Friday, December 25, 2015

The Ultimate Christmas Party

'Tis the season for celebrations and parties! If you were planning the party of the century -- make that many centuries -- who would you invite?

MTV has a "reality" show, "My Super Sweet Sixteen." In this over-the-top commentary on American priorities, hip-hop royalty, Silicon Valley moguls, the NYC elite and others indulge their sweet and not-so-sweet sixteen year celebrants for the sake of the cameras. Presents, party favors, entertainment -- well, let's just say they are a far cry from the house bands that croaked and twanged their way through the most lavish birthday parties in my day. Extravagant. Obscenely so. And, of course, only the A-listers get an invite.

Sunday morning our pastor set my mind to daydreaming with a comment he made in his sermon. Honestly, I don't remember the comment. And, sadly, once my thoughts got to meandering, there's a good bit of his sermon I missed. But, I started thinking about "the first Christmas party." There were no sequined dancers or boa-draped starlets. No DJ or glowsticks. The crowds did not part as Jesus arrived, waving from the moonroof of a stretch limousine. As far as we know, not a single gift was exchanged that night. But one was given, and we have paused to remember that night each year, for two thousand years. Why?

The nature of the gift. In the most simplistic of answers, this Babe came to die that others might live. Of course, His life taught us about love and charity, grace and faithfulness righteous anger and holy living. But this Holy Child was God Himself, sent that He might be with us, that He might pay the ultimate price for us, that He might remain in us, and one day welcome us into His heavenly kingdom. He came to us, born out of the love and wonder of an awesome and skillful God -- His love for all of us.

The "original" guest list. Present that night were ordinary, and some less than ordinary people. Mary, a young bride, a virgin, and of humble situation. Joseph. We assume he was older, but had he expected this kind of drama when he'd entered into the marriage agreement with Mary's father? (Somehow we tend to forget Joseph was as "called" on this holy journey as Mary.) Shepherds, night watchmen for a bunch of dumb, dirty sheep; men who did not have access to proper bathroom facilities or even a roof over their heads. Livestock. Whether you prefer the image of a stable out back a crowded inn, or the first floor of a home, where animals were kept to warm those sleeping above, in all likelihood animals were present. (If not initially, quite possible the shepherds arrived with a few; shepherds usually kept the most immature and weakest of the flock close by them for safety and care.) Somehow, I can't imagine folks inviting some chickens or mules to their child's first birthday party, much less the delivery room. But this guest list was a who's who of the humble and the faithful; willing and obedient in their attendance to the One True King.

The recipients of the gift. You and me. That's right, at this party, guests receive the gifts! Perpetually! I can't speak for you, but I know how undeserving I am of this gift. Years ago my life was a mess, and I was tired of riding the roller coaster; clawing myself out of the pits only to find myself there again. I gave all my burdens to God and asked Him to help me fall in love with Him. Before I knew it, Scott had come along, bringing with him three wonderful children. The house in which I'd been living began to look like a home. I became more preoccupied with thinking of others rather than worrying about what others thought of me. I was so grateful for the many blessings and positive changes in my life, I had no choice but to acknowledge God, the Giver of all good gifts! For the first time in a long time I was actually excited about living; I had simply wanted to get on some steady ground, to be in love with God the way I knew He wanted me; but this? This was far more than I ever expected or earned. It could only be God. But that's the way He works. His gifts are unmerited, unearned, undeserved, and far greater than anything we can typically understand or desire. Like it or not, acknowledge it or not, we are all invited to become recipients of His Christmas Gift. And like the presents that sit beneath the Christmas tree, waiting to be opened, enjoyed, and employed with all the zeal we have within us, so is the Gift of the Child King to each of us.

I urge you to "open" His Gift this Christmas. Call on Him; ask Him to help you fall in love with Him. Get ahold of a Bible. Find a church. His is the gift that keeps on giving. Id love to see you at the party next year!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Advent: A Time for Faithfulness

Once a year -- during our busiest season -- my job requires me to work on Sunday. This past Sunday was the day. When my supervisor came to me last week and mentioned it, those who overheard immediately began to interject. "What about church?! You can't miss church." "You know Judi doesn't work on Sunday! She's religious!" I catch a bit of flack for being "the Bible-banger" at work. Most of it is in good fun, and I don't mind at all. But when the objections started the other day, I explained, "If I was religious, I would have a problem working on Sunday; but I'm not." Sadly, a bustling UPS office at Christmas affords me no opportunity to explain my statement; on "quiet" days, we get about a thirty second interval between phone calls. But my statement was made; the explanation would have to wait until another time.

The truth is, the shift for which I was scheduled started well before our worship service starts; I knew I'd have enough time to get there and, trust me, I would not have missed church for work. Secondly, had I refused "for religious reasons," I would have been given some other horrible shift to work that would have taken me from anything else I'd rather be doing. Third, I am not religious. My relationship with Jesus doesn't require me to keep rules like "Stand up when the congregation is standing;" "Give up something for Lent;" "Do no work on Sunday." God has showered me with unspeakable grace; He has transformed my heart, and out of that flows a desire to honor Him, serve Him and remain holy. Religion turns that design completely around; religion observes rules and rites in an effort to be holy and show yourself worthy to God. Religion is futile.

In Luke 2:21-24, Luke records Joseph and Mary's keeping of Jewish law: the circumcision of Jesus, recognition of Mary's time of purification, and the presentation at the temple of their firstborn son. Circumcision and purification were rites required of God's people in Mosaic Law. Setting apart of the firstborn (a ceremony known today as Pidyon Ha'ben) was also required in the Old Testament. Joseph and Mary held in their arms the Son of the Living God, a Redeemer sent to earth to buy each one of us back from sin and death at the cost of His life. The Child they held was the ultimate Sacrifice, and eradicated the need for us to sacrifice. He was Grace incarnate, and bestowed upon all of us the privilege of adoption into God's family without the rules and observations the people of Israel had been accustomed to upholding. Because of Jesus we are no longer bound by religion. Maybe there's a certain irony in these two people chosen by God for such an honor, being obligated to observe God's Law because the baby they held had not yet died. Maybe it's just faith.

The problem with religion isn't the "stuff": rules, restrictions, memorizations, ceremonies. The problem with religion is observance without attitude. I don't believe Joseph and Mary obeyed God's Law because they feared divine retribution; they didn't follow the rules because "good people" do that sort of thing. Would God have chosen a couple like that? I believe God chose them because they loved Him. They were willing, and humble, and faithful. Their hearts were as consecrated to God as they wished their son to be. (Now that is ironic.) Though they did not see the whole picture, it is clear Joseph and Mary knew they held in their arms a King, the Savior of the people of Israel. Were they tempted to ignore the rules that applied to others, the "common people"? Did they ever have the urge to forego a sacrifice they probably could not afford, on the grounds they would one day surrender their son to the whole of Israel? Maybe, but nevertheless, they remained faithful.

This Advent may come at a time when your income is failing -- or may already have failed -- or your family is fighting, or your health is not so good, or you've found yourself so sad and alone you can't stand the thought of one more carol. All those traditions that draw us into feeling like we just never measure up? All those obligations, religious or otherwise? Leave them at God's throne. Make this Advent a time to surrender in prayer before the King of Kings, let His Word speak to you, seek only His will for your life, and be faithful to it.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Advent: A Time to Defy Convention!

Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton gave birth to their second child in 2015, a little girl. I'm no "royal watcher," but you couldn't miss the pomp and circumstance associated with this small baby's appearance. Thanks to the internet and celebrity voyeurs, you can know Princess Charlotte's exact weight, length, time of birth -- even if poor Kate had an epidural or not. (She didn't -- Showoff!) From Kate's perfectly coiffed hair and the littlest Mountbatten-Windsor's top of the line layette, from royal midwives to a designer nursery, theirs is a picture-perfect nativity scene. And, really, who would expect anything less? But this infant, who is fourth in line for the throne of England, had a much more ostentatious birth than One first in line as King of Kings. In fact, the entire Christmas story is rife with the unexpected.

First, there was Mary. Based on custom, scholars speculate she was a young teenager. In order to adequately communicate my point, I'm going to need you to do something. Take a moment, look in on your 14-year old as she is allegedly studying. Go ahead. Don't worry, she won't hear you: her iPod volume is at an unhealthy level, and she's on her phone. What did you see? Well, if she's anything like most teenage daughters, you sort of have to shoulder the door open a bit because, no doubt, there are clean clothes rolled up in a ball in front of it. (She figured she'd just try putting a couple of outfits together so she wouldn't be distracted from studying by worrying about what she was wearing to the movies on Friday. And she wouldn't dare take the time to rehang or refold them -- she's got studying to do, after all.) Once you successfully open the door a crack, you'll undoubtedly see her feet moving like one of those inflatable flailing arm men at the car wash , her butt bopping up and down, and her hair and her head moving opposite one another. You'll wonder for a second how she does that without dislocating something. But then it will dawn on you: she is about the same age as Mary was when she was called to mother the Son of the Most High. Where did you go wrong?

We often have this idea that Mary was exceptional. Portraits and crèches depict Mary as this saintly, dignified woman. While it's true our culture is much different and times have changed, one only has to look in the rest of the Bible to know God so rarely chooses the ones that "have it all together." Mary was given a great honor, but could there have been someone who appeared more qualified? Perhaps. But 1Samuel 16:7 tells us God's criteria is much different. God looks at the heart. Judging by Mary's response to the angel's announcement, Mary's greatest qualification was a humble and willing heart.

Then there was Anna. There are three little verses in Luke 2 that are her legacy -- what an inspirational one it is! Anna was married for seven years, and a widow for eighty-four. Do the math. If we assume, like Mary, she was married as an early teen, that makes this woman about 104! And widowed before her mid-twenties! She could have remarried; Levitical Law provided for the support of widows through remarriage. Instead, she served God "night and day," never leaving the temple. She was a prayer warrior. She fasted, which, for a woman in her hundreds, is no small feat; but the true prayer warrior knows, fasting is the secret weapon, the A-bomb. This woman was committed to her commitment! And her mind was sharp. Others missed the Messiah; even as they cried out, "Crucify him!" Not Anna. She'd awaited the hour, and was present and prepared when it came. But for her, it wasn't a final blessing, her "Oh-I-can-die-now moment;" Anna continued working. She "spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem." Anna's life did not end in some spectacular public swan song. It ended with Anna rising each day to serve her Lord as she had everyday before, though now with the incarnation of the Babe King before her eyes. A woman given such an honor; yet humble, faithful, tireless and purposeful enough to get right back to work with renewed verve.

A virgin gives birth. A baby King is wrapped in rags for warmth. Angels proclaim the Messiah's arrival to shepherds rather than the spiritual elite. A centenarian widow sends out birth announcements for God's One and Only Son. Unconventional in every way. And He is still defying convention. Will you surrender your heart to be changed by Him? Will you be a humble and willing vessel? How will God use you to turn this Christmas upside down?

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Advent: A Time of Preparation

One of my favorite movies is "A Knight's Tale." Paul Bettany plays a comedic Geoffrey Chaucer, heralding squire William Thatcher as "Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein," and aiding him in his impersonation of a noble. Thatcher's abilities as a jouster (?) earn him the prize, and the girl, of course, but "Chaucer's" heraldry is epic. His embellishment, his seduction, his artistry with words never ceases to leave me captivated.

From conception, John the Baptist was chosen by God to proclaim the arrival of Jesus, the long awaited Messiah. What an honor! What a responsibility! While reading the account of Christ's birth in Luke 2, I couldn't help but notice the attention and placement allotted the account of John's birth in Luke 1. Given the nature of his calling, it's no wonder. And the parallels in the two births is equally striking.

Both were miraculously conceived: one, because of his mother's advanced age; one, because of His mother's virginity. Both sons were an answer to prayer: one, the prayers of his parents; one, the prayers of the entire Israelite people. Both were announced by an angel. Both firstborn sons were circumcised and presented at the temple; and the account of John's circumcision is just as noteworthy as Jesus'. Though John never hesitated to speak of his own unworthiness, Jesus said of him, "Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist." (Matthew 11:11a)

In the culture of ancient Israel, barrenness was a terrible stigma and humiliation, the reprieve of which was an indication of tremendous blessing. John was such a gift to Zacharias and Elizabeth, and a harbinger to the Greatest Gift to come!

Both John the Baptist and Jesus spent time in a place known for its harsh characteristics and challenging situations: the wilderness. For those who have been there, the wilderness may be a place of testing and trial, but it is a place of strengthening and training. When all else is taken from us; when we are alone with the Lord in a difficult place, we find He is all we need, and we are drawn closer to Him in fellowship. John spent years in the wilderness, separated from the world in which he was born, allied only with his Heavenly Father and learning directly from Him how to be a herald for the One True King.

Since ancient days, heralds were appointed to announce the coming of a king well in advance of his arrival, that the people might prepare themselves and their town for the exceptional events that would accompany the royal's visit. The people of Israel had been promised a Savior; their prophets had been quiet for hundreds of years; and they were under terrible persecution by the Roman Empire. They were certain the time of their redemption was nigh. But John, the herald selected by God to announce the arrival of the King of Kings brought them an unexpected message: a message that called for them not to prepare open celebrations, but to quietly prepare their hearts for this King; a message not about gamely taking up arms in war against Rome, but taking up the humble tasks of self-examination and repentance in a spiritual war. God's herald directed the eyes of Israel to One who would redeem much more than their mortal lives; this was a plan for the ages, and John was its messenger!

Every word he said about Jesus was true. He did not gild the lily; there was no obsequiousness or bombastic elocution. His speech was not colored by his own opinions or agendas. He never made himself any more than one who humbly served a worthy King. May I be such a herald! And may we all use this time to prepare our hearts for the One who daily wants to unfold before us the plan He so lovingly designed for each of us. May we prepare in our hearts a place worthy of a righteous and holy King.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Advent: A Time of Joy

Of course it is! The song says so: "Joy to the world!" Everybody has to be happy, right? Look around. Do those people in the "Black Friday at Walmart" videos look happy? How about the UPS driver? How happy does she look? Or the old man sitting alone at the bus stop? Or the homeless mother living in a shelter with her three children? Or the girl who is celebrating her first Christmas without her dad? Well, may I suggest Christmas is not merely an opportunity for those eager to line the churches, to celebrate the birth of Christ. Christmas is a time for those who do not know who this Child is, who do not have a real relationship with Him, to catch a glimpse of what it means to be in a deep, committed relationship with Him and experience the joy it brings. And the perfect way for that to happen is for those of us who do know Him to take our joy to the streets.

I was blessed to have been raised in the church. Church has always been my "Default." I could always tell when I was out of step with the Lord. I'd cry. I'd beg. You may have done some of this yourself: "Lord, if You'd just clean up this mess..." Only to turn right back around and make another mess as soon as I felt it was "safe." Now, I do not mean that's the way this all works -- far from it; but I accepted the existence of God like I accepted my natural inclination for trouble -- both were part of me; equal and at war. To "fall back on" Jesus was to be at home: restful, warm and comfortable -- like PJs. To get into trouble was natural: normal, easy, common -- like my skin. At times I'd cry, wanting to "go home," wishing I would die: the struggle to be good was too difficult. I hated waking up each day knowing what a failure I had been yesterday and what a failure I was going to be today. There is no joy in the "religious" life.

It wasn't until God allowed me to be "brought low," with a lot of time on my hands; I began to search the Scriptures, trying to find out what was so great about God, or being His child. I didn't realize it, but I was looking for my "want to." Why would I want to obey? Why would I want to love others? I found my "want to." I found it in the disobedience of two children in a garden, and the promise their Father made that He would fix it. Because He loved me so. I found it in the sorrow of two widows, and the God who rewarded their faithfulness throughout history. Because He loved me so. I found it in a train wreck of a woman whose shame had left her aloof and cynical; she met a Savior who was not surprised or repulsed by her past, but longed to reveal to her a future. Because He loved me so. And I found it in a Babe sent to die that I might live, because He loved me so. God's kindness had drawn me to repentance, just as His Word says. I had done nothing, I could do nothing to warrant that kind of love. He asked only that I yield to it and trust Him. I will never fully grasp that kind of love: not the love I find in the pages of the Bible; not His love that I find in the moments of my day. But I do know that is why I "want to." I want to obey. I want to love others. I want to worship at His throne and live each day to bring glory to His great name. I want to point others to Jesus.

And what better time of the year to show others that joy comes not from pretending to like those gathered 'round our tables. Joy comes not from feeling obligated to give because they gave last year; not from painting on the fake smile and heading out to the living nativity; not from begrudgingly dropping your change in the bucket hanging before that smiling bell ringer. Joy comes because Jesus is our "want to." And it is at Christmas we celebrate the night when Joy came to the world!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Advent: Time for the Loosening of Tongues!

"But the angel said to him, 'Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son...'" Luke 1:13

"And Mary said: 'My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, And holy is His name.'" Luke 1:46-47,49

"So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, 'Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.' And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.  Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child." Luke 2:15-17

Last year I was left speechless -- no, really. I had surgery which left my vocal cords damaged. Within the confines of my hospital room, surrounded by people who understood my situation, it was "no big deal." In a noisy world where chatting online with the insurance rep only gets you so far and does nothing to relieve the frustration your feeling at having your benefits erroneously canceled, it became a big deal very quickly. Try placing your drive-thru order in a "library voice." When I did try to speak, people would beg me to stop. "Don't hurt yourself!" (It didn't hurt.) "Don't get so upset." (I wasn't.) I hated being patronized. In a world where texting, blogging and social media are such an enormous part of our lives; where people with disabilities are making headlines and legislation recognizing their needs improves everyday, you would think there'd be a little more room for someone with a vocal impairment. But speech is -- even in the twenty-first century -- much more important than we may realize. 

Saint Francis of Assisi is often (mis)credited with saying: "Preach Jesus, and if necessary, use words." If I was going through the toll booth behind you, and was informed by the toll taker that you had just paid my fare, I would think you were a nice person. If I was watching you help an elderly lady with her groceries, I would think your momma raised you right. Point is, how -- unless you spoke of God's love -- would I know that any of these acts was an outward expression of the change the Gospel has made within your heart? Now, words can come cheap if actions do not lend their support; but unless we define for those to whom we demonstrate the Gospel, exactly what our actions mean, they can appear to have their root in all sorts of good things -- not Our Good Father.

If Zacharias and Elizabeth had begin to notice a change in Elizabeth's physique, or Elizabeth had suddenly developed a craving for chocolate covered gefilte fish, don't you think they would have figured out what was going on? Did the angel really have to make an appearance to tell Zacharias? Elizabeth knew Mary's child was of the Lord; even the baby in her womb knew it. Did Mary need to "get her praise on" right then and there? I'm sure it was much louder than her "library voice." And those ignoble, unclean -- by multiple definitions -- shepherds... They made widely known what they knew of this Child. No Facebook. Not even Morse code. (Hey, lighten up -- my grandmother told me about it.) As they moved about with their flocks they told anyone who'd stand still long enough!

But in the midst of all this talking we find the account of Zacharias' disbelief; it had rendered him dumb. Unable to speak until when? Until credit was humbly restored to Whom credit was due. Until he proclaimed, that which the angel had foretold had come to pass: the time was right, the way was prepared for the arrival of Messiah.

Advent is a time to prepare our hearts; to stop and reflect on a God so mighty He controls the wind and waves, but so gentle and loving He would send His Son to Earth as a helpless, vulnerable babe, that we might be reconciled to Him. Advent is a time to lift our voices in praise, and proclaim His goodness to all. Preach Jesus; let your actions defend your words!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Advent: A Time of Obedience

"And it came to pass in those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.  This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria.  So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city." (Luke 2:1-3)
Consider the soldier leaving his home and family to lay down his life in battle, to defend his county's borders, to protect the rights of those who will spit on him when -- if -- he returns home; to protect the legal rights of those to burn the very flag he is willing to forsake everything to defend. How about to protect the rights of a corrupt government who supplies rebel forces in other countries with arms in order to overthrow governments from the inside, looting the spoils of espionage and extinguished innocent lives? Or to protect the rights of a government that has completely exploited its people and abandoned the ideals upon which it was founded, with the intent of further lining the pockets and advancing the agendas of one percent of its population, and enslaving the weaker ninety-nine? Consider the average citizen's willingness to obey the law or surrender his rights to life under such circumstances.

The reign of Caesar Augustus, under which Jesus was born, was one of dictatorship rooted in the soil of dominance. The Pax Romana ("Roman Peace") for which Augustus was known, was established by putting down through violence anyone who opposed the emperor's decrees or "divine" authority. Had Joseph refused to embark on the arduous trek to his ancestral town, had he argued the journey would be too much for the expectant Mary, it would not have bode well for him.

This is why I find it incredible the story with which we are so familiar -- almost to the point of eye rolling and distraction -- begins with a cruel, oppressive, sacrilegious, and corrupt government, once again forcing its unreasonable demands on  its subjects for the sake of prospering itself and a select, favored few. God used such a time to bring about a miracle, the Way to salvation and eternal life! All it required from humanity was a few obedient "unknowns." Years later, when Paul was to ask God to remove the burden which afflicted him, the Holy Spirit would assure him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Cor. 12:9) The Almighty God is masterful at gaining victory through unlikely means.

In today's current international and national climate, when we are tempted not to obey, we must remember that God is not governed by the limitations that govern us. Authorities were established by God; it is He who sets the limits on those who govern us in this world! And He can do great work and give to us a blessing, when His people are obedient -- open, willing, faithful, and unmoved by the natural. Advent is a time when the most miraculous, unbelievable event occurred, in the midst of a most unreceptive, unconducive political climate, using the obedience of a few unremarkable, underprivileged people. Let us never be discouraged by what we see on the news, read from the skeptics, fear in the darkness of night, or hear from the enemy who would see us in chains. Let us obey the King who will one day reign forever.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Advent: A Time of Boldness

I'm a bit under the weather today, so admittedly, I might just be a little cranky. I am annoyed. I'm annoyed, because people assume I should be annoyed. Or offended. Starbucks uses plain red cups. Every other meme on Facebook proposes being rebellious: offering "Merry Christmas" when somebody wishes me "Happy Holidays." Atheist billboards suggest Christmas is all about Santa Claus. "President Obama is the anti-Christ because he promotes abortion rights and the LGBT agenda." STOP! STOP!

I am so sick of Christians whining and making excuses for what we have failed to do! How can any Christian suck their teeth or shake their heads at the condition of the world today, and not feel one ounce of responsibility? "Not me. I became a Christian at the age of four, have been evangelizing and feeding the poor ever since. I've never spoken a hateful word, or coveted my friend's Nintendo, or watched an R-rated movie, or ignored a beggar, or failed to share the Gospel, or..."
"But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8)
 Don't you get it? We were "the world"? At some point we have all shared their fears, goals, misconceptions, desires, insolence, pain, apathy... We have been there! How quickly we forget that someone had a meaningful dialogue with us, demonstrated grace toward us and showed us the Lord!

And even then we didn't always get it right. There are Christians who do not see how materialism impacts their desire for God. There are Christians trapped in legalism. There are Christians who wrestle with addictions and bad choices. We come in all shapes and sizes, but our eyes should be fixed on Jesus as we move through this life. That is the tie that binds.

And that is far more important than taking offense every time a non-believer, pre-believer, immature Christian -- whatever, whoever does something with which we disagree. Or even with which God disagrees. Fine to recognize -- even hate the true enemy of us all, but as Christians we have been graciously spared his destruction, and inducted into Christ's service. If we can't speak in love to those who have not experienced God's grace, if we can't see this as an opportunity to do for them what was done for us, at least let us keep our eyes on our own paper.

In reference to politics and religion, an outspoken atheist I know said, "Let them fly their flags. Let them identify themselves loudly and boldly. That way I know just who I'm dealing with!" I answered, "Amen!" because that idea has never applied more to those who revile my Savior and scoff at what I know. Let them identify themselves. And begin a conversation I am obligated to have with them.


Rant over. Please return to your regularly scheduled Christmas festivities.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Advent: A Time of Prayers Answered

I was talking with a sister in the Lord the other day, and she was telling me about the goodness of God in her life. God had blessed her with gifts beyond her needs. Jealousy began fighting for the ground to which gratitude and God's glory is entitled. So I began thanking God for the many ways He'd revealed His goodness to us.

I'd always dreamt of a large family. Biologically, we've got a pretty good number, but our spiritual family? I am overcome when I think how much love exists between us -- all of us. I craved a romantic, "soulmate" kind of relationship; I've received that in my husband and the Redeemer who pursues me. Our earnings are meager, but necessary to sustain us, and always enough for the day, enabling me to homeschool, care for my mom, and write -- the things which are most important to me. Blessings completely different from the ones God has given others, but perfectly suited for us. Specific answers to specific prayers.

As I read the beginning of the Christmas story in Luke today, I read these words in Luke 1:5-7:
"There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias... His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.  And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.  But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years."
In verse 13, we read the angel's words to Zacharias:
"Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John."
If you read on, you'll see that Zacharias was more than a little shocked; he did not believe. So this is my question: If Zacharias did not believe when the angel told him he and Elizabeth were going to have a child, what had been his prayer?  "Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard..." I guess it's possible Zacharias had been praying, knowing God could accomplish such a thing, but not truly believing God would accomplish such a thing. But I tend to think the prayer of which the angel spoke was something Zacharias had long forgotten. A prayer that sprung so easily from the lips of a more youthful, more hopeful man. A man who had not yet given himself over to the routine of religion, and the safety of simply biding one's time. He was "walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless." But this prayer, the prayer for a son, was no doubt a prayer teeming with emotion, a tearful plea from the depths of a younger man's heart. It does not seem to be, the prayer of an elderly priest, one who would not believe or hope even in the presence of a heavenly herald.

The expectation of a Savior, was something the people of Israel had with them for thousands of years; they prayed for His coming. Some had abandoned hope over the years; some refused to believe when He arrived. But in the years leading up to the birth of this Babe in Bethlehem, God had not ever forgotten His promise or the prayers of His people. The same can be said of those of us awaiting Jesus' second appearing. Or awaiting permanent employment. Or awaiting the return of a loved one from overseas. Or awaiting healing after doctors have stopped trying. Or awaiting a spouse. Or awaiting the appearance of a "YES" on a little plastic strip. Or awaiting a parent to return from the despair of mental illness.

This is a season to remember God answers prayers. Even the ones we've chosen to forget.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Living a Resurrection Life!

I snuggled beneath the blanket in my favorite chair. The crisp smell of our freshly cut Christmas tree permeated the air. It was Sunday morning, less than three weeks before Christmas, and the only creatures stirring were Bishop and I. Heavenly.

When Scott and I were married, naturally we worked to combine the best of our families' traditions, and begin some of our own. One discussion focused on the things we were seeking in a church. Some things were important to both of us; others, more important to one than the other. Scott, for instance, has an issue with churches that look like auditoriums: "A church should look like a church." I would scoff, "A church is the people inside the building, not the building. Aesthetics come and go." We found a church that had most of the things we required and many elements we preferred. We celebrated many Christmases right there next to our friends and family, in that "churchy-looking" church; with the windows decked in holiday décor, the spacious halls and beautiful exterior; and the "un-churchy" smell of it that always pleased me. When we sadly left, the search began again, and so did the discussions. I believe God honored our desire to find a church that honored Him with their service as well as their speech; he gave us Resurrection Life Church -- an active church in the center of our community, and the "churchiest-looking" (Scott) most "un-religious" (Judi) church we have ever attended! But with that came old stained glass windows that block the view to the outdoors, crowded and multi-purposed halls, an exterior that reveals years of life on the corner of a busy street, and that "churchy" smell.

So, as I sat in my chair on Sunday morning, I began to notice the ache in my heart. I missed the holiday-dressed windows with the view of the changing seasons. I missed the spacious halls and the majestic stone façade. I missed the clean smells and the bright beams of sunlight streaming through open spaces. I missed a building.

God has been showing me over and over, month after month, that the folks at Resurrection Life are my family. Beyond the skin tones, the tax brackets, the backgrounds, and the collars that would separate us in this world, these beautiful folks are my family. I had actually felt a small degree of emptiness upon leaving church the Sunday before Thanksgiving: I was not going to be with any of them on the year's most important day for family. But here I was, less than two weeks later, only hours from spending time with them, and I was aching for a pile of stones and mortar. Sad the things we will allow to distract us.

Later that morning, as I sat amidst the noise and bustle that is Resurrection Life, I heard the voices of those I love. Singing praises to our Father. Shouting agreement in the Word. Corporately lifting voices in prayer for the needs of others. Speaking God's blessings to one another as we hugged in greeting. Laughing aloud as we teased and joked the way brothers and sisters do. The distractions of early morning gone, I celebrated with my family in our home. Not a home of stillness and solitude. Not a home of pristine décor and empty spaces. But a home full of love and family and busy-ness and service and diversity. A home just perfect for a resurrection kind of life!

Monday, December 7, 2015

Advent Is a Season of Gratitude

Gratitude. Yeah, I know. Thanksgiving is over; we've all moved on. Time for giving. Or getting. I can't much tell anymore. I don't believe gratitude ever goes out of season.

I'm gonna shift gears on you pretty quickly, so buckle up and try to hang on: parables are a great way to teach and reveal truth. God and godly people used them throughout history. For instance, when David committed adultery with Bathsheba, Nathan the Prophet told David a story in order to reveal a difficult truth to him: the truth of the king's own sin. It worked. David was incensed by the "main character's" evil, and even imposed punishment on this villain. When Nathan exposed David as the evildoer, David repented and accepted his punishment from God as just and merciful.

Ok. Now to tie this all together, my parable:

A man was dealing with the mania of an adult daughter caught in addiction. He begged her, pleaded with her, even held her hand as he prayed with her; she very reluctantly indulged him. She was, at the time, working in an industry which fed her addiction and encouraged her sinful behavior. He often would cry out, "God, if only You will change her." But more often he would cry, "I can't keep this up. I can't keep looking at her like this. I can't keep having this craziness in my life. I can no longer deal with the shame of this child I have. She has no consideration for me." His was preoccupied with the impact her actions had on him. He sought comfort and prayer in a local prayer group. They understood the difficulty of his situation, but based on his "self" centered complaints would occasionally suggest he begin praying for God to work in this situation, as well as specifically for his daughter's deliverance. They prayed that God would change this man's heart toward his daughter -- no matter how wrong she was -- that she might be moved by his love for her.

Months later, while attending prayer meeting, this man stood up. His daughter had quit her job weeks before, had been seeking help for her addiction, and had moved in with him in an attempt to get her life together; she was currently working part-time, for minimum wage at a bodega. By all indications, she was on the right track. Before his listeners were able to shout "Hallelujah!" at what they presumed was a praise update, he added, "Please pray she will be able to find a better paying job -- maybe in another pub; I can't go on supporting her this way." The prayer partners were stunned. 

Had they not just been praying his daughter would be cured of her addiction? Did God not provide her a way out? Had this man ever trusted God to handle the situation for his good, his daughter's good, and God's own glory? or had he simply rubbed a lamp and summoned some magic minion to work at his behest? Had he ever at all been grateful that God handled the situation with his daughter's health? or had he just gone straight to hating the way it imposed on him?

Gratitude. For every good thing. Even the ones that challenge us to change or to change the way we do things. For every pregnancy that makes our backs ache, or every child that wakes to be fed in the middle of the night. For every job that requires we venture out at 2 AM in below freezing temperatures, or takes our parents away from our Christmas recitals. For every spouse that hogs the remote, and the ones that hide it! For friends who do not believe as we do, and "foes" that do. For bills, and long lines, and delays at the airport. For every inconvenience and every trial, a blessing is revealed, if only we see things with eyes of gratitude.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Advent

"God,  You are my God."

The audacity to say that! The God of all the Universe! El Shaddai -- the Almighty God; the All-Sufficient God! El Elyon -- the Most High God! YHWH -- I AM! And I would dare to call Him "mine"? to call Him "Abba"? He is a paradox to me. He loves me deeply; as His beloved child. He desires to be all to me -- to me! But why? Why would the God of All, this Eternal One, the King of Kings care for me? Because that is who He is.

Dare I  attempt to wrap my head around this?

The nun who courageously risks her life for the prostitute on the filthy streets of a city. A rich -- incredibly rich couple who, for no apparent reason, take in a homeless drunk. A pastor who faithfully spends hours visiting the most hardened criminals -- and serves them, as they serve out life sentences. A young man who moves his equally young wife and their baby to the dark life in a land ruled by Communism, or the dangers of life under Sharia law. Why would these people care about whores, or drunks, or rapists, or enemies?

Because just a small part of God's being, of who God is, has gotten inside them; now lives within these jars of clay, and is weakening their walls in order to burst forth! It is such a powerful and magnificent goodness and love, it cannot be contained within them!

The same love that would have the God of All coming down to love and redeem me.

Monday, November 23, 2015

In the Face of Fear, There Is No Debate

A couple of months ago I got into a pretty heated discussion with a friend of mine about a "hot-button" topic in the Presidential race. Truthfully, it was more like a Subway Panini -- only heated on one side. I'd say ten words, and she'd fire back with eighty; I'd express one point, and she'd start warming up the rocket launchers -- the kitchen sink was coming. As I began to realize this had gone far beyond a legitimate debate, I backed down. Because I'm a Christian, and that's what we're supposed to do. Because if I ever had a shot at showing Jesus to her, pressing on would end that. Because...yeah, no other reason. Let's face it, I didn't want to. She was being unreasonable. She was being inflammatory. And she was arguing like a four year old. No kidding! She was using racial and ethnic slurs -- no intelligent debate there. And that's what I wanted! A good debater wants to see both sides of the coin, wants to be challenged. And I wanted her to know I expected better of her than schoolyard name-calling. I thought she was capable of better.

But in my silence, it dawned on me -- and by "dawned" I mean, a thought straight from the Holy Spirit: She has not seen God do the things you have seen Him do. She cannot trust God because they barely have a relationship. I think she goes to church. She quotes Bible verses when she wants to point out everyone else's need for Jesus. But I don't think there's a genuine relationship. She doesn't walk with Him; I'm not sure she even talks with Him; and she doesn't allow Him to work. She is afraid. Fear is like throwing a stick in your bicycle spokes: My eyes are opened to what God can do, therefore I trust God, therefore I obey God, therefore my eyes are opened to what God can do, therefore I trust God, therefore I obe-- FEAR!! And it all comes to a screeching halt.

In 1 Samuel 7:12, Samuel sets forth a memorial -- he calls it Ebeneezer -- to remind the people what God had done for them. Remembering how far God has brought us, enables us to trust. Remembering the miracles we've witnessed, enables us to obey. This blog is my Ebeneezer. I look back from time to time and see what God has done for me and those I love. The good, the bad, the ugly -- but through it all, He has worked for my good.

I just celebrated my fiftieth birthday: the outpouring of love I received left me verklempt. In only ten years, God has widened my circle of friends -- true friends -- to ridiculous dimensions. My relationships criss-cross states and countries, occupations and lifestyles, beliefs and ethnicities, personalities and incomes. God has taken this cynical, anti-social-and-proud Queen of Darkness from depression, and legalism, and suicidal/ homicidal thoughts to a place of hugs and laughter, music and joy, love for humanity other than those within my four walls. Even in sickness. Even in betrayal. Even in poverty.

I have seen cancer cured, "fatal" injuries healed, former crack addicts celebrated for their philanthropy, homes rebuilt -- families and structures, the hungry fed, the hardened brought to tears, the aging serving youth, youth serving the aging, the poor serving the rich, the rich serving the poor, the spiritually and emotionally dead brought to life. I have seen God do amazing things! And that's just in my little world. The accounts my friends bring from overseas are nothing short of miraculous!

So, debate as you like, and close your mind as your fear directs. But my God is an awesome God, and He is working mightily in this world today. If you would open your eyes, if you would trust, you might just find He wants to use you.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

You, Sir, Are an Imposter!

When my son was about fifteen he got a job at a local auto repair shop. I would drop him off for work, and he would give me the usual peck on my cheek -- yes, I did say "usual." Steven never had a problem showing me affection or declaring his love for me; I admired his boldness no matter who was around. But things were about to change. In only a matter of weeks, my son had his license, had his own wheels, and was nothing more than a memory in the lives of his family. He returned, briefly, but he was like a caged animal; he wanted to be somewhere else, and would keep running off until he was. I understood some of the things that were going on in his life, but when did we lose our relationship? How long had he been planning this? When had he become an imposter? It felt like the ultimate betrayal.

So often I have contemplated the pain Jesus felt when Judas placed that kiss on Him; I wonder what was going through His mind. But more so, I wonder what was going through Judas' mind. Judas was part of Jesus' inner circle; he walked with Him, talked with Him, ate with Him. And don't forget this guy had been given the "authority to cast out all demons and heal all diseases." How did this happen?

Selling out the King of Kings is definitely one of the "biggies," but Judas' deception was merely a reflection of his heart. Judas was a lover of money. Who of us hasn't gotten a little "unbiblical" when we've gotten ripped off, or coveted the lifestyles of the rich and famous? cheated on income taxes? fudged a time sheet? handed our kid a coupon and a five spot to go stand in the other line? Being a money lover was a chink in Judas' armor, he would never allow Jesus to buff out.

Judas was disappointed. Three years with Jesus, and there'd been no revolution -- at least, not the kind Judas expected. They were penniless, itinerant, reviled by the religious elite; this is not what Judas had signed on for. Anyone ever disappointed you? It can be pretty tough to get over; especially when you've invested time, reputation, money, hope. You might find yourself consumed by disappointment at the price of your testimony, or your prayer life, or your attendance at church. Disappointment had become Judas' justification for the action he was about to take.

Judas was mired in the belief he was alone. "No one will understand." "No one else seems to be questioning their decision." "No one could ever forgive what I've done." Judas was never alone; we know Peter stood with him that night: only a short time later, distancing himself from his Savior for the sake of his reputation and physical well-being. Jesus went to the cross for the very purpose of forgiveness. Have you ever fallen into a snare called "shame?" Shame leaves us feeling alone and unworthy: of forgiveness; of our destiny in Christ. It can be a tough place to move past, and can turn lies into truth.

Judas, I'm certain, knew what he was doing was wrong; I am not saying, "Hey, that Judas -- he wasn't such a bad guy." What I'm saying is that we should never distance ourselves from him. We have all been imposters: smiling through pain; complimenting someone on their leathery pot roast; going through the motions on a Sunday morning. But being less than authentic -- even for a moment -- can cause us to harm others and ourselves. 

How much better off would we be if we were all just honest with each other? What kind of pressure might be eliminated in our lives if we never felt the need to be imposters? What kind of good could be done if we stopped pretending and just admitted we've been there, too?

Friday, November 20, 2015

What Would Have Happened?

If Noah had been tried in the court of public opinion, and laid his hammer down.

If Joshua and Caleb had trained their eyes on the "giants in the land" instead of the God of Heaven.

If Polycarp had merely gone along with the program instead of refusing to do what was popular.

If John Huss had simply muttered, "To each his own," because it was so much more tolerant.

If Betsie ten Boom had obeyed her fear rather than the Lord.

If Jim Elliot and his friends had just used some common sense, and stuck to street missions.

If Rosa Parks had simply sat down and shut up.

If Asia Bibi had waited for someone else to come and speak to those women.

If Kent Brantly had drawn the line at personal risk.

If the couple that sits beside me in church had only left Liberia sooner...
if my Facebook friend would just turn her back on Muslims wanting to learn...
if my nephew and his wife would stop worrying so much about those lost to addiction for years.

What would have happened if, rather than the call of Christ, these people had heeded the call of comfort, ease, political correctness, or popularity? No one willing steps into the ring with ebola, or death, or public ridicule without something much larger drawing them. Sometimes it is a tough decision, and the consequences are great. But I don't doubt these courageous people knew how much greater the consequences would be if they chose otherwise.

Quit Trying to Live By the Rules

One evening, a young man sat quietly at his kitchen table pouring over the pages of his Bible. He highlighted and scrawled notes in the margin. He spent hours simply studying and writing, studying and writing, while the members of his family popped into the kitchen on occasion, to grab a snack or a glass of water. He worked late into the night. In the morning, he lifted his weary head from the table, for exhaustion had vanquished his determination, and left him fast asleep. The sun had come up hours before; the young man's heart raced as he began to panic. Had he missed the start of services? He looked at his watch. No.!If they all hurried, they could make it. He washed his face and began to shave, barking at the others to get ready -- quickly! He brushed his teeth and combed his hair, growling at the others to get out of the bathroom! He speedily shined up his shoes and threw on his best suit, not-so silently wondering why she couldn't get those children ready any sooner. He grabbed his overcoat and headed to the car, yelling out to the others how much time remained for them to make it to church on schedule. The minutes ticked away, and the young man became annoyed; he pressed the center of the steering wheel once. Then again. "Why can't they just do as I ask?"

One evening, a young man sat quietly at his kitchen table pouring over the pages of racing forms. He highlighted and scrawled notes in the margin. He spent hours simply studying and writing, studying and writing, while the members of his family popped into the kitchen on occasion to grab a snack or a glass of water. He worked late into the night. In the morning, he lifted his weary head from the table, for exhaustion had vanquished his determination, and left him fast asleep. The sun had come up hours before; the young man's heart raced as he began to panic. Had he missed the start of the first race? He looked at his watch. No! If he hurried, he could make it. He washed his face, foregoing the task of shaving. He brushed his teeth and combed his hair, hoping no one would awaken and confront him over his hasty abandonment. No need for dressing up -- jeans and a T-shirt were just fine. Too late. She was up, and she wasn't happy. Like it was so difficult to take three boys shoe shopping. What did she need him for, anyway? He grabbed his jacket and his race forms, headed to the car. Things went so much more smoothly when he didn't have to wait for everyone else. "Why can't they just do as I ask?"

I knew this young man. Yup, "they" were one in the same. Now, some might call him a hypocrite. I know I did. But a hypocrite pretends with the intent to deceive others. What this young man was, was a legalist. Legalism rests on something other than Jesus to achieve its end. This young man genuinely wanted to follow the rules. He really tried to be good. This young man wanted to follow the rules for the sake of the rules: because it was the right thing to do; but he was trying in his own strength. Basically, this poor young man had the cart before the horse, so to speak. When Jesus comes into our lives -- and that's what He does: He doesn't hand down some book of "Bylaws of Our Club" and send us on our way -- He permeates our thoughts, our actions. He provides our personalities with context: sometimes rerouting and restructuring that which exists. We pray and read His Word to find out who He is, and He changes who we are. Someone once said, "Jesus met me where I was, but loves me too much to leave me there." He will work in us, in His time. We must set ourselves on a path of discovery and change (seeking only Him), knowing He reveals truth to us, and He is sovereign over all.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Why Is Anyone Following Lysa Terkeurst?

My apologies to Lysa right up front. But she is one of a group of leaders under scrutiny by…wait for it…

...other Christians.
And I’m not talking about scrutiny as in 1 Corinthians 14:29, “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said;” or 1 Thessalonians 5:21, “But test all things. Hold fast to what is good.”(emphasis mine) I mean scrutiny like, “Why You Shouldn’t Be Following Lysa Terkeurst” scrutiny. Yeah, it’s personal.
I might be way out of line with this one, but why is anyone following anyone but Jesus? Christians are followers of Christ. If we were followers of anyone else, we’d be Lysians, or Grahamatons, or Stanleyites.
James 3:1 says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” What about your brother? You’ve known him his whole life. You know he has a heart for Jesus. He, like the rest of us, gets it wrong occasionally. Sometimes he really goes out on a limb and says something thoroughly unbiblical. Do you hold a press conference? Write a blog? I hope you’d be moved by your responsibility for his spiritual health, motivated by love for a member of your family, and privately urge him to check his facts. (John 13:34, 35) Why do we treat the members of our family (of Christ) so differently? Would Martha Stewart’s mother publicly criticize her flambe -- telling others to never eat from her table again? Unbelievers don’t treat family that way! We wouldn’t treat our children that way, why do we treat God’s children that way?
Ever watch postgame interviews? A Receiver could have been stinking up the place the entire game, but does the QB tell everyone what a bad player this guy is? Publicly, they, as team members, maintain a united front. How much more, members of the body of Christ? (1 Corinthians 12:27) It is my belief, as Christians we should NEVER, NEVER, NEVER publicly admonish anyone. Take their work, go through it line by line, thoroughly evaluate it, criticize it, pick it apart until the cows come home, but NEVER, NEVER, NEVER attack a person. We shouldn’t be naming names, but rather, putting to the test concepts and teachings. People are not enemies; lies are our enemies.
A few months ago a friend gave me a book, written by someone who was part of the Word of Faith movement. I’m not a fan. However, I do believe the author has a desire to know and serve God. (Not that it’s subject to my judgment anyway) Point is, I took from the book truth, and left the rest alone. So what if I’d taken the time, sent this brother an email, pointed out the things he taught which I believe are contrary to Scripture, and he told me to get lost? Even told me he knew they were contrary to Scripture; but they were popular ideas, and he was more devoted to selling books than to telling the truth? I’m still not certain it gives me license to publicly -- in front of unbelievers and believers alike -- call him out. First of all, why would the world care, except to point to the existing divisions among Christians and our apparent hypocrisy? Secondly, biblical conflict resolution, even when taken to its most extreme limits -- separation -- has the ultimate goal of repentance and restoration, not humiliation.
WHENEVER we put our hope in anyone but Jesus we take our chances.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

How Do I Love Thee...

Scott and I attended a church pastored by an older man from West Virginia -- yeah, homey. Sometimes he'd tear up; sometimes he'd get a little loud. Scott loved him. But older men retire, and he did. The new pastor, a bit younger, was an intellect. I enjoyed learning about the Bible in light of Jewish texts, and examining background information. The more I learned in his midweek Bible study, the more I wanted to learn. Scott was lost in the sauce. Scott was Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul, and I was Horton's Portable Seminary. We began to feel God's leading to find another church. How on earth would my intellectual thirst be quenched in a place where Scott found inspiration and guidance? Well, it's taken me almost two years to get it, but the answer is: it won't. It won't, because that's not what God wants for me. "He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8) Not a thing in there about earning a doctorate in Theology in your spare time. Don't get me wrong; God does not want us to be ignorant, but when we love His Word more than we love Him, we are idol worshippers. And I had become an idol worshipper. I took notes until my fingers cramped; fast-forwarded through the "application" parts of online sermons just to get to the facts. I rarely poured out my heart before Him, and even more rarely sought what was in His. He had been telling me for two years -- at least -- to stop compiling facts and start living in His presence.

Well, I've begun. And this amazing thing has happened. I am realizing just how much He loves me. Me. Judi. Specially. Particularly. Personally. Deeply. And He chooses to show His love by showing me that He knows even the simplest things that trouble my heart or lighten it. Let me give you an example:

My mother was bitten by a dog when she was about six years old. Her father got rid of the dog, but she was terrified of dogs afterward, and had cats her whole childhood. Somewhere along the way, something changed. I distinctly remember Mom picking her new dog out of a litter of pups in a muddy garage. She loved that dog. Even after I left home, my mom had a dog. Several years ago, I bought her a dog. Always a dog. About a year and a half ago, Mom's dog died. She was crushed, and wanted a new one. Mom was having a few issues living on her own, and I thought a dog would be a little hard for her to handle. Plus, realistically, Mom is eighty-five: if something happened to her, what would I do with this dog? I'd even asked a friend to keep her ears open for anyone looking to home an older cat. But, Mom wanted a dog. The more she pleaded, the more awful I felt. Fast forward to August this year, time for Mom to move in with us. And Tinkerbell. And Bishop. This morning I was leaving for a bit. She asked, "Will my babies be staying here with me?"

"Yes, Mom, the dogs will stay here."

"You know I was bitten by a dog when I was in first grade or so."

"Yes, I know. Your dad's dog."

"I always had cats. I never wanted dogs. I never liked them until I met these two dogs."

Wow. God, did You really do that? God took something that -- let's face it, didn't keep me awake at night, but it made me feel bad. (And that's not hard to do in this season of my life; some days I feel like all I do is tell Mom what to do, or what not to do.) This thing that gnawed at me, months ago; that I'd never resolved, but merely forgotten. God -- not Alzheimer's -- erased all recollection of it in my mother's mind. It was not enough that she was appeased by the company of our two brutes, but Mom doesn't even remember liking dogs before these two. And it was because He loves me. All I had to do was be quiet enough to hear Him say it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Why Should I Pray?

In August, American moviegoers became familiar with the term "war room" as it exists in a spiritual sense; for years it's been known to me as a prayer closet. Mine weighs about two tons and gets about twenty-one miles to the gallon on the highway. A few years ago I began praying in the darkness and solitude of my morning commute. In the twenty minutes or so it takes me to get to work, I pray for friends, family, coworkers, family of friends, friends of friends, and even enemies. Someone once asked me, "Do you pray for your enemies?" I honestly answered, "I do." Prayer is not like rubbing a  genie's lamp; prayer may or may not change my situation; but prayer has definitely changed me -- especially praying for my enemies.

Anyway, I wasn't praying for my enemies this morning. I was praying for a couple I know and love very much. They are going through some difficulties, and I was praying for peace within their home. "Especially now that..." I found myself saying. The instant it started to leave my lips I realized I was almost saying, "At least now." As if God can't or won't for all seasons, and that He might just be able to, or concede to for a little while. Can't you just hear God saying, "Oh, ok, but I'm not sure how long I can keep this up!"? Yeah, me neither. God doesn't have to try at anything. For me to imply, "Hey, I'll cut You a little slack; I know it's a lot to do," is not only insulting but weak. What does a student who does mediocre work get?

But that wasn't enough, the Holy Spirit took me just a little farther in His conviction. "Are you praying for your friends, or are you praying for My glory?" Whoa.

(People who don't know God like to paint Him as some egomaniacal four year-old, throwing temper tantrums over those who dis Him. My take on that is: create even a star from scratch, then we'll talk. God is worthy of all our praise, of all we can give Him. A point of irony is, without Him we truly have nothing to give.)

But let's get back to the question: Are you praying for your friends, or are you praying for My glory?

James 5:16 says, "Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results."

So, that's what I should be doing, right? Yes, but. We are to pray for one another; God instilled in us empathy and compassion. Those things motivate us to pray. The more we begin to love Jesus, the more we love others. Jesus commanded us to pray for others. Our love for Him motivates us to obedience and imitation; obedience and imitation motivate us to pray for others. But what would God have as our greatest motivation for all we do? A desire to see Him glorified.

Watch this. Do I desire relief from financial burden? Great, but may it ultimately be for the purpose of advancing the Kingdom and bringing glory to God. If that is my motivation, I can just as easily thank God for -- even pray for, poverty! Do I desire peace and wellness for my friends? Who wouldn't? But may my deepest motivation be the glory of my Lord! If this is the case, I can obediently pray for my enemies -- even rejoice(!) when they are blessed. Rejoicing from the depths of my heart! Imagine that!

I'll keep that in mind the next time I throw my prayer closet in gear.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

I Didn't Sign Up for This!

Marriage changes things. Specifically, people. When I was in my twenties any couple dating more than three months felt the pressure: ask the girl, flaunt the ring, set a date. Friends couldn't wait until the next wedding. Where was it going to be? Who would be in it? It was all about the party. Shortly thereafter, reality set in. The new groom didn't hang out with his friends any more; of course, it was her fault. The new bride stopped talking about fashion, and occupied her time clipping coupons and planning meals instead. Of course, that was her fault. It wasn't long after that there was talk of kids and minivans; time to buy a house or work harder for that promotion; put a little extra into your 401K. The carefree kids that shyly introduced their date to "the rest of the gang," met for football every Thanksgiving morning, worked on cars in the driveway, killed weekends driving just "to see where this road goes," or held "keggers" the instant Mom and Dad left for the weekend, had committed the worst of offenses against youth: they'd begun to grow up. Their last moments of youth had been extinguished on the paint-veiled cement "dance floor" of the local fire hall. Marriage changed them.

My husband and I have been married almost eight years; we have five children and somewhere around thirty-five years of marriage experience between us. And as I prepared this week, to go away for a couple days, it dawned on me: marriage changes things. Specifically people.

When I met Scott, he was a single dad trying to spend as much time as possible with his children. His job took him away for days on end, but when he had his children, it was all about them. He would cook for them. They rented movies together. He would take them four-by-fouring in the woods. He showered them, changed them, dressed them. He was "hands-on" in every sense of the word. Impressive. Fast forward to this point in our life. Outside of the obligatory expletives directed at FiOS for not having the movie he wanted or charging too much for the movie he wanted, he still remains pretty competent at renting movies. The children shower and dress themselves now, and thankfully, no longer require changing. We no longer own a suitable vehicle for woodland romps. But, I find myself inviting him to family activities I am responsible for organizing; and I must occasionally remind him about spending some time with the other people that share his home. His cooking is now a mere reheating of whatever I have prepared. And I tend to be not so impressed anymore. Please don't get me wrong: he is still a wonderful dad, and I love him deeply, but what happened to the guy who could actually open the pantry, find the peanut butter and make himself a sandwich? This guy I'm married to now peers into a fridge virtually spring-loaded with all manner of foods and grumbles, "There's nothing to eat." How did this happen?

I could speculate; say he got to comfortable, or I babied him too much. The truth of it is, marriage does change people. In today's society that's grounds for packing your bags and blowing Dodge. Why stay when "this" is not what you bargained for? Why stay when, only in name is this the same man you pledged your life and love to?

Sometimes, as a child, I'd try to play Checkers against myself. Playing against yourself is relatively easy, and you always know what to expect from your opponent -- no unpleasant surprises. But playing yourself is also unchallenging, dull, and a waste of time. What would marriage be like if your spouse remained exactly like she was fifteen years ago? That person you knew inside and out? No surprises. Unchallenging. Dull. A waste of time. After all, relationships are all about the people in them, and people change -- constantly. Good relationships are uncovering new ideas and dreams all the time. Good relationships keep us on our toes. Good relationships reach new goals, and reach new goals again. But reach them with another changing, growing person at your side.

Sure, I could pine for that impressive guy I met ten years ago. But I'd rather curl up next to the aging, sometimes comfortable -- maybe even a bit lazy -- guy I married, and rent a movie. Maybe one we've never seen before.

Friday, November 6, 2015

A Gift Under the Family Tree

In three hours I will be leaving for the weekend. I don't have a thing packed, nor have I even located my suitcase. It's not that I am not excited about going. But I am a wife and mother. Those of you who are wives and mothers need no further explanation, but for those of you who are not...

I have spent the last forty-eight hours shopping, cooking and cleaning so my home and those in it do not spontaneously combust; or slowly, painfully fall into ruin; or starve; or find themselves forced to roam buck naked through the township, or whatever it is wives and mothers seem to think will happen when they leave their homes for more than thirty-five minutes at a time. I do not think it is humanly possible to fit another thing in the freezer. (I have been remiss, however, in fully stocking the pantry, and I must run out for crackers some time before I leave.) There are approximately six items left in the hamper: the one lone sock that always seems to be searching for the perfect match, two dish towels, a cleaning cloth, and two pairs of underwear. (Do you think I should wash them up before I go?) The fridge, which now resembles some sort of timeline in Rubbermaid history and is probably threatening the weight restrictions on the joists below, is running at full tilt -- More power, Scotty! I'm givin' her all she's got, Cap'n!

Why? Why do we do this? Expectant mother's "nest." Mother's anticipating the visit of a child home from college cook as though their lives depended on it. Wives love to see their husbands sitting back, enjoying the fruits of their labors, or still strive to "impress him" with a clean house or home-cooked meal. Mom's still work to provide for their families even when they can't be present. I realize I may sound a bit archaic; I realize the feminist movement has changed the way we define roles; and I do not pretend to like cooking and cleaning all the time. But I think many of our behaviors are simply innate; designed by God, if you will, to keep our family units and our society functioning optimally.

The family is important to God. He invented it. And even allowed for life's twists. We've been studying the Book of Ruth in Sunday school. Naomi was a widow with two married sons. When her sons died, leaving their wives widows as well, Naomi urged her daughters-in-law to go back to their families in other countries. One daughter-in-law did; the other, Ruth, stayed with her mother-in-law. They became family, despite the bond that held them legally being broken by death. Turns out, Ruth remarried, but she and her new husband continued to love on and provide for Naomi.

I know exactly how Ruth felt. There are bonds that just cannot be broken. There are things we do that, no matter what society dictates, or those around us consider old-fashioned or passé, we do them out of love. We do them because of some sense of relationship. We do them because we love others, and they are family. And we give to them the best way we know how -- with our whole hearts.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Blessed Are Those with Imperfect Lives

Aren't people with great lives some of the most nauseating individuals you'd ever want to meet? People with great lives seem to be the weaker ones of us -- the ones who ask others to pray for their neighbor who just won't quit shooting the grass clippings to their side of the common drive; this is the most trying thing they've ever experienced. People with great lives seem to be the most judgmental -- "Did you see her daughter moved back in, with her three children; not one of them looks alike. Wonder if they're on welfare." People with great lives tend to smile funny -- that smile that says, "I'm so much more together than you, but I don't want to appear superior so I try to smile warmly but it doesn't go well with my face and just winds up looking creepy." (or something like that) People with great lives pay for their children's college, lease their automobiles (they call them "automobiles"), invite their attorneys to christenings and Thanksgiving dinner (and they call them "attorneys"), own teenie-tiny dogs (I have a theory about the size of your dog being inversely proportionate to the "greatness" of your life), shop at Whole Foods weekly, and vacation yearly (and I mean vacation vacation -- not just use the FREE TRIP offer from the time share company and coupons from birthday offers to six different email addresses). People with great lives have been married to the same person -- for years -- have never been on public assistance, cheated on their spouse, considered cheating on their spouse, or had a mentally ill parent. I am being facetious, of course, but everybody seems to be looking for the "perfect life" -- or, at least, a great one.

I don't have a "great" life by any stretch of the imagination. My life might be joyous and exhilarating, filled with love and adventure, but it is an ugly stretch of highway that gets us from one milestone to the next. We can't pay our bills; we are poor enough to be poor, but wealthy enough to be completely on our own. We struggle with relationships and dysfunctional mentalities; we make mistakes and, on occasion, completely, foolishly disregard the rules. We get sucker-punched with tragedy and bad news, and sometimes we step into the ring and ask for it. We couldn't care less about discussing the neighbors' drama -- we have enough of our own. Our adult children have more tattoos than we do. We have exes, and skeletons, and processed foods in our refrigerator; we go to high-end grocery stores just to eat free samples for lunch. We sell our vacation time at work and dip into the Christmas fund to make the next child support payment. We have frequent flier miles at the lab and more than one doctor who addresses me as "the problem child."

So, how does all this happen, this disparity between lives? Are some people just so naturally favored while others get the short end of the stick? Well, it's funny, because when I was in the process of a divorce ten years ago, I had nothing. Just a part-time job, no support coming in, legal fees going out, a mortgage, two children to feed -- it was rough. I knew how far you could stretch a loaf of Velveeta (the Aldi brand, not even the name-brand stuff) and a pack of hot dogs. But the folks at work were clueless. I mean about my situation, not the hot dogs. I became known as "the Princess," and apparently, was thought to be living this charmed life. When I began helping with our church's food ministry years later, I knew exactly what some of these moms were experiencing, but they looked at me with my designer clothes (Goodwill, and from years ago) and thought I couldn't possibly relate. Sure, disparity exists, but a lot of the time it exists in the purest sense, right between our ears.

I have this friend who appears to have never smoked, cussed, drank (drank? drunk? I'm terrible with that), or done an illegal substance in her life. She's not worldly or wealthy by any means, but she definitely appears to have it all together. Her clothing is Talbots, and her IQ is far above average. But this lady has dra-ma! And she's not creating it! She has been through more stuff than any one individual should have to endure in a lifetime, taking a lickin' and still tickin'. And it just might be the craziness, ugliness and chaos of an imperfect life that causes her to help others with the same kind of life. She helps unwed mothers, feeds folks at a mission, works with the addicted, and teaches English as a second language. She would do without to provide for someone else. She will wade through the seediest lives of the seediest individuals simply to bless them. This is not some ego trip; she's not out to single-handedly save the world. This wonderful lady sincerely wants to help others because she herself has been so blessed. 

Blessed?! "Didn't you just say she doesn't have a perfect life?" She doesn't. But the same way our perceptions cause us to judge others for what they have or have not endured, what they can or cannot overcome, our point of view reveals to us the benefits of having gone through some stuff. She knows she would not be the strong, compassionate person she is today, would not be able to help those she helps, would not appreciate the things she has and the life she lives were it not for the blessings of an imperfect life.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Just Follow and Point; Follow and Point

Once a week I have the privilege of hanging out with some of the best women I know. We are diverse in many ways, but share one, very significant love: Jesus. Some of these women have endured hardships like no other, some give of so much time and talent it is hard to believe. You would never know by looking at them.

Because when you look at them, you see Jesus.

And that's the way they want it.

We recently had a discussion about conversations with those who do not know Jesus or have fallen out of relationship with Him; specifically those who are living a lifestyle that goes against God's Word and the character of God revealed in it.

(I believe God has given us our personalities, experiences, talents and quirks to use for His glory. We all approach ministry as differently as we approach our relationship with Him. That being said...)

I tend to use a "non-invasive" approach. I've often wondered if, when it comes to telling others about Jesus, I punk out. I don't pull the "World's Tiniest Bible" out of my watch pocket and begin flipping pages; I don't rattle off verses; I don't carry a sign with "John 3:16" in big, bold letters; I don't blast K-Love from my basement; I'm not going to visit your house and suck my teeth when I see your Bible gathering dust, or a copy of the Quran lying open on the arm of your couch. I simply say, "Hello." I start a conversation; I try to establish a relationship; I try to serve others. I don't refer to "The Man Upstairs," or hide behind my role in church as my "Sunday gig" either. I make no bones about who I am or what I do. I just don't expect you to follow me, or Jesus for that matter.

You see, I am a Christian. Following is my job. I am a follower of Jesus; that's what being a Christian means. By God's grace, I chose this. You make your choices. I hope and pray to show you a better one. But following, at least for right now, is what is expected of me.

And I point. If you ask, I will tell you precisely what God says about ___. I will debate you; if you question my beliefs, if you try to sell me your bill of goods, I will not hesitate to tell you the truth. If you and I have known one another for a while, if we are comfortable engaging in some tough dialogue, it's on. Whatever it takes, whatever the situation calls for, whatever our relationship allows, wherever the Holy Spirit leads, I will point. To Jesus. And nowhere else.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Learning to Let Go

Two weeks ago I participated in the Walk to End Alzheimer's. It was not what I anticipated. I had planned to walk with a friend. Two days prior, I picked up the phone to firm up our plans; her text message awaited: she had to cancel. I was disappointed. Saturday morning was beautiful; a perfect day for a walk. I made it to the site in plenty of time to visit vendors and get a sense of what this was all about; but the tables were staffed by home health care companies and assisted living facilities (not applicable), and walking my neighborhood alone is a far cry from walking alone in a group of hundreds of people. "I could just go home and walk the dogs. The money's been raised; there's no need for me to be here." I was bored and disappointed. It was the knowledge that I'd not posted here in weeks that kept my feet planted firmly in that lot and set my mouth to moving. Maybe I could find an adventure, but to do that, I had to let go.
 
It was then I noticed a couple holding an orange flower. An orange flower, according to Alzheimer's Association "rules", designates someone who has no personal connection to Alzheimer's, but is simply lending their support to the eradication of this menace. This young, upwardly mobile couple seemed to have stepped out of an ad for Prius or Morgan Stanley. Our brief chat was pleasant, but indeed, brief. I thanked them for their support.
 
I had my "team" picture taken. Don't judge; I was trying to make something happen here.

Then I saw someone who, like me, was alone. She had with her a purple flower. A purple flower is Alzheimer's Association code for a walker who has lost someone to Alzheimer's. My internal debate went something like this:

"You can't just walk up to her and ask her. No one is going to tell you about someone they lost to Alzheimer's. You are a total stranger."

"But that's what these people are here for."

"So what if she just lost the person recently, and she has a meltdown?"

"She looks pretty well-adjusted. Besides, most people love to tell their stories."

I finally convinced myself she was about to walk away any second, and I would miss an important opportunity, so I spoke. "I noticed your purple flower. You've lost someone to Alzheimer's?" And there it began. Our lives had included many of the same chapters, though the circumstances were very different; it was the fusion of divergent and parallel that caused the conversation to flow so freely. It ended two and a half miles, several minutes on the pier, a walk to the parking lot, several more minutes there, a ride to her car, the exchange of numbers, and a promise of lunch someday, later.

Such a simple thing, to approach a fellow human being and ask them about them. And yet, I almost allowed apprehension, disappointment, and expectations to block the path to friendship.