all the uniqueness of His creation– including our neighbors and family and friends.

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We have a tendency to look down on or make fun of differences– we say that some people are a little “corny,” while others are just plain “nuts,” or go “against the grain.” But the truth is, God designed each of us to reflect His nature in all Its infinite, glorious variety. We shouldn’t try to be someone else, or belittle someone else for not being just like us. Instead, we should reach out and celebrate those fellow “human beans” who carry a unique imprint of God’s image.

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Genesis 1:27-30 NIV
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Celebrate Life

My husband has celebrated his birthday this week, and it reminded me of some of the many ways we celebrate life. Before a baby is even born, we share special moments of excitement–sonograms, gender reveal parties, baby showers, picking out names, feeling little “kicks” and movements in the womb. We give gifts and blessings when the baby arrives. We take baby photos and commemorate all the “firsts”– first tooth, first steps, first words, etc. And each year, we remember. We send cards and other birthday greetings; we give gifts and have parties with special cakes and songs and party hats. We invite others to celebrate, as well.

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Not everyone celebrates birthdays, and some people make a mockery of their advancing age, but most of us think birthdays are a big deal, and worth celebrating. LIFE is a big deal. Life is a sacred gift, and we should cherish every moment of it. We celebrate the events of life– achievements, milestones, graduations, new jobs, promotions, relocations, marriages, anniversaries, retirements, and much more. Celebrating life is an industry– cards, balloons, T-shirts, reception halls, catering, special clothing (wedding dresses, tuxes, caps and gowns, etc.), special foods, party favors, confetti, gift items– we spend a lot of time, energy, money, and even “life” celebrating our lives.

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And we also celebrate life at its end. Even as we grieve the loss of loved ones, we seek to memorialize their lives. We hold funerals, publish obituaries and memorials, erect tombstones, build monuments, and write tributes and biographies. We celebrate the achievements, memories, and legacies of those who pass on. Their lives mattered. They don’t cease to matter when death comes. For the Christian, there is a special reason to celebrate the end of life– because it is NOT the end! Imagine the celebration of Life that will never end–the celebration of eternity with the Author, Giver, Redeemer, and Sustainer of Life!

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Many people have wished my husband an happy birthday this week, and they’ve offered prayers and good wishes. Today, I will be praying for many people who are celebrating a birthday. I will offer up a thanksgiving for their life, and celebrate the One who created each unique person on today’s list.

We’re going through a journey that has focused on worldwide death– fear of death and disease, despair, anger, desperation, and hopelessness. We shouldn’t ignore the reality of death around us, but we mustn’t let it overwhelm the life that is within us. Life is worth celebrating–ALWAYS!

The Lord Has Taken Away…

20 Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. 21 And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Job 1:20-21 ESV (via biblegateway.com)
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The book of Job presents us with a startling picture. Job is a godly man; a righteous man; a man of faith and good works. And yet, God allows him to experience loss upon loss– Job loses everything, short of his life and his nagging, bitter wife. His first response is praise and worship! But as the losses sink in; as the pain and agony and grief continue, Job questions God’s justice and wisdom. Job, like us, wants answers that make sense. He is willing to suffer– even greatly–IF he can see the purpose of his suffering, and justify it to himself.

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We are getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow in the U.S.– a day when we celebrate what God has given us. We normally celebrate family, health, good food, material blessings, etc. We celebrate abundance and comfort; peace and plenty; family and freedom. But his year, our celebration will be quite different. The Lord has taken away…

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Some of us have lost jobs, or we’ve lost our good health to COVID or related factors, or we’ve lost loved ones, often without the chance to say our final “goodbyes”. Millions of us have lost the ability to move about freely and conduct “normal” errands and activities. Schools and businesses are closed or operating from a distance. Families and friends have been kept apart. Much that gave us comfort and happiness has been “taken away” this year. And God has allowed it all to unfold. He has not “taken away” this disease or its consequences. He has not “taken away” floods, or fires, or hurricanes. He has not given us answers or explanations.

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Job’s initial praise turns to questioning. While he does not “curse God and die,” as his wife suggests, Job spends his time wondering, “Why me?” His friends try to find answers– “you must have done something to deserve this, Job.” Because God does not “punish” the righteous. It isn’t logical; it isn’t fair; it isn’t just.

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Except that God laid on His own Son– on Himself– the guilt and punishment for all those who are unrighteous. What Job went through–unknown and unseen to him and his friends–was a glimpse into what God Himself would suffer. Christ lost everything–INCLUDING his life– in order to bring salvation to all those who are willing to believe and receive it. Christ was willing to give away His dignity, His power, His friends and family, and His life. And the Lord allowed it all to be taken.

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Many people read the story of Job– his loss and all his questions and complaints–and conclude that God is not fair or just. They find Him to be capricious and unwilling to ease Job’s suffering or answer his questions. They conclude that God is wicked and unworthy of Job’s praise or trust.

But to do so is to ignore the end of the story– God DOES “answer” Job; He gives Job a chance to justify himself and bring his case. And more than that– He gives Job more than he had before. Job ends up with more children to love, renewed health, and even more wealth than he lost. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Job+42&version=CSB And the same is true of Jesus Christ. Because of His “loss,” the world has gained the priceless gift of Salvation by Grace. Christ has become the first of millions to taste victory over death and enter into eternal life. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+15%3A20-23&version=NIV

Loss and grief still exist in this world; disease and suffering and hardship still plague us this year. But we have SO much to celebrate at Thanksgiving. When the Lord “takes away,” it is not because He is capricious, or jealous of our wealth or happiness. It is not because He is unkind or uncaring. At just the right time, and forever more, the Lord will Give without end– lavishly, extravagantly, abundantly. Nothing He takes away in this life– even a cherished love one–is beyond all hope of comfort, redemption, or restoration. Our losses cannot compare to the riches of His Grace and Love. This is a great mystery, but as Job discovered, God WILL DO IT!

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Blessed be the name of the Lord! Let us Thank and Praise His Holy Name!

This Do in Remembrance…

We just celebrated Memorial Day in the United States–a day when we remember all those who have given their lives in service to their fellow countrymen and women. People decorate the gravestones of soldiers who were killed in action, they march in patriotic parades, and they hold memorial services, with military rites, prayers, and speeches.

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Not everyone celebrates in the same way. Some just use the day as an excuse to have a pre-summer cookout or swim-party. Some don’t commemorate the day at all. Some people use the day to honor veterans of the armed forces, or even those who risk their lives in emergency services– EMT’s, Firefighters, Police officers, and others. Others use the day to honor their ancestors, regardless of whether they served in the military.

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My husband and I fall on this end of the spectrum. We like to pay tribute to those who came before us– to those who left everything behind to start a new life as “pioneers”; those who lived through wars and diseases and struggles; those who left a legacy to our grandparents and parents–a legacy we hope to pass on. But we don’t worship our ancestors; we don’t worship the soldiers who died. We honor them, we remember their sacrifice, but we recognize that they were human, just like us. They may have died in battle or as the result of battle, but they died, just as we will. Their sacrifices may have been heroic; their efforts may have preserved freedom for us, or brought freedom to those who were oppressed. And that is what we honor. That is what we remember.

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Jesus Christ was not a soldier. Yet He sacrificed His life for a purpose much greater than the honor of a nation, or the freedom of family and friends. His sacrifice opened a way for us to be reconciled with God– to be declared righteous and Holy, in spite of what we have done (or failed to do). Our best efforts may end in tragic death on a battlefield– or in a hospital bed fighting cancer or AIDS. But our best efforts end in death. His best efforts destroyed the power of Death, and offered hope to all the world.

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Memorial Day comes once a year in my country. Other nations have similar days. It is important to remember those who have come before– those who have made sacrifices, and paved the way for future generations to live free. But around the world, Christians have reason to celebrate every day– to remember the death AND resurrection of our Savior that gives us eternal freedom from the sting of Sin and Death.

Before His death, Jesus gave his disciples a rite– a ceremony– to remember His death, and what it would mean in light of His resurrection. We call it Communion or Eucharist– the “body” and “blood” of Christ–consumed and memorialized each time we take it. We don’t hold parades or play Taps or plant flowers. We don’t have pool parties and barbecues. But we reflect with solemnity and gratitude on the sacrifice that conquered the grave once and for all!

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