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.”

Getting ready…

Celebrating Advent was something we had never done until we lived in Austria. The women in our international church gathered to make Advent wreaths for our use at home. Special Advent calendars, some with chocolates hiding behind the “window of the day,” became a favorite for our children, something they eagerly anticipated upon waking each morning! Advent markets sprang up everywhere selling sweets, decorations, and gift items.

There was an expectancy in the air that intensified each day. An expectancy that helped prepare us for celebrating the coming Christ Child.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder, and His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Isaiah 9:6

Isaiah gives us a glimpse of who that Child would become: the One upon whom the government — a government that will have no end — would rest. The Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

BUT… He began His life as a baby.

God became man.

God becoming man is something that both overwhelms and baffles us. We can relate to the baby part, since that is something we’ve all experienced. But God… a baby??? That part is hard to explain and understand. And yet throughout the millennia God had been dropping hints regarding not only how He would enter our world, but also how the Christ Child would enable us to be restored to a right relationship with a holy God.

God’s Word is where we find these hints.

During this Advent season, when busyness can rob us of spending time with the Lord, be intentional in carving out time individually or as a family to read the story of how God entered our world. Sometimes, because we’ve read or heard this so often, the story becomes… well, kind of ho-hum. But ask God to open your eyes to see it afresh this year… and together, we’ll have joy in the journey of this thing called “Life,” this thing that begins and ends with the miracle of God becoming man and living among us.

FYI: Sunday, November 28th is the First Sunday of Advent this year!

Aarrgh… NOT what I wanted to hear!

Aarrgh… things started unraveling last night when I got a message from a friend saying her dog had been hit by a car … and could we reschedule our time together today? [OF COURSE!!!] Then, working at my desk this morning I got another message, this time from our bank.

“If you did not make this transaction, please urgently call …”

Yep. You guessed it. Neither of us had used our debit card for the transaction in question. We had been scammed or phished or whatever the correct term is.

Aarrgh… what a pain! What an inconvenience! What a …

Interestingly enough, this morning during my Quiet Time an old song came to mind: Give thanks with a grateful heart. Simple lyrics, but heart-preparation for what was to unfold in a few hours.

  • Give thanks with a grateful heart
  • Give thanks to the Holy One
  • Give thanks because He’s given Jesus Christ, His Son
  • And now let the weak say, “I am strong”
  • Let the poor say, “I am rich
  • because of what the Lord has done for us”

So, what’s this have to do with a blocked debit card???

Yes, it is an inconvenience — especially because the way banking works over here BOTH of us have to go IN-PERSON to the bank with our passports and passbook so that a new card can be issued. And yet I started thinking about all the things I could be thankful for…

  • Because the appointment with my friend had been rescheduled, I “just happened” to be at my desk and saw the text as soon as it was sent.
  • I found out IMMEDIATELY that a suspicious transaction had occurred.
  • I was able to talk to a bank representative who spoke EXCELLENT English — and believe me, this is a HUGE blessing when living in another culture!
  • She IMMEDIATELY blocked our card so that no more fraudulent transactions could occur.
  • … and in the meantime, I heard from my friend that her dog is ok!

Learning to be thankful truly is the key to contentment. It opens our hearts to God’s presence and our minds to His thoughts. It enables us to see God’s grace and goodness in all our circumstances — even inconveniences like a blocked debit card! It opens our eyes to see all people as image-bearers of our Lord and Savior.

BUT… it’s impossible to be thankful and complaining or grumbling at the same time. The choice is ours — yours and mine.

And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 5:20

Next week many Americans will be celebrating Thanksgiving. May it not only be a time of enjoying good food and fellowship with family and friends, but also a time to consider the many things for which we have to be thankful. And as we do that, we will have joy in the journey of this thing called “Life.”

Hmm… what might my crystal ball say???

photo credit: insights.controller-institut.at

Last week’s Zoom meeting was on the one hand very encouraging. Four other women and I met to do some brainstorming for the coming year, 2022. We were thinking through what we sense God wants us to pursue regarding training women in this part of the world — a HUGE task, but one to which each woman on the team is passionately committed. They are a fantastic group, and even though we live in three different countries and have to juggle multiple time zones for our calls, our deep, genuine commitment to one another and to God spurs us on as we tackle a myriad of unknowns.

On the other hand, the call was a bit overwhelming. IF ONLY we had a crystal ball that we could peer into to glean answers to all the uncertainties confronting us. IF ONLY it were possible to KNOW if we should pursue Option A… or B… or C… or D (which was a hybrid of C + A or B). The pros and cons, advantages and disadvantages of each option were duly noted and discussed…

And yet the call ended and we had no answer, no concrete idea of how we should proceed.

Decisions are a well-known part of life. Everything from… What should I make for dinner? Where should I go to university? Who should be my life partner? When can we make plans to travel? Should I change jobs/move? Should I pursue this or that treatment for my health concerns? How can I pay next month’s rent? When can we meet again in-person (a question not on anyone’s radar until COVID turned our world upside down)? The list is endless…

As our team pondered all the unknowns facing us, we came back to an underlying, guiding principle:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths. (ESV)

Trust God from the bottom of your heart; don’t try to figure out everything on your own. Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; He’s the one who will keep you on track. (MSG)

Proverbs 3: 5-6

God, not a crystal ball, is the One who will — in His timing, in His ways — make His plans clear to us. When we (yours truly in particular!) try to figure everything out on our own… well, we end being anxious, fearful, overwhelmed. Sometimes I find I’m so busy that I fail to MAKE time to listen for God’s voice. I get caught in a frenzy of activity… and so need to slow down, listen, trust.

Yes, TRUST in the Lord… with ALL my heart. Don’t depend on my own feeble understanding. I’m so very limited… but God sees the big picture, all the things that I’m unaware of (thankfully!).

It’s a journey, this thing called living by faith, learning to trust God moment by moment… and sometimes I do better than other times. But as we — like the women in the Zoom call — come together to listen to one another, to hear one another’s hearts, to encourage each other we can move forward and have joy in the journey of this thing called “Life.”

Being in the crucible…

photo credit: https://net32.com

A crucible is a pot in which metals or other substances can be melted or heated to very high temperatures. It can also refer to a situation in which something is tested or in which a conflict takes place, often one which produces something new.

Both definitions eerily resonate with what our world has experienced since COVID became a household word: things definitely heated up, so to speak, around the globe. Testing took place, is continuing to take place. But the “produces something new” part… well, we certainly hope so, but there are days when all we feel is the heat and none of the benefits.

Dr. David Van Dyke, in his article “The Covid-19 Crucible: Confronting Our True Selves” made a comment I agree with… and yet wish weren’t true:

“… our true selves are being exposed, and we don’t like what we see.”

Experientially, we probably all can attest to how the pandemic has impacted us. It has been unsettling, scary, disorienting, frustrating. All the things we could count on — daily routines, interactions with others, financial security — have changed, some perhaps permanently. Some parts of the world appear to be back to normal, while others are still teetering off-balance. Here in Thailand we’re holding our breath, being cautiously optimistic as the country has re-opened to visitors from 63 nations as of November 1st. Some restrictions are still in place, but it’s an important step on the road to recovery.

Another thing a crucible does is purify. The process reveals the true beauty or identity of whatever is being tested by removing the yucky stuff. The unimportant stuff. The stuff that tends to cling and distort what is true. In other words, it can help us discover who we were made to be. The “real me” as God sees you and me.

One area in which God is using this crucible in my life is exposing my tendency to want to be in control. When plans go awry, when hopes get dashed, when anxious thoughts multiply because of uncertainty I’m realizing how subtly I’ve put my trust in my ability to call the shots, to figure things out, to want to fix whatever. I’ve forgotten that God is in control, that He really DOES know what He’s doing, that I can trust Him for all the unknowns that can so quickly derail my thinking and actions.

Being in this crucible is reinforcing the importance of clinging to a proper understanding of who God is and who He has made me to be. It also makes me realize how now, more than ever, we need one another as we figure out some of these things. We need to continue nurturing relationships, identifying and sharing what we appreciate with one another. We need to be vulnerable, sharing openly and honestly with one another. We need, in a very real sense, to be willing to take some risks as we’re in this crucible.

Dr. Van Dyke also said,

“We will continue to have crucibles in our lives that reveal our true selves. Now is the time to address and practice ways of relating that will foster emotional and relational flourishing, even in times of social distancing, pandemic induced loss, and things out of control.”

Hmm… we will CONTINUE to have crucibles in our lives…

May we seek ways to encourage one another in whatever crucible we find ourselves in — helping one another to be expectant that something new may emerge from the “heat” we’re experiencing. And together, may that help us to have joy in the journey of this thing called “Life.”

Being in a funk…

photo credit: https://stock.adobe.com/clipart

One thing I personally have found difficult to handle during this global pandemic is how to process and respond to the over-abundance of information that is circulating. Here in Thailand we’ve been eagerly awaiting news that the country would once again be open to tourists and that travel for ALL of us would return to “normal” and not be impeded by mandatory regulations. It’s important for multiple reasons that this happen, especially economic ones. But we’ve been ping-ponging back and forth for a long time now… hopes raised, then dashed, then raised again.

It’s wearying. And, in all honesty, can be downright depressing.

I found myself in a bit of a funk last week. A contributing factor was facing my fears at the dental office, but my emotions spiraled downward as I focused on the latest updates on social media: will we reopen or not — and WHEN? how are COVID cases in the expat/foreign community affecting folks we know? how are friends coping who are home quarantining because their daughter was exposed at school?

I also found myself focusing on other hard news: thinking of dear friends as the husband had a heart valve replaced; waiting with others for the results of a bone scan; learning that the 27 year old daughter of other friends had died from preeclampsia three weeks after giving birth to their first child. Add to that concern for our daughter as she was traveling to a heavily COVID-infected part of Romania and not hearing anything from our son for several weeks…

Some of what was influencing me was real. But a lot was conjecture… wondering about all the what if’s that could happen…

Wondering about all the what if’s, all the things that might happen is, unfortunately, magnified by rumor. And rumors definitely fueled my being in a funk.

RUMOR: noun

a story or statement in general circulation without confirmation or certainty as to facts; hearsay

source: Dictionary.com (app)

My Bible reading last week was in the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah was tasked with the job of rebuilding the city wall of Jerusalem back in 445 BC. Not everyone was in favor of what he was doing, and one way his opponents sought to derail this undertaking was to circulate rumors. When Nehemiah learned of this, he responded,

Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head. (NIV)

No such things as you say have been done, for you are inventing them out of your own mind. (ESV)

There is no truth in any part of your story. You are making up the whole thing. (NLT)

Nehemiah 6:8

The rumors were being circulated with a specific purpose in mind: to frighten the people who were rebuilding the wall, to make them think they would be too weak for the work and wouldn’t be able to complete the task. They also were a form of intimidation designed to ruin Nehemiah’s reputation and to discredit him in the eyes of the people he was helping.

Hmm.. I got to thinking about how rumors impact my 21st century world… how they

  • tend to create suspicion/mistrust — of other people, of those in authority
  • often result in fear, which in turn leads to a lack of focus… the inability to see a task thru to completion… feeling paralyzed, unable to do anything/be productive… being paranoid… losing perspective
  • cause us to jump to premature conclusions, ignoring facts
  • can be intimidating, which in turn can result in staining/tainting one’s reputation, discrediting one’s character

Yuck. That’s pretty depressing.

Part of getting out of my funk has been 1) acknowledging it and 2) intentionally making some choices:

  • to focus on what I KNOW is true… not all the what if’s
  • to limit my exposure to social media (!!!) and other premature/not-yet-proven news sources
  • to choose to walk by faith… not by sight or hearsay

I’m still in the process of putting all this into practice… still learning… and still believing that this is how I — and you — can have joy in the journey of this thing called “Life.”

Dentists… and snakes???

Dentists rank right up there with snakes on my “things I MOST dislike” list. And so when I started having some pain a couple of weeks ago, I kept hoping against hope that it would get better. Thankfully, I have a super dentist here whom I trust implicitly. She knows my sensitivity issues, is extremely patient and gentle, and so when the first course of action (taking antibiotics to knock out a suspected infection) didn’t work, she then consulted with the “crown specialist” to see if drilling out the old filling and putting on a temporary crown would do the trick.

Nope. Didn’t work.

Which meant a root canal. YIKES!!!

Thankfully, the “root canal guy” was extremely attentive to his hyper patient — at the slightest flinch he shot me up with more painkiller — and so I was able to endure the treatment… and it was successful.

This “adventure” got me thinking about sin. Crazy, right?!? But stick with me…

Sin is anything that hinders us from having a right relationship with God. It can be an inward, unexpressed attitude (thought) or an outward, deliberate act. It often manifests itself with being more interested in “me” than others. It skews our thinking, destroys relationships. It masquerades as being rational, tolerant. It often looks good and inviting, and yet results in death… spiritual death (severing our relationship with God) and eventually physical death.

The only way to deal with sin is to root it out… to not ignore the warning signs, pangs of conscience. Left “untreated” — like the tooth pain I was trying desperately to ignore — sin is disastrous.

I wonder how often God nudges me about a poor attitude that I have… and I rationalize, put off dealing with it? How often my words, spoken in the heat of the moment, have scarred a relationship? How my impatience and unrealistic expectations have distorted how I view myself and others? How… ??? The list goes on and on.

The endodontist (“root canal guy”) knew that in order to rid my tooth of any further chance of infection he would have to do some pretty serious digging (drilling) and cleaning. He balanced his concern for my comfort with the necessity of doing a thorough job. He didn’t quit until he was convinced the root was clean.

God is like that, too. Sometimes, as He’s “digging” around, exposing sin in our lives, it hurts. We may want to avoid dealing with whatever the issue is. We may rant and rave and bad mouth Him… but He’s boldly, gently balancing His commitment to eradicating anything that hinders our relationship with Him with His love for us. He knows what pain is all about — after all, His only Son died a brutal death so that you and I can have a relationship with Him.

And ultimately, that’s how we can have joy in the journey of this thing called “Life.”

en + courage = encourage

photo credit: http://www.thegatewaychurch.info

If I were an artist I would draw a picture of someone who is overwhelmed, exhausted. Someone feeling hopeless, abandoned, isolated, invisible. Someone lacking confidence. Someone at the bottom of the proverbial barrel staring into a black void.

BUT… they would be receiving an infusion, an infusion of courage.

That’s what it means to encourage

en (prefix): to cause (a person or thing) to be in the place, condition, or state named by the stem word

+ courage (stem word) : the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc. without fear; bravery

= to cause a person to have the quality of mind or spirit that enables them to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc. without fear; to inspire with courage, spirit, or hope ; to spur on

source: Dictionary.com (app) and http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary

One of my favorite Bible persons is David, a shepherd boy who had a most unlikely friendship with the son of the King. David and his friend Jonathan– at different times in their lives — embodied what it means to encourage someone.

Jonathan went to David at Horesh and helped him find strength in God.

I Samuel 23:16

But David found strength in the Lord his God.

I Samuel 30: 6b

Two separate incidents… In the first, David is being relentlessly pursued by Jonathan’s father, King Saul. David and his men had been on the run trying to evade this madman, this monarch who at one time had valued David for his bold slaying of Goliath, had made him his bodyguard, had been comforted by his harp-playing. Saul’s jealousy of David became an obsession that led to irrational behavior.

Being pursued by someone David endeavored to honor and respect — after all, Saul was anointed by God to be king — was exhausting… physically, emotionally, spiritually. At just the right time, his friend Jonathan took the initiative to find David and help him find strength in his God. Jonathan reassured David that there was nothing to fear. He reminded him of what they both knew would someday be true: that David himself would one day be King over Israel.

Several years later, David finds himself in another precarious situation: he and his men discover their wives and children have been kidnapped, their homes burned to the ground, their possessions taken. They wept until they had no strength. And then David fears again for his life, this time from his own men who were so distraught by what had happened that they wanted to stone him. Again he’s exhausted physically, emotionally, spiritually.

In the first incident, God sent a friend to encourage and fortify David.

In the second incident, David went straight to God.

Sometimes we need someone else to buoy us up as we face life’s challenges. Someone who knows us well enough that they take the initiative and show up when we need a reminder to refocus on what we know is true. Someone who reassures us that we need not fear… that God is our strength, that He is all we need. Someone who is willing to speak the truth to us, regardless of how we may respond.

Other times we are able to find all that we need when we go straight to God on our own.

Going back to my picture of someone receiving an infusion, an infusion of courage… that’s the end result in both instances: being infused with something that enables us to face whatever difficulties are in our life, whatever uncertainties, whatever hurts. Being inspired with courage and hope. Being motivated to not give up, to keep pressing on. Sometimes God uses others to accomplish that… sometimes He’s all we need.

And YOU, my friend, just may be that someone — that Jonathan — in another person’s life this week.

And that is how together we’re able to have joy in the journey of this thing called “Life!”

%d bloggers like this: