GOOD Friday??? a robber’s perspective

I’m a criminal.
I deserve to die. I’m getting what I deserve with this cruel, painful death.

And yet this man beside me…
∗ He’s no criminal!
∗ I heard Him say, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Who is this “Father” He’s talking to? I don’t see anyone in the crowd that he’s beseeching…

And then the others, those gawking at our agony, those self-righteously judging us, those who by their very consent are agreeing to our guilt…
∗ Aren’t some of them the religious rulers of this land?
∗ Is this what their religiosity looks like?
∗ Why do they taunt this man? Why do they seem to hate Him so?

Why do they say among themselves, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is the Christ of God, the Chosen One”?
∗ What are they talking about?
∗ What do they mean that “He saved others”?
∗ What do we – what do I – need saving from??

And this claim to being the Christ of God, the Chosen One… why would that doom this man to death, this excruciating death? He
hasn’t done anything that deserves death – not like me.

Even the soldiers are calling Him “King of the Jews.”
∗ And yet they mock Him with that title.
∗ There’s no respect in their insults. If He indeed is a King, He surely doesn’t look like one as He hangs bleeding, disfigured here beside me.

And what does it mean that He is “King of the Jews”?
∗ If He is a King, why on earth is He being killed? What crime did He commit?
∗ He’s getting what He doesn’t deserve – I’m getting what I do deserve.

This makes no sense.

If there truly is a God….
If this man is the Messiah, the Chosen One…
Then it hardly seems fair…

I’m about to die, just like He is.
I can’t do anything now to erase, to change my past.
I can’t do anything good, as I hang here in agony, to try to win His favor…

If He is who He says He is, is it enough to simply ask Him…
to ask Him to remember me when He comes into His Kingdom?
I’m not even sure what that means, but it evidently is important enough that He willingly – yes, willingly – is going to die for it.

Jesus, remember me.

“I tell you the truth, today you will be with Me in paradise.”

Luke 23: 43

May the reality of what the robber on the cross experienced become true for you as well.

THOU my vision???

A few weeks ago I was mulling over how to respond to the question “What is one area you would like God to grow you in this year… and why?” The old Irish hymn Be Thou my Vision somehow immediately came to mind.

Be Thou my vision… my best thought… my wisdom… my true Word… my battle shield… my sword for the fight… my dignity… my delight… my soul’s shelter… my high tower.” An Irish saint named Dallan Forgaill used these images, which were later translated and put into verse, to express his prayer that Christ will be our vision.

When life is confusing and full of challenges; when I feel overwhelmed or inadequate or insecure; when conflicting emotions make me second-guess myself or others — or even God… oh, how desperately I need for HIM to be my vision, my focus!

When my mind conjures up worst-case scenarios; when anxious thoughts cause fear, panic, wrong thinking; when memories from past failures and mistakes vie for attention… how desperately I need for GOD’s thoughts to rule my mind!

When faced with decisions; when wondering how to deal with the uncertainties of life; when life isn’t as black or white as I would wish… how desperately I need GOD’s wisdom to direct my paths!

God’s Word, which is both a shield and a sword, is what I need on a daily basis. He is the source of my dignity. He is my delight. He is my shelter and the high tower where I can find refuge.

The song ends by saying…

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

That’s why I answered the question “What is one area you would like God to grow you in this year… and why?” with “I want God to grow me in having HIM be my vision — in whatever I’m facing in life.” Because then, and only then, will I be able to not get sidetracked. Whatever happens — or befalls, as the old Irish poem expresses it — GOD will be the One who enables me to have joy in the journey of this thing called “Life.”

Magnify???

photo credit: margotandersen.com

The first time I heard “Revelation Song” was in our little church in Romania. I was captivated by the haunting melody and the simple words that drew my heart and mind into the presence of the Lord. I had no idea until a few years later that it was actually written in English by Phillips, Craig, and Dean (all three have juggled dual vocations as both pastors and recording artists for more than two decades).

Worthy is the Lamb who was slain

Holy, Holy is He

Sing a new song, to Him who sits on

Heaven’s Mercy Seat.

Holy, Holy, Holy

is the Lord God Almighty

who was and is to come

With all creation I sing Praise to the King of Kings!

You are my everything, and I will adore you!

Out of the blue this week I “happened upon” the story behind this song. One of the songwriters shared, “In uncertain times it’s easy for us to focus on the uncertainty of life and the things that we’re afraid of. In a sense, magnify whatever it is that we’re going through.

The Bible says, ‘Magnify the Lord with me and let us exalt His name together!’ (Psalm 37:3)… The unique thing about God is that when you magnify Him, instead of seeing flaws like you and I do when we look in a magnifying mirror, we actually see the greatness of God and we see the longsuffering, the mercy, the gentleness of our Lord.”

Hmm… made me think about the things in life I am currently magnifying/focusing on. One thing is hearing some hard news about health challenges facing a loved one. Another is decisions my husband and I are faced with as we plan a long-awaited trip to see family and friends. Add to that other decisions regarding job-related responsibilities… and then restoring a relationship that has been fractured… and then…

Whatever I start focusing on, magnifying in my life has the potential to derail me. I can start obsessing about all the what if’s, why’s, when’s. My joy is robbed when God’s rightful place as my focus is usurped.

Which brings me back to the songwriter’s reminder to

Magnify the Lord with me and let us exalt His name together!

Psalm 37:3

Choosing to refocus on God restores perspective, gives hope, provides peace. It’s how to not be anxious:

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank Him for all He has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4: 4-8 (NLT)

I’m not sure how all the unknowns in my life are going to play out, but I DO know that I can entrust them to God… and that’s how I’ll be able to have joy in the journey of this thing called “Life.”

The best… or the worst???

photo credit: chelsey.co.nz

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,

it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,

it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light,

it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope,

it was the winter of despair…”

So begins Charles Dickens’ epic novel A Tale of Two Cities. Set in London and Paris, the novel chronicles the lives of several characters in the years leading up to and during the French Revolution.

The parallels to our current world/life situations — 163 years after Dickens’ novel was published in 1859 — are striking. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to agree that these past two years have been the best and worst of times. After all, in the midst of the ambiguity, uncertainty, and restrictions that we have grown somewhat accustomed to we HAVE been able to see God at work on our behalf. More than once I personally have reminded myself that God IS in control, that I CAN trust Him with all the unknowns of life. We can even see Light and hope — when incredulity and Darkness don’t drown them out, which, in all honesty, happens to all of us periodically.

There has been despair… and yet the keys to navigating the difficulties of life boil down to

  • knowing the end result
  • asking for wisdom
  • praying in faith

Sounds a bit simplistic, I must admit… but this brings me back again to Dickens: “… it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.”

Throughout life — daily, moment by moment — we are faced with choices. Do we ask God for wisdom… and then follow through in obedience? Or are we more like the foolish man in Matthew 7:24-27 who builds his house upon the sand, hearing God’s Words but not putting them into practice? When our perspective gets skewed, do we stay stuck in that rut… or do we listen to a brother or sister in Christ who lovingly points out where we may have gotten off track? Are we open to input from others.. or are we using excuses to avoid necessary communication?

“My fellow believers, when it seems as though you are facing nothing but difficulties, see it as an invaluable opportunity to experience the greatest joy that you can! For you know that when your faith is tested it stirs up in you the power of endurance. And then as your endurance grows even stronger, it will release perfection into every part of your being until there is nothing missing and nothing lacking.

And if anyone longs to be wise, ask God for wisdom and He will give it! He won’t see your lack of wisdom as an opportunity to scold you over your failures, but He will overwhelm your failures with His generous grace.”

James 1:2-5 (The Passion Translation)

When we look back on this time in our lives, may it be characterized by being an age of wisdom, not an age of foolishness; a time of growing in our faith, our perseverance, our maturity; a time of recognizing that God graciously, generously gives us the wisdom we need to navigate life’s challenges; a time when God overwhelms our failures with His generous grace.

And that, my friends, is how we can have joy in the journey of this thing called “Life.”

Monkeys?!? Really?!?

Living in the tropics is, to put it mildly, an adventure! But needing to take precautions to ensure NOT having monkeys enter your room?!? That’s a new one!

And yet on vacation one morning, as we went to breakfast, we heard a lot of commotion coming from someone’s room. Sure enough, some monkeys had opened the unlatched balcony door and were feasting on the contents of the mini-bar. Snack items and Cokes were considered fair game for these hungry primates.

I’m guessing that the occupants of the ransacked room had either 1) forgotten to latch the door or 2) figured it would never happen to them. After all, who ever heard of a monkey being able to open a door… let alone get inside a refrigerator and open cans?!?

Hmm… sounds like a familiar refrain in life… “It [fill in the blank with whatever ‘it’ in your life this conjures up] could never happen to ME!!!” “These instructions/directions don’t really apply to ME… just to everyone else.”

God’s Word is full of examples of individuals — and even nations — who figured that what He was saying didn’t really apply to them… just to the other guy. Think of Adam and Eve in the Garden. They find themselves in a blissful paradise with all kinds of trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. They had everything they needed. God tells them they can feel free to eat from any tree in the garden except from one, the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

Three guesses which tree they ate from.

God told them that IF they ate from that particular tree they would die… but an Enemy distorted what God said and made them think that surely that wouldn’t happen to THEM! And yet that one act of “it- could- never- happen- to- me” ushered all of creation into a downward spiral we still see impacting us today, a spiral that can only be reversed by

  • first… acknowledging our own tendency to do things our own way apart from God
  • and then… by accepting God’s provision to right the wrong, namely recognizing that He provided the “out,” so to speak, by having His Son die for us.

Adam and Eve are but one example… and they’re at the beginning of the book!

But how about the “it-could- never- happen- to- me” scenarios, things like…

  • I’ll never hear that diagnosis (like cancer or COVID or….)
  • My job is secure. I don’t need to worry about financial issues.
  • Our marriage is great! I can never imagine anything changing that!
  • Of course I’ll be hired. Look at my experience, my resume…
  • We did everything right raising our kids, so of course they will follow Jesus.

Unless we heed the precautions that God outlines in the Bible, the “owner’s manual” for followers of Christ, we can just as easily find our lives ransacked as the unfortunate vacationers whose room was invaded by hungry monkeys. And when those “it-could-never-happen-to-me” things occur, how can we cope apart from having Someone to cling to and rely upon, Someone who consistently loves and “grows” us, Someone who knows us better than we know ourselves?

Whatever situation you find yourself in today, may the reality of knowing God transform it and give you hope. And as we come alongside one another, may we have joy in the journey of this thing called “Life.”

Baby steps…

Growing up on the water… swimming, water skiing, sailing… ah, is it any wonder the beach is my happy place?! So when the opportunity to sail this catamaran presented itself, why refuse — right?!

Only problem… the girl who sailed a Starfish (think glorified surfboard with a sail, rudder, and centerboard) and relished purposely tipping her over for the “fun” of righting her again was a teenager. Not the person whose risk-taking seems to have nose-dived with the passing of years.

And yet this older version of me, the version that endeavors to live by the motto “walk by faith, not by sight,” figured… well, why not?!? And so my intrepid husband joined me, the supposed sailing expert, on our outing.

Some things, like riding a bicycle, come back regardless of how much time has elapsed since one’s last bike ride. Sailing is a bit like that. Well… kind of. After signing a waiver saying that we (I!) basically knew what we were doing and according to the flag at the rental stand that was blowing — for the most part, anyway — strongly offshore, we set out.

It took a few attempts to get rudder and sail in sync, and then some disheartening moments when I panicked, wondering if we’d catch the wind… but then it happened! We started skimming across the water, savoring the peaceful sounds of water caressing the hull, basking in the clear blue sky and breathtaking scenery.

Well… kind of.

I soon found myself fearful that we’d go too far out to sea, that I wouldn’t be able to get us back to the dock on time, that we’d become becalmed — needing to be rescued by the folks from the rental company. (Yes, I have an overactive imagination!) But my husband kept encouraging me, kept saying we had plenty of time and so why not continue sailing some more instead of giving up and taking the safe route back to the dock? We had good wind speed and were on the right trajectory to make it effortlessly back.

My “faith muscle” had me willing to begin the adventure… baby steps… but it petered out in the midst of challenges, especially the voices in my head that were telling me all sorts of wrong things.

Jesus’ followers were out on the sea one time when a storm blew in, battering them about in the darkness of night. At about 4:00 a.m. Jesus, who had been on the nearby mountainside praying, came toward them… walking on the water! They were scared out of their wits, full of fear — understandably so! They thought they were seeing a ghost, but Jesus reassured and comforted them by saying, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

Impulsive Peter, emboldened by hearing Christ’s voice, did the unthinkable… he jumped out of the boat and started walking ON THE WATER towards Jesus!

BUT… when he looked down at the waves churning beneath his feet, when he saw the wind, he lost his nerve. He was afraid. He began to sink.

Jesus didn’t hesitate a second. He reached out, grabbed Peter by the hand, and caught him. “Faint-heart,” He addressed Peter. “What got into you? Why did you doubt?”

I can’t help but wonder if the expression “to peter out” has its roots in Peter’s situation — even though the dictionary says the origin is uncertain. It means to tire, to become exhausted, to diminish gradually and stop, to dwindle to nothing. It certainly describes what he experienced walking on water…

… and also my experience sailing. My “faith muscle” petered out. I started with taking a baby step, trusting that the familiarity of past experiences would be sufficient to propel me into this “new” situation. But, like Peter, I took my eyes off what could’ve enabled me to not “sink.” And, like Peter, I still needed to hear and respond to my Savior’s words of encouragement: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” I need to hear this everyday.

Baby steps. Taking steps of faith. That’s what growing up — and continuing to grow –is all about. Whether it’s choosing to do something outside your comfort zone or facing past fears, failures, hurts; admitting to wrong-doing or asking for forgiveness; believing what God says is true about you or making the choice to not give up and take the safe route, whatever that may be…. the list goes on and on.

Whatever is stirring your heart and mind as we enter this New Year, may God give you the grace and resolve to keep moving forward, to keep taking those baby steps. And as we do that, may we individually and together have joy in the journey of this thing called “Life.”

Note: The above story of Jesus and Peter walking on water can be found in Matthew chapter 14, verses 22-31.

Memories…

art credit: Ellie Kamphausen

Elephants have the reputation of never forgetting anything, of having incredible memories. They remember places, migratory patterns, voice differences. They can recognize their own reflection, and some evidence even shows they can hold a grudge! They help each other in times of need and appear to mourn the death of friends and family… just like humans. *

Christmastime, for me anyway, is a time when a LOT of memories swirl around my brain. Christmases past — as a child growing up and then later with our own children — evoke a treasure trove of memories. The music of Christmas adds to my nostalgic frame of mind with songs like “I’ll be home for Christmas,” “There’s no place like home for the holidays,” “Tennessee Christmas,” and more.

I was challenged last week when I read…

For better or worse, Christmas is a time filled with memories — good or bad.

from Providence Bible Church, Denver, CO: “O Come Let Us Adore Him” Advent Devotional, 2020

SO very true, especially as those devotional thoughts were written for December 18th… the same day that my older brother died five years ago.

Memories from that Christmas — the Christmas that was eclipsed with funeral arrangements and other surreal, unplanned memories — are now indelibly imprinted on my heart and mind.

BUT…

The author of the devotional went on to ask some poignant questions when reflecting on memories:

  • Over the years, how have you seen God’s hand on your life, your family, your community?
  • If you find yourself in a season of difficulty, how does the past faithfulness of God strengthen you today?
  • If you find yourself in a time of ease now, how could you encourage others facing difficulty?

As I reflect on that gut-wrenching time when a memory I didn’t want was worming its way into my core, I must admit that over and over again our family saw God’s faithfulness, His goodness, His love being displayed — yes, in the midst of our heartache and grief.

Hmm… why bring up this kind of memory at this time of year?

Because of the reality that for some, this is a difficult season. It’s not all “ho-ho-ho Merry Christmas” jolly. It can be a season filled with heartache, loneliness, confusion, anguish. Which, in turn, is a reminder to those “in a time of ease” to be sensitive, attentive to others. To be the listening ear, the hands and feet, the compassionate heart that someone else needs — longs for.

There is another truth that underlines acknowledging memories, the truth that because God invaded our world two millennia ago in the form of a tiny baby, HOPE was born. HOPE that we have the promise of eternal life because that baby grew up to be a man who died a brutal death to ensure our sins — those things that separate us from a holy God, be it our thoughts, our actions, our words — would be forgiven. HOPE that our forgiveness, a free and unmerited gift, is what transforms our relationships with God and others. HOPE that someday we will be reunited with all those who have placed their faith and trust in the Christ Child… for all of eternity.

Having a memory like an elephant’s may not be such a bad thing — as long as it’s not holding onto grudges!

Have a very Merry Christmas! And God’s richest blessings in the New Year!

*source: https://journalhow.com/why-do-they-say-an-elephant-never-forgets

Hopes… and fears…

Ah! The music of Christmas! Some of the most beautiful music ever written — in my humble opinion!

Unfortunately, though, anything that is familiar runs the risk of becoming… well, ho-hum. And the songs of Christmas, songs rich with meaning, are no exception.

“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee [the town of Bethlehem] tonight.” HOW? By having a baby born in a lowly manger, a baby who was unique in being fully God and fully man, a baby who would grow up to be the Savior of mankind.

The world that baby was born into was a world in turmoil. Roman soldiers intimidated citizens by their presence. Corrupt officials created an atmosphere of distrust. Weary God-followers wondered when the Messiah, the Promised One would appear. How long, O Lord, must we wait?

I’ve found myself with similar thoughts as our world, especially since the pandemic turned everything upside down, has seemingly been spinning out of control. An atmosphere of distrust, of suspicion, of confusion has robbed our hearts of peace.

And yet…“the hopes and fears of ALL the years are met in thee tonight.” That means even my hopes and fears. Today. HOW? By trusting in what the Christ Child came to do.

I would imagine all of us have a myriad of hopes and fears. They surface at different times in different ways and can leave us feeling hopeless, helpless, fearful. Maybe it would be helpful during this holiday season to take some time to identify our hopes and fears — and to honestly begin to deal with them.

And as we do this, perhaps with a trusted friend but for sure with God, it will help us to have joy in the journey of this thing called “Life.”

Shepherds… and other “nobodies”

Up the hill from our home in Romania was a field where a shepherd sometimes brought his sheep to graze. Our daughter, an animal lover since birth (!!), loved having these furry creatures nearby. The shepherd sensed her kindred spirit, and so when twins were born, he gave her one of the new lambs to raise. Fortunately for us, our next-door neighbors had a small cabin, complete with wood-burning stove, on their “garden plot” that they offered her as a place to raise the lamb. She bottle-fed the little one… who then bonded with our daughter, thinking she was her mother! Everywhere she went the lamb followed.

Being a shepherd is a solitary life, a nomadic life. They literally live with their flock, enduring all kinds of weather. The sheepskin coat they wear envelops them in warmth and helps keep them dry. They are accustomed to waiting, to diligently watching and protecting their flock. They don’t have the convenience of running water and indoor plumbing — and so they can be a bit smelly, like their charges! Shepherds are often viewed as being low-class… as nobodies.

There were sheepherders camping in the neighborhood. They had set night watches over the sheep. Suddenly, God’s angel stood among them and God’s glory blazed around them. They were terrified. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid. I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: A Savior has just been born in David’s town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master.

Luke 2: 8-11 (The Message)

God chose to announce the birth of His Son, the Christ Child, to shepherds. Not to world leaders or people of influence. Not to the rich and powerful. Not to scholars or celebrities…

But to nobodies.

Fast forward approximately 33 years. The Christ Child, now a man, hung on a cross, paying the penalty for our sins — for yours and for mine. He was buried in a tomb, and yet on the third day, the tomb was empty.

The angel spoke to the women: “There is nothing to fear here [at the empty tomb]. I know you’re looking for Jesus, the One they nailed to the cross. He is not here. He was raised, just as He said… Now, get on your way quickly and tell His disciples.”

Matthew 28:5-7 (The Message)

This incredible good news — that Jesus had risen from the dead, that He was alive!!! — was communicated to women. This oft overlooked fact is rich with significance when we understand that women were not valued in the world back then. In a sense, they were like the shepherds.

They, too, were nobodies.

Nobodies entrusted with the greatest news the world has ever heard!

Our world bombards us with messages through advertisement, social media, the entertainment industry that you have to be somebody to be valued, recognized, appreciated. And yet God has turned that thinking upside down: He chose the lowly, the overlooked, the marginalized, the nobodies to be His special messengers. That choice infuses value as opposed to being blinded to any sense of worth. That choice lifts one out of the despair of feeling worthless or invisible. That choice is both freeing and revolutionary!

… God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these “nobodies” to expose the hollow pretensions of the “somebodies…”

I Corinthians 1: 28 (The Message)

Learn a lesson from the shepherds…. that God views us — all of us — as people of value because we bear HIS image. There are no nobodies in this world! And as we grasp this and live this out in our daily lives, not only in how we relate to and view others but also in how we see ourselves, we will be better able to encourage one another and have joy in the journey of this thing called “Life.”

The most wonderful time of the year… or…?!?

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… at least that’s what the song made popular by Andy Williams in the ’60s says. It continues, “With the kids jingle belling and everyone telling you be of good cheer… it’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

The song goes on to say, “There’ll be parties for hosting/marshmallows for roasting/and caroling out in the snow. There’ll be scary ghost stories/and tales of the glories/of Christmases long, long ago.”

For sure we won’t be caroling in the snow here in Thailand! Roasting marshmallows is a possibility, and yet what we can do here in the tropics — as well as around the globe — is to tell the “tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago,” the tales of the very first Christmas.

Christmas is, after all, the commemoration of when God came to earth as a baby, that hard-to-fathom and yet true event of God becoming man. It’s the birthday party, so to speak, of Jesus. Unfortunately, though, our world has taken this sacred miracle and turned it into a sentimental, money-making frenzy.

I find that I sometimes fall into the “frenzy trap” as well. Not a buying frenzy, but a busyness frenzy. Yes, it’s great to get together with friends and family… but to the exclusion of remembering the Christ Child? So many events get jam-packed into this month, so many expectations abound — often fueled by past celebrations to the exclusion of reality, so many disappointments ensue because of unfulfilled expectations… definitely not the way I would want anyone to remember my birthday!

Part of what I wrestle with annually is being more realistic, especially regarding expectations. We’ve lived overseas a long time, and I usually get quite sentimental this time of year. I miss family. Period. And yet I realize I have an idealized mental image of what being together should look like. Letting go of that expectation and opening my heart to other ways God may want to provide “family” has been and continues to be crucial for finding joy in this holiday season.

The busyness frenzy can also rob me of daily time with the Lord. Kind of ironic when you think of it… how other things can derail my attention from focusing on the wonder of Christ coming to earth. And with that derailment I lose perspective. Ugh. NOT good!

Hmm… makes me wonder how I can be more intentional to tell “the tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.”

May we all guard our hearts, our minds, AND our time this Advent season so that we don’t miss out on the joy that comes in knowing the Christ Child as our Savior, our friend, our counselor, our mighty God, our everlasting Father. And by doing so, may we continue to have joy in the journey of this thing called “Life.”

%d bloggers like this: