Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Bridges in the New Year

 Sunday afternoon Kelly, Christian, and I hiked one of our favorite trails at Drift Creek Falls. A suspension bridge near the end spans the creek far below. We love it for many reasons. The guys shared animated conversation on its construction and had fun swinging it to and fro. I savored the clean air and grandeur of the scenery, and of course, I had fun swinging too.

Bridges are important; they get us from point A to point B. The question is: should all bridges be crossed? On this New Year’s Eve, I’m thinking about where I’ve been this past year and where I want to be in 2014 – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. There are three things to do with bridges: burn them, repair them, or cross them. Wisdom teaches us there’s a time for all three.

Burning Bridges
Perhaps you’ve been warned not to burn bridges, but I believe sometimes it’s the right thing to do. When what is on the other side is dangerous to your  physical, emotional, and/or spiritual welfare; when you don’t ever want to return to that unhealthy place – it’s time to cut the connection. This includes bridges to addiction, abuse, self-destructive habits, bitterness, rage, lies, and sins that bring heartache and death.

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” Isaiah 43:18-19, NIV

We all have regrets about things we said or did this year. The good news is we don’t have to repeat those destructive patterns. With God’s help, we can burn those bridges and cross over into a new land full of promise.

Repairing Bridges
Secondly, some bridges need to be repaired. Are there broken relationships in your life? Is God leading you to ask for forgiveness, make restitution, reach across a chasm of misunderstanding, or earn back trust that’s been broken? Repairing bridges can be hard work, time consuming, and costly, but people are worth the trouble.

You may not use the bridge often. If the person is not making healthy choices, you may only want to visit occasionally, accompanied by safe, supportive companions to make sure you get back safely. But once you’ve repaired the bridge from your side, the other person can cross to you whenever they’re ready.

The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Isaiah 58:11-12

Crossing Bridges
Finally, there are bridges ahead in 2014 that God has in mind for us to cross. It may be a new job or relationship, establishing new habits and personal growth, or adventurous spiritual trails. The bridge might look a little formidable at first. You may not relish crossing a swinging bridge with rushing water far below, descending into a dark forest on the other side. What some perceive as adventure, you may see as threatening and uncomfortable. However, if God is blazing the trail, we have nothing to fear.

Thousands of Israelites followed Moses’ lead forty years through the desert to reach the Promised Land. When they got to the Jordan River, Moses found out he wouldn’t be entering with them. The people were afraid to venture on, but he reassured them:

The Lord your God himself will cross over ahead of you.” Deuteronomy 31:3

The same is true for us. God himself will cross ahead of us into this New Year. If we have lost trusted mentors, He will provide new ones to lead us on.

This New Year is full of promise. I pray God’s richest blessings on you as you step into 2014.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

It's Almost Christmas in the Advent Week of Love!

Merry Christmas Eve to you all! I have been so busy getting ready to celebrate with family and friends that I haven't posted for a while. But I wanted to give you three final gifts for Christmas which I hope will be a blessing to you, your family, and friends.
Our first Christmas celebration

Last week was the week of JOY in the Advent calendar, and these final days before Christmas are the week of Love. How fitting, since it is God's great love for us that prompted Him to send His Son. Normally I try to post shorter pieces, but since I know I will not be able to get back to my computer for a couple days, I'm going to give you three readings in one, for you to read at your leisure. Have a blessed and delightful Christmas. You are loved!

#1: Love Gives
Love gives. It can’t help it. The gift may not be a birthday present or a package under the tree, but where there is love, there’s giving involved. It may be time, or service, or touch, or words of praise and encouragement. These things can be given by the poorest lover. Those who love always find a way to give to the object of their affection.

We assume the Wise Men were kings or wealthy astrologers because of the gifts they gave. But what if they weren’t? What if they spent every penny they had, risked their reputations, and left everything behind out of love for the King of Heaven? They traveled from the Orient to the Holy Land to find Jesus. Theologians estimate it took them three years. Even if they were wealthy to start with, food and travel accommodations along the way cost them dearly.

Yet, they couldn’t help it. The promised King of all men was going to be born in their lifetime, and they didn’t want to miss it! They wouldn’t arrive empty handed either. Would we do the same? How much do we love Jesus? How much are we willing to give to Him and to others in His name?

#2: Don’t Forget Jesus!
By now your home is probably decorated for Christmas, with lights, candles, a tree, and nativity sets of all sizes. Imagine what would happen if you forgot to put the figure of Jesus in the manger. Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and wise men would all gaze adoringly, worshipfully…at an empty space in the crèche!
Marie's beautifully welcoming porch

I made a similar mistake a few years ago. The line I was supposed to sing in the Christmas cantata was, “Born to be Messiah; God’s only begotten Son.” However, at dress rehearsal I belted out, “Born to be Messiah; God’s only forgotten Son.” Even though no one seemed to notice, I turned three shades of red. It posed an important question for me to think about. Have I forgotten Jesus this Christmas?

It happens. We get wrapped up in ourselves and forget the best gift of all. A seasonal translation of Jeremiah 2:32 might say, “Do my people forget to buy presents, decorate their homes for Christmas, or eat themselves into oblivion? Yet my people have forgotten me - the reason for Christmas - years without number.”

I began to examine myself to see if Christ had been forgotten in the holiday excitement. I hope these thoughts help you remember to keep Christ in Christmas as well.

Many “Holiday” movies have nothing to do with the reason for the season! They’re either fluffy sentiment or blatantly anti-Christian. I want to seek entertainment that highlights changed lives, sacrificial giving, and hope.  

We get busy with parties, shopping, church and family events. Meaningful time with the Savior can get squeezed out. Yet without Jesus, Christmas means nothing. Time every day with God is essential.

I lit candles and put on soft Christmas music just before my husband got home from work. “It’s beautiful!” he said, “like entering another world.” Then he started counting the number of nativities in the living room. “Hmm, are you trying to make a point?” I laughed. The way we decorate our home tells the world, and us, what we’re truly celebrating.

Then there’s shopping. Buying gifts for our growing family can easily take over my mind. It’s tempting to spend months in a shopping frenzy. I have forgotten Jesus at times in all the excitement and planning. It helps to keep asking myself: why am I doing this? And get back to my love for our Savior.

Many of you are experiencing financial discomfort, health problems, or heartbreak. I have had lonely years too, when the idea of Christmas cheer stuck in my throat. But even in immobilizing pain, I realized the message of Jesus is not obliterated by our suffering. It’s enhanced. Jesus came to love us in the midst of our pain, to show us a future where sin, worry, and heartache can never touch us again.

No matter how painful your circumstances may be, they are temporary. Jesus is God’s gift of love who meets our greatest need. He is God’s only begotten Son.

#3: Love That Anticipates Needs
Kelly and I went white water rafting a couple years ago and I was once again amazed at the way he expresses his love for me. For the third time that summer, we had planned an outdoor adventure, expecting hot weather. Each time it was cloudy and cool.

My husband knows how easily I get cold and how much I hate it. So, unbeknownst to me, he had packed a warm, heavy sweatshirt in two layers of plastic bags. Then he put it in our waterproof lunch bag in the boat. So when we stopped for lunch and I was wet and miserable, Kelly wrapped me in a thick sweatshirt. I was warmed by his loving anticipation of what I would need and the trouble he went to for my comfort.

My grandson's first Christmas tree expedition
This is Christmas in miniature. God knows our greatest need, our weaknesses, our pain. He knew before time began that man would sin in the Garden of Eden and already had made a plan to save us.

First, however, we had to realize how utterly inadequate we are to maintain sinless perfection through rule-keeping. The entire Old Testament proves what a dismal failure mankind is at keeping the Law. No one can live a sinless life, except Jesus Christ himself.

It’s like my body’s inability to stay warm without outside influences. I jokingly tell my husband I’m part reptile, because I immediately take on the temperature of my environment. I crave a spot in the sun to warm my bones.

God has given us a place in His Son. His love anticipated our need and He provided a way for us to get to heaven through Jesus. We didn’t know ahead of time that we would need Him, but God did. At just the right time, as we sat shivering in the misery of our sinfulness, He sent Jesus to show us God’s love and sacrifice His life for us. His free gift of forgiveness warms us like nothing else can. Our relationship with Him on earth prepares us for an even better life with the Lord in heaven.

Before Christ came. We were like children; we were slaves to the basic spiritual principles of this world. But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children. And because we are his children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, prompting us to call out, ‘Abba, Father.’ Now you are no longer a slave but God’s own child. And since you are his child, God has made you his heir. Galatians 4:3-7, NLT (emphasis mine)
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly… But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:6, 8, NIV (emphasis mine)

Christmas Day! Scripture About God’s Love

His Protecting Love:
Psalm 36:7 - How priceless is your unfailing love, O God! People take refuge in the shadow of your wings.

Psalm 42:8 - By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me— a prayer to the God of my life.

Love that Listens:
Psalm 66:20 - Praise be to God, who has not rejected my prayer or withheld his love from me!

Love that Gives:
John 3:16 - For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

1 John 3:1: See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!

Love that Sustains:
2 Thessalonians 2:15-17 - So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

Unconditional Love:
Titus 3:3-7 - At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior,  so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.

Our Example of Love:
1 John 4:7-12 - Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

Jude 1:1-2 - To those who have been called, who are loved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ: Mercy, peace and love be yours in abundance.
May the hope, peace, joy, and love of God rest on you, fill you, and flow from you this year.
Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Celebrating the Advent Week of JOY: What Does Jesus Want for Christmas?

Yesterday marked the third Sunday of Advent and the theme for this week is JOY. Joy runs high throughout the Christmas story. No one exhibits more exuberant abandon regarding Jesus’ arrival on earth than the shepherds and angels. Both the givers of the good news and those receiving it showed abundant enthusiasm.

 Our Christmas pageants echo that joy as golden haired girls with tinsel halos smile and wave at the crowd while singing about His birth. Shepherd boys bound down the aisle vying for first place to reach the manger, sometimes dropping staffs and stuffed sheep in the process.

Even those who are supposed to play antagonists in the show sometimes can’t resist joining in. Like the Innkeeper, who after telling the holy couple he didn’t have any space left just couldn't help himself and suddenly blurted out, “but you can have my room!”

However joy is much more than momentary happiness. It’s impossible, deep down, solid assurance that Jesus has come and He is the King. We’re invited to join the shepherds and angels in announcing the news.

Monday, December 16: Giving to Jesus
Years ago we started a new tradition at our house. It helps us remember that while we enjoy giving gifts to each other for Christmas it’s really Jesus’ birthday. On Christmas Eve we each write on a 3x5 card what we want to give Jesus in the coming year. Then we put it somewhere on the tree.

On Christmas morning, before opening stockings and gifts, we share what we’ve written with each other. It’s my favorite part of Christmas. It opens our hearts to God and each other in a very special way.

Over the years we’ve given Jesus: a servant’s heart, patience, not arguing back, a bolder witness, a softer tongue, the steering wheel (or throne) of our life, our careers, and many other things. After Christmas morning we each put the card in our Bible or someplace where we will see it throughout the year and be reminded of our promise.

The trick is to start asking Jesus what He would like ahead of time, much like we ask for wish lists from family members. It helps to know what people really want rather than try to guess. It’s not much of a blessing if we just buy them what we want ourselves, or grab the first thing we come across so we can quickly exit the store.

What is on Jesus’ “wish list”? Since giving is such a big part of the way we celebrate His birth, I thought I'd find out what God says in His Word about giving.

Give Willingly
Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 2 Corinthians 9:7

Give the Good News

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve. Isa. 61:1-3

Give to the Needy
There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded. Deuteronomy 15:11                         

Give to Please God

“When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do…to be honored by others…But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Matthew 6:2-4                              

What you will give Christ this Christmas? If you’re like me, you will fail many times to perfectly accomplish your goal. If you truly desire to give yourself to God, however, He will appreciate the fact that you love Him and desire to give yourself to Him more than anything else, every day of the year.

May we all joyfully say: “Merry Christmas; Happy Birthday Jesus!”

Monday, December 9, 2013

Christmas Peace and Accepting Plan 'B'

Yesterday was the second Sunday of Advent and the theme for this week is: PEACE

Interestingly enough, the two most peaceful participants in the Christmas story are the ones who had the most difficult circumstances. God knew what He was doing when He chose Mary and Joseph.

He picked a young virgin of unshakeable faith and humility. She was willing to suffer misunderstanding, rejection, and possible death for her unprecedented circumstances. She was the world’s first and only pregnant virgin.

We don’t know much about Joseph, but he was a man of dreams and visions, who believed what God told him and acted on it. No matter what God required - no matter what time of day or night - Joseph protected Mary and the Son of God she carried.

How could they so peacefully accept all that was required of them? They calmly submitted to gossip, moving from place to place, and random visits from rag tag shepherds and wealthy kings.

What was their secret? I believe they knew they were a part of a bigger plan, so big, that it couldn’t be defeated. Their peace came from knowing that the One who promised is faithful. They were content to do their part in the most powerful drama of all time.

Monday, December 9: Accepting Plan ‘B’
I like to plan ahead and have control over my life. My favorite line from the old “A Team” was when Hannibal said, “I love it when a plan comes together.” However, it’s a good thing that not all my schemes “come together,” because they’re not always God’s best for me.
Just like us, Joseph and Mary had plans, or at least dreams of what life would be like when they got married. They probably pictured a quiet existence in Nazareth with Joseph doing carpentry and Mary keeping house – including kids, friends, and worship at the synagogue. Angelic visits, prophetic dreams, and parenting the Messiah probably didn’t enter their minds.
When I was growing up and things went awry, my dad would say, “I guess we’ll go with plan B.” Often, the situation went on to plan C or even D. It helped me learn that fretting and flailing don’t help the situation. Yet, sometimes, I still do that, just a little.
My husband constantly amazes me with his cheerful flexibility. His favorite saying is: “It’s time to improvise and adapt.” Mary and Joseph knew how to do that. Here’s a few examples:
Mary’s Plan A
Marry Joseph and have children.
We’ll live respected lives of obedience to God.
We’ll live in Nazareth near family.
Mary’s Plan B
I’m pregnant with the Messiah by the Holy Spirit! Everyone assumes I’ve been unfaithful, but I know I’m blessed.
Our baby was born in a stable.

Joseph’s Plan A
I will marry Mary and raise a family.
I’ll divorce Mary quietly for unfaithfulness.
Unexpected trip to Bethlehem to pay taxes; the baby will be born there.
Joseph’s Plan B
Mary’s says she’s pregnant by the Holy Spirit!
An angel told me to marry her; she’s having the Messiah!
We have to run to Egypt because Herod wants to kill Jesus.

Every time Mary and Joseph thought they knew the plan, God threw another curve. Through it all, they followed His directions with amazingly good attitudes. Their acceptance of Plan B: fulfilled prophesy, revealed Jesus as the Savior of all men, strengthened their own faith, and magnified their dependence on God.

They demonstrated that Plan B can be even better than Plan A, which really wasn’t Plan B at all, but Plan G – God’s Plan. The best one of all.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Happy Advent! and a few Christmas devotions for you

Yesterday was the first day of Advent. If you were in church, it's possible someone read a special scripture and lit the first candle on the Advent wreath. That's what we did at our house. It's the beginning of one of the most exciting seasons of the year and I love the way these days of preparation help us center our hearts on what's truly important.

The season begins each year on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, which can be as early as November 27 and as late as December 3. The word Advent means “coming.” These weeks are set aside so we can focus our hearts on the coming of Jesus. By the time Christmas arrives, we can wholeheartedly celebrate His birth. He came in human form to show us God’s love through His life, sacrifice on the cross, and triumphant resurrection.

The Second Advent of Christ is even more anticipated - when Jesus comes back to take all Christians home to heaven. All who have accepted the forgiveness and new life He offers look forward to this even more than Christmas.

There are four small candles and one large one in an Advent wreath, and each introduces a theme for that week. This week is Hope, followed by Peace, Joy, and Love. The fifth candle is the Christ candle, which we light on Christmas Day.

This is exactly what I wish for you this Christmas – in your relationship with Jesus Christ, with your family and fellow man, and in the deepest places of your heart. May you experience the Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love that Jesus brings.

In the weeks to come I will be posting an occasional devotion from the book my pastor asked me to write for my church family. I hope you enjoy today's:

Monday, December 2: It’s the Same Every Christmas

We read about the same characters every year. But each time we return, God has something new for us. Jesus came gift-wrapped in swaddling clothes. The only ones who knew who He really was were a brave young couple, some smelly shepherds, a resentful king, a few misguided priests, and foreign stargazers. Yet heaven rang with praise and the earth rejoiced in God’s plan.

Where do you find yourself in the story?

Joseph and Mary - The Weary Travelers: Found in Luke 2:1-7
·         Are you traveling for Christmas this year? Is it by choice?
·         Was it was difficult for Mary and Joseph to trust God in this inconvenient trip just before Mary’s due date?

The Innkeeper – The Harried Host: Found in Luke 2:6-7
·         Have you unwittingly left Christ out in the cold this Christmas because your life is too full? What needs to change?
·         How might the story have changed if the innkeeper had known who was to be born that night?

The Angelic Host - The Pageant: Found in Luke 2:8-14
·         What was the purpose of their display: to draw a crowd, show off their costumes, wave at their mom’s? What was their message?
·         How can we model our programs after theirs?

The Shepherds – The Partygoers: Found in Luke 2:15-20
·         These men didn’t hesitate to accept the party invitation – they didn’t shower, stop to buy a hostess gift, or get a babysitter for the sheep. They just went! How did it change their lives?
·         How could our attitude change the focus of the Christmas parties we host or attend?

Herod - The Greedy: Found in Matthew 2:1-3, 7-8 and 16-18
·         King Herod was the Grinch who tried to steal Christmas. Why?
·         How does Satan try to steal the throne from Jesus today?

The Priests - The Party Poopers: Found in Matthew 2:4-6
·         The priests knew the King would be born in Bethlehem, and that the Wise Men were on their way to worship Him. Instead of welcoming the Messiah, they went along with Herod’s plot to kill Him. Why?
·         What excuses do people today give for not worshiping Christ at Christmas?

The Wise Men - Lavish Givers: Found in Matthew 2:1-2, 9-12
·         These were not your normal baby shower gifts, but they were perfect for King Jesus. Gold symbolized His position of royalty, Frankincense His priestly role, and Myrrh foretold His sacrificial death.
·         What will you give to honor the King this year?