One Quiet Holy Night

Have you ever wondered what really happened in a story we’ve heard so many times before? Or do you, like all of us do at times, zone out because you’ve heard it so many times before?? Have you ever considered what things were like for those people we now see through the dim lens of history as characters? I’ve been pondering over the Christmas story as we approach the Holiday this year, and I invite you, dear readers, to join my musings. Or at least, put up with them . . .

Let’s consider the timing of the events. It was during the early years of the Roman Empire. The known Western world was at peace with itself for the first time in hundreds of years. There were open roads, patrolled by Roman armies, between countries. The speed of communication between places had never been greater, and wouldn’t be equaled again until the modern era. There was a universal language, Greek, by which everyone was understood, along with local languages and dialects. There was a stable government, prosperous commerce and people were enjoying a better standard of living than in the past.

There were also tremendous problems. Entire populations had been enslaved to please Roman masters. Taxes could be oppressive. The protective Roman army could also be brutal. Laws were stacked against anyone, not Roman, as were the courts.

And the people who knew this event was coming had been waiting for thousands of years. Told a Messiah was on His way, they lived their lives as they waited and watched. First, a people, the Jews, was chosen. Then a tribe of the Jews, as Judah was picked. Then another choice, as the kingly line was promised to David and his family forever.

And then the kingdom was gone, lost by their own sin and judgment in occupation and captivity in Babylon. And when it seemed all hope was lost, the Jews were restored to their ancient land, a mere 70 years later. War, turmoil, and occupation followed, first by the Greeks and lately by the Romans. It was only really relatively few years into the famed Pax Romana, the Roman peace that would last for the next several hundred years.

Let’s consider the extenuating circumstances. It started, as many things do, with a government edict, to receive a tax. Governments have taxed their people for countless years, and this one was no different. And yet, it was different, because to properly tax the people, their government declared there would also be a census taken. We can easily imagine the unhappiness and disenchantment this order caused among the far-scattered peoples over which this government ruled. But taxed they were to be. And the census was to be taken by everyone returning to their ancestral homes.

The uprooting, even temporarily, would be incredible! Every city’s and town’s hospitality industries, however primitive, would be stretched to the maximum with guests. Families would be staying with extended relatives when they could, or camping in fields or caves when they could not.

And this was no modern, mechanized culture like our own. This was the Iron Age, dependent on animals for transportation needs. But horses were for the well-to-do. Donkeys were if one could afford it, were what average folk used. So getting anyplace also took considerable time and often an effort, especially if one couldn’t afford animal assistance. Roads were not paved unless one was traveling in what we now know as Italy or Greece. They were dirt, dusty when dry, muddy when wet and covered with snow in the winter in places where it snowed. There was no police presence to protect from robbers, so they could also be unsafe in remote places.

Let’s consider the main “characters”. Prior to the government edict, there had been an engagement announced in a tiny town in Judea. Mary, a teenage girl, perhaps no more than 15 and just past puberty according to the custom of the times, was betrothed to Joseph, an older, established man, a carpenter. This couple was, like most around them, Jews. A Jewish betrothal was a complicated process, lasting 6 months to a year, as the groom prepared the bridal home and the bride prepared the things to go in it, and her family prepared for the commonly 3-day long wedding feast. Unusually, this couple had finalized their wedding before the full engagement period was over, forgoing the long feast and just starting their marriage together, despite the barrage of gossip from relatives and friends.

They had married early because of the amazing things the bride told her groom. She was pregnant, not by him or any other mortal man, but by the power of God. The Child she carried was to be the Savior of the world, according to what the angel had told her. He initially found it incredible and didn’t believe her. He could have publicly humiliated her. He could have had her stoned, killed by having rocks thrown at her by the men of the town, with the first coming from him and her father. He could have divorced her. He did nothing. Eventually, God showed him she was telling the truth by sending him his own angelic messenger, and he took her in as his wife, against all custom and tradition.

When the edict came, this couple, the bride now heavily pregnant with her first child, made their way to his ancestral home, a 90-mile trek. It was not at all easy for a healthy person, let alone someone 8 or 9 months pregnant!

When they got there, there were no rooms for them anywhere. Finally, they met a compassionate innkeeper. He pointed out the caves, used as stables where shepherds took pregnant sheep who were soon to bear the lambs for Passover in the spring. The only refuge they found, the grateful couple took it. And it was there the Child was born, in a primitive place, in a rustic time, to a poor and relatively uneducated people.

Let’s consider this Child. Mary’s son, yet the Eternal Son of God. Named from conception by angels to be called Jesus, named for His purpose and mission on earth. Child of many Names:

Emmanuel, meaning God is with us

Savior

Messiah, meaning promised deliverer

Lamb of God

Christ the Lord

Prince of Peace

Counselor

Mighty God

Holy One

Lord of Life

Lord of All

Wonderful

Son of David

Son of God

This is but a sampling, as the list in various sections of the Bible goes on and on! Yet He was a Baby, just like any other baby. Born just like we are, painfully and messily. A Baby, who would be hungry, cold, needing naps and feeding and changing and burping. Needing to be taught all the things children learn and have learned since humans started having them. A Child needing to grow and discover the world around Him. A Boy Child, needing to learn his earthly father’s occupation and trade. And yet, simultaneously, in a miraculous way, God. God’s Son, God made flesh, as the Scriptures say.

Let’s consider again the location of His birth. In a stable, humble and rustic, not at all the sterile conditions with which modern first world peoples are conditioned to believe are a requirement. No, these were third world conditions at best. Maybe a midwife, maybe not. It could have just been Mary, a scared teenager, and Joseph, her equally scared husband. Young girls were kept innocent until such things actually happened to them, and they were assisted by mothers, aunts and other helpers, so she must have been very scared. Men didn’t have anything to do with the birthing process at the time, and his ignorance could have been terrifying to both of them. If there was no midwife, they were two complete tyros, muddling through in a place and conditions modern Westerners would find completely unacceptable.

And that place, that place. Jesus, God’s one true and forever Passover Lamb from eternity, born where lambs for the Passover were birthed. Really, it’s astonishing when I think about it overmuch. The shepherds knew immediately where that place was, and its significance, when the angels sent them there. They were, after all, the ones tending the flocks responsible for the provision of the Passover lambs. So when angels heralded the Savior, laying in a manger, they knew what those things would mean to them and their people. Illiterate, perhaps. Uneducated, no. It was a requirement of all Jewish men to know (and largely memorize) their Scriptures. They might not be experts in theology like priests in the Temple, but they knew what the prophecies said. And they believed when the angels announced it to them.

That was no small feat, the belief of the shepherds. The Priests, Pharisees and religious establishment never saw what was in front of their eyes. They saw what they wanted to see, what they believed was true. They looked at Jesus through their own misconceptions, even as we all do, and made wrong conclusions because their minds were closed to any other possibilities. The Truth was just too fantastic to be real to them. But not to the shepherds.

Nor to the wise men. Let’s consider them for a moment. Much has been written and said about these Magi of the East we call the wise men. It’s not conclusively known where they came from or who they were, perhaps astrologers from somewhere east of Persia, or maybe even India or China. It’s not known how many of them there were. It’s not known if they came on their own or were sent by some organized group back in their distant home. Their names are lost to history and only guessed at in story and song.

All we know is they came, seeking the Star they’d seen, first in error to Herod in Jerusalem. When given the correct directions by the religious establishment there Herod consulted, they left immediately for Bethlehem, less than 10 miles away. Another thing we know is they found the Child and His parents, worshiped Him and gave Him gifts of incredible wealth in their gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Not only were their gifts costly, they were significant. Gold has ever represented kingship and rule. Frankincense represented priestly duties and intercession before God. Myrrh was used to heal and also used to prepare bodies for burial. These were kingly gifts given to people at the bottom end of the poverty levels and timed just perfectly for their needs.

Because the wise men brought not only gifts, but also a warning: Herod knows of the Child, and wants to kill Him! They left by another route and cautioned His parents to flee and do the same. Warned by angels in a dream, Joseph and Mary got up in the night, took Jesus and fled to Egypt, where the gifts of the wise men provided a living for them until they were safe to return home after the death of Herod a few years later.

Let’s consider the angels. Messengers throughout the story, speaking the words of God to His people after 400 silent years (prophesied in Amos 8) from the start of the Babylonian captivity and the death of the last of the Old Testament prophets until the first angel appeared to Zechariah, a Temple priest, to tell of the coming birth of his own son John, who would be the forerunner of the Messiah, according to Luke 1. An angel appears to Mary in person to announce her as the Messiah’s mother, and to Joseph in a dream, to confirm what she said to him. Angels herald the Birth to the shepherds with joy and great pomp. Angels appear to Joseph again in his dreams, warning him to go to Egypt, to escape Herod’s wrath. Four hundred years of silence from Heaven was broken. Not with a shout, but with angelic announcements and the cries of children, from the Messiah and His forerunner.

Let’s consider the Star. Some call it a star, some a comet. No one really knows what it was. An astronomical phenomenon never seen before or since the Star of Bethlehem is singular in history. It guided the wise men. It awed the shepherds and everyone they told about it. It was a standing star, in a sky of stars that ever move. A miracle of God all on its own, it’s a relatively minor player in the tale, eclipsed by the glory of the One who created it, and it was singularly created to herald. Like everything else in the story, it stands as unique and in many ways undefinable, even as is the incredible love of God woven throughout what we read and hear every year.

Finally, let’s consider the most astonishing thing of all, the love of God in this story. On that quiet holy night, Abba Father Daddy God reached out. The One who seemed remote and distant to mankind from the world’s creation, Who was awesome and fearful to His people the Jews, showed His true Father’s heart of love for the mankind He lovingly created.

I cannot emphasize this enough! Because if you get nothing else from what I’ve said in this post, please understand at its heart the Christmas story is a love story from Father God to you and me.

When Adam and Eve turned from God in the Garden of Eden, He could have done the same. He could have obliterated them and started over again. But He chose to send His Son, the physical representation of the Eternal Godhead of Three-In-One, to be born.

God could have sent His Son to be born in a palace, to be raised in pomp and rule from birth. But how could He have related to us that way? How could we have come close to understanding Him?? Instead, He sent Jesus to humble people, poor folk from a backwater town the religious elite would later scoff over, that His Son would be able to understand the humility and disdain everyone suffers sometimes in life.

Jesus could have come as an adult, fully formed. He could have come as a conquering king, suddenly appearing to make everything right. And indeed, He will come this way when He returns. But that time, He didn’t. Jesus came as a baby, born as we are, raised as we are, with all the inherent troubles, hazards and trials of a child growing into adulthood, that He might have compassion on us in our struggles. He came as a baby, small and vulnerable, that we might approach Him because humans ever find babies irresistible. Because we inherently know of His power, His majesty, and His might, and it frightens us. But as a Baby, a Holy Child isn’t frightening at all. As a Baby, He’s eternally approachable for everyone.

At Christmas, we love to give gifts to those we know and love. It’s an impulse that’s so innate in us, it’s almost instinctive. I believe this is because it’s put in us by the Great Giver of Life Himself, Father God. On that first Christmas, Father God reached inside Himself, becoming both Giver and Gift. In giving Himself to us in His Son Jesus, He is the Ultimate Gift we can both receive and give to a hurting world.

The Christmas story is more than shepherds and angels and stars. It’s more than wise men and Mary and Joseph. They aren’t just characters in the story and songs we hear every year, that most of us can repeat by heart. These were people like ourselves, ordinary people, who were chosen by God to play an extraordinary role in history, to reveal the Father’s love to mankind in His Son Jesus. Because that’s what it is, this history, it’s His Story.

May His Story be ever more real for you this Christmas, and bring your journey joy the rest of the year!

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All-Sufficient God

Self-sufficient humans,

Going their own ways.

Created for something greater

Than the sameness of their days.

Ignoring all the signposts

Placed before their eyes,

Always struggling and striving,

Just trying to get by.

All-sufficient God

Loving wayward men.

Reaching into history

In only a way God can.

Becoming merely human

And remaining completely God,

Loving all encountered

On dusty streets, He trod.

All-sufficient God

Completely sacrificed.

Wholly and forever

Sin’s only priceless price.

Self-sufficient humans

Receiving Heaven’s best,

Some spurning the gift of grace,

Others bending willingly,

Raised up to see God’s face.

Mirror Moments

Have you ever looked at an image in a mirror and wondered, “Who is that, and where did that person come from? When did I get to look like that??!!??”

I had something of that experience recently. I was getting ready for work. Sitting at my vanity, reaching for something, my glance hit the mirror and I saw something I hadn’t seen before. When I moved my arms forward to reach for things, the skin on the lower part of my neck got wrinkly.

My glance then happened across my hands. While grabbing things, my skin was the smooth, even texture I had always seen. But when I just held them in a resting position or was using them in other ways, wrinkles appeared where none had been before.

Where had these come from? When had time done its inexorable march on my physical self to cause me to start to look so much older than the me inside feels??

Now, lest you think these thoughts are rooted in the mind of someone so selfish and vain all I care about is my image and appearance, allow me to correct that assumption. I wear makeup because as a business owner, it makes me appear more credible. I put it on as a necessary chore, not a pleasurable one. After years of searching, I finally have a hair style that doesn’t take a tremendous amount of effort to look good in the morning. I wear coordinating clothes and jewelry because of my creative, artistic sense, not to be fashionable or to please anyone else (except my husband, who gave most of it to me!). I tend to wear the same necklace (my husband gave it to me for our latest anniversary) and the same bracelet (he gave it to me for Christmas last year) every day. In other words, my appearance is something I give about 1/2 an hour of my day to in the morning, and only scant attention to any other time. It’s an issue of practicality, not vanity.

So, why did the wrinkles bother me? Because when I saw them, I was instantly reminded of a conversation I’d had as a child with my grandmother. And I suddenly realized what an egotistical, self-centered jerk I had been, and how loving and gracious my grandmother had been.

I was no more than 8 or 10, and visiting their home in Syracuse, NY. I was there for the week with my older brother for Vacation Bible School, which we often did in the summer.

We were in Grandmother’s kitchen, and I was helping Grandmother and a friend of hers with some baking. At some point, I looked at their hands, compared them to my childish ones, and made some comment about the wrinkles on them. I then further compounded the immense insult by remarking about the wrinkles on their faces!

Grandmother and her friend could have rightly chosen to be offended. They could have chosen to become upset. They could have chosen to speak harshly to me. They chose none of it. They answered with love, kindly and graciously, simply saying these were signs they’d so far lived long and well, and someday I would understand.

There was something thing I realized as I reviewed that conversation in my memories. Looking at it now, from the adult’s perspective, Grandmother and her friend were likely around the same age I am now! At the time, they seemed immeasurably old. Now, at the same relative age, I look in the mirror and see someone still young looking back (except when I see wrinkles!). But I have a calendar awareness of the passage of time, as well as tangible proof like grandchildren, arthritis and gray hair (just ask my stylist).

When I look in the mirror, I see someone who could have 30, 50 or 100  years left to do all I want to accomplish in life. Okay, I admit it, 100 is pushing it! Or, I could be hit by a bus, get into an accident and my life would be over tomorrow. Don’t believe me? See When Life Turns Upside Down, in which I talk about life after a near-death experience last year. The point is, you never know.

I realized I needed to repent, and say I was sorry to God and the memory of Grandmother for being such an obnoxious, selfish and self-centered jerk of a kid. I know what you’re thinking. Kids have no filters. I certainly didn’t that day. But if time has taught me anything, it’s that a heartfelt “I am sorry” is never out of place when your conscience hits you with a guilty sting.

Finally, I realized as I reviewed that conversation the passage of time has done its work. I understand what Grandmother and her friend meant that day. I have tried to live well, for as long as I’ve had so far.

The Bible has a lot to say about aging and the experience and potential of wisdom that comes with age.

Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life. Proverbs 16:31

Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days. Job 12:12

My absolute favorite on the topic, however, is this one:

So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. Psalms 90:20

I know, you’re asking, “Number our days?!?!?? What does that mean??!??” It means more than that calendar awareness of time I was mentioning before. The ancient Greeks called that calendar awareness of time Chronos time. It’s the time of clocks and calendars, that we can understand, quantify and measure. What we need is an understanding that our lives, that we see as so long, so significant, so important to us, are really just blips and specks on the timeline of eternity. In other words, what the ancient Greeks called Kairos time. Kairos time is not something quantifiable, understandable or measurable because it’s eternal. It’s all that was before and all that is and all that will be, all in one package, all in one big picture. It’s God’s view of eternal time, as He Who was and is and ever will be.

When we get a Kairos view of time, when we learn to “number our days,” as the psalmist says, we understand our own insignificance in the vastness of God’s perspective. That sounds like it would be something to bring down our self-image and not give us wisdom, right? Well, God’s views are different. When we look at things the way He sees them, we look at ourselves and our lives through His plans, His purposes and, most importantly, His immense and overwhelming love for us. We see our faults, our failings, our flaws and yes, even our wrinkles, in the light of what He has taken us through, and where He is taking us to.

One of LIFE Leadership co-founder Chris Brady‘s favorite quotes is by noted author Henry David Thoreau:

It’s not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: what are we busy about?

In our lives of Chronos busy-ness, getting a Kairos view of things from time to time gives us a perspective to understand what we need to be busy about. Day to day living can smother purpose, gobble up passions and devour dreams in the minutiae of things that just have to get done. An eternal view from time to time realigns our perspective, sharpens our focus and reminds us what is truly important.

So, where do we go from here? For me, going back to the start of the post, I’ve earned my current set of wrinkles, and hope to earn lots more. I want to earn more doing things that matter in life, things that have a Kairos impact on a Chronos world. For me, these are things like loving people, sharing the Gospel, and being all the light I can be wherever my life’s candle is placed, just to name a few. On a more selfish level, I want to have some more adventures, a bit of fun, and maybe even acquire a few more gray hairs (for my stylist to hide) by doing exciting things in incredible places with wonderful people.

What about you? Who do you see in the mirror each morning? How are your “mirror moments” lately? Our “mirror moments” are the best when we see not only who is physically looking back, but who is looking back from within. I wish you joy in your journey of discovery.

 

When Life Turns Upside Down

What do you do when your life upends on itself? How do you handle a major shift (or even multiple ones), for which you likely hadn’t planned?

Much as my life is open on Twitter, Facebook and the like, there are certain things about which I am deeply private. Upheavals in my life, stresses I am enduring and tough things I am going through are things I do not share as I go through them, except with those closest to me. These are not for public consumption. If I do share them, I do so after, as a testimony.

However, Dear Readers, I’ve been grappling a lot with the questions I started this post with lately. I cannot say I have every definite answer on them. So why share such stuff now? Because as is my usual way on this blog, all I can do is share my journey and where I am in it, and hope it helps you in yours.

It all started on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the end of April. The weather was cool and the sky was cloudless. It was the kind of day that, when you woke up and looked outside and saw how gorgeous an early spring day it was, it made you happy to be alive in it. To make things better, we were attending a gathering that day with a group of our Life Leadership partners in Syracuse, NY, about a 3-hour drive from our home. It was a fun event, a reward for hard work and a time to spend relaxing with some of our favorite people.

On the interstate on the trip home, I was dozing in the front passenger seat of our minivan. I was tired from an exhausting week at work, and grateful I didn’t have to drive. My husband Bob was driving. Daughter Beth was in the middle seat, playing a game on her phone. Son-in-law Tom was in the back seat, sprawled asleep.

I woke to the rumble strip under us and saw the van speeding into the median strip on the left side of the road, heading toward scraping the guardrail. In a moment of panic, Bob yanked the wheel right, abruptly swerving us back onto the highway. Temporarily. The force of his yank caused the van to continue to careen to the right, swerving and tipping the van to the right, toward my side. I covered my face with my hands, and began to breathe the only prayer I could think of in such a moment, “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!

I stopped praying when the noise and movement stopped. I moved my hands from my face, shocked to be alive, and not in the Eternal presence of the One on Whom I’d called in my moments of greatest danger and need. I was upside down, pinned in place between the remains of the van’s roof, dashboard, and my seat, held firmly in place by my seatbelt, but I was alive!

I heard Bob asking everyone else if they were okay as he helped them out. I heard another voice, who I later learned was a woman who lived nearby, asking the same questions. I saw blood all over me, but quickly realized not much of it was mine. As far as I could see or feel, I just wasn’t cut that badly. I was, however, still pinned, and having a panic attack over it. The woman (who I learned was a nurse practitioner in her professional life) told everyone to let the paramedics and firefighters get me out. But I moved my arms and legs, hands and feet, and determined my spine was not damaged. I was just stuck!

Overriding her protests, Tom crawled in and released my seat belt’s buckle, freeing me and assisting me out. The woman insisted I go to one side away from the van and sit down on the grass there while we waited for the police and paramedics. Happy at being freed from my prison, I was grateful to comply.

I looked around and realized the van, which we’d just paid off a few short months before, was a total wreck. But we were all walking, talking and none of us appeared to be seriously injured! The paramedics looked at the scene, checked the cuts and road rash on Bob’s arm, and told him it was a miracle it hadn’t been torn off as we skidded upside down across the pavement and grass. My hands were cut where the smashing glass from my window and the windshield on my side cut them, but because I had put them up to pray, they took the damage, and my face did not. Beth’s shoulder was sprained where Tom had grabbed her by it and her hair as we started to flip and she was about to fly out the shattered windows and be crushed by the skidding van, saving her life. Tom’s bad back and Beth’s and my bad knees were made worse by the crash, but we walked away.

God protected us all that afternoon in so very many ways that are miraculous. In that 20-mile stretch of road, there was only one place where such an accident could have happened, and we could have skidded across 2 lanes into the grass on the roof. Everywhere else, there are guardrails, embankments, steep slopes ending in ravines and/or trees, hillsides and all the other things traveling on an interstate through hilly country involves. There was no traffic around us to hit us. The road behind us was empty when we skidded across it.

When Bob and I went to where they’d towed the van the next day to gather the remains of our belongings that hadn’t been lost or destroyed, we realized the back 1/3 of the vehicle was completely undamaged. The roof above my seat, my door and the passenger door on my side had taken the worst of the damage and had held just enough in place to save our lives, particularly mine.

God protected us even to our clothes and belongings. The only items of permanently damaged clothing were Bob’s shirt and Beth’s jacket, his with its asphalt stains and small rips, showing the force of the scraping along the pavement, and God’s protection of his left arm, and hers with its multiple rips from broken glass. And the shirt was easy to replace! Even the blood stains came out of all our clothes, including to my white turtleneck. The only items (aside from the van) lost forever were a plastic cup I’d been using and a small stuffed Tiger Beenie Baby named Stripes on the dashboard.

God protected our grandchildren. We could have brought them with us that day. Other people had, and the option was open to us. But we’d decided to leave them home with a sitter. So other than some emotional trauma because the sitter had the phone on speaker when Tom called to say we’d be late arriving and why our oldest granddaughter heard it. It took almost a week to reassure her that we’d be okay every time one of the adults walked out the door! (We now have a rule that no one answers the phone on speaker anymore!)

The paramedics and police arrived, and things moved rather quickly after that. They bandaged Bob and mopped up the rest of us. Tom initially objected to being transported to the hospital, but relented when our friends (who were following some miles after and would bring us home later) informed him they were not stopping to pick him up! (It was a good thing they did. His concussion needed further treatment the next day.) They brought us to the hospital, and we went through an evening of the usual Emergency Room “hurry up and wait” that non-life-threatening injuries have to endure. We didn’t mind. After rounds of tests, multiple bandages both large (Bob’s arm) and small (my hands), volumes of paperwork and what seemed like a million questions from marveling hospital employees, we were finally allowed to leave. We went to the nearest fast food drive-through, got food for all of us and our dear friends who’d waited so patiently for us and who we’d scared so badly (and who were bringing us home!), and went home.

We had minor concussions (everyone), several large cuts (Bob), multiple smaller cuts (mostly mine), 1 strained knee (Beth), 2 bruised knees (mine), 1 road rash (Bob), 2 bad backs made worse by the crash (mine and Tom’s, his being the worst) and multiple bruises (everyone, but mostly me because of hanging in the seat belt). In the hours and days to come, we also discovered a bit of post-traumatic stress as well among all of us. And we are alive.

Yes, I know, I keep repeating that. It’s the first lesson I learned from this. When your whole world turns (literally, in my case) upside down, find something or some things large or small to be grateful about. In a near-death episode, alive is a good place to start! We are also grateful for the other miracles, saving Bob’s arm and my face, the preservation of our belongings, the timing and location of the crash. We are grateful for our friends who came to us at the hospital, and who called our Life Leadership leaders and let them know, so they could pray. We are grateful for the prayers of our church family when they found out. We are grateful so little was injured, and that most are already healed and restored. We are even grateful for our insurance company, who was so quick with settlements and whose paperwork processes were so simple to navigate.

I took the next day off from work, to deal with the remnants of my concussion, get the stuff from the van and recover somewhat. We spent a lot of time over the next week with one another and our grandchildren, reassuring the children we were okay, and that we return home again whenever we left the house. Family time was more important to us than it ever had been over those days. When your whole world turns upside down, you get a chance to assess and perhaps even reassess your priorities. The traditional North American priorities of money and stuff can seem rather pointless when your paradigms get shifted so radically. We got a chance to affirm our faith and our family, from our immediate to our extended members, are some of the highest priorities in our lives.

Our lives have changed since the accident. Because Bob’s inattention (which caused us to go off the road to the left in the first place) was likely caused by a medical issue that had been previously unknown, Bob went the following week to his cardiologist, who is now doing tests and may send him to a neurologist for more tests. Until he gets a firm diagnosis and treatment, Bob is not allowed to drive. That leaves all the driving to Tom, Beth and me, and we’re now down one car. It makes life more inconvenient for everyone. In the inconvenience is the second lesson I’ve learned from this. When your whole world turns upside down, tolerance, patience and striving for excellence is required of those of us who live a life in service to others. You don’t have to fall into the trap of perfectionism when more weight falls on your shoulders than you are used to carrying. Perfect isn’t demanded. Your best is required.

There’s another lesson in Bob’s medical tests and current inability to drive.  These add uncertainty we didn’t have along with their inconvenience, creating a “new normal.” I grieved for our old “normal,” expressing my fears to my best friend (the same one who came for us that night). She reminded me fear is not from God, Who promises differently:

You will keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You.

Isaiah 26:3

When your whole world turns upside down, living with uncertainty is almost always a sure thing. Being uncertain is normal. Having a transition to a “new normal” and understanding grieving for what used to be “normal” is acceptable. Dwelling in it is fruitless. I tried that for a few days. It got me nowhere. It was only when I accepted the uncertainty as being part of the “new normal” and accepted it as “normal now” that I began to find peace in my situation.

We also grieved. When Bob and I went to get our stuff from the van the next day, as we left, I looked at it and silently said, “You were good to us. You did not deserve the death we gave you, but I thank you for it, that in your death our lives were saved.” Yes, it was just a thing. But saying goodbye to a vehicle in a culture that depends on and almost worships transportation can be emotional in such circumstances.   We remembered what was, and thought a lot about what could have been. In the end, with counsel from friends, we chose to set the event as a time of what did happen, instead of what didn’t. In Joshua 4:6 – 7, God commanded the people crossing the Jordan River to take up stones from the bottom and set them as a memorial to His power for stopping the river in flood so they could cross it on the far side. This was counsel I got from our friends: When your whole world turns upside down, the hardships of yesterday and today become the memorial stones of tomorrow. We pass that site going back and forth at least a couple of times monthly in our travels for Life Leadership. The first time was incredibly difficult for me, and I had a panic attack. On the way home, I decided to ignore it. It was on that trip we got the counsel, though I did not receive it well at the time. The second time, I took that counsel from our friends and made a memorial stone in my mind there of God’s grace and protection. On the way home, the memorial stone was there. God is the same yesterday, today and forever. The memorial stones of our lives are proof to us of it.

So, where are things now? We still face the uncertainty of Bob’s tests. The insurance settlement sits in savings, awaiting the day he will (hopefully) be allowed to drive again, so we can replace the van. If the tests never allow him to drive again, we’ll eventually replace my car with it. We are living a life of uncertainty, and just grateful to God to be living it. Because when your whole world turns upside down, remembering Who is in ultimately in charge is essential. As we are learning now, He Who saved us is also He Who continues to sustain us. And when the One who sustains you has saved you from something like what we went through, trusting Him to sustains you becomes a whole lot easier to do . . . 

The Still Place in the Storm

The world turns and spins around me

But You are steadfast and strong.

Events uproar and crash at my feet

And You remain calm and restful.

Nations rage and peoples bluster

While You peacefully continue Your intended purpose.

In a world of whirlwind

You are the still place in the center.

In a universe of noise

You are the Peace in the midst.

In a society of discord and division

You are the harmony and unity at its heart.

In a life of constant change

You are the only constant never-changing Same.

I seek You in the quiet

I find You in the center

I rest in You in the midst

Like a tiny bird in the cleft of a rock

in the midst of a storm

You hold me and comfort me.

You were

You are

You ever remain

the still place, the quiet rest,

the peaceful center of the storm,

in an ever-changing world.

 

An Offering Of Tears In A Season Of Joy

How do you handle it when everyone around you is happy and you’re not? How do you cope during a time when the rest of the world celebrates, and you often want to cry?

I found myself in that place last year in the spring after my mother died. She died a month before Easter, two months before Mother’s Day and the birth of my 4th grandchild (her 11th great grandchild). The world was celebrating these holidays, and my heart was trying to find joy in them while grieving my loss. The paradoxes of the situation and the need to pay attention to the demands of the situations caused me to push my grief aside and not deal with it. It was only recently, when hit with another unhappy life event in yet another joyful time, that I finally began to process the griefs properly.

I wondered about this when I was listening to a sermon about Mary, the mother of Jesus. Here was this young woman, a teenager really if you look at the culture of the time (perhaps as young as 14), engaged to be married to a (likely older) man. In our culture, it’s often the happiest time of a young woman’s life, and even in her arranged marriage culture, it likely was for her, too. She likely knew Joseph and knew her parents wouldn’t have picked out someone inappropriate for her. They might even have been friends or acquaintances, with the slight possibility they already loved one another. The wedding is being planned, the guests invited, the preparations made, the household goods for their new home arranged and everything is all new and exciting for her. It’s a time of great joy for Mary, Joseph and their families.

In Luke 1: 26 – 38, into the scene enters the angel, speaking to Mary, telling her of the coming Savior. The angel says she is the chosen one, the virgin spoken of by Isaiah the prophet so many centuries prior,

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His Name Immanuel.

Isaiah 7:14

This news was as startling and upsetting as it was joyful. The Jews had been waiting centuries for their promised Messiah, yearning and hoping. But no one expected the Messiah to come as a baby, to be born to a young woman who would be viewed as an unwed mother, who could be quite literally stoned to death for her perceived crime of becoming pregnant without benefit of marriage. They never expected Him to arrive at that place in Nazareth, or that poor and insignificant family instead of to a wealthy or influential one. 

In what should have been her season of joy, Mary had good reasons for tears! But she kept things to herself, and went to her cousin, whom the angel had said was pregnant in her old age. And when Mary found Elizabeth, everything changed.

In Luke 1: 39 – 45, we read how Elizabeth encouraged Mary. Even John the Baptist, who Elizabeth was pregnant with, leaped in her womb at the very voice of the one pregnant with the Messiah. Elizabeth’s response was just what Mary needed to hear. In Luke 1: 46 – 55, we read Mary’s lovely response in the antiphonic poem called the Magnificat.

Mary’s praise glorifies God. Through her fears, in spite of her tears, Mary chooses to see the greatness of God instead of the smallness and harshness of her situation. She deliberately chooses to be joyful, not just happy, but to downright rejoice and celebrate over God and His love for her. Mary’s poem is called the Magnificat because she magnifies God, and makes Him larger in her eyes than the problems she also sees before her.

Sometimes, like Mary, we find ourselves grieving when the rest of the world is rejoicing. As I write this, it’s less than a week before Christmas 2015. I have friends who are dealing with some tough, stressful and unhappy situations in their lives right now. While the rest of the world celebrates, they feel like the only offering they have to bring is that of their tears.

And you know what? If the only offering you have to bring is tears, it’s okay. God knows we walk through valleys sometimes. In fact, He walks through them with us! In Psalm 23, David wrote,

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me;

Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Psalm 23: 4

The rod of a shepherd is meant for their protection. The shepherd defends them from enemies using it, and also uses it to count them and make sure they are all healthy. The shepherd’s staff is used for guiding the sheep into positions of intimacy, either with each other or himself. Thus, to be comforted by God’s rod and staff is to fall under His protection and to be brought by Him into a place of great intimacy with both Him and others of His choosing. This is a place of great comfort indeed when we walk through valleys!

Another thing to remember as we walk through valleys is that hurting people often hurt people. It’s a great temptation when we’re wounded to strike out, so we can protect ourselves and not be hurt more. But the more we lean into God, the greater we seek the protection of His rod and the comfort of His staff, the smaller the temptations become to use our own pain as an excuse to hurt others. 

As we go through our seasons of walking on mountain tops or through valleys together, it is good for us all to remember no one else is at the same point of their journey at the same time as we are, even when we travel together. May you have a blessed holiday season, and a joyful Christmas and find joy in your journey, even when your only offerings are tears.

 

To Change The World — Repost for Furgeson and Baltimore

Dear Readers,

I posted this poem a while ago. In light of last year’s tragic riots in Furgeson, MO, and this week’s in Baltimore, MD, I am choosing to do it again.

When I wrote it, I was thinking about the men and women whose positive words, lives and actions changed the world. Men like Jesus, who turned His world upside down by a doctrine of love and forgiveness. Men like Gandhi, who changed their worlds with non-violence and peaceful protest. Men like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, who changed their world with a dream and a vision. Women like Mother Theresa, who changed the world through sacrifice and service. Women like Princess Dianna, who changed the world through compassion and service to the least and lost.

The people in Baltimore this week started protesting from different races and socio-economic backgrounds. They did it in peace, seeking justice. That was a protest that meant something. Not the riots which followed.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

The world is not changed                                                 

Standard Time Zones of the World as of 2005. (...


By long speeches made

By someone whose words

Are bold and are grand.

The world’s only changed

When games stop being played,

And two people reach out,

And grasp hand to hand.

The world is not changed

By many a weary mile

By people who gather

To march in a long walk.

The world’s only changed

When to scared people smile,

And break down some walls,

To take time to talk.

The world is not changed

By acts of anger and rage,

By acting out unthinkingly

And causing great strife.

The world’s only changed

When love sets the stage

And a stranger reaches out

To help change one person’s life.

The world is not changed                                                                       

World! Wide! Love!


By those filled with hate,

Who spend their lives working

To draw others apart.

The world’s only changed

When someone refuses to wait

To dear down all the barriers,

And reaches out, heart to heart.

Sunshine On Snow

Your glory is incomparable.

It has no equal, no rival.

Your love is unlimited.

It has no beginning, no end.

Your holiness is unparalleled.

It has no flaw, no spot.

You call us to be like You

To show Your glory

To a world that doesn’t know You;

To reflect Your love

To hungry, hurting people;

To shine Your holiness

To aching, lives sick with sin.

I want to shine Your glory

Like diamonds on a jewelers cloth.

I want to reflect Your love

Like an image in a mirror.

I want to show Your holiness

Like ice crystals sparkle in sunshine on snow.

Be Still And Know — A Not So Perfect Family Christmas

Have you ever received what seems like an impossible suggestion or request or even command? How do you deal with it?

It was late December. I’d been sick for about a month, and found out the previous Tuesday I had a sinus infection. I’d probably been sick with it most of that month, but at least now I was on antibiotics. The Friday after my diagnosis, we learned my husband, who had also been sick all month, had one, too. He was given the same antibiotics.

Being sick, however, didn’t stop the massive, out-of-control freight train that was my “To Do” list and schedule. I tried to delegate some. I asked my husband (who was home and retired while I was still working full-time) to wrap the gifts. Our son took on a majority of the cookie baking, as he had every year (whether I wanted him to or not) for the past 4 or 5 years. (I still had to do the ones for the Cookie Exchange at work, and of course I’d signed up for the most complex and painstaking monster of a project imaginable!!.) The pair of them even decorated the house and yard with lights, and put up the tree, though it stayed without ornaments for over 2 weeks. My husband helped me stuff the stockings. I asked our daughter to make our traditional Christmas dessert which her husband adores, Pumpkin Cheesecake. But I was still rushed, frazzled and quite frankly, worn out. There was just too much on that “To Do” list, too little time to do it, and I was still sick . . .

Finally, at church on the Sunday before Christmas, a friend read a Scripture that touched my heart. It spoke to my illness, my “To Do” list, my hectic schedule and my lack of joy in what is normally my favorite time of year. When I heard it, I felt like God was speaking the words to me, gently slapping me upside my head.

He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;

I will be exalted among the nations,

I will be exalted in the earth.”

Psalm 46:10

“Be still and know that I am God.” The words spoke life to my rushed, troubled heart. Sweeping aside my “To Do” list, my schedule and my self-imposed Christmas insanity, the words of Psalm 46 demanded a paradigm shift of my priorities, my schedule and my life.

“Be still and know that I am God.” They called me to rest. Not just sleep, which my still sick body desperately needed. No, these words were calling me to true rest and peace in God. To know that perfect isn’t required, and okay is good enough. To know that the menu isn’t important, it’s who is eating the food, and making sure was Jesus our Guest, too.

“Be still and know that I am God.” They called me to remember the Reason for the season. They reminded me again of what I’d known since childhood: Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Jesus, our Savior. It’s about His life, His sacrificial offering of Himself for us so that we can have a relationship with Him and His Father. It’s not about the food, the presents, the lights and all the other trappings, no matter how good they are. Because they are the “good” of the season, while the gift of Jesus was, is and always will be God’s greatest and best.

“Be still and know that I am God.” They insisted I deal with the emotional weight I’d been avoiding, of that first Christmas without my Mom being among us after her death the previous March. I was reminded she was celebrating the holiday with Jesus, and even though it’s different without her, and always will be, that’s okay.

“Be still and know that I am God.” They reminded me I’m not in control of my life, and God is. Even when I tried to give in to the illusion and deception of being a (recovering) control freak, the words cut through my feeble efforts to direct my life and reminded me there is One who is ultimately in control. And He is in control not just of my life, but of situations and circumstances beyond my comprehension, even reaching to the far-flung galaxies of the universe. The words reminded me I can trust the One who spun it all into existence, and holds it together by His will.

That last reminder was very helpful 2 days later (and 2 days before Christmas), when I got a call at work, telling me our daughter and 6 month old granddaughter had influenza, despite having gotten flu shots! (CDC says the shots don’t cover every strain, and they got one it didn’t, of course!) Our daughter and son-in-law wanted us to take the 2 older children (who were not sick), and have them stay with us from that day, through Christmas and for several days after.

“Be still and know that I am God.” These words ran through my mind repeatedly as I spoke to my husband, working out first if we could do it. Then, when we decided we could, we discussed the logistics of my work schedule and transportation needs, all now more complicated by the presence in our house of 2 girls, ages 4 and 6, for a few unexpected days.

“Be still and know that I am God.” Stuff I’d planned and we “always” do didn’t get done. Our daughter didn’t get the cheesecake baked before she got sick. Since small granddaughters prefer Christmas cookies to cheesecake, we were okay with that. My husband and son decorated the tree with the help of 2 small girls. As long as my delicate, breakable ornaments were put high by one of the men, I didn’t care what it looked like.

“Be still and know that I am God.”  The 4 year old and I started having coughing fits on Christmas Eve. I suspected exposure to my daughter (for me, prior to her showing symptoms on Sunday) was the culprit. Instead of the “perfect” family Christmas, we had one that was a different and not so perfect kind of family Christmas. We were missing Mom, and almost 1/2 of us were ill. But in its own way, it was perfect, because those ancient words prompted me to remember Christmas is perfect when we are with people we love and we have invited God and His presence and peace to be in our midst.

“Be still and know that I am God.” I pray your holiday season will be filled with the gentle stillness of God’s loving presence and at least some of the people you love.

Merry Christmas!

When Pain Mocks The Song — Even In The Christmas Update Letter by Terri Brady

Repost – Historical Leaders — When “Well Enough” Isn’t Good Enough

The following is a repost from October 31, 2011. I have updated a few dates and timelines. Happy Reformation Day!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In my studies on Leadership, I have discovered a few traits leaders share.  One of these traits is a refusal to abide by the status quo.  Leaders want to change things, and just can’t leave alone anything they see as being in opposition to their vision of the future.  “Well enough” isn’t good enough for leaders when better is possible.  Here is the biography of one such leader.

He was born in 1484, in what is now known as Germany. His parents were trades people, with upwardly mobile aspirations for their son. Thus, he received the best schooling his father’s money could buy.

His father’s ambitions were that he become a lawyer, but the leader in him found law unsatisfying. So he dropped it almost immediately, and tried philosophy. That, however, proved unsatisfactory, as he found it questioned his religious faith too much. He later wrote “philosophy is good for the questioning of man, but man could only learn of God through divine revelation and the Scriptures.”

Shortly into his college career, he had an experience that led him to believe he should be a monk. This was very much against his father’s wishes, who felt he was abandoning his education and family. His friends were skeptical of his suitability to it, also. Individualist that he was, he continued the course once he decided it.

He tried very hard to be a monk, and later wrote if trying had been all it took, he would have been the best. But his superiors knew he was cut of different cloth (perhaps they knew a budding rascal leader when they saw one!), and sent him off to university to study theology, Biblical studies and the priesthood. He became a priest and earned a Doctorate in Theology, becoming a professor in it at Wittenberg University in Germany, a post he held for the rest of his career.

It was here he finally flowered and attained his now famous greatness. A representative from Rome came to his beloved Wittenberg, and began to sell tokens, called indulgences. These indulgences were meant for people to have the souls of their loved ones released from Purgatory upon the purchase of them. The church’s purpose in selling them was to raise money for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The church at the time taught faith alone cannot justify people, and that acts of charity, not faith, were also necessary to be saved.

By now I am sure you have guessed the identity of our historic rascal leader, so I will use his name from now on. Martin Luther was incensed at the selling of these indulgences to the people of the church over which he was pastor. He initially wrote to the Pope by way of his Archbishop in protest, with the first draft of his 95 Thesis, saying the wealthy Pope and church should pay for the building projects of Rome, and not the humble peasants they were supposed to be serving. He claimed he wrote it as a scholarly dissertation and objection, not a direct challenge to Papal authority and power. His 95 Thesis were also printed and posted on the door of the cathedral of Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, now known widely as Reformation Day, in accordance with the Wittenberg customs of scholarly debate.  Today marks 437 years since that act.

The 95 Thesis were quickly reprinted from Latin to German and spread throughout the land, one of the first known historical controversies so spread. The word, spread thusly, went like a wildfire.

In direct contrast to the church’s teachings, Luther spent the succeeding years preaching and teaching (and writing) on justification by faith. Eventually, the catch-phrase, “By grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone” became the hallmark of his growing group of followers.

However, the Catholic church did not take Luther’s perceived challenges lightly. They launched investigations, set up heresy hearings that devolved into shouting matches, attempted to arrest Luther (the German King protected him) and threatened him with excommunication. Eventually, he was officially excommunicated. But it just didn’t seem to matter. No one would silence this rascal leader, and nothing would deter his beliefs.

Finally, the secular authorities had at him at the now infamous Diet of Worms at Wartburg Castle in January to May of 1521. Emperor Charles V presided, and the Elector of Saxony (and Luther’s patron) provided safe conduct through hostile territory for him to attend.

The Emperor and an Archbishop finally demanded in exasperation he recant. Luther replied,

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand and can do no other. May God help me. Amen.

The Emperor and Archbishop, of course, voted against him, declaring his life forfeit. The Elector of Saxony helped him escape to safety on the return trip. He found chaos on his return, started by disciples who had taken Reformation too far. He cleaned up the mess, preached and wrote against the excesses and generally worked to lead people back to where he envisioned the Bible was telling them to go. Much to his dismay and distress, the radicals did have their way in larger Germany, igniting what is now known as the Peasants War, against which he preached and taught.

Luther rescued a group of nuns who no longer wished to serve as such and were being held against their will after he returned from Worms. Among them was Katharina von Bora, whom he eventually married, and with whom he had 6 surviving children. He had long advocated a married priesthood within the Catholic church, and now that he was out of it, enjoyed the benefits of it as a married pastor.

Opposing the Roman church’s central system, Luther organized the church that today bears his name in a decentralized system of synods, loosely aligned in common purpose. He declined to be leader of distant synods set up in his model, and preferred to merely advise them. He successfully laid out theology and catechisms (Large for pastors and teachers and Small for everyone to memorize and learn) for the church’s doctrine and its teaching for all ages. He rewrote the Mass to be a simpler service, a celebration for all ages that allowed for freedom of ceremony within synods and churches. Pastoral care and Christian education were both addressed as well, as he had seen problems with both of these areas in his prior service.

While in Worms, one of the things Luther did to pass his time was to translate the New Testament into German. This was the first time the Scriptures of any kind had been in the language of the people of the land since the fall of Rome to the barbarians. Later, he also worked with Bible scholars to translate the Old Testament, also. His version influenced William Tyndale, who translated the Bible into English, and the translators of the King James Bible, the first authorized English version.

Rascal leaders not being content with the status quo in anything, Luther also wrote hymns for his church. “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is, one might argue, his most famous.

In 1529 to 1531, Luther participated in a series of debates hosted and convoked by Philip I, Landgrave of Hesse, involving doctrinal unity among the emerging Protestant regions. It is out of these debates the Augsburg Confessions arose.

In a war with the Turks, Luther had to deal with the differences between Holy War and secular war. He urged the German people to defend their country on a secular basis. However, he told them it was not a Holy War, and believed the Turks could be left alone in their Islamic faith. He continued in his beliefs until he read a translated copy of the Qur’an.

No leader is perfect, and Martin Luther certainly wasn’t. His writings on the Jews introduced into German thought and culture an anti-Semitic thread that just wasn’t there prior to him. He held them in disdain, and his views on the subject were repudiated by the Lutheran church in the 1980’s.

Luther’s final acts were on behalf of his extended family’s financial interests. The count who ruled over the city of his birth had in mind to take over their means of livelihood, which was the same as their father’s, and Luther stepped in to negotiate. The successful negotiations were barely concluded when he suffered what appears in retrospect to be a series of heart attacks, followed by a major stroke and then shortly after by his death. Just before the stroke, he was asked by his assembled followers and protégées,

“Reverend father, are you ready to die trusting in your Lord Jesus Christ and to confess the doctrine which you have taught in his name?” A distinct “Yes” was Luther’s reply.

The rascal leader Martin Luther died at the age of 62 in the town of his birth. He was buried under the altar of his beloved Wittenberg Cathedral. Later, when the soldiers of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V invaded Saxony, the Emperor strictly instructed his troops not to disturb his grave. He is celebrated in the Calendars of Saints of the Episcopal, Church of England and, of course, Lutheran churches. The final Sunday of October is Reformation Sunday in the Lutheran church, celebrating this leader’s revolutionary 95 Thesis, now from 437 years ago today.

(My thanks to my Lutheran teachings and books, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther for some of the specific details herein!)