Wednesday, December 31, 2014

After Christmas Ponderings

Two verses tucked away at the end of the Christmas story are so often passed over – Luke 2:19 and 2:51. They portray Mary’s contemplative nature, which seems extraordinarily mature for a teenage girl, even in her time. Yet, from the scriptural account, Mary apparently had a firm grasp on gratitude and trust. Two things I seem to struggle to master. After a whirlwind of events, she took time to reflect on all that had happened.
Now that our Christmas is over and we’re back to business as usual – I’d like to pause, like Mary did, and examine the treasures God has given us in recent days.

Mary “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” That’s how I’d like to enter the New Year. There is a wealth of insight in that phrase. After the hurried trek to Bethlehem for the census, the makeshift birthplace, and the surprise visit from the shepherds, Mary took time to consider what God had done. 

When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:17-19, emphasis mine).

What treasures did Mary hold close to her heart? Here’s what I see:

First of all, she was chosen. Mary didn’t seek this out; God handpicked her for this role. She was created to bear the Messiah and she accepted her assignment willingly and humbly. She saw it as a blessing.

God chooses each of us for very specific roles as well (1 Pet. 2:9). Perhaps not as grand as Mary’s, but still, important to the people whose lives we touch. No one else can be who we were created to be. You and I are unique in all of creation. Do you treasure who He has chosen you to be?

Mary’s identity was validated – first by the angel, then Joseph, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna at the temple, and later, by the wise men. Her life fulfilled specific prophecies foretold centuries earlier, but being human, I’m sure she still had moments of fear and doubt. How welcome these words and gestures must have been!

Many precious verses in the Bible validate my identity in Christ and as a Christian, woman, wife, mother, friend, and writer. God also uses people to confirm the value of who I am and what I do. Blog comments, emails, texts, and handwritten letters encourage me to keep on writing, to keep on loving and serving.

Who has supported you in your God-given dreams? Confirming what God’s Spirit has spoken to your heart? All of us need that boost, to know we have a purpose in life (Heb. 2:3-4). Take a moment to treasure those people who have urged you to step out in faith, persevere, even  against great obstacles. Maybe they need to hear how much they mean to you, and be encouraged in their walk as well.

I hope you’ll check back over the next couple of days to see what else Mary found to delight in, both right after that first Christmas, and twelve years later.  

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Keep the JOY in Focus

This is not a Christmas quote, but it struck me as particularly appropriate with Christmas, only two days away:
“We must take care, we parents, that we speak less of the problems, the difficulties, the headaches and heartaches and backaches of this work than we do of Him and His glory.” 

These words were written by first lady of the faith, Ruth Bell Graham in her book, Prodigals and Those Who Love Them.  Ruth wanted to be a missionary - on the go, spreading the Word of God. Instead, she ended up raising five children, mostly by herself, while her husband Billy Graham traveled the world, holding giant crusades and preaching to more people than anyone else in history.

Ruth had a hard job. She knew the trials of being alone, sometimes envious of her mate’s freedom to come and go, in the work she longed to do. She struggled to hold her ground with their prodigal children who kept her up nights and sent her to her knees, weeping in prayer. Her poetry and insights are a treasure of wisdom borne from experience. A fiery little gal and prayer warrior, she loved and supported her husband through years of ministry, heartache, popularity and ridicule. 

If anyone had reason to grumble a little about the difficulties of serving the Lord, she did. That’s why her words resonate so loudly in my head. Most of all, now. Christmas is a time of joy and celebration, but also extremely busy and exhausting. What message do we want to send our children and those around us about Christmas?

Today, I had to go to the grocery store to get a few last things for our Christmas meal. I have never seen so many people in one store! I couldn’t find a parking space anywhere in the entire lot until someone pulled out. I got one of the last two grocery carts available and wove my way through aisle after aisle of disgruntled shoppers, all fighting to get in, get done, and get out. 

I breathed the name of Jesus constantly to remind myself to be pleasant and relaxed. I was aware that I was supposed to be home for a delivery in just 30 minutes; would I make it? I made a concerted effort to visit with the lady behind me in line and be cheerful to my exhausted checker. It didn’t take any longer than if I had rushed and snarled and complained, inwardly or outwardly.

I have not always done so well in the hearing of my children and husband. I’m so glad I read Ruth’s words this morning. It prodded me to remember why we do all this – entertaining, presents, travel, programs, cards and letters – it’s all to revel in the joy of Jesus – here, in person. So let’s be glad!

We’ll most likely stay up too late, eat too much, and be tired from all the extra work. I pray we will keep our focus on why we’re doing it all, and communicate that to our kids and everyone we meet. After we remind ourselves and take a calming breath.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Is God Approachable?

A friend and I have lately discussed the importance of personal appearance. We agree, in order to move up the career ladder and social circles, there is a certain “look” expected. She thinks people who refuse to follow this norm are not interested in success. But I think it depends on what your main purpose is in life - to impress and make money, or to minister to a segment of society that might not otherwise come near. 

Others are drawn to or repelled by the way we look. Whether our look is clean-cut and stylish, or dreadlocks and tie dyed, we have a circle of people we’re best able to reach with the message of Christ. 

Our friend with dreadlocks past his shoulders found victory over alcohol addiction through the power of God. He went to a faith-based rehab, where he relearned how to live life. Just before he left the facility, a visiting teacher advised him not to change his style just to fit in with other Christians.

“You will reach far more people with the secret of recovery through Christ, if you keep your distinctive look,” he said. “Those in that culture will be drawn to your appearance. It will open doors with people who would never give someone like me a second glance.”  It has proven to true.

It makes me think of Jesus. How clever of God to send His Son in the form of a baby. Babies have the knack of fitting into any social circle. They don’t worry about dressing for success or impressing anyone. Everyone was at ease in the presence of God - the Shepherds, Simeon and Anna at the temple, and the wise men - because baby Jesus was not too high, too low, too powerful, nor too fashionable for any of them to approach.

The Jews expected Him to come as a conquering king, to overthrow worldly powers. However, that would have defeated God’s purpose to draw all men to himself. For who can be at ease in the presence of a all powerful monarch, and pour out all their fears and concerns? But a baby? A baby draws people in.

And as Jesus grew into manhood, people continued to come near– rich, poor, young, old, powerful, wretched, sinners, and seekers. All were drawn to His welcoming embrace. Everyone except those who were jealous of His popularity and uncompromising truth.

King Herod, and many spiritual leaders of Jesus’ time did not welcome Him. They tried to get rid of Him. He didn’t fit with their preconceived ideas of how the Son of God should look and behave. Jesus just wouldn’t fit into their dress for success code. His humility grated on them; His loving welcome to sinners, and healing touch on those wracked with disease appalled them.

Today, many deem God unapproachable. They say He is angry and demanding. They dismiss that scripture says Jesus, “The Son is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15, NIV). He didn’t come to conquer, but to call us near so we could be forgiven, and have eternal life. 

If you’ve been afraid to approach God, I invite you to come to the stable and meet the baby we celebrate at Christmas. He came looking vulnerable and lovable, so we would not be afraid to stay and hear what He came to say – I love you; I want you; I am all you need.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Getting a Head for Christmas

Christmas is all about giving – what God gave us in Jesus Christ, and our giving to others. If you’re like me, you want to give gifts that are meaningful to the ones who receive them. Some people scoff at the idea of wish lists, but I’m all in favor of them. It helps to know what size, style, and color items my loved ones want. That way I’m sure to get something they will like. 
But what if the item the person desires is not only something they don’t need, but detrimental to their well being? Should we still give them what they want?

Take Salome for instance, she did such a great job dancing for the guests at her stepfather’s birthday party, he promised her up to half his kingdom as a reward. He could do that, since he was the king. What she asked for shocked and grieved him. He knew it was wrong, but didn’t want to renege in front of his guests. 

Salome wanted the head of the preacher man, on a platter – not for herself, you understand, but for her mom. That’s what Herodias wanted more than anything else. And that’s what she got. Like so many items on our wish lists, she thought it would make her happy. 

Herodias wanted revenge because the preacher, John the Baptist, had openly rebuked her and King Herod for their unlawful marriage. She had divorced Herod's half brother, Philip, in order to marry him. John had embarrassed and shamed them. Herodias wanted revenge.

It wasn’t enough for her that Herod had put John in prison. Herod knew John was a righteous man. Even though the message perplexed him, he liked to hear him preach. Not Herodias, she wanted John out of the picture entirely. When Salome asked her mom what she wanted, Herodias handed over her wish list.* 

This gift, however, did not bring lasting satisfaction. As it always does, the sweet taste of revenge turned sour in Herodias’ mouth. She wanted to silence the messenger- the message – but it would not be quieted. John was only one of God’s spokesmen. Jesus Christ - God himself – continued to speak the message of repentance and the forgiveness of sin.

Salome contributed to her mother’s sins with her gift, and followed in her footsteps. Josephus, a scholar and historian of the first century, wrote that Herod Antipas, Herodias, and Salome all died in exile - unsatisfied, unrepentant, and alone.

Most people’s lists include electronic gadgets, flat screen TV’s, clothes, tools, even cars and exotic vacations. These gifts provide a temporary high, but that’s not what any of us need for Christmas. Many, like Herodias, want to silence the truth. They try to decapitate the Good News, wishing us “Happy Holidays,” rather than breathe the name of Christ. They want us to answer in kind and keep Jesus out of Christmas, making this a generic winter festival. But they need to hear the name of Christ whose Day we celebrate. 

If we want to get ahead for Christmas, we need to stop giving people what they want –to silence the truth, for watered down wishes, Santa Claus, and feel-good giving – and give them what they really need. What they need is Jesus. What we all need is Jesus. Let’s speak His name and spread the gift of His message this Christmas season.

* You can find the story of Salome and Herodias in Matthew 14:1-12 and Mark 6:14-28.