I know several people who had a very Merry Christmas this year. Some of them flew to exotic locations and spent Christmas on the beach, or in a big city with lights and dozens of family members. Some of them spent a cozy Christmas in a cabin with roaring fires and glittering snow-covered trees, eating sumptuous meals and unwrapping expensive gifts.
But most of the people I know spent a Christmas that wasn’t “post-card” perfect. Some of them were alone in a small apartment with no presents and no heat. Some were working at a job they hate because they had no other option. Some were grieving loved ones lost in the past months. Some of them are facing economic mountains– debt, job loss, medical bills or taxes they cannot pay, no money for rent or groceries… Some are battling cancer or alcoholism, anger, or fear. Some are estranged from their families, or separated from loved ones because of COVID, or deployment, or divorce. And some are facing persecution, starvation, homelessness, disease, or war.
Christmas comes, whatever our circumstances– and so does the Christ Child. Jesus didn’t come to the earth to bring us all “better” circumstances or worry-free holidays, but to deliver us from eternal death, and equip us to endure the circumstances we face in life. Jesus himself came in chaotic and stressful circumstances, and He came, knowing that He would face rejection, hatred, injustice, and death on a cross.
There are millions of people who spent a “Merry” Christmas and missed the whole point. Some of us indulged in a gift-giving frenzy that left others in the cold. Some of us allowed envy, fear, greed, or bitterness to color our Christmas. In the process, many of us lost sight of the true gifts of Christmas– Peace, Joy, and Goodwill. In fact, “His divine power has given us EVERYTHING we need for a godly life through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness.” (2 Peter 1:3)
And these gifts are not temporary, like earthly Christmas gifts. They are always available, and they never break, expire, or grow dim. My prayer for this year(and the year to come) is that we all may find–and share!– these eternal and astounding gifts, this “inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade…kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4)
Christmas Day may not always be merry in this life, but because of Christmas we can face an eternity that will never disappoint, and we have a living Hope that can carry us through even the darkest hours!
Jesus was born in obscurity– yet he was also born during a Census year…
And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. 3 So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. 4 Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. 6 So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. 7 And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Luke 2:1-7 (NKJV via biblegateway.com)
This is a Census year in the U.S. (something that has largely been forgotten in the wake of the COVID pandemic.) I actually worked for the Census Bureau for a few weeks this year, doing follow-up interviews for addresses which had not responded for various reasons. Census taking is much different now than it was in Jesus’ day. I had a script, and a smart phone, and several different forms to fill out or hand out to explain what we were doing–one form contained information in at least 14 different languages, and all of them had phone numbers and web addresses where people could “respond” electronically without ever leaving the comfort of their living room, let alone traveling over dangerous hills and trying to find room at crowded inns. I was the one who had to travel– mostly around my small town and within a 20-mile radius. One interview required me to travel 100 miles; another required me to utilize my ability to speak and understand Spanish. Otherwise, the interviews were simple and straightforward. Except when they weren’t.
“Everyone Counts,” the Census Bureau told us, and I did my best to get names and ages for everyone at every address I visited. But many of the addresses were abandoned buildings– even demolished. Others were summer homes or vacation rentals–I had to be careful not to count the same people twice! Often, I could tell that people were living at the residence, but either they weren’t home at that time or they would not come to the door. Some houses required several attempts before I got any response, and it wasn’t always positive or cooperative.
I imagine the scene in Bethlehem, though lacking the technology and ease of travel of our modern age, wasn’t so very different. There were people who wanted to do their civic duty; those who were annoyed at the inconvenience and general bureaucratic chaos; those who hated the Roman Government and everything it represented; and some who just wanted to get it all over with and go back to “normal life.”
We know that Joseph was called up to go to Bethlehem because is was his ancestral home. And we know that Joseph would have been counted as the head of the household. But is it possible that Jesus was counted in that census? That he was numbered among his people and with his family? That the God of all creation became a simple hash mark among thousands of others that year? “Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth.” “Infant son.” “Male child.” Jesus was counted. But He was also lost in the shuffle; discounted and ignored.
10 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. 11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not.
John 1:10-11 (KJV via biblegateway.com)
This season, it’s easy to feel left out, discounted, passed over. This year, especially, it can be lonely and discouraging as we look out on the world from lockdown, or look at faces covered by masks, unknown or unrecognizable. It’s easy to feel that no one sees us. Rest assured, Jesus knows what it is like to get lost in the numbers. He knows what it is to be discounted and misunderstood, rejected, and scorned.
And He knows exactly who you are and who I am– better than we know ourselves! We count! Not because of who we are, but because He is the creator and author of all life. No matter where you are, no matter who has rejected you in the past, no matter how dark and grim things look– God sees you; God loves you; God has taken you into His count. He doesn’t need a census count to find you, and you can’t get “lost” or hide in the crowd.
Joseph and Mary traveled dark and dangerous roads to reach Bethlehem before the birth of the Baby Jesus. The wise men made a long journey to see the newborn king. The entire nation of Israel spent more than 40 years wandering in the wilderness. Abraham, Jacob, Jonah, the Apostle Paul…there are many tales in the Bible of long journeys to unknown destinations and unknown outcomes.
Traveling can be exciting and adventurous, but it can also be filled with detours, setbacks, and hardships. Traveling means being away from our comfort zone, our “safe” place– even if our “safe” place isn’t really safe. Travel often means going into the unknown, especially if we travel alone or travel against our own will. Where does this road lead? Who will I meet along the way? Where will I stay at night? Will I get lost? Will I get delayed? What if I get sick or hurt or attacked? Will I find my way back home? Can I feel safe in a new home, among unknown people and circumstances?
Jesus was born “away from home.” The first people to greet him were not grandparents or giddy relatives or neighbors, but shepherds– unnamed in scripture, unknown to his parents. In fact, the Bible doesn’t say much about Jesus being close to an extended family– his own small family always seemed to be on the move! Later, Joseph was told to take Mary and the child to Egypt; another long and unexpected journey, another long and winding road.
As an adult, Jesus was also “on the road” for much of his ministry. Long dusty roads leading to Galilee, or Jerusalem, Jericho, or Bethany.
At times, it can seem like our “roads” in life are long, winding, dusty paths leading to strange new places– lonely, rambling trails or busy superhighways taking us where we don’t always want to go. But we don’t need to fear traveling– even if we have to walk through the “valley of the shadow of death,” God is always with us. Just as He was with Mary and Joseph on the long road to Bethlehem, where there was no room for them in the inn. Just as He was with Jesus on the lonely path in the Garden of Gethsemane. Just as He was with Jonah in the belly of the big fish!
As we await the Advent of the Christ Child this year, it is likely that most of us have been on a long and winding road. Though many of us have been prevented from physical travel to foreign lands, we’ve traveled on an emotionally and even spiritually exhausting road in 2020. Chaos, corruption, COVID, elections, “executive orders”, economic collapse, lock-downs, lawlessness, and loneliness–we seem to have traveled a lot of miles, and most of them have been perilous and unfamiliar. But God has a plan, and a destination. The journey may not make sense right now; it is not the journey we would have planned; not the journey we would have chosen. But let us follow it to Bethlehem– to the Manger– to the Cross– and finally, HOME!
“Social Distancing” is the latest buzz-phrase in the media. With the spread of COVID-19, governments and health officials are asking people to avoid meeting in groups, avoid physical contact, and keep our distance from those outside our immediate family. Those who are most susceptible to the disease are being asked to self-quarantine; those who contract the disease are put in isolation. This is causing many people additional suffering, because they feel alone and even abandoned.
But God assures us that He will never leave nor forsake us. No matter how “distant” we may be from others, God is always with us– ALWAYS. Prayer does not summon God to our side, or capture His focus and attention from someone or something else. Our God is omnipresent and omniscient– He know our every thought; He is with us through every moment and every breath.
So why do we feel so alone and frightened at times like these?
I think there are several reasons:
Disaster, disease, hardship– especially when they come unexpectedly or develop rapidly– remind us that we live in a fallen world. We KNOW our world isn’t perfect. We know that life is fragile. We know that health and comfort are not guaranteed. But sudden tragedy leaves us unable to deny that our world is broken and we cannot, by our own efforts, fix it. We expect that God’s presence means God’s perfection will surround us, protect us, and shield us from the reality of Sin and its consequences– including the reality of Sin in the natural world around us. Hurricanes, earthquakes, infections, climate change– God allows them to happen. They will continue to impact our fallen world until God chooses to step in and put a permanent end to them. But He is still here WITH us through the storms and sicknesses and trials of life.
God’s voice is often gentle and comforting. Panic and fear are loud and insistent. We will hear the voice we focus on most. God whispers in our ear if we are listening to Him– if we concentrate on spending time with Him. How much of my time today was spent in Scripture and prayer? How much of it spent listening to the news or reading FB posts full of anger and confusion?
Sometimes, in the good times, we pay God lip service; taking for granted that He is there, but not acknowledging His presence. Sure, we say that He walks with us (or we walk with Him); but we don’t take a moment to look up and see where He is leading us. Instead of being close to God by following our Shepherd, we are close to Him because He is chasing us down to bring us back to the right path. He is right there, but in our panic, we don’t see Him, because He is no longer leading us.
Fear and panic draw our attention inward. It’s one of the reasons “social distancing” causes emotional distress. We are social creatures, but our focus is easily drawn inward, and more so when there seem to be no other people around. Our own thoughts, fears, and questions grow bigger– enough to consume us if we are not careful.
God IS with us–let’s rejoice and embrace it:
Pray. Pray some more. Pray without ceasing! (2 Thessalonians 5:17)
Let God speak– meditate on God’s word. Meditate on His names and His character.(Psalm 19) Seek out websites that magnify God. Call or e-mail friends who can pray or praise with you.
Sing! Worship the God who is bigger than any crisis we may face. Sing at the top of your lungs– if you are alone, there is no one else to hear you, but the one who adores your “joyful noise” (Psalm 100)
Encourage others– Be the reminder that someone else needs today. (1 John 4)
Today marks the celebration of St. Valentine– Valentine’s Day. It is a day of hearts and flowers, romantic dinners and gifts, all celebrating love and marriage. Many people choose to marry on Valentine’s day; many more choose this day to propose marriage (my dad did, in fact, and he and my mom were married just a few months later in 1963).
Gifts have gotten more elaborate and expensive over the years, though there are many who choose simple, homemade gifts or cards, as well. Advertisers promote their products as being perfect expressions of romance and love–diamonds, lacy nightwear, expensive candle-lit dinners, vacations, deluxe tool boxes, cars, spa treatments–if a new broom or pair of socks can be made to look romantic, look for them to be advertised as “perfect” for this year’s gift.
I have a long and difficult history with Valentine’s Day. I remember, as a school girl, being forced to choose, sign, and address valentine cards for every person in my class at school. Some were easy enough, but I had to send cards to classmates I didn’t like; classmates who teased or bullied me, or were just “icky.” I think most parents did the same, but I noticed that I rarely got cards back from everyone, and sometimes, the “icky” kids only got two or three cards, which they hid away in their desk or threw away. I never knew if they were glad to have gotten the few cards, or if they were embarrassed and hurt (especially if they had no cards to give to anyone).
As a young woman, I disliked Valentine’s Day for its way of sorting out the “loved” from the “unloved.” I was loved by my parents, and liked by friends and colleagues, students and neighbors. But every 14th of February, I was reminded painfully that I was not considered “loveable” by the young men buying candy, flowers, or engagement rings. Year after year passed with no gifts, no dates, nothing to signify that I was worthy of romantic love or attention. As I write this, I know there are millions of young women who are facing pain and rejection today, where they might feel confident and happy on any other, normal, day.
This year, Valentine’s Day seems like a bad joke– talk of love and romance rings very hollow when I see the amount of hatred being spread on social media. Should I feel “loved” if I receive a card from someone who spews hatred and death wishes for people they barely know because of something they said about politics or the environment? If I followed my parents’ rules and bought valentine cards for everyone at the office, would I be brave enough (or foolish enough) to send them?
The original St. Valentine (though this is disputed and there may be more than one martyr with the same name from around the same time) is believed to be a young martyr who was beaten, stoned to death, and beheaded for marrying young Roman soldiers against the mandate of his emperor. It was felt that soldiers would fight better if they were unmarried and unencumbered by family ties, but soldiers who had converted to Christianity wanted to live pure lives, married to one woman, and faithful to their vows. St. Valentine was committed to helping these men and women live their new found faith and show love for each other, and for God. For that, he was jailed and sentenced to die a horrible death. There were no greeting cards, no diamonds, no spa treatments on that day. There was suffering, death, sacrifice, humiliation, and loss. And plenty of hatred.
But St. Valentine’s death had quite the opposite effect than the emperor intended. God’s love has a way of shining brighter for being targeted, tormented, and beaten down. Real love doesn’t show itself in new clothes, hothouse flowers, or candle-lit dinners. It shows itself in a pouring out of self, and being willing to suffer for others– even those who do not love us back.
This Valentine’s Day, I live in hope that Christians around the world will demonstrate the true love that comes from God– a love that practices Grace, Kindness, Forgiveness, Humility, Patience, and Joy, even in the face of Hatred and Evil. Hatred shouts and raises its fists. Let Love whisper and reach out hands of service. Let Love kneel and pray for our enemies, and bless those who curse us. Let love be ready to die rather than spread hatred and return evil for evil.
Love One Another (1 John 3:11-24 ESV)
11 For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12 We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, brothers,[a] that the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15 Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.
16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.
19 By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20 for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22 and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God,[b] and God[c] in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.
So often when I pray, I do so in isolation, and I think of it as a solitary activity. I am communicating with God– often silently–it is a private conversation. Or is it?
At any given moment on any given day, millions of prayers are ascending to Heaven. Consider the arithmetic of prayer– millions of prayers, millions of pray-ers, and God is part of each one–twice the number of participants. But God is triune– so now there are four participants in every “personal” prayer, and four participants for every one in a group prayer! It’s mind-blowing to think of all the spiritual investment that is happening through prayer at this very instant around the world. And in heaven? Our prayers ascend; God likens our prayers to incense– a pleasing aroma. If I light a scented candle, or burn incense, the aroma is not personal– it permeates the air, penetrates my clothing, clings to my hair, lingers and touches on all who are nearby. This doesn’t diminish the intimacy of prayer, but transcends it, and transforms it. God is relational– from the intimacy of private prayer to the glory of his kingdom– he wants us to belong, to share, and to love. Love doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is not a solitary activity, nor one in which anyone is “just a number.”
I think we are often deceived and intimidated by numbers and statistics. We sometimes feel very small and powerless and alone. We measure our prayers by their duration or the number of our words, or how small our perceived influence. We pray alone or in a tiny group, or seem to get swallowed in a crowd, and we think our prayers travel a linear path to God’s ears and they are ended. May our eyes be opened to the reality that we are never alone, never helpless, and never unimportant to God–that our prayers, like incense, linger, radiate, and echo as they ascend.
God uses the small and humble things in life to confound those who think they are wise and powerful and important. He is the God who changes our suffering into sufficiency, and our abiding into abundance. He multiplies our faith, and increases our joy; he divides our sorrows and cancels out our sin. He hears our every sigh. He dries our every tear. He knows our every thought. He inhabits the praises of his people– let that sink in as we pray today.
My mother was fond of using quotes and pithy sayings–“Pretty is as pretty does”, “You’re never fully dressed without a smile”, “Don’t judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” But one of the sayings that always bothered me was, “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; cry, and you cry alone.”
As a child and a young adult, I dreamed of a family— laughing with my husband and children around the dinner table; tucking in sweet-smelling, freshly bathed toddlers– I knew it wouldn’t always be dreamy like that, but I knew those precious moments would be worth the pains and frustrations that came with them.
Except they didn’t. The years passed. I worked hard, I dated occasionally, and I waited. I loved my work as a teacher, and later as a youth services librarian. Many of my friends married; my siblings married and had children. I was surrounded most days with amazing, talented, infuriating, inspiring, adorable, mostly happy, and sometimes moody teens and children. Other people’s children. And I felt guilty, frustrated, and angry. I wanted marriage. I wanted my own children. Well-meaning people kept setting me up on dates or suggesting pen pals, dating services, other churches to visit (“they have such a great program for singles…”), moving to a different town or bigger city. Some even suggested that I wasn’t trying hard enough–I needed a make-over, a new wardrobe, a new strategy. I needed to be more assertive with men, or less independent, or more feminine. I needed to be less picky. Other suggestions were even harsher–I wasn’t mature enough; God needed to “grow me up” before I would be ready for marriage.
In my mid-thirties, just as my “clock” was ticking louder and more insistent, I received an awful blow. “Polycystic ovary syndrome” meant that I had certain symptoms (underactive thyroid, facial hair, a greater risk of ovarian cysts, ovarian cancer, and heart disease) and certain irregularities, mood swings, etc. associated with my monthly cycle. But it also meant that my dream of having children was unlikely ever to be anything but a dream. Even if I had married young; even if I married within a week and started hormone therapy or invitro, my chances of conceiving and carrying to full term were essentially nil. I was stunned. I was numb for several hours, and then I cried.
And I cried alone. I wasn’t always crying; I read a lot, and watched a lot of TV and movies, sang along with my favorite CDs, danced around my living room like no one was watching (after all, no one was watching!), and, sometimes, I prayed. But I cried a lot, too. And I prayed through the tears. My prayers were sometimes prayers of anger, or confusion, questioning God’s love, his timing, his purpose. All those years of praying, asking God for a husband and children– had he been laughing at my pain? He knew I couldn’t have children– why had he allowed me to hope for so many years?
But long before I knew that I was barren; long before I had fully formulated my dream of the family I would never have, God had a plan for my good. For every tear I shed, he was right there with me– even when I couldn’t feel him there; even when I raged at him. I had a dream– it was a good dream, but it was a dream. And God’s plans are better than my dreams. ALWAYS. His plans are for our good–but not always for our pleasure.
Sometimes I still cry at night for the children I never had. But when I finish crying, I thank God. Not because of those missing children, but because out of that pain has come compassion– for other women who cry similar tears. Tears for children lost or never born; tears for children they chose to give up, or children who were taken. I thank God because of the many experiences I ended up gaining as a single woman– opportunities to travel, to pursue interests and develop skills. How many more opportunities might I have taken had I trusted God more than my dreams earlier and more fully?
And I thank God because of what he has given–nieces and nephews, grand-nieces and grand-nephews, former students and patrons who are still in touch and who still enrich my life. Most of all, I thank God for the privilege of leaving my tears to join my husband (a man who pursued me even as I was ready to give up on my dream of being a wife–I became a bride at 46!), my step-children, and our grandchildren; as well as a new set of wonderful nieces, nephews, and great-nephews (we’re still waiting for great-nieces on that side of the family).
Even if I never had the “happy ending” of a husband and family, I would still be grateful to my very good Father. And I will continue to pray through the tears when they come.