Afraid to Call?

Some fears are understandable. Some fears are even logical. Some are not. I wouldn’t say that I am “afraid” of most things. I don’t spend hours of my life being afraid of unlikely events, like being struck by lightning or choking to death on a cracker. I have a healthy fear of electricity and fire. I don’t tempt fate by walking along the edge of cliffs or hanging out of thirty-story windows (both of which are rare where I come from, anyway) . But I have two phobias– irrational fears–that plague me. The first is my fear of snakes. My fear of snakes has not ruined my life, but it has caused me to limit activities– mostly nature walks– where I might be exposed to seeing a snake. I avoid the reptile house at the zoo; I avoid visiting places where snakes are more common. I don’t like to see pictures of them; I don’t watch “snake” movies.

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The second fear is more irrational and causes more problems in my daily life. I am afraid of phones. This doesn’t mean that I cannot make a phone call, or ever answer the phone. But if anyone asks about the best way to contact me, I always suggest e-mail, texts, or other forms of communication. I don’t like hearing the phone ring. I don’t like making calls. I don’t like answering calls. And it has little to do with who is on the other end. It has much more to do with the medium. I can’t see the other person’s face; I can’t predict whether or not the other person is busy or distracted; whether they want a quick answer or a lengthy talk; whether the conversation will end well or leave one (or both) of us at a loss. People call at their convenience–not at the convenience of the person at the other end. Are they in the middle of cooking dinner? Taking a shower? Having an important conversation with a spouse or child?

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But if I determine never to make or receive a phone call, I will miss other important conversations– family members who live far away; business that cannot be conducted in person; appointments that need to be set up; news about births, deaths, hospitalizations, even prayers and prayer requests.

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I say all this because I knew there are some people who have a phobia about prayer. They are afraid to pray– not just in public, but even privately. They fear that they will say the wrong thing, or that they will “bother” God with their petitions. Some fear that God will not hear their prayer or that they will not get an answer. Some are afraid that they will “get what they pray for”– that God will hear their prayer and answer it, but that the answer will involve change, hardship, or pain that they were hoping to avoid. Some fear that their prayers will not be “good enough;” that God will misunderstand their motives or be offended by their words or their lack of knowledge. Some people are afraid of God– that He will reject them and their prayers because of something they have done or the way they have lived in the past.

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Prayer is not meant to be intimidating or difficult. It is healthy to have awe for God. Even “fear” of God– He holds the power of life and death; He cannot be fooled or mocked or bargained with; He knows everything about us, including our thoughts and our past–God is not to be trifled with, even in prayer. But God invites us to pray. He calls us to come to Him; He seeks our fellowship, no matter what we’ve done or what words we string together. There is no magical “prayer formula”– no phrases or special “religious” words or a certain ritual or routine– that we must use to be heard. God– who formed the universe and keeps it running– is never too busy or too distracted to listen to us. Even groans and whimpers are important to Him.

Don’t be “afraid to pray.” And don’t let a fear keep you from praying. Pray through the fear– draw near to God– and He has promised to draw near to you.

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Many years ago, I prayed to God, that He would increase my patience. I had well-meaning people– even pastors and other Christians– who told me not to do it. They were afraid that God’s answer to such a prayer would bring difficulty– that God would answer my prayer by making me go through hard times to learn patience. And He did just that. I wanted to be married and have a family–and I spent nearly 30 years waiting and learning patience! But I would not go back and undo those years. God answered my prayer and He gave me a wonderful husband and family– in His time. Sometimes in those decades of wondering and hurting, I had pain. But I — also had many blessings in singleness–opportunities I had never planned on, changes in perspective, unforeseen experiences and relationships that, I think, prepared me to be a better person and a better wife than I would have been at age 18 or 20.

My prayer for patience was something I felt strongly about– and patience is a Godly thing; it is an aspect of the fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). I wasn’t praying for money or fame or a life without struggles. In fact– I wasn’t praying that God would “make me” patient. People who believe that my years of waiting for a husband were the direct result of my prayer for increased patience assume that God changed the circumstances of my life to force me to learn a lesson. But what if God changed my desires to match my circumstances? What if, knowing that I would marry after age 45, God put that prayer in my young and impatient heart? If I hadn’t asked for patience, would I have taken matters into my own hands and tried to “make” a family in my way and my time? Would I have experienced more pain– and brought pain to others– if I hadn’t learned patience?

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God knows what we need. He knows that there WILL be trouble and hardship in our lives. And He knows that we can survive, and even thrive, in times of trouble, because He will be there with us. Nothing about prayer should make us afraid. Nothing about God’s answers should cause us not to seek His face. He loves us extravagantly; He knows us intimately; He controls and safeguards our future with perfect power.

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And we don’t need to use a phone to call on Him!

These Three Remain–Faith

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.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. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.  11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13 (NIV) via http://www.biblegateway.com
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I love reading God’s word. I spent much of my youth memorizing scripture, and much of my adulthood trying to recall what I learned then! One chapter I memorized was 1 Corinthians 13– commonly known as the “Love” chapter.

But near the end of the chapter, Paul talks about what remains, and what doesn’t–he says that prophecies and knowledge will pass away, and things that are incomplete will disappear. He lists three things that will remain. We often spend a lot of time on Love (and I will get there eventually), but I want to talk about all three, why they must remain, and why they are connected in prayer. I will begin today with Faith.

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Faith, as we learn in Hebrews 11:1, is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Faith is foundational. Faith gives us roots. Faith is an anchor. Faith keeps us grounded and strong. But Faith, as the above metaphors suggest, is deep and unseen. I can’t “show” you an anchor when it is in use. If I pull up a tree to see its roots, or tear down a building to show off its foundations, I will destroy the very thing I am trying to illustrate.

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And Faith demonstrates itself best under testing. I have to admit, this year has been a difficult test of my Faith, and that of many others. Do I REALLY believe that God exists? That He cares? That He listens to prayer? That He answers? It is easy enough to say all that, but when everything around looks murky and uncertain, do my actions match my words? Do I live as though God is in control? Is His word still an anchor for me when it doesn’t seem to “work?” Do my prayers reflect confidence and praise in the midst of riots and plagues? Are my prayers filled with Faith that God is who He says He is, and that He will do what He has promised? Or are my prayers timid and empty– wispy wishes, instead of honest heart-cries?

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Where is my faith? Is it in myself? My words? The words of other people?My actions and deeds? In powerful groups? Governments? Money? Chance? Even Religion? Does my Faith rest in following the laws of the Bible? Does it rest in knowing the “right” picky points of theology? Or does it rest in the One who is unchanging, eternal, and all-powerful?

The world is screaming. The world is filled with fire, smoke, and flashing lights. Is God silent? Is He being drowned out or hidden by the chaos we’re walking through? Or am I listening to wrong voices, and focusing on smoke and fog?

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I can’t show you the roots of my Faith in this moment. I can’t see them, and sometimes, I feel shaken. But, as Job declared, “I know my Redeemer lives” (Job 19:25a)! I will continue to declare that God DOES exist. He DOES care. He DOES listen. And He WILL answer. And I will continue to Hope and Love in light of this Faith. I will continue to seek patience, and kindness, humility, truth, justice, and perseverance as I reach out to others.

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I Can Do All Things..

I know many Christians who cite Philippians 4:13 as their favorite verse: “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” And while this is a powerful verse, and holds great promise, I think it has been misused and taken out of context too often in recent years.

The Apostle Paul wrote this– from a prison cell as he awaited trial and a likely sentence of death! And this thought is a summary statement. It follows a list of circumstances in which Paul had experienced needs, and questions, and setbacks, and lack of provision.

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In this season of “sheltering in place,” I have a new appreciation for Paul’s letter. I am not in jail, but there are many restrictions (temporary, but seemingly endless) on where I can go and what activities I can pursue in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. I cannot “do all things” in any normal sense. My family could not gather for Mother’s Day this year. We cannot have friends over for a meal, or take our grandchildren to the movies, or meet together for a traditional church service on Sundays. I cannot open my little shop to customers. I can’t go and get a haircut or hang out at the bakery or coffee shop.

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And there are others who are struggling, not just with restrictions, but with increased expectations. They cannot “do all things” to help a dying patient, or stop the spread of infection in their nursing home or hospital ward. They cannot answer frenzied questions about timelines and protocols. They cannot work effectively from home and still be available to their children as both parent and surrogate teacher. Or, they cannot meet the needs of their students without face-to-face interaction.

But Paul is not talking about the mere completion of a worldly task, or achieving a personal goal. Paul isn’t suggesting that he (or anyone else) can do anything and everything he might want to do or that others might wish him to do. He has just finished talking about times of lack, of wants and needs and facing uncertainties. Paul did not (even with Christ’s help) skip lightly around Asia Minor, making friends and influencing people.

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So what DID he do? What did he mean by “all things?”

Paul speaks often throughout his letter of “running a race.” Paul learned that in all circumstances, with whatever resources, whatever restrictions, and whatever obstacles, he could “run” his race. Under persecution or in times of great success; in times of plenty, or in times of hunger; in prison or on the road (or seas); in Jewish synagogues or Greek amphitheaters; alone or in crowds– Paul could worship God. He could proclaim the Gospel. He could spread the love and grace of Christ Jesus. If he couldn’t travel, he could still speak. If he couldn’t speak, he could write. If he couldn’t write, he could pray. He could do “all things” that were necessary to accomplish his one goal– to run the race; to finish strong; to live a life of purpose and worship.

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May we do the same today, through Christ, who gives us strength. I may not be able to gather with friends, but I have the blessing of being able to call, or e-mail, or IM, or send encouragement. I can still write this blog. I can still pray– in fact I have more time to do so! I can do “all things” that will fulfill my purpose and bring honor to God. And so can you. What a privilege–no matter where we are or what our circumstances!

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I Shall Not Want..

Of all the 150 Psalms in the Bible, Psalm 23 is the most well-known. It speaks of our Lord as a Shepherd who takes care of us, leading us to green pastures and calming our fears even in the valley of the shadow of death. But these four words in the very first verse, though comforting to many, have also been a source of grief to others. If the Lord is my Shepherd, I should have no reason to want. But what if I still have wants? Unanswered prayers? Struggles and trials and lacks?

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Let’s look at the phrase carefully. “I shall not want” is the wording in the King James (English) version of scripture. More modern translations render the phrase as “I lack nothing (NIV),” “I have what I need (CSB),” or other variations of “I shall not want.” Let’s stick with “I shall not want,” and look at it word by word.

This Psalm is very personal. The Lord is MY Shepherd– I shall not want. This is between me and my Shepherd. I may be tempted to look around and compare, to want what someone else has, even if I don’t need it; even if it isn’t good for me. But when I depend on my Shepherd to provide, I can trust that whatever comes, He knows what I want and what I need. He knows what is best. Therefore, I shall not worry or wonder or want.

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I am a former English teacher, so the verb “shall” interests me here. “Shall” and “will” are sometimes used interchangeably in English, but they are not exactly the same. “Shall” is not used much, but it indicates a future condition, or a condition that is ongoing into the future. It is not the active verb in this phrase, but rather the indicator of when that action (wanting, lacking, needing) will take place and how. The difference between “shall” and “will” in this case is not one of action, or time, but of volition. “Will” indicates a conscious decision– I “Will not want” means I will determine the action and outcome–without a Shepherd’s guidance or provision. I “Shall not want” means the outcome is determined by my Shepherd (in this case), not by my own volition or actions. There may be things I “will” still want– if I’m trying to go my own way and depend on my own wisdom and abilities, but that doesn’t change my condition–God has provided. God has given. God WILL continue to provide.

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“I shall NOT want”– I may desire something else; I may not have what others have; I may be poor or sick or sad. I may respond to my circumstances with grumbling, doubt, anger, envy, greed, or disbelief. But I can also respond with trust, gratitude, wonder and worship, knowing that God sees me, knows me, and cares for my always. God doesn’t force me to respond positively to hard times– the Psalmist doesn’t say, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall be grateful,” or “I shall never complain.” He doesn’t say, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall have whatever gives me pleasure or makes my life easier.” Rather, he gives us a true picture life– I will NOT have everything I wish for; I will NOT understand or take pleasure in all the circumstances of my life, but I shall NOT be abandoned, left alone and without help or resources, lacking any source of hope, joy, peace, or love.

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Finally, we come to the word “want.” In this context, it is meant to signify lack– I shall lack for nothing; I shall not be without (God who provides). And this is where many people struggle with the verse; with the Psalm; with the Shepherd Himself. We DO lack– many things. We lack money to pay the bills, we lack in our relationships, we lack perfect health, we lack patience…the list is endless. We “want” for many things. And we read Psalm 23, and it seems to mock us. If God is our Shepherd, why do we lose loved ones to disease? Why do we have to declare bankruptcy? Why did our spouse file for divorce? Why can’t we break that bad habit or addiction? Why do we see “good” people suffering? Doesn’t God see or care? God doesn’t give us easy answers. He doesn’t promise ease and comfort in this fallen world. But He is with us, not matter where, no matter what, no matter how we got there. And He promises to renew, restore, and redeem all that we lack in the present– perfectly and forever after.

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I shall not WANT. I shall suffer in the present– loss, pain, confusion, heartbreak, disappointment, failure. But I am not without– not without God’s presence in this world, and not without His promise of justice, mercy, hope, and love now and in the world to come. I am still a sheep–I have needs, I make unwise decisions, and I don’t have the ability to see or defend against the dangers of this world. But I have a Shepherd– all-knowing, all-powerful, and extravagant in Love and Grace. I will depend on Him. I will call out to Him. I will follow Him. And I shall not want!

A Lot to Discover…

I spent part of last year taking a closer look at some of the figures of the Old Testament. This week, I’d like to take a closer look at one of the lesser figures of Genesis: Abraham’s nephew, Lot.

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We tend to focus on the teachings of Jesus, and the writings of the apostles in the New Testament. We should. But we should not neglect the lessons to be found in these ancient stories. They have a “lot” to teach us about human nature, and about God’s response to it. They are rich with characters, patterns, metaphors, and foreshadowing.

We first meet the character of Lot, along with his family, at the end of Genesis 11:
27 This is the account of Terah’s family line. Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran. And Haran became the father of Lot. 28 While his father Terah was still alive, Haran died in Ur of the Chaldeans, in the land of his birth. 29 Abram and Nahor both married. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milkah; she was the daughter of Haran, the father of both Milkah and Iskah. 30 Now Sarai was childless because she was not able to conceive. 31 Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Harran, they settled there. 32 Terah lived 205 years, and he died in Harran.
(Genesis 11:27-32 NIV, taken from http://www.biblegateway.com)

When I was reading this passage the other day, I was struck by something I never noticed before, and have never heard in any sermon or Bible study–Lot’s mother is never mentioned, and there is a strong implication that Lot’s parents were never married. The text merely says that Haran became the father of Lot, and that he died. The next sentence, however, says that both his uncles married– and it names their wives. The Bible does not state explicitly that Lot was illegitimate, or that he never knew his mother, but if that is the case, it makes certain things about his life stand in sharp contrast. And, though it says Haran died while his father was still alive, we don’t know how long he was a part of his son’s life. Lot is part of a family, but his position is not well-defined. He is a grandson, and a nephew, but he has no parents or siblings, and he is not adopted or named as an heir by either of his uncles. (Even before Abraham becomes a father, his “heir” is a servant named Eliezer of Damascus, not his nephew– see Genesis 15:1-3) He travels with his grandfather, and then “moves about” with Abraham (Genesis 13), but doesn’t seem to be a part of Abraham’s household. Instead, he is raised by his grandfather, who seems to have given him his father’s portion of the inheritance. Lot isn’t abandoned by his father’s family, but he is not embraced, either.

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Lot seems almost to be included in this family history by chance. And, indeed, his name connotes chance and happenstance. People cast lots, play the lottery, and talk about their “lot in life.” Lot, much like his name, seems to depend on chance as he travels through life. His birth is mysterious and obscure, but he has connections to a great and wealthy family. He has great success in building his flocks and herds, enough that the “land could not not support (he and Abraham) while they stayed together” (Genesis 13:6a), but he doesn’t seem to be able to stay out of trouble. He gets used as a pawn in a territorial war (Genesis 14), and must be rescued by his uncle, only to return to the wicked city of Sodom. Angels must drag him out of the city to rescue him again, when God decides to destroy both Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness. Bitter and pouting, Lot becomes a pawn for his own daughters in the aftermath of his rescue, ending his days as a footnote in history, as the ancestor of two of Israel’s fiercest enemies– the Moabites and Ammonites.

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Why is the story of Lot woven into the chronicles of Abraham? What can we learn from his character and life story? How does Lot play a part in the genealogy of Jesus?

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I’ve challenged myself to learn more–may I pray that you might do the same? Nothing about Lot’s story is written without some purpose–let’s search out what a “lot” God has to share with us in the life of this one man.

Panic, Prayer, Praise, Peace!

Philippians 4:6 New International Version (NIV)

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Philippians+4%3A6&version=NIV

I hope that today will be filled with peace, joy, and blessing for anyone reading this. But I know that today will bring bad news for some, pain for others, and hardship for many. Life is filled with struggle, disappointment, failures, and loss. Our first reaction is often to worry, which can lead to more worry, and a sense of urgency, even panic. In many cases, we have neither the resources nor the wisdom to overcome our struggles–even sustained effort or a “lucky break” may leave us without much hope. And the more we worry, the less we accomplish. But telling ourselves (or others) to simply “stop worrying” doesn’t banish worry; sometimes it increases it! Now we worry about worrying too much, or we find new things to worry about.

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But there is a time-honored and proven pattern that can help. Jesus spoke of it in His “Sermon on the Mount.” In Matthew 6, He gives us this advice:

“So do not worry, saying ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or “What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Matthew 6:31-34 (NIV)
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The Apostle Paul expanded on this in his letter to the Philippian believers. He told them to be anxious for nothing–that regardless of our situation or circumstances, we should not panic, but pray (seek God’s grace, righteousness, wisdom, and help). But more than that, we should present all of our prayers, petitions, and requests with thanksgiving and praise!

This is not the same as pretending that our struggles don’t exist, or that they are not important, or that we are glad about the pain, uncertainty, or hardship that they bring. Instead it is lifting our eyes to Heaven and finding that God is bigger than it all; that His grace, His strength, His wisdom is sufficient for the next step– for today’s worries–for today’s battles and burdens.

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This doesn’t happen naturally or automatically–we must seek, pray, pursue righteousness, ask for help, and continue to stand firm. There are some who point to the words of Jesus, or of Paul as a kind of “magic formula.” If we repeat a few promises from the Bible, or if we pray certain prayers, or convince ourselves and others that we have “enough” faith, God is obligated to change our circumstances and give us the resolution or relief we want. God is not primarily interested in our relief– He is interested in our redemption, our renewal, and our eternal reality. In following this pattern of turning our panic into prayer, and our prayer into praise, He promises that we will experience His peace. Our panic will be transformed–even if our situation stays the same; even if it gets worse before it gets better!

So how do we practice this pattern; how do we train for this transformation?

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Here are a couple of suggestions:

  • Start by seeking God with abandon–pursue Him with your whole heart– thank Him for who He is, and for all He has done. It can be helpful to review some of the names of God–I AM, Almighty, Creator, Lord, King of Kings.. Or read a Psalm or find a song that reminds you of God’s character and power. Think of the times when God has been faithful in your own past.
  • Find something about your situation for which you can be thankful– genuinely thankful. Years ago, when I was young and single, I was laid off from my first full-time job after nine months. Was I worried? Yes! Where would I find another job? How would I pay my bills? But I resolved to start being thankful about all I had learned on the job– I had met new people, learned new skills, purchased a car…God knew my needs for the future, and even though I had to wait another eight months before I found a full-time job, I was able to find temporary work and interview for other jobs in the meantime. And I had friends and family who offered good advice and encouragement along the way. I know some situations are more painful and perplexing than the loss of a job. When I my father died, nothing made the pain less, but I could thank God for Dad’s life and the time we had with him. This is NOT easy, nor is it meant to be…It may not happen for days, or weeks–don’t give up!
  • Cry out to God– in praise, but also in petition, pain, confusion, confession, and raw emotion. God wants a real relationship with us, and that includes walking with us in the “valley of the shadow of death.” We don’t have to fear evil, or worry about the future, not because it holds no danger or dread, but because we never have to walk alone and defenseless!
  • Remember this is a pattern to follow, not a pill to swallow–none of this comes easy, and God’s peace is not an instant “fix.” Instead, it is a growing conviction that God is who He says He is– faithful, loving, victorious, eternal, and sovereign. Such peace defies our panic and erodes our worry, leaving us ready to face the battles before us, and move forward through the struggles.
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It is not will power or a change of circumstances that brings incomprehensible peace. It is not magic– it is Majesty!

The “if” at the Center of Life

The English word “life” has only four letters, but the central two form another word– “If.” Life is all about making choices–and facing the consequences of those choices. Often we focus on those circumstances over which we seem to have no choice–I didn’t “choose” to be born, to be born female, to be born into the family or community where I grew up. I didn’t choose to be short, I didn’t choose the color of my eyes or skin or hair (though my hair color has changed as I get older!)

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But those are circumstances– they are not my LIFE. My life is made up of thoughts, feelings, actions, attitudes, decisions, and interactions with others. The color of my eyes, my lack of stature, or my family name does not determine my attitude or my inner beliefs or the way I treat others. Who I am is determined by the choices I make– to be proud, to believe that I am superior (or inferior) to others; to choose hope and courage or to wallow in worry and despondency; to make the most of my time, or to waste it; to envy others or be grateful for all that I have; to obey or defy; to take care of my body or make unhealthy life choices; to be a good steward or be wasteful and destructive; to show love or to withhold kindness; to forgive or to hold a grudge; to seek God for his love and mercy, or to blame God for every challenge I face. Every choice (and its consequences) is woven into the fabric of my earthly life– every reaction to bad circumstances, every investment in future goals, every moment spent “just vegging”, every secret habit I continue to indulge..

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The word “if” can hold great promise or regret– we can get lost in speculating, “if only…” or we can try to bargain with ourselves or with God, “if…then.” God gives us life, and He gives us “if”– the freedom to choose how we will react to our circumstances; freedom to choose how we will live our lives; the freedom to seek Him; the freedom to serve Him (or not) with all the unique gifts and passions He planted in each of us.

Life is filled with “ifs”– good and bad. “If’s” are conditional and have consequences. God’s love is not an “If.” It is unconditional, eternal, and immeasurable. Accepting it, however is conditional–it is the greatest “if” in the center of our life!

Lord, help me make good choices– choices that reflect the love and mercy You have shown; choices that bring You honor and glory. Thank you for making the choice to send Your only Son, that whoever (including me) believes in Him should have everlasting life!

Let Nothing You Dismay

God rest ye merry, gentlemen,

Let nothing you dismay,

Remember Christ our Saviour

Was born on Christmas Day;

To save us all from Satan’s power

When we were gone astray.

O tidings of comfort and joy, Comfort and joy;

O tidings of comfort and joy!

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We celebrate Christmas–we play music, dance, laugh, hang up festive decorations, feast, and exchange gifts.  But for many years, Christmas was a holiday overshadowed by Advent.  Advent is all about preparing for the coming of Messiah, much as Lent is about preparing for the crucifixion and resurrection of Good Friday and Easter.  Advent can be a joyful time, but it can also be a time of fear, darkness, and atonement.  Added to that, Advent comes during the darkest months of the year for the northern hemisphere; the farther north, the darker it gets in December.

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The early Protestants, especially the Puritans, feared the admixture of Christian teachings with pagan rituals associated with the Winter Solstice, and in doing so, they smothered much of the joy and celebration that had come to be associated with Christmas.  However, certain songs and carols survived.  Among these was “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”  The title and many of the lyrics seem strange to our modern ears, but the title simply means, “may God keep you merry (or happy, blessed, joyful, even hearty or healthy), Gentlemen (and Gentle Ladies).”  It was a blessing sung by peasants (or the local watchman) to their local lords and ladies, but it was also an excellent and joyful summation of all that the season really means.  (See more explanation of the origins and meaning of the song here..   https://www.carols.org.uk/god_rest_ye_merry_gentlemen.htm     www.acecollins.com/books/storiesbehindchr.html  )

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Advent IS a good time for reflection and preparation, but it should also be full of joyful anticipation.  Christmas, and all that follows, is all that the angels heralded– good news of great tidings.  And the Gospel is news of comfort and joy!  Not the temporary comfort of a warm fire or the fleeting joy of a delicious feast in the company of merry men and women.  Christmas offers the comfort of knowing that Christ has fulfilled the ancient promises– He has come; he has lived among his own; he has defeated death and the grave; he has risen and ascended!  There is nothing left to fill the Christian with dismay or terror.  It is fear and pain that are temporary–life and peace are eternally promised for those who accept the good tidings!

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This life will still hold pain, grief, injustice, and darkness– but it is not inevitable and it will not prevail!  God is greater than our most pressing problem, deeper than our grief, wider than our capacity to stray, and more powerful than Satan’s thorniest snares.  Christmas Day reminds us of these truths, and allows us to live in true love and brotherhood with those around us, no matter our current circumstances.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

During this season of Advent, we often sing this ancient hymn.  It dates back nearly 900 years, and continues to be sung and/chanted in Latin.  https://hymnary.org/text/o_come_o_come_emmanuel_and_ransom

The hymn is a contrast of weary longing and hopeful prophecy.  The promised Messiah has not yet arrived, but his coming is sure, and cause for great rejoicing.

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The hymn is also a prayer– pleading for the coming of Messiah, even as it comforts with the reminder that he WILL come.  And it reminds us of the power of prayer– not just the power of approaching Almighty God, but the power of acknowledging our longings, our needs, and our dependence on God.  Even in our darkest hours, even in captivity and oppression, we can have hope in God’s timing and wisdom.  He DOES see our struggle; he DOES care, and he WILL send hope and rescue.

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But the song also points out a pitfall–in the first verse, the prayer is for Emmanuel to rescue Israel from Roman Occupation; to end its immediate plight of being politically and economically oppressed.  There were many people who saw Messiah, heard him speak, even felt his touch, who rejected him because he did not do what they were expecting.  There are many today who cannot believe in Jesus Christ because he doesn’t take away their current circumstances of pain and suffering.

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In their narrow focus, people miss the greater miracle of what Messiah is all about.  Jesus did not come to free us from temporary troubles and trials; to make us comfortably apathetic or arrogantly victorious over personal poverty or sickness.  He came to free us to be able to overcome our circumstances to offer hope where there seems to be no hope.  He came to show us that our circumstances don’t define us or cut us off from God’s love; that our past is not more powerful than His forgiveness and power to heal; that even suffering and oppression can be endured with joy, even as we work together to overcome them.

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This season, as we sing this hymn, I pray that we would see the continuation of this prayer.  Emmanuel HAS come– Jesus not only came and won the victory over sin and death on Calvary; he has commissioned US to be the bearers of the Good News.  There are dark places in the world praying for hope and rescue to COME.  Will we share the love of Christ in our own neighborhoods?  When we bear the name of Christ, we should be on mission to rescue those who are captives, not of Rome, but of Sin and the tyranny of Death.  So that we all can  know the reason to Rejoice! Rejoice!

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