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!

Imperfect Parents

When I was very young, I liked to believe that my parents were perfect– at least as close to perfect as people could be. When I was a teen, I realized that my parents were NOT perfect. In fact, it seemed that I knew much better than they did, and much more as well! With time, I’ve come to realize that they did the very best they could with what they had and what they knew. They were never perfect, but they were good parents, and I’m very thankful for them.

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Jesus had imperfect human parents. Mary, though chosen by God to bear the Savior of the World, was not chosen because she was perfect. Nor did she become perfect in her own obedience. Jesus was HER Savior, too! Mary and Joseph did the best they could with what they had and with what they knew. But they still managed to “misplace” their own son at least once that we know of (see Luke 2:41-52). Such an incident today might be grounds for Jesus to be removed from his home and placed in foster care.

But Jesus also had a perfect Father– God. Jesus was both the Son of God and the Son of Man– completely Divine, and completely human.

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As we travel through the Advent season, it is good to remember that the same Jesus who called on His perfect Father, is the same Jesus who taught us to pray, “Our Father.” Not all of us have had “nearly” perfect human parents, but ALL of us can call on a perfect Father in Heaven. Jesus came to earth, not just to die for our sins, but to show us how to relate to this Divine and Holy Father. We can call on Him in our need; we can call on Him with our sorrows and agonies, as Jesus did in the Garden; we can call on Him when we are alone; we can call on Him in a crowd; we can listen and obey His voice; we can please Him! We can trust in God’s faithfulness through every moment of every day, every step in our journey, and every valley we must face.

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Jesus wasn’t created, as we were– He was “begotten” of the Father–“born of” the Father, in the way we are born of our parents’ DNA. (see John 3:16, John 1:18, and Psalm 2:7) And this relationship is eternally existing– “Ere the Worlds began to be” and throughout all of time. It is not a relationship that can ever be dissolved or altered. Jesus will never “become the parent,” nor will God cease to be the Father. Though He is equal in divinity and power, and equally worthy of our praise, Jesus will always act in accordance with the Father’s will– never against it or in His own separate motivation.

It is difficult to understand, that Jesus always exists, yet He was “born” at a particular time in history and “lived” only 33 years as “one of us.” We see time as being linear– everything has a “season” or a time of beginning and end. Not so with Jesus. As a human, He had an experience of “life” similar to ours– days and nights, weeks and months, festivals and birthdays, growth spurts and hormones, toothaches and hugs and laughing so hard His sides ached.

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The Advent of the Christ was not the “beginning” of the Christ–only His arrival at that particular experience in time as we know it. Yet this arrival was so unique, so miraculous, so spectacular, that all of our human time is divided into “before” and “after” that single event. We don’t divide time by human achievement (i.e. Before the moon landing/after the moon landing or before the invention of the printing press, etc.) or by natural phenomena (before the last Ice Age or after the eruption of Vesuvius). Time centers on the single act of God’s begotten son arriving as a helpless baby in the middle of an otherwise ordinary night.

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Mary and Joseph were mere mortals, ordinary human parents entrusted with fostering and caring for the very incarnation of their Divine Creator. They were imperfect. But they were guided, empowered, and held fast by the very God growing up as a child in their midst.

And when they “misplaced” their son? He was, as expected, not “lost,” but merely visiting His “Father’s house.” He could not have been safer. They need never have worried or felt ashamed.

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This season can be difficult for families– some of us have hurtful memories of our childhood with imperfect parents. Some of us are overwhelmed by guilt or frustration as the imperfect parents of our own children. May this season bring us renewed hope and joy in our unshakeable, unbreakable relationship to our perfect Heavenly Father, through the gift of His only Begotten Son. We can rejoice and feel secure– Evermore and Evermore!

Praying For My Children From Another Mother

(Dedicated to all those who are step-mothers, adoptive mothers, foster mothers, or in other ways entrusted with children not of their womb.)

I did not give birth to them, Father. They are not the children of my womb; they are still the children of my heart.

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And I know you love them more than I do. That they are YOUR children first, last, and foremost.

God, Thank You for giving me the privilege of letting me be part of their lives; for allowing me to share their hopes and dreams, their failures and their struggles; their smiles and their tears. Thank you for their unique interests and personalities. Thank you for their laughter, and their questions. Thank you for their hugs, and their pouts, and more questions…

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Father, help me to see them with your eyes– not through the lens of my own hopes or expectations; or my inadequacies and fears–help me to see who they are, and who you created them to be. Help me to help them to see how special they are in your eyes.

Help me to honor these children by not dishonoring the mother who gave them birth. May I never cause her children to despise her–or themselves– because of what I say about her. But help me to protect these precious children from anyone–anyone– who would hurt, abuse, exploit, or endanger them. May our home be a safe place to learn love and forgiveness and healing in a world of broken families.

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Help me to honor my husband as the leader in our home. Help me to model how to be a true “help-mate” and partner– not a nag; nor a dishrag–a strong, compassionate, supportive, and respectful team player.

Help me to foster good relationships among all the children of this household– to love them each differently, and yet the same. To be fair to each individual, giving them guidance and “space” according to their needs. To do and say all in my power to help each child feel secure in our love and secure in their “place” as part of this family.

Help me to forgive and ask forgiveness freely– through outbursts, baggage, fears, and tantrums– theirs and mine!

Most of all, help me to introduce each one to Your all-encompassing love, Your wisdom, and Your eternal care. May they see you in the things I say and do; in the way we love and forgive as a family; in the way we seek the best together.

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In the name of Jesus, whose earthly father was entrusted with a similar gift,

Amen

We Are Family…

The Bible is filled with images of family–long lists of “begats” and genealogies, parables about sons and fathers, brothers, weddings, brides and grooms…God is even described as our Father, with Christ as “the son.”

One of my hobbies is genealogy– tracing my family’s roots back through several generations and several different places. While the Bible warns that we should not get caught up in “endless” and vain genealogies that lead to false pride and foolish divisions (1 Tim. 1:4/Titus 3:9), there are many good reasons to pay attention to families, family histories, and family dynamics.

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First, the family is God’s design– God instituted marriage, parenthood, and family units. It is God’s will and purpose that we should not live in isolation and self-absorption, but learn to depend on and be responsible to others. Families honor, protect, love, provide, comfort, teach, encourage, build and work together. Even in a broken world, filled with dysfunctional and chaotic family relationships, the purpose and design of “family” is still part of God’s good and perfect plan for living. Broken families and toxic relationships are not a failure of God’s plan– they are the result of Sin’s power to distort and corrupt the Good that only God can create. The great news is that God also has the power to restore and redeem individuals and families; offering “rebirth”, adoption, and an eternal “inheritance” within His family!

Second, families can teach us about the astounding and limitless love of God. There is something about the bonds of familial love that stretch us beyond our regular capacity to hope, to sacrifice, to share, to grieve, to endure, and to forgive. Who has seen a mother or father go hungry so their child can eat; or a sister or daughter donate her kidney or bone marrow to help heal a family member? Or a father carry his son who could not walk, or a wife who visits her aging husband when he no longer knows her face? How can we see such devotion and not be struck by how much greater, wider, deeper, and more eternal the Father’s love is for each of us?

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Third, family (particularly the idea of genealogies and long family histories) teaches us the eternal nature of God. We live our lives as part of three or four generations– a span of 70 or 80 years for many of us–and we concentrate our efforts on “making our mark” for less than that entire span. But even the longest of our lives are so short in the span of God’s plan for His people. We have one lifespan to play an important role in the story of centuries. When we fail to understand that role, we can miss our sense of purpose in life. Sometimes, we overestimate our own importance or miss the significance of our own legacy. Even “important” people are forgotten, or have their legacies tarnished or rewritten in the pages of history. And those people who never made the history books are often the inspiration for actions and movements that span generations and change nations. When I study the history of my own family, I find lives that were cut short by war or disease– yet these lives shaped the lives (or were the lives) of my ancestors, and without them, I would not be who or how or where I am today. Maiden aunt, baby brother, empty seat at the table– every life touches others in ways that God alone truly comprehends. “Coincidental” meetings, “unplanned” children, migration patterns, epidemics– all loom large in a single generation, but they all become part of the fabric of each person’s “history.”

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Lastly, genealogy reminds us that we are all one enormous family! There is so much talk on the news and online about all our differences– language, culture, skin tone, beliefs, skills, abilities, interests, even diets!– and it is important to note that God loves variety and created us each with unique and precious differences to reflect His infinite character. But sin twists our differences into conflicts; sin spreads lies about God’s character, and thus, about how we (or others) reflect, honor, understand, acknowledge, or obey our amazing creator. Differences may cause division in our broken world, but they do not cancel God’s mercy or limit the reach of His love for us all.


This was brought home to me in a small way this past week, as I was preparing for two important reunions. My high school class celebrated the 35th anniversary of our graduation in 1984. I saw friends and classmates I hadn’t seen in weeks, months, or, in some cases, 35 years! But it struck me that our class is very much like a family– we grew up together; we learned to get along (most of the time), to share, to work together, to understand and appreciate our differences and our unique gifts–we send birthday greetings and share pictures, we laugh together, grieve together, share fond memories and special connections with one another. We pray for one another, argue with one another, encourage one another, and challenge one another. There are some who have distanced themselves–whether through physical distance or emotionally– from the rest of us. Some have even ended their earthly journeys. But that doesn’t make them any less a part of our class/our family. We are short and tall, thin and stout, hairy and bald, dark and light complected; we are single, married, divorced, and widowed– some with children still at home; some with no children at all. We are rich and poor, healthy and ill, walking around with scars and wounds and unresolved questions, arrogant assumptions, or chips on our shoulders. And we are optimists and mentors, healers and teachers, helpers and protectors. We are loud and quiet, social and task-oriented, driven and laid-back, dreamers and doers. And in my genealogy research, I have made genetic and marriage connections to about 1/3 of them! We really ARE family, and I can show how we are related! How small would this world seem if we looked at our brothers and sisters across the world, and realize that those connections are so much greater than the differences that divide us?

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The second reunion I attended this weekend was “family.” All of us descended (or married to descendants, or adopted by descendants) from my great-grandparents. Not all of us were there– in fact, this was mostly just one “branch” of the family, and a few “twigs”. We estimate that there are nearly 500 people who can claim the same ancestral “roots” from the same two people, and this “branch” contains over 250 of them! Once again, we don’t all look , or act, or think alike– some are tall, some are tattooed, some are old, some are newborns, some argue about college football teams, or politics. But we love each other, encourage each other, and many of us share our prayers and concerns and joys and pains. My great-grandparents (and all their children) left a legacy of love and faith that continues to influence and inspire the fourth, fifth and sixth generation to follow!

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When we pray for others, we are always praying for our family! Praying for our neighbors and classmates and co-workers– we are praying for family! Praying for our enemies, for strangers, for those who look and speak differently than us–We are praying for family! May God give us eyes to see and hearts to love our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, cousins and even the “long lost family members” and lift them up in prayer to the One who loves us and wants to bring us all into His family!

Jacob’s (Third) Dysfunctional Family

The Bible is not a series of stories about super heroes, though it is often taught that way in Sunday School. Instead, it is the story of ordinary, flawed and hurting people who encounter a Holy and Majestic God. Jacob is one such person, and nearly half of the book of Genesis revolves around Jacob’s families– his parents and brother, his father-in-law’s household, and his own wives and children, extending to his grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.

Jacob grew into a man of great integrity and wisdom–a man of power and influence, wealth and consequence. But he was far from perfect, and his family caused him no end of headaches and heartaches. From the bickering and rivalry of his wives and their servants, to the violent clashes of his many sons, Jacob knew very little peace.

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It is important to note that, while the “God of Jacob” protected him, blessed him, and gave him a new name, He did not make life smooth and comfortable for him. We are not given great insight into Jacob’s parenting style, but we know that he had a favorite son, Joseph, and that his favoritism caused resentment among the others . Unlike his own father, though, Jacob interacted with all his sons, giving them each responsibilities and training them to work together. On his deathbed, he had blessings for each son that tied in to his strengths and weaknesses. We know that Jacob was highly respected by his sons, and that in the end, they did not disperse and lose contact with each other, but lived together in the land of Goshen in Egypt– even after the time of the famine that drove them there.

Even in a family of blessing, there will always be some level of dysfunction, struggle, hardship, and pain. Favoritism, discord, envy, resentment, unforgiveness– it all starts in families among flawed people living in a fallen world.

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So often, we try to present ourselves and our families “in our Sunday best”– we want people to be impressed by our show of piety or “good manners” or “problem-free” family life. We pretend that we never argue, never harbor bitterness, never have tantrums or meltdowns or sarcastic “episodes”. God is not looking for picture perfect families…He is looking for families who are honestly and earnestly seeking Him.

Surely, after his encounter with God, Jacob changed. He was a better man than before. But he was never the “perfect dad”, the “perfect husband”, or the “perfect man.” And his family wasn’t a model of decorum and harmony. But God did not turn his back on this dysfunctional family. He did not disown Jacob or cancel all the blessings He had promised. Instead, he solidified the promise he had made to Jacob’s grandfather and father, creating in Jacob’s sons the twelve tribes that would make up the nation of Israel. Just as Jacob’s family wasn’t perfect, the nation of Israel was never perfect– it still isn’t. But God has chosen to pour out His grace on imperfect people throughout history– it’s His specialty!

If you are experiencing disharmony or even angry clashes with family members– take heart and hope from reading about Jacob’s trials and triumphs. Remember to take your pain, resentment, hurt and worry to “the God of Jacob.” God was with Jacob through all his many struggles, including the heartaches of “losing” his favorite son, losing his beloved wives, suffering during the famine in Canaan, having to move to Egypt in his old age, and watching his sons struggle with their own families and trials. Out of each struggle, God brought renewal, hope, rescue, and promise. And remember, God will not abandon you (or your children) because your family experiences disharmony or you have wayward family members. Others may pass judgment on appearances, but God sees the heart– He’s in the business of fixing that which is dysfunctional– not promoting those who hide behind a “perfect” facade.

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Jacob’s family was not perfect– but they were perfectly poised to show God’s power, protection, and grace!

M.I.A.

Yesterday was Father’s Day.  Father’s Day can be very difficult for many people– in my case, it can be a reminder of how much I miss my Dad, who passed away 20 years ago.  Some of my friends have had recent experience in losing a beloved father.  For some, the hurt is still there after 50 years, or 70.

For others, it is a difficult day, not because they grieve the loss of a father to death, but because they grieve the absence of a loving father– an absentee father, an unknown father, an abusive father, or a distant, cold, or critical father.

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At this point, I generally point to the Father who is eternally loving and faithful– Our Heavenly Father is God of the fatherless and the orphan, the God of restoration and reconciliation.  No matter where our earthly fathers are or have been, God is always right by our side.

All that is true, but I want to share something that’s been bothering me.  I scrolled down my FB feed, and listened in at church, and talked to a restaurant owner, and looked at the card section at the store.  And there’s something missing.  It’s not that we don’t honor fathers.  I saw a lot of wonderful tributes to dads, husbands, brothers, and sons.  I saw sons sitting with their recently widowed father at church; a son honoring his father by taking him out to eat; fathers and sons wearing awesome matching shirts with fun messages, and lots of old photos of dads with their families in years past, as well as newer pictures of dads with goofy toddlers, and pretty girls in prom dresses, and holding newborns.

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We honor fathers, but we do not honor Fatherhood.  We seem awkwardly proud and surprised when fathers actually show up and do their job.  We make it seem easy, even brainless, in comparison to the work of a mother.  In fact, there are those who argue that Fatherhood is not necessary for family life.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It is POSSIBLE to rear children in a single-parent household (male or female).  It is possible to raise strong and healthy children without the presence of a father (or mother).  But that doesn’t make it desirable or advantageous for a child, or for society.

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What are we losing as a society when we engage in (or stay on the sidelines for) a war on Fatherhood?  When we make excuses for bad fathers or mothers who choose to denigrate the men who gave life to their children?  What happens when “dad” becomes, not the name of a single influential person in your life, but the name of whichever man is currently living with mom, AND also the man who sees you every other weekend?  What happens when the media consistently portray moms as hardworking and wise, and dads are the comic relief?

We are losing the next generation of fathers; the next generation of men with drive and passion to work for something beyond their own whims and wants.  We are losing the next generation of women, too– as they struggle to be both mothers and fathers, or choose to be neither because it’s too much trouble to do it alone.  We are losing a sense of what it means to be a Father– the honor, the responsibility, the joy and pride, the reward.  Worst of all, we are losing the examples of fathers who through their words and actions, are pointing others to our Heavenly Father.  God is not a baby-daddy; He is not an absentee father or an every-other-weekend Father.  He is not a faceless provider of money for new clothes and college textbooks.  He is not a goofy guy who tells bad jokes and pats you on the head once in a while.  He is not the one who never shows up for your game or your dance recital because he’s too busy playing golf with the guys.

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This isn’t universally true– and I’m so grateful for the men, young and old, who are staying the course, setting the examples, and standing out like beacons of light.  And I don’t wish to belittle the women who have had to be both mother and father due to death or other circumstances beyond their control.  But we desperately need good fathers.  We need fathers who will fight the good fight; not fathers who are Missing In Action.  We need active, responsible, faithful Dads.  But we need to pray for them.  We need to honor them.  We need to encourage and support them.  More than just one day a year….

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