Advent Day 8: The Greatest Love

December 4

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

John 3:16 is one of the most, if not the most, recognized scriptures in the Bible. God’s plan for all of humanity is explained in one sentence. The sacrifice on the part of the Father, paved the way for his Son’s sacrifice for us, beginning with his birth.

Jesus needed to take on human flesh in the form of an infant because 33 years later, he would sacrifice his body so that we would have the chance to believe in him, and have eternal life.

Jesus was born to die. For us. We are so loved by our Father in heaven, that he said good-bye to his Son so that Jesus could be born on earth, and then experience separation from him again when Jesus took on all of our sins on the cross. It is proof of God’s love, and no love is greater than that love for us.

We can experience new life, because Jesus was born in the first place. Christmas marks the birth of the Messiah, and the start of our stories.

For Today: How did your story with Jesus start? Who will you share that story with this week?

Advent Day 6: Hope in the Rejoicing

December 2

We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who he has given us.
Romans 5:3-5 (NIV)

In the really, really difficult times — when our bills sit unpaid, when someone we love passes away, when we are struggling with an illness, when each day is an uphill battle, and life feels too hard to even think about Christmas — we can rejoice. Jesus doesn’t call us to rejoice because of our sufferings, but in the midst of them.

The suffering we experience, if we let it, will lead to perseverance and character and hope. This world will bring trials, and we have a choice during the difficult times. We can live in fear and worry, or we can let God work through tough situations so that, when we come out on the other side of them, we’re closer to him than ever before.

If suffering is inevitable, let’s persevere through it and develop character. Let’s allow the suffering to mean something. Let’s commit to using our trials to grow closer to God and spread his love to others.

Then his victory in our lives will be evident, and we will have the type of hope that comes when God pours his love into our hearts. The type of hope that comes from rejoicing, always.

For Today: Is there a trial you’re facing that you could turn into something you can do to spread God’s love to someone else this Christmas season?

Advent Day 5: Hope is an Anchor

December 1

We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.
Hebrews 6:19 (NIV)

Without an anchor, a boat can drift under the guidance of even the slightest wind. The same can be said for us. Without the hope of the Lord acting as an anchor for our souls, we can easily drift off course.

An anchor isn’t used to guide a boat on the proper course, an anchor is used to prevent a boat from drifting away from its intended destination. An anchor will keep a vessel held firmly to the ocean floor, and an anchor for the soul – the hope of God – will keep us connected securely to him.

At times the chaos of life will act as a gentle breeze and at times, a gale-force wind. It can easily steer you off course. That is, unless you allow God to map your journey and refuse to anchor yourself to anything other than the Savior.

For Today: When life is especially chaotic we become more susceptible to temptation. What is one temptation that could steer you off course this season?

Advent Day 4: Hope Born of Trust

November 30

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Romans 15:13 (NIV)

It’s amazing to think that we can overflow with hope, the very thing that defines God. As though that isn’t gift enough, we can also be filled with all joy and peace as we trust in him.

All joy and peace, and an overflowing of hope are blessings bestowed on us by the Lord when we believe and trust in him.

Trust. A difficult thing for many people to do. Maybe you’ve suffered hardships and tragedy. Maybe you’ve asked God for something, and you didn’t get the answer you were hoping for.

Maybe things seem completely out of control; we may feel out of control, but nothing is out of God’s control. When we surrender our lives to Christ, we do so in faith. A faith and a belief that God is who he says he is. The Lord came to earth as a tiny baby. What else is more vulnerable? We can trust a Savior who would do that for us. We can trust him, and then be filled with all joy, all peace, and an overflowing of hope.

For Today: Is there something you’re struggling to trust God with this season? What is one step you can take to demonstrate your trust in him?

Advent Day 3: Hope in the Seeking

November 29

The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him.
Lamentations 3:25 (NIV)

Over and over again the Bible says that those who seek after the Lord will find him. Often we think we have to do something big to gain the Lord’s approval, when all we have to do is seek him, and put our hope in him.

What if, as we prepare to celebrate Christmas, we spend more time seeking him than seeking the best bargains? How will our relationship with Jesus change if we stop hoping for the newest gadget or toy or designer handbag, and instead put our hope in him?

The holidays can leave us feeling wiped out, and sometimes even spiritually dry. Maybe we can’t see the Lord at work in our lives, but he’s always at work in us. We miss that when we take our focus off of him, and are consumed with things that lack eternal value.

He isn’t hiding, he’s waiting. We just need to seek after him.

For today: Thank about ways you can seek after Jesus – reading the Bible, praying, singing worship songs – and commit to seek after him each day this Christmas season.

Advent Day 2: Hope for the Weary

November 28

Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
Isaiah 40:31 (NIV)

The holidays can be exhausting. In general, it’s a stressful time filled with events, added responsibilities, decorating, baking, gift-giving, stretched finances, relatives, etc. It’s possible that some of us dislike the holidays because it means seeing family members we successfully avoid the other 11 months of the year. We start out the season well-intentioned, but sometimes a house full of extended family is just too much.

Then there are those who dread the holidays because someone is missing from the celebration. Perhaps a loved one passed away, or lives too far to visit, or is deployed, or you’ve suffered another type of loss this year.

Whether our weariness and exhaustion come from busyness or loss, we can find renewed strength from the Lord. We can be confident that, when we put our hope in God, he will give us energy and strength.

When the hustle and bustle, and maybe heartache, become too hard, turn to the One who came wrapped in hope.

For Today: At times, when we consider what we’ve lost, we forget about the ways we’ve been blessed by God. Make a list of some things in your life that have brought you joy and hope. In the moments of sadness or struggle, refer to your list and thank God for his blessings.

Advent Day 1: Hope for the Waiting

November 27

We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield.
Psalm 33:20 (NIV)

Advent: The arrival of a notable person, thing, or event; the coming or second coming of Christ.

For the Church, Advent represents the four weeks leading up to Christmas. Each week brings into focus one of four different characteristics personified by Jesus’ very existence: Hope, Love, Joy, Peace. Two-thousand years ago, the Savior of the world laid linen-swaddled in the arms of a young mother. A tiny baby, Jesus was an answer to prayer, and the fulfillment of prophecy.

He is the Greatest Gift in all of history.

The birth of the Messiah brought hope for this life, and hope for eternal life. As we prepare our hearts for Christmas, may we find comfort knowing that in the hope-filled waiting – waiting for his return like those who waited for his birth – he is our help and he is our shield. He came so that we might live.

For today: As Christmas approaches, is there something that makes it difficult for you to have hope? If so, take a moment, and in a simple prayer, talk to God about it. Ask him to help you find hope for what you’re facing as you head into the holiday season.

 

Silent Saturday and silent seasons

photo by Darren Waters, 14 September 2005
Photo by Darren Waters.

Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.
Psalm 27:14

For Christ-followers, today is a day of anticipation. The brutality of what yesterday, Good Friday, represents — Jesus’ violent, unrelenting beating and crucifixion — still lingers in our minds. Of course we think about Christ hanging on that cross, but that’s not what Easter is for the believer. We don’t celebrate His death. We celebrate His sacrifice and His resurrection, and that celebration is tomorrow.

So here we are — knowing — that we are in the middle of what represents the darkest day and the most important day in history.

But that wasn’t so for those who walked beside Jesus, followed His real-time teaching, watched Him take His last breath, experienced the blanket darkness that marked His end.

In the final hours of Jesus’ earthly life, the whole land went dark. Luke 23:45 says, the sun stopped shinning. Then the temple curtain split in half. With a hush, Jesus breathed His last, and His earthly life ended. Can you imagine it? The eerie pulse that must have run through the spectators, reaching the fringe where His followers watched in silence. A crowd of believers and Jesus-haters realizing that what He’d been saying all along really was truth.

In a strange way, that’s when the emotional darkness began. No one knew that the very next day, Jesus’ followers would find the tomb empty, splayed open so the sun cut like a knife into the deepest, darkest corners. They didn’t know that so, so soon, the Light would drive out the darkness.

During that silent middle day, there was weeping, fear, confusion, doubting, debating. The disciples were frenzied, unsure. Former dissenters were in anguish that they hadn’t believed Jesus’ teachings.

There was crushing silence.

We know what happened next. Jesus rose from the dead. But that middle day, Silent Saturday as we now call it, that must have been hell on earth. It’s hard to image the darkness.

Or maybe it isn’t.

People walk through “silent Saturdays” all the time. Middle sections of difficult seasons. Times they’re waiting to hear from God, and feel untethered, broken, or alone. They love God and have seen Him do big things, but they’re still waiting for healing, for reconciliation, for joy, for Light.

Like those who waited more than 2,000 years ago, a new set of believers and Jesus-haters are waiting to experience the miraculous.

Glory is coming; that can be counted on. History proves it. The Bible promises it. The first Silent Saturday is proof that every single silent season will come to an end.

Jesus is always victorious.

Joy in 2016

I was a little sad to say farewell to 2015. It was a good year. There were hard times and several goodbyes, but I’d settled in and I was comfortable.

My word for 2015 was “New.” To go with my word I picked Revelation 21:5: And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” I had no idea how relevant it would turn out to be.

I liked “New,” and I’d keep that word for 2016, if I didn’t feel like it’s time to move forward. In contrast, my 2014 word was “Surrender,” and when the clock struck midnight on 1/1/15, I was like, “Later surrender. You sucked.”

As 2015 dawned I considered what “New” would look like. It was cute, how I had it all planned out. I wrote in my journal, “I want to approach everything in a new and fresh way…” It even sounds annoying. I thought I’d just work at being more patient, smile more, stress less. Snort. God was all, “Orrrrr, how about I completely change your life.”

Occasionally I will tell people that I enjoyed labor, that it was a good pain (note, my longest labor was five hours). They either back away slowly, or look like they’re going to punch me in the face. That’s how I feel about my “New” year too. A lot of good pain. It was hard at the time, but I was better off when it was finished.

joyI prayed a lot for my 2016 word. Every where I looked, the word “Joy” winked at me, mocked me. See, joy is a choice, and it goes far deeper than happiness. It’s something I’d have to be intentional about, instead of riding the “New” wave. When John asked me what my 2016 word is, I said, “Joy, and I’m mad about it.” I mean, it’s not really what I’m known for. Once, at a retreat, someone told me I needed to smile more when I was speaking to the group. So I did. I went up on stage and smiled and said “Hi!!!” That was immediately followed by several of my friends laughing because, as they pointed out later, I’m not one to blow sunshine.

Here’s the thing though, I’m a Level 1 worrier (that’s the highest level possible) and I often allow circumstances to steal my joy. If I have more joy, I’d have more peace, more hope, a more positive outlook. This Joy thing could actually be beneficial. When I came across Psalm 30:11-12, I was sold. You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with JOY, that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent. Lord my God, I will praise you forever. 

I may have cheated a little, because I feel like it piggy-backs on New, that it’s Act II to what God did in 2015. He changed my perspective on my past, busted down decades-old walls, gave me a sense of heaven and eternity.

He gave me beauty for ashes, and joy replaced sorrow. It doesn’t make sense for me to keep a lid on that.

Happy New Year, may 2016 bring you peace, love, and JOY.

Life in Progress, Part 4: To be continued…

If I had written the final post in this series last week, it would undoubtedly sound different. That’s because grief is a beast, and there’s no instruction manual for this particular situation. It’s also because I learned a valuable lesson, one that I’ll share before this post ends.

If you haven’t read Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3 in the Life in Progress series, I would. I just think the story makes more sense in order.

I ended my last post explaining that I decided to chase my mom’s story, which meant John and I were going to Oregon. I questioned the choice a hundred times before we actually left. I thought maybe it was too “Lifetime movie” of me to get on a plane and fly to a city I’d never been before, to go interview friends of a woman who, let’s face it, I really didn’t know. I mentioned my idea to a friend who said I had to go, and as the days went on, I told more people about my plan. Not only were they encouraging, they were taking care of the details.

Since having our first child 12 1/2 years ago, John and I have never been anywhere, overnight, without the kids. Flying to another state was a huge stretch for me. This was a milestone trip for several reasons.

As I prepared to leave, I made some phone calls. I spoke with my mom’s pastor, who organized a breakfast meeting with several of her friends. I was given all the details of where her ashes were spread. I was encouraged to attend her favorite Sunday service at church. Her people were helping me in the midst of their grief.

I was still reeling from the loss and all of the unanswered questions when John and I left our four babies with dear friends to fly to Portland.

It was late when we arrived. A friend’s husband works for a rental car company and set up our reservation. All I had to do was pay our charges and get the keys. As we waited at the counter, my physical and emotional exhaustion began to consume me. I noticed the agent stop what he was doing and lean closer to the computer, with his hand over his heart, and read notes on the screen. Eventually he looked at me and whispered, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Little things like that happened the entire weekend. Friends making sure I was cared for, and Jesus showing me His love.

20150710_134532_001On the first full day of our trip we went to Newport, Oregon. There’s a lighthouse there, and a heart-shaped cove where sea lions gather. It’s surrounded by a wall of craggy coastline, and you can feel the wind fill the entire space. That’s where my mom’s ashes had been spread less than three weeks before. I waded into the water, and cried.

The next morning at a restaurant, I met my mom’s pastor and his wife, along with five of her close friends. They asked me a lot of questions, some of them hard, some of them out of curiosity. They said my mom spoke of me, but they didn’t know a lot about the estrangement.

I have reversed the roles so many times on this journey. If I had passed, and my mom had shown up in my town, how would my friends react? In light of that, I was very, very careful. They knew her so much better than I did, and they had just lost their dear friend. But they were so gracious. They cried with me and prayed for me. They shared funny stories and hard stories. They recounted my mom’s final days and her deep desire to live. They said she was known for her eclectic fashion, her heart for widows, and her propensity for saying exactly what was on her mind. She also loved crepes with strawberries and whip cream. That came up when I ordered the exact same thing; it’s my go-to when eating out.

John and I have spoken often of the people my mom was in community with. They are solid, Bible-believing, faith-filled lovers of Jesus. Not only did God honor my prayer to surround her with Christ followers, He surrounded her with people who are passionately pursuing Him. They were perfect for her.

Before leaving for the trip I’d mentioned to the person handling her estate that I would like her Bible, if possible. I thought of it often in the days leading up to the trip. I told several people that I didn’t want to leave Oregon without it. When the representative emailed back and said that her belongings couldn’t be distributed at that time, I was disappointed.

As I sat among her friends at breakfast, John asked her pastor whether he was confident that my mom had genuinely found faith in God. He responded, “Without a doubt. She loved Jesus.” Turning to me, he continued, “There’s something I think will help you. It’s a note she wrote in her Bible…I have her Bible for you.”

And I lost it. Right there in that restaurant, I sobbed. Someone pulled some strings, I didn’t ask any questions. I just knew I’d be able to return home with something tangible that pointed to her faith.

John and I spent a lot of time walking around town, visiting bookstores and little shops and historical landmarks. We found an amazing seafood restaurant and spent hours there, two nights in a row.

IMG_20150712_112628On Sunday morning we attended her favorite church service. Before he began the message, her pastor handed me her Bible, showing me the note she’d written inside. It’s too private to share in its entirety, but it does say, “God entered my heart and soul. I feel it in my core like a bolt of lightening…I am God’s plan.” It’s dated March, 2010.

I sat next to my husband, in my mom’s usual seat, at her regular service, holding her Bible, two weeks after she died, 20 years since I’d last seen her, and mourned an amazing stranger who also happened to be my mama. It was a full circle the likes of which I’ve never experienced.

I wish I could tie up this series with a big red bow. I wish I could say she left behind a letter, any explanation at all for the choices she made. The truth is, this story is to be continued in more ways than one. Over time I believe I’ll learn more about her. For the most part though, I think my questions won’t be answered until the other side.

This situation has drilled home the truth that people will always disappoint us. No one on this earth is perfect. No one can be Jesus to us, other than Jesus. I can only tell so much of my mom’s story because I didn’t actually learn about her last years and her faith until after she died. Any kindness toward me I assigned her, I did because I couldn’t stand the idea of her dying hating me, or worse, nothing-ing me.

That’s why I have to stop focusing on her story.

I have to tell my story. That’s the valuable lesson I learned.

I had a mother who fought emotional and psychological demons for most of her life.

She wasn’t the greatest mom.

We parted ways, and it broke the already-broken pieces.

I found the Lord.

I prayed for her salvation for 20 years.

She fell in love with a man who took her to church. Then she fell in love with Jesus.

And for years, neither of us reached out to the other.

I will always wish that the Jesus-loving version of my mom was in my life.

But now I have to move on to the next chapter. I have to face head-on the areas I struggle with on this earth — many of which came from my relationship with my mom — while honoring her faith, and thanking Jesus that He always does what He says He’s going to do.