Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Good News, Great Joy...for All People

She sat at the kitchen table, thumbing through the little booklet she had made of "Family Christmas activities."  A lot like me, my daughter likes to plan things.  My mother-in-law had flown in for less than 24 hours in order to attend my son's Christmas choir concert last night.  Caris was trying to find a fun thing to do with her while I finished cooking supper.  

"Oh, look, Mom!  We're doing this tonight!  We're attending a Christmas concert."

Indeed we did.  After a long wait in uncomfortable pews, the concert began.  My son's jazz and then acapella choirs were the last to perform.  I was impressed with them, proud of their hard work. Pleased with my son's enthusiasm about working so hard for the choir teacher he loves.  It was worth the wait to hear the songs that he's been singing under his breath for months.

And then.  Came the final selection.  

The Hallelujah Chorus.  

I just can't even describe how I felt watching these incredible middle school kids and hearing them sing such a powerful and amazing song.

Goosebumps doesn't begin to describe it.

I'm not even sure that I can articulate it.

These preteens and teenagers singing like angels inside a beautiful church to a standing crowd.  A song first written in 1741.  First performed in 1742 in Dublin and then premiering in London in 1743.  Being sung in 2014.  It felt profound to me to stand and listen to this song that has been sung for hundreds of years.  Listening to it being performed so well by young people who have spent countless hours perfecting their version.  As I listened to the words, I imagined the thousands who have sung and heard it over the centuries.  

And I must admit that I teared up as they sung, "and He shall reign forever and ever...and He shall reign forever and ever...Hallelujah...hallelujah."

Forever and ever.

It humbled me to think of the tiny dot we are.  A crowd of hundreds.  Listening to a song written 273 years ago.  About a reign that will never end.  Forever and ever.  It occurred to me what a blip on the radar I am.  How tiny in the grand scheme of world history...and eternity.

I haven't been able to get it out of my mind.  

In the thousands of years of the history of mankind, who am I?  In the eternal reign of an Almighty God, who am I?  

Yet, this song speaks to each of us about our place, our role in this world, in this time, for this moment. It speaks to the miracle of Christmas.  To the sacred role that each of us play in the nativity. To our place in that scene...and the eternal reign of God himself.

The Hallelujah Chorus from George Frideric Handel's Messiah was written to reflect the promises of God to the prophets Isaiah.  That was some 700 years before the angels offered the most glorious birth announcement of all time to the shepherds, as described in the gospel of Luke.  Messiah's second and third parts cover Jesus' death, resurrection and ascension, as well as his redemption and final victory over sin and death.

How fitting during this Advent season, as I reflect on Christmas carols, that this piece of music becomes a place to pause.

Because the Hallelujah Chorus is all about us.  As was the coming of God through his son Jesus.  

To consider that as the world was set in motion and sin entered the world, God had a plan.  God, unbound by time or place, could see the entire story.  From beginning to end.  And every player in that story.  Every person.  Every heart.  Every soul.  Down to every hair on our head.  The God, who created the universe and carved out the oceans and the mountains and the valleys, is well aware of the details of our lives.

And while we may feel so small in this world, in this time, in this place in history, we couldn't be more important to God.  We couldn't be more beloved and cherished and honored.  Because even as the music swells throughout the decades of the world's story, God has engraved our names on his palms (Isaiah 49:16). Even as we consider the scope of all human history, God calls us redeemed (Psalm 77:15) and HIS.  He calls us his own.

In the expanse of all mankind, God sees us.  He goes before and behind us, and we can never hide from him.  He even says that every day of our lives were written in his book before one came to be (Psalm 139).

The Creator of the Universe and the One who sustains it all invites us to remember this.

When he spoke to Isaiah, revealing his grand story and the climatic hope for every man, woman and child...he was thinking of you.  In the 700 years between the prophecy and the coming, God was orchestrating every step for our good...for our redemption.  

Just consider this proclamation from Luke 2:10-12:

 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

That is a proclamation to YOU.  Good news.  Of great joy.  For ALL people.  Not just the Israelites of the Old Testament or the Jews of the New Testament.  Not just for those peoples in that time.  But for all people throughout all of history. 

A Messiah.  The Lord.

You are there, in that shepherd's field.  You are the one going about your business...the one whom God wishes to show up and interrupt and whose future he longs to change because He has made a way.  He invites each of us to hear that announcement anew and fresh.  Considering what it means to each of us.  

That the Almighty God parts the veil of heaven to reach into our broken world, our mess, our dark night to say this to us...to say this to our circumstance...to say this to our fears...to say this to our burdens...to say this for our future.

I bring YOU good news.  Of GREAT joy.  That is for every single one of us ever born throughout all of the world's history.

I have made a way.  I have paid the price.  I have a plan to fix all that is wrong.  I have sent a Savior.  A Messiah.  A Redeemer.

And your striving can cease.

Your need to earn a way out is over.

Your need to follow the law is null and void.

Because I invite you to come and see.

A babe wrapped in swaddling clothes.  

And lying in a manger.

The Son of Heaven.  Come to earth.  The one I've promised for generations.  The one who came for all generations.  To save us all. To demonstrate God's love and grace.  The one who came to die.


And not just for now.  Not just for this generation.  But for all of the world's history.  For every single person.  Ever.

And he shall reign forever and ever.

His kingdom will have no end.

King of kings.  Lord of lords.

King over it all.  Lord over every concern we have.  The one who came to make us co-heirs with him.

He broke through the separation between a sinful man and a Holy God in order to make a way.

He is indeed the light in every darkness.  The answer for every dilemma.  And no matter how things look today, we must make no mistake.

The story has a never-ending happy ending, as my pastor often says.  Jesus came as a baby and brought the light of hope into our darkest days.  He invites us to share in his good news and to claim the angel's announcement as a declaration over our very own lives.

And all of it...every detail of every life in all of the history of the world leads to one glorious conclusion.

He shall reign forever and ever and ever, hallelujah.  Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Monday, December 15, 2014

If You're Frightened by the Load You Bear

Sixteen years ago at this time, I was great with child.  (Now, I'm just great without child...ba dum dum). I was 37 weeks pregnant at Christmas and it all had me rather captivated with thoughts of Mary.  With thoughts of that first Christmas and how it must have felt for her...what she must have been thinking.  High on my radar was how incredibly uncomfortable she had to have been on that journey to Bethlehem.  I struggled to get in and out of a car.  Much less walking or riding on a donkey.  

Mary. The mother of our Savior.  Revered.  Adored.  Even worshiped by many.  Which, to be honest, I don't think she would be happy about or desire. Because she called herself the Lord's servant (Luke 1:38) and she rejoiced in God for being mindful of "the humble state of his servant" (verse 48), and then she offered all praise to the "Mighty One who has done great things for me."  She did not consider herself great or special or deserving.  Quite the opposite as her song to the Lord in Luke 1 demonstrates her praise and humility before God alone, as the One who extends mercy and performs mighty deeds.

Yet, Mary has become an object of adoration nonetheless.  When I think of inspiring Christmas carols, I can't help but ponder the Amy Grant classic Breath of Heaven.  It offers such an intimate picture of Mary's perspective on all the events that unfolded that first Christmas season. The Christmas song was originally written by Grant's band mate, Chris Eaton.  Grant needed a song for her Christmas album and coaxed Eaton into letting her rewrite the lyrics so that it became something of a prayer reflecting Mary's thoughts.  Interestingly, Grant penned the new lyrics while pregnant, saying that her condition gave her fresh insight to Mary's perspective. I knew Amy Grant and I are pretty much the same.

Breath of Heaven. Mary's thoughts as she traveled, humbled and confused, with the son of God within her.  Consider the lyrics below.

I have traveled many moonless nights
Cold and weary with a babe inside

And I wonder what I've done
Holy Father, You have come
And chosen me now to carry Your Son

I am waiting in a silent prayer
I am frightened by the load I bear
In a world as cold as stone
Must I walk this path alone?

Be with me now, be with me now
Breath of Heaven, hold me together
Be forever near me, Breath of Heaven
Breath of Heaven, lighten my darkness
Pour over me Your holiness for You are holy
Breath of Heaven

Do you wonder as you watch my face
If a wiser one should have had my place?
But I offer all I am
For the mercy of Your plan
Help me be strong, help me be, help me

Breath of Heaven, hold me together
Be forever near me, Breath of Heaven
Breath of Heaven, lighten my darkness
Pour over me Your holiness for You are holy
Breath of Heaven, hold me together
Be forever near me, breath of Heaven
Breath of Heaven, lighten my darkness
Pour over me Your holiness for You are holy
Breath of Heaven, Breath of Heaven
Breath of Heaven

This Christmas, I have made a concentrated effort to truly consider, for the first time, the Advent season.  I have been attempting to be intentional in studying the Scriptures about that first Christmas and to prayerfully prepare my heart to fully embrace the meaning of this season. So, I have spent this month in the book of Luke. And, as God often does, I have been directed to Luke through various other means, as well.  Never have I really paused for this long, with this much intention, on the nativity story.  Never have I prayed this frequently for God to reveal to me all the significance of Christmas so that I wouldn't overlook a thing.

And in that frame of mind, I listened to this song the other day.  And it hit me like a ton of bricks.

We revere Mary.  She went from being an unknown teenage girl to a figurine placed in nativities all around the world.  Beyond a household name.  Mary.  Just a normal girl.  Chosen by an Omnipotent God to complete his purposes for her.  And through him, he would work out his greater plans. Chosen to carry his son.  Certainly, as we see from her song in Luke 1, she likely would have questioned if God might have chosen one wiser or older or more equipped. Certainly we see in Luke 1:48 that she grasped at least to some degree the significance of her task, saying that all generations would call her blessed.

Not because she was so amazing or worthy on her own.

But because God dared to do the supernatural and extraordinary through one so ordinary.

I think one of my greatest moments of epiphany this Advent season is tied to this song.

Because we revere and celebrate Mary since she carried God's son inside of her.

Yet, we, as followers of Jesus, have been given the Holy Spirit inside of us.  We, too, carry him within us.  We, too, are ordinary and normal and insignificant.  We, too, are nothing special particularly on our own.

So, we are awed by how God chose the ordinary Mary to complete his incredible purposes and plans. We place her little figurine near the manger and we sing about her and some of us even worship her.

But, aren't we Mary?  Didn't he choose to change our destiny by offering each of us his son?  Doesn't he have eternal and extraordinary plans and purposes for each of us?  If in doubt, see Jeremiah 29:11 or Ephesians 2:10.  

Aren't we, too, the bearers of the image of Jesus?  Called by his name?  Equipped by the Eternal God to be part of the incredible story of mankind that he is writing every day?  Didn't he also reach down from heaven and intersect our routine and ordinary life in order to give us a greater purpose for eternal plans?

When did we cease to be in awe of this truth?  How do we lose sight of that miracle?  Why do we allow the incredible role we play in God's kingdom to become mundane and trite? 

We marvel at Mary.  But we are just like her.  Human. Going about our business with our own plans for the future.  And God reaches in and shakes it all up.  He offers each of us his son, within us.  He offers to equip every one of us for the mind blowing plans and purposes he has for us.  Just as the Mighty One did great things for Mary (Luke 1:49), he does great things for us.  Every day.  The hope for eternity.  The grace to cover all our mistakes and sins. The love that changes everything.  The power to complete what he calls us to do.  The opportunity to be part of his glorious eternal story.

Reread the lyrics above and see them as your own song.  Your own prayer to the Heavenly Father.  Your own humility to be chosen by Him and wondering if he might have chosen one wiser.  But awed and humbled that he chose you.  May we call out to him to hold us together.  To be near us.  To equip us to carry the load he calls us to, which he promises is a light burden and an easy yoke (Matthew 10:39-42). 

And this Christmas season, may we be as Mary.  Crying out to him, offering him all that we have for the mercy of his plans.  Asking him to help us be strong.

And realizing that because of that first Christmas so many years ago, we can dare to call on the name of Jesus.  Because the breath of heaven came near. To lighten our darkness.  And call us his own. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

If You Need to Hear from God

From the first time I heard it on the radio, I fell in love with the more obscure Christmas song Welcome to Our World.  It is one of those songs that speaks to me on so many levels that it always has an impact -- no matter how many times I hear it.  Take a listen here. Really, bloggy friend.  Take the time to listen before reading on. Because this song always quiets my heart.  And I long for you to be still here today and feel that same quiet come over your own heart.

Welcome to Our World was written by Chris Rice and released on his 1997 album, Deep Enough to Dream. He told CCM magazine that the song was not originally intended to be a Christmas song, although that is what it became.  He simply wished to convey "the reality that God invaded our planet and become one of us." 

Isn't that what Advent is all about?  The appearing of our God, the Light of the World, within our dark earth. That we would linger long with the freedom that this truth brings...the miracle and wonder that God Himself chose to become one of us in order to make us one of His.  It is my deepest prayer in this Advent series of blogs that every reader would have a moment of epiphany.  Of renewed awe at the truth of Christmas.  Beyond the lights and presents and frenzy and glitter.  To the barest and simplest truth. That God was wrapped up in the limits of human flesh.  To enter our world and forever change things.

First, let us read through the lyrics of Welcome to Our World -- prayerfully.  Slowly.  Lingering over their significance.

Tears are falling, hearts are breaking
How we need to hear from God

You've been promised, we've been waiting
Welcome Holy Child
Welcome Holy Child

Hope that you don't mind our manger
How I wish we would have known

But long-awaited Holy Stranger
Make Yourself at home
Please make Yourself at home

Bring Your peace into our violence
Bid our hungry souls be filled

Word now breaking Heaven's silence
Welcome to our world
Welcome to our world

Fragile finger sent to heal us
Tender brow prepared for thorn

Tiny heart whose blood will save us
Unto us is born
Unto us is born

So wrap our injured flesh around You
Breathe our air and walk our sod

Rob our sin and make us holy
Perfect Son of God
Perfect Son of God

Welcome to our world

As I sat down to write today, wishing to articulate and convey what is on my heart, I was brought to my prayer journal.  

Because I think so many of us have tears that are falling...and hearts that are breaking...and we all desperately need to hear from God...I am just going to share straight from my prayer journal. Consider these words your Father's letter for you.  Wherever you are.  Whatever your struggles.  Whatever your heartaches.

Dearest Child,
Throw out your welcome mat and welcome Me in -- to every part of your life.  Every struggle.  Every fear.  Every anxiety.  Every pain.  Every hope.  Every desire.  Everything.  I want to enter to it all.  Your world.  Completely.  I have, you know.  I came.  And I am here.  You just need to quit shutting doors along the way.  Quit putting up "Do Not Disturb" signs.  Allow Me to come in everywhere.  To enter in and dwell among it all...and take over for you.  Surrender it all to Me.  Let Me grow bigger in every nook and cranny instead of shrinking Me and making Me smaller than the circumstances or the people who are occupying your heart space -- and your head space -- and your emotions.  Leave nothing off limits.  Throw open every bit of who you are and what you do and how you feel and what you think.  

Welcome Me in.  To your whole world.  Allow Me to be bigger than it all.  And find the freedom that I came to earth to offer.  

Because I want it all; exchanging your burdens and relationships and struggles and dreams and LIFE...for My easy yoke. 

Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you.  
1 Peter 5:7

Cast your cares on the Lord and He will sustain you; He will never let the righteous be shaken.
Psalm 55:22

Indeed.  This Christmas season, as we ponder and prepare to celebrate His arrival on earth so many years ago...May we all be able to welcome Him fully into our worlds.  So that He may speak to our brokenness.  And fill us with the completing power of His spirit.  Healing our heartaches.  Drying our tears. Bringing peace to our chaos.  And filling our hungry souls.

Welcome indeed, Jesus.  We welcome you to our world. Welcome to our hearts.  Our homes.  Our lives.  May we never be the same.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Mary, Did You Know?

Last week, I referenced this video.

Even if you clicked on the link last week, or you've seen it posted on social media, look again. This video is of the song Mary Did You Know, written by Mark Lowrey in 1984, for a Christmas program at his church.  It was written as narrative only, to fit between songs at that church program.  But, as Lowrey wrote the lyrics, he knew that someday it would become a song.  Finally, in 1991, Buddy Greene wrote the music in about 30 minutes, and Lowrey knew the song was complete.  

So, please watch this video again. Listen again.  To every word.  Maybe close your eyes and soak it in.  Because I can't get it out of my head, and thus we are resting in this song today.  Line by line.  Let's prayerfully linger here... and pause in an effort to bring our focus to Advent.  To the glorious appearing.  The hope that has come.

Mary did you know that your baby boy
Will one day walk on water?
   I wonder.  Did you know that God defies natural law?  That he is supernatural.  That is all powerful.  That which no person can do...God is able. He brings life to the barren, He brings hope to the hopeless.  Nothing is impossible with God.
Mary did you know that your baby boy
Will save our sons and daughters?
   Do you believe this?  Do you really BELIEVE God saves?  Are you a saint who can rest because your every single sin was covered and forgiven?  Did you know that God sent his only Son to love you to death?
Did you know that your baby boy
Has come to make you new?
   What needs to be made new in your life?  What hope has died?  What peace has escaped you?  What joy has alluded you?  God promises that He is doing a new thing.  Even now, it springs up--do you not perceive it?  He is making a way in your wilderness...and streams in your wasteland (Isaiah 43:18-19). If you are wandering in hunger and thirst and feeling the weight of burdens and loss...hold fast to the God who makes you new.  He makes beautiful things out of dust.  He transforms our heaps of ashes to things of beauty.
This child that you've delivered
Will soon deliver you
   What struggle or chains do you need to be freed from?  Grief?  Loss?  Disappointment?  Pain?  Suffering?  Oppression?  Wounds? Sorrows?  He is the Deliverer.  He came to proclaim FREEDOM for the captives and release prisoners from darkness (Isaiah 61:1).  If you feel imprisoned by your circumstances, take heart.  For a baby born thousands of years ago came to bring deliverance.  Eternal freedom.  Call out to your deliverer.
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Will give sight to a blind man?
   In the here and now, we are so blinded to the works of God.  But did you know that He is moving and acting on your behalf, even as you wait (Isaiah 64:4)?  Did you know that when fear and anger and anxiety and sorrow blind you to anything good, to anything peaceful, to anything hopeful...He can give you sight?  He can open your eyes through His love and grace, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, you can fix your eyes on Jesus and begin to SEE him at work.
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Will calm a storm with his hand?
   Did you know that whatever storm swirls around you, consuming you, that He can calm it?  And He can calm you?  Just as Jesus told the winds to be still and the waves to calm down, He will hold you up in the storms of life.  As the lyrics to a song says, sometimes He will actually calm the storm.  And sometimes He calms His child. But he is there, with you, in the center of all that is happening to you.
Did you know that your baby boy
Has walked where angels trod?
   Fully human. Fully God.  Did you know this?  Do you believe this?  That our Jesus knows our temptations and empathizes with our human condition because he has been there and he can thus help us (Hebrews 2:18).  He gets it. And yet, He is big enough to worship because He is fully God (Philippians 2:5-11).
And when you kiss your little baby
You've kissed the face of God
   The glory of the gospel is summarized in this lyric.  God.  Come to earth.  Humbly.  As a baby.  To free His people.  To make a way.  To pay the price.  To bridge the gap.  To die so that we might live.  This is no small thing.  May we ponder it anew this Christmas season.  Did you know that God showed us how to live out the gospel by this example?  Becoming a servant.  Loving others.  Extending grace.
Oh, Mary did you know

The blind will see,
the deaf will hear,
The dead will live again
The lame will leap,
the dumb will speak,
The praises of the lamb
   Did you know that the Jesus who walked and talked and preached and healed and performed miracles is the same Jesus we serve?  And He is still in the miracle business.  He is still reaching out to touch our lives when we call out to him (Luke 5:12-13).  He is intersecting your life in ways you cannot even see.  Protecting you.  Guiding you.  Singing over you.  Giving you sight.  Allowing you to see and hear and live and leap and speak... oh that we might pause enough this Advent season to consider it all.  And still our hearts so that we might burst forth joyful praise.  That we serve a Mighty God who is able.
Mary did you know that your baby boy
Is Lord of all creation?
   Did you know that He is Lord of ALL Creation?  There is none above Him.  All that exists came into being at the sound of His voice.  He created us for a purpose (Ephesians 2:10).  He made us perfectly and wonderfully and fearfully (Psalm 139).  And the same God who carved out the oceans and knows all the stars by name also knows the number of hairs on your head.  And Jesus...that Jesus who came as a baby, He now lives to intercede for YOU, at the right hand of His father (Hebrews 7:25).
Mary did you know that your baby boy
Will one day rule the nations?
   Did you know that at the sound of Jesus' name, every knee will bow.  EVERY tongue will confess that He is Lord (Philippians 2:9-11)?  It may not seem true now, but Jesus appeared on this earth once...and He will appear again.  To create a new heaven and a new earth and to rule forever (2 Peter 3:13), and we are co-heirs of this Kingdom.  He will rule.  Forever.  And ever.  And ever.  And all diseases will disappear.  All tears will be gone.  All wrongs will be righted.  There will be no more hunger or famine or orphan or slave.  And He will right every wrong.
Did you know that your Baby Boy
Is Heaven's perfect Lamb?
  Like the ram caught in the thicket so that Abraham could spare Isaac, Jesus is the substitute sacrifice.  He who was without sin took on our sins so that we could be forgiven.  The Old Testament points to the Jesus to come.  It's all about Him.  Heaven's perfect lamb...offered for us.  Did you know this?  Do you believe it?  Do you swim deep and long and hard in the grace of God?  Freed from religion and burdens and weariness?  Because that is why that baby boy came.  To be the Lamb, sacrificed on the altar. Christmas points toward Easter.  He lived to die.  And all of mankind's history pivots on this birth...B.C. to A.D.  When what had been was lost in what will be and hope for every person was born with the intention to die.  So that we might live.
This sleeping child you're holding
Is the great I am
   Did you know HE is the GREAT I Am?  He announced Himself as so to Moses in the desert (Exodus 3:14).  And He is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).  He says whatever you lack, He is.  If you are troubled, I AM peace.  If you need protection, I AM your shield.  If you need direction, I AM your wisdom. If you need comfort, I AM the lifter of your head.  If you are weak, I AM your strength.  If you need provision, I AM your provider.  If you need salvation, I AM your salvation.  If you feel confused and angry and sad and lonely, I AM all that you need. Whatever state you are in or circumstance you are facing, He is I AM.

The Great I AM.  Not was.  Or will be.

He is I AM.  Present tense.  Here and now.  ALWAYS. Heaven come to earth.  The hope of the ages.  The light in our darkness.  The worth for our soul.  The remedy for what ails us.  The fulfillment of all prophecy.  The One who delights in us, rejoices over us with singing, and quiets us with his love (Zephaniah 3:17).


Did you know?

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Dark Side of Christmas

Have a holly jolly Christmas.  At least, that is the expectation.  Season of merriment and joy and fun and laughter.  Yet statistics show that Christmas time is the most likely time of year for people to experience depression.  Additionally, the suicide rate in December is higher than any other month of the year.  While it may seem contradictory to some that people should hit rock bottom during such a time of celebration, I think many of us can understand this statistic.  Because maybe we have fallen into that number of depressed and struggling, triggered by the holidays.

The holidays are full of pressure and stress.  The idea of creating a sense of wonder and making Christmas card worthy memories.  Intensified with the onslaught of social media, where we can see what others are up to in real time.  And in real time, we can compare what we are doing with what others are doing.  It's supposed to be a magical time of the year, right?  So why do so many of us feel as though we aren't invited to the holiday theme park?

For so many of us, this "special" time of year is an annual reminder of who is NOT sitting at our table.  It's the stab of pain of past holidays and the fact that we are missing someone who was so significant in our lives.  For some of my dearest friends, this is the first Christmas without a father or nephew or husband.  Or, it's the time of year when their relative passed away.  And the depths of our grief is emphasized by the joy of those around us.

What's so merry about Christmas?  

That may be where you are today.  Maybe you had visions of Christmas celebrations with a significant other, yet you find yourself single for another holiday.  Maybe you can hardly bear to consider getting through the holidays without the person with whom you made all your previous Christmas memories.  Or maybe you are in a season of waiting and you thought that surely by Christmas time, your prayers would be answered.  Your adopted child would be home.  Your job search would end.  Your infertility would be over.  You'd be reunited with an estranged loved one.

Today, I want us to dwell on the familiar words of the Christmas carol Away in the Manger.  I think that we have some encouragement to glean from this perhaps all too familiar song.  So, I ask that you take a moment and pray for insight and perspective as you read through the lyrics.

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus lay down His sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where He lay,
The little lord Jesus asleep on the hay.
The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes
But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.
I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky.
And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.
Sweet bells they ring, they ring out the news today,
That Christ was born, was born on Christmas day,
Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me for ever and love me, I pray.
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care
And take us to Heaven to live with Thee there.
Sweet bells they ring they ring out the news
That Christ was born, was born on Christmas Day,
That Christ was born, was born on Christmas day.

Yesterday, I was praying for friends who are struggling this holiday season, and this song came to mind.  Literally, in mid-prayer, I considered this thought. 
Tradition holds that Jesus was laid in a manger and born in a barn.  Some debate this fact and say actually, it was a cave. Others say that it was likely the first floor of a home, where livestock would live while the family slept on an upper floor.
Whichever the case may be, suffice it to say that Jesus was not born in pristine and perfect conditions.  He came in a dirty, common place.  And surely, it was not the easiest of conditions.  Surely, it fell short of what his young mother had dreamed of as she undoubtedly recounted the angel's words in her head, throughout her pregnancy.  She must of had other ideas.  Of a picture perfect setting.  A great celebration.  A wonderful and glorious place to welcome her son, whom she knew to be the son of Yahweh himself. The God of her fathers. 
In other words, when you feel that the holidays fall short of your dreams and wishes and deepest desires, you are in rather good company.  If you feel as though you are stuck in a cave, dark and frightened and alone, then consider this.  You are actually in a place that reflects that first Christmas more accurately than your neighbor's perfectly trimmed tree and bright Christmas lights.  If your heart is crying out shouts of dread about this holiday because it intensifies the hard place where you find yourself, then I actually think are most closely aligned with that first Christmas.
That day of our Savior's birth.  The long awaited Messiah was coming.  The One whom ancient prophecies had foretold for generations.  After a 400 year silence for the people of Israel, the exclamation of angels was about to break through and change everything.
Because the Light of the World was coming.  Into a dark and common place.  Into a place of ugly smells and sounds.  A place messy and far from ideal. 
If you are in a season of cave dwelling, with dark feelings and thoughts overshadowing the holidays, then you are perfectly positioned for this Christmas season.  You are in the places where Jesus shows up.  When you least expect it.  In the least likely ways.  
Because we don't sing, "Away in the mansion, plenty of room for a lush bed."  We sing "Away in the Manger."  We raise our voices with words proclaiming the hope we can have. When we stop and consider that no matter how ugly things seem or how far from your dreams or how dark and lonely your circumstance, THAT is where Jesus shows up.  His coming to earth points to this.  That he, being in the likeness of God, did not consider equality a thing to be grasped.  But he came to earth as a human.  And not just a human, but a servant.  To die.  And not just any death, but a horrific and humiliating death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-11).  

And then, he was laid in a cave.  In a tomb.  And a darkness fell over the land.  A suffocating and terrifying darkness.

If that describes the season of life that you are in, then embrace this hope.  Jesus comes to us in caves.  And light bursts forth as his presence is revealed there, with us. His light was first shown when he was born in a cave.  And the eternal light of the world was shown when he arose from one.
Caves are not where we stay.  Rather, they are the places of transition, where He shows up to make a way out.
As you remember the words of Away in the Manger, whisper this prayer..."Be near me, Lord Jesus.  I ask you to stay.  Close by me forever and love me, I pray.  Bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and take me to heaven to live with thee there."
This chorus says it all.  I pray it speaks peace to your hurting and wounded soul.
Because the Lord Jesus is near.  He came in a cave and was buried in a cave.  Caves have no power over him.  Because he doesn't stay there.  He loved us too much for that.  He showed his tender care and his mighty love by living to die.  By dying to love.  And making a way for us to have an eternity where all tears are dried and all sorrows are healed and all wrongs are made right.  And that truth--the power of that truth--lights the way to an exit sign in every dark place where we find ourselves.
Away in the Manger.  Legend has it that it was a song written from a lullaby that the great Christian reformer Martin Luther sang to his children. It was originally called Luther's Cradle Hymn, and was then passed on to German mothers to sing to their own children.  However, this legend has been disputed, with a more reliable story that it was actually written late in the 19th century as a tribute for the 400th anniversary of Luther's birth. 
Whomever the author, we can be sure of the encouragement that the words hold for us.  
That our Savior comes into our mangers.  He comes into our rock bottoms, like the feeding trough made from rocks for the animals, otherwise known as a manger.  Nothing we face is too hard or too dark for him to dare to enter in and be near us.  Stay near us.  Love us. With his tender care. 
Because Jesus enters into this dark places with us in order to reveal that He has a way out of them.
If Christmas fills your heart with dread, then I pray you are encouraged to remember that Jesus is right there with you.  And you have no need to apologize for your lack of excitement for the holidays.  You can just rest there, praying for the eyes to see him show up with you.
And if Christmas is just a joyful and wonderful and merry and bright time for you, then will you not forget to remember the pain that this season brings for so many?  Will you pray for specific people you know who struggle during the holidays?  Will you write them a note or consider a way to reach out to them?  To show up and be the light in their caves?  
Christmas.  The time of year that we can set our hearts and fix our eyes on the glorious truth that the dank and smelly places on earth are not where we are destined to stay.  

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Does Your Soul Feel its Worth?

I can remember the first time I wondered about the person singing a song, wondering if they really believed the words they were singing?  Particularly in relation to Christmas carols.  It was when I was a little girl, watching The Brady Bunch.  It was the episode where Carol Brady has laryngitis and cannot talk, much less sing her solo at church for Christmas.  So, little piggy-tailed Cindy asked the department store Santa to give her mommy her voice back.  And...spoiler alert..she got it back.

I remember the awe I felt watching Carol Brady sing that Christmas song at her Christmas morning church service.  And I thought, "Do the Bradys go to church every week like my family?  Does she really believe all those words she is singing?"

Listen, I don't know why this has fascinated me so, but it does.  I over analyze things.  I make up background stories when I people watch.  I wonder about all sorts of details, like whatever happened to those people from that big news story.  It's just who I am.  Embrace my crazy, bloggy friends.  I'm going somewhere with this, I promise.

A recent popular video has reminded me of that Brady Christmas and it got me thinking.  (Yes, dangerous).  You may or may not have seen this video of Pentatonix singing "Mary Did You Know?"  Bonus blog tip here.  If you haven't seen it, click on the link and check it out.  Because it is AH-MAZE-ING.  

And because our family has loved Pentatonix since they won The Sing Off, we think this group is awka-awesome.  So as they are singing about the Deliverer and the Creator of the World and the Great I am, I of course, was thinking.  Do they believe that?  Do they know the Great I am?  

As I pondered all this, I began to think about the Christmas carols we sing.  The ones we sing in church, and the ones we hear celebrities sing.  It is fascinating to me that in our politically correct world, Christmas still brings a time where it is, for the most part, socially acceptable to sing songs of our Savior's birth--whether or not the lyrics are the echo of the singer's beliefs.

And so, my desire to really soak in the Advent season this year has intersected with my fascination about Christmas carols.  The result is my intention to blog about some popular carols, exploring the history of them, their authors, and considering how we can meditate on these great declarations of our faith as we prepare our hearts to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

So, between now and Christmas, I invite you to join me in a blog series that I hope to be a series of devotions or deep(er) thoughts about Christ, spurred by the songs we tend to pull out every December.  My hope is that this is not a daily must-do on top of our already busy month.  But rather, that this blog will be a place to come and rest and soak in the real reason for the season.

First up...O Holy Night.  I just love this song. The powerful words and the music and melody. So, I did some research on the carol and was SHOCKED by what I found out. 

Before we dig further, I want to post the lyrics to this song.  I pray that you read through them with fresh eyes, pausing on the phrases that stand out to you.  So, really stop and ponder these words.

O Holy night, the stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior's birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
'Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn
Fall on your knees

O hear the angel voices
O night divine!
O night when Christ was born
O night divine!
O night, O night divine!

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains He shall break, for the slave is our brother.

And in His name, all oppression shall cease

Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we
Let all within us praise His holy name
Christ is the Lord!
Their name forever praise we

Noel, Noel
O night, O night divine
Noel, Noel
O night, O night divine
Noel, Noel
O night, O holy night

Let's stop on a few key phrases as we meditate on this hymn:  Long lay the world, in sin and error pining.  To me, this speaks to the age old battle of a world plagued with sin and wars and problems, longing for something more.  Does that sound like you?  Are you pining for something?  A dream yet unrealized?  Are you wrestling with discontent or in a season of waiting?

We are not alone in our groanings and longings and pining.  It's a tale as old as time.  Eve wanted more.  Because Paradise wasn't enough.  Abraham pined for an heir.  The Israelites longed for freedom from their Egyptians captors.  Job wrestled with God in seasons of grief and loss.  Jacob literally wrestled with an angel all night long.  

All of it.  Everyone of these stories leads to the same conclusion.  We were made for so much more.  This world can never satisfy.  No measure of success or money or fame or achievement can actually fulfill the eternity that God set in the hearts of all men (Ecclesiastes 3:11) . Which led God, from the very beginning, to offer a remedy for our longing and a solution to our sin and our errors.

And that, my friend, is the stage being set for the miracle of Advent.  That God would dare to throw back the veil of heaven and step into our world through His perfect and Holy Son.  Whose sole purpose from conception and birth and everyday of his life was to die. 

Like the ram caught in the thicket when Abraham had Isaac on the altar to sacrifice. 

God provided a way out.  A substitute.  Therefore, we need not wallow in our pining.

Next, let's pause on these lines: Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth, A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices, For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.  For hundreds of years, God had informed his people of a glorious plan.  A Redeemer.  A way out. The entire Old Testament is a picture pointing to the Christ who would come.  A solution for the age old battle between our sin nature, our fleshly selfish ambitions, and the call to follow God whole heartedly.  Like a patient Father, the Almighty God had repeatedly let his people know what was going to happen.  That it would all be okay.  That He had a plan for our good.

And then, like a long promised vacation to alleviate a season of stress... but a million times more... He came.  He appeared.  And His physical appearance on this earth means that EVERY SOUL CAN FEEL ITS WORTH.  Because He is the key.  Jesus is the water to our parched souls.  Jesus is the Bread of Life for our starving hearts.  Jesus is the one who satisfies and fulfills like nothing else.  

Jesus not only appeared on this earth in documented and verifiable history, but his death and resurrection means he appears in our lives everyday, forever.  He shows up in our weaknesses with his strength.  When we choose to follow Him, when we choose to journey toward him, we are actually chasing down the very thing that we were made to embrace. He is the hope for our weariness.  Because no matter how dark or how big the burden or the amount of sorrow, it can all be met with hope.  Everything.  Every struggle.  Christmas means that no matter the hardship, it can always be met with hope.  Because Heaven reached into earth.  And ever since the star announced Jesus' birth, our darkness has been lit by the light of Christ.  Heaven still reaches into earth.  There is no long dark night of the soul that cannot be pierced by God's new mercies, which are new for every single day (Lamentations 3:22-25).

Jesus. He showed up here on that glorious day of his birth, and every day since.  Are you looking for Him?  Are you asking for eyes to see how He intersects your days? Jesus brings the worth and the value and the hope that our soul needs.  Jesus changes everything.  Even our historical calendar marks this change... B.C. to  A.D.  Whatever your Before Christ darkness means, know that Jesus is the pivot point. Because Jesus is Immanuel.  God with us.  Always.  In every moment.  Every defeat.  Every struggle.  Every victory.

Lastly, I want us to dwell on the chorus of this great song: Truly He taught us to love one another, His law is love and His gospel is peace. Chains He shall break, for the slave is our brother. And in His name, all oppression shall cease.  News flash, pew dwellers.  Jesus' law is not performance or legalism or even man's tradition.  Jesus' law is LOVE.  His message and his gospel--his good news--is PEACE.  His command is to love one another.  

I am ever amazed by our inability to extend grace to each other--both within the church and outside of it. Jesus didn't come so we could point fingers and hold up signs and spark chaos, controversy and division.  Jesus came to pour out the love of God when he poured out his blood for us.  THAT is what his ministry and call on our lives is all about.  Thinking the truest thoughts about His love, so embracing His love and His grace and His peace over our lives that we cannot help but extend it to others.  Continually going back to this thought.  If God chose to love me and make a way for me, then my life must testify of this love.

It ain't easy.  We are a rather unloveable bunch, us humans.  Yet God broke through our failures and our shortcomings and brought complete and utter salvation from our sorry selves.  

That is what we learn to dive into more and more.  Embracing his love more every day, exploring it and believing it and being changed by it. And there, we learn to spill it over to those around us.

The result?  CHAINS ARE BROKEN. Oppression is ceased.  When we are freed from our angry, vengeful, selfish ways and we learn to swim deeply in the oceans of His grace.  Then, we are no longer bound by our fear of man and our efforts to control one another.  We are simply learning to walk in the unforced rhythms of grace.   

That.  All of that.  That is what all this song, O Holy Night, means to me. Which leads me back to my original question.  What is the history of this song?  Surely, the writer must have had a deep faith and an intimate walk with God to so eloquently articulate such truths about the night where our darkness and sin were first conquered because the light of hope was coming upon us.

You'd think.

But nope.  Not according to my research. The song was actually first a poem written by the Frenchman, Placide Cappeau, on request of a local parish priest, in 1847.  The poem was called Minuit Chretien. Cappeau was described as an "outspoken socialist with anti-clerical viewpoints," and was also described as an atheist.  The poem was commissioned to celebrate the renovated church organ.  Soon after, the French musician Adolphe Adam set the poem to music.  In 1855, it was translated to English.  And, an interesting side note...the first AM radio program was played in Canada in 1906, and the second piece of music ever broadcast on radio was O Holy Night.

I just wonder where you might be.  Are you an athiest, no belief in God, yet you might be able to conjure up some eloquent statements of fact about the birth of Jesus, such as the authors of this song?  Is it just a story or historical account to you?  It holds no meaning or emotion and it evokes no change within you. Like a children's fable or a myth.

Or are you a Christian whose life maybe could include these words without completely feeling them?  Without thinking on them?  Without really believing that the night of Jesus' birth was so holy that it literally was the most significant historical event of all time?  How does your life testify to the words of this Christmas hymn?  Do you live in such a way that you reflect a source of hope, even in your most weary of days?  Does Jesus make your heart thrill because you know He changes everything?  Do you live freely and lightly in his love, extending it to others, freed from obligation and chains of oppression?

I am praying for myself and for you...that this Christmas season, we might be freshly aware of the miracle that Christmas means.  That our broken world was visited by a God who came near.  So that we might always know our God is with us, in the midst of our mess.  Our God is the Star of Wonder in our darkest night.  Jesus is the hope for the world.  

And that we may fall on our knees with the magnitude and significance of this truth.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Permission to Embrace the Ugly in Advent

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.  Actually, that is not quite true.  Seeings how I've been watching Christmas commercials since before Halloween. And Hobby Lobby was so overtaken with Christmas by August that I couldn't find anything for my summer back patio. And people have had their Christmas lights up for weeks. 

But now.  NOW, even the biggest grumblers for "not until after Thanksgiving" have to agree.  It's time. It's time for getting the decorations up, if they aren't up already.  It's time for the annual Day-After-Giving-Thanks brawl over bargains. It's time to go into debt and run around shopping. It's time to find the perfect outfit to outdo your look from last year's Christmas party.  It's time to moan at your full calendar and to try to find a way, for the love of baby Jesus, to think about the reason for the season.

Yep, bloggy friends.  It's that time.  And if you're like me, you have the best of intentions.  You MEAN to enjoy this season and rock this holiday like a Norman Rockwell painting. You MEAN to follow all those Pinterest ideas for Elf on the Shelf.  (Oh yes, get thee behind me, Elf on the Shelf).  Do or die!  You've got this, right?  C'mon kids, we are having fun with all the crazy, aren't we? 

Except try as we might, we aren't.  No matter our intentions or our plans or our very best efforts, the holidays are not the carefree wonder of our childhoods.  When the adults handled all the details and we just had fun.  We cannot recreate that magic. Because, UGH, we ARE the adults now.  

And if you've followed me much here, you know that last Christmas was incredibly unique for me, as I was recovering from an unexpected surgery.  There, flat on my back and heavily medicated, it was truly one of the most carefree holiday seasons of my life.  There was a forced freedom from obligation, from stress, from duties and expectations. The meds didn't hurt either.

And I loved it.  I loved it so much that I thought, "HOW can I replicate this peaceful Christmas?  Minus the surgery, please? And fully coherent."  I've pondered it all year long.  I've done even more than my usual shopping throughout the year.  I've considered what I love about the holidays and I want to continue and what I do NOT want to do.

I want family time. I want time with friends.  I want to think about the true reason for Christmas.  I want to be in awe of the purpose behind the season, not running around a mall.  I want to sit long over cups of holiday flavored coffee.  I want to soak in the words of Christmas carols and have them melt into my heart.  I want to enjoy giving, without the pressure of outdoing others.  I want to make it a memorable time for my children.  A meaningful time.  

I want to really really really really do this Advent thing.  I want the purple and pink candles and the family time reading Scripture and the margins to meditate on it all.  

So, I've hit it hard.  I love sending Christmas cards and receiving them.  And I love designing my own cards.  So I did them.  Since Thanksgiving week brought the flu and a fractured foot at my house instead of a planned trip to Florida, I got my cards mailed.  I've been busy since last week, mentally gearing myself for some creative therapy as I worked on some gift projects, refusing to see them as a task that had to be accomplished.  I decided not to worry with getting the tree and decorations up until we have an opportune time. I've even watched one or ten Hallmark Christmas movies already.

In other words, I have laid the groundwork the best that I know how in order to make this the best darn Advent and Christmas season EVER.   

Bring it, December 1!  I'm ready for you!


Except for one little thing.  It's called LIFE.  I don't know about your house, but life happens around here.  Things like migraines and grumpy kids or parents.  Things like frustration and busy schedules.  Things like the ramping up of soccer season for my oldest.  Things like a "margins" December calendar suddenly being consumed and tearing the house up because I can't remember where I stashed that check I set aside for Christmas gifts.  

Oh, bother. 

So we circled up at dinner last night and my youngest grabbed the little Advent Scripture countdown I made from a mini photo album.  She got her purple Bible and happily read the little passage for our family.  Then my husband and I did our very best to engage our children in a deep and meaningful conversation about John 1:1-5.  

Which leads me to this blog post.  Because listen in as I speak to myself.

Advent is actually all about the ugly.  Advent is really about the unexpected. At the heart of it, Advent is not about the perfect candlelight and enlightened conversation and the most movie worthy scene you can create.  

Advent.  I know the word.  I didn't grow up doing the candle thing, but I like it.  And I know Advent is about looking forward to the celebration of when Jesus came to earth as a baby.  

But what does it really mean?  Here, I've spent a year determined to nail this Advent thing and I realized I am not actually sure what it means beyond weekly candles and family readings.

So this morning, I looked up the definition on my Webster's app.

Advent-- 1--a coming into place, view, or being; arrival. 2--the coming of Christ into the world.

The freedom in this definition.  The permission to embrace even the ugly in our efforts to focus on advent.  Because the truth of it is that advent is the coming into view of HOPE.  In the ugly hopelessness. Of light.  In the deepest darkness.  Of peace. In the worst of chaos.  The coming of a perfect God, wrapped and confined in broken flesh, into a very messed up world. 

Advent is not about setting the perfect stage at all.

Advent is about realizing that our best efforts and our lives are messy and hard and broken and chaotic and crazy.  We miss the mark time and again.  Only Hollywood and Facebook statuses bring the picture perfect Advent.  For the rest of us in real life, it usually doesn't go as planned.

And that, my bloggy friends, is what advent is all about.  Us embracing our ugly and our need and our lack.  And seeing that THIS is where God chooses to meet us.  THIS is where the hope of eternity breaks through and heaven meets earth. Because THIS is how God's plans continually interrupt our best and futile efforts.

Because Jesus didn't come to earth in a Pinterest worthy scene with the best lighting and decoration and perfectly prepared meal or party. There was no burlap banner hanging there with his name or monogram. 

Jesus came to earth through a young girl and her skeptical betrothed.  Jesus came to earth in a dirty, dank cave--not a beautiful hospital room.  Jesus wasn't laid into a perfectly appointed bassinet but in a trough to feed the animals.  Jesus didn't wear a family heirloom baby gown but the strips of cloth found nearby.  

His birth announcement was not hand lettered with the perfect photo of him and his parents looking peaceful with a ray of sunshine behind them.

No, it was sung by angels to the least of these--the lowly shepherds, living out in the open, smelling like nasty sheep. 

Advent.  I think God is showing me that I actually can have the perfect advent season.  The one He actually intends for every one of us.

When I embrace the ugly and the unplanned and the chaotic and the mess.

Because that is where Christ first came into view.  That is where the long awaited hope for salvation first arrived.  That is the whole point of it.  The whole reason for this holiday.  The reason for the season.

That Christ comes into view in our worst moments.  To bring us the good news.  To actually BE the good news.

So if the kids are grumpy or the day is busy or the toilet backs up into your house... that is where you can advent.

THAT is where you can choose to applaud and celebrate that Immanuel is born.  

God with us.  In our crazy, mixed up messes.