2020: In One Word

What one word would you use to sum up 2020? Unexpected? Unsettled? Or perhaps the ever-popular, unprecedented? Is it even possible to condense a year of global pandemic, social unrest, and disaster du jour into one word? As I thought about 2020, the word longing came to mind. We longed for the virus to go away and for life to get back to normal. We longed for restoration from wildfires and hurricanes. We longed for justice, comfort and peace. We longed for joy. And, as evidenced in surges of newcomers attending online church services and of Google searches about “prayer,” we longed for Jesus.

Seemingly in a flash, 2020 dashed to pieces any idea that we were in control. Celebrations that had always marked our lives were suddenly forbidden, or at best went “drive-by” or virtual. Sporting events that had previously knit together our weeknights and weekends took an abrupt time out. Travel once seen as refreshing became not worth the risk. The truth became evident; we were not as in charge as we thought.

Well, it was much the same for God’s people 2000 years ago. They were not in charge, either. They lived under oppression — the oppression of Roman governors and of sin. They longed for restoration. They longed for a better normal life. They longed for justice, comfort and peace. They longed for joy. They longed for Messiah, for someone to save them..

And on a magnificent starry night in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, God sent Light into the dark world, keeping the promise He had hinted at in the Garden of Eden and held out to Abram (who would later be renamed Abraham). The Promised One, the Messiah, the Word made flesh, was born into our world to crush the head of evil, open for us the door of heaven, and usher in His righteous eternal reign. God proved His faithfulness to meet our deepest longing as Jesus, Emmanuel, “God with us,” came to earth — bringing with Him eternal justice, comfort, peace and joy. May you live in and celebrate this reality this Christmas. Joy to the World the Lord is Come!

Bible Verses to Ponder:
And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”  Genesis 3:15

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.   I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”Genesis 12:1,3

1The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. Isaiah 9:1-3, 6-7

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

Grandma’s Gratitude

My grandmother was the most grateful person I’ve ever known. She was easily delighted by a lemon-filled donut, a surprise visit from family, or a photo album chronicling a celebration. I remember her with a smile on her face and joy in her heart. Anyone who met her would never have guessed that she had ever lacked anything, but her past told a different story.

She grew up in a house with dirt floors. Her childhood was marked by hard daily work on the farm, often around large animals that frightened her. Joy and laughter were hard to find, as were brand new clothes or other things often considered necessities today.

After years juggling school and hard work, she married, moved away from the farm and took a job in a dental office. She had three daughters, lost her only son, and weathered by faith almost losing her youngest daughter in another health crisis. Through it all she was not bitter and did not complain. In the old photo albums, she was always smiling in her children’s or grandchildren’s wedding pictures, smiling with a new grandchild or great grandchild in her arms, smiling in someone’s graduation or holiday celebration.

She never had a big house, never took big trips, but she had a big heart and knew how to do a big Thanksgiving. The whole extended family would gather in her small house. All the food went on a long table in the basement. We said grace with people standing throughout her little kitchen, dining room and family room. Then everybody went to the basement and filled their plates with food. Some of us ate in groups upstairs and others were downstairs; her little house was full to overflowing with joy and gratitude.

I think my grandmother overflowed with gratitude because she chose to live in the reality that she didn’t deserve anything…that everything was a gift. When you start with dirt floors, 20-year old carpet under your feet is luxurious. How often does my bitterness, or even jealousy, spring from not having something that I think I should?

We all know our Thanksgiving celebrations this year will look different. All of 2020 has looked pretty different. So I’m trying to approach these holidays like my grandmother would — focusing not on what I don’t have or think I should have — but on everything good that has come into my life. It’s easy to be so distracted by what we think we’re missing that we miss noticing our blessings. May God draw your focus to the people in your life who love you. May He give you this Thanksgiving eyes to see the abundant good He has brought into your life and may He give you a heart that is easily delighted by them!

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

Pre-Election Letter to my Friends

So in our nation, it feels like anxiety and suppressed emotion are building up like steam in an old locomotive engine ahead of the election. Whether spoken or unspoken, it’s as if people are holding their breath waiting to see if their “ideology” or the “enemy ideology” wins the election. If the tension that seems to be floating in the air is any indication, no matter how all the political races end, a whole bunch of people are going to be catastrophically disappointed and a whole bunch of others are going to be happy — I think.

The human temptation (if one ends up on the “winning” side), is to whoop, holler and gloat with excessive celebration. On the other hand, if one ends up on the “losing” side, the temptation is to weep, wail and (according to recent trends) lash out in violent frustration. Some of the pent-up emotion is the result of this grueling election war we have all watched in the media for months. Some is the result of being held hostage by an oppressive pandemic for almost 7 months. Some is the result of personal oppression that has spanned years.

Regardless of the cause, it might be wise of us to anticipate the opening of the emotional flood gates and pray in advance for God to enable all of us to respond to election outcomes with grace, compassion and self-control. If our candidate wins, perhaps we could plan to be sensitive to those around us whose candidate didn’t, guarding our words and Facebook posts? Perhaps if our candidate doesn’t win, we could hold onto the truth that there is NO political leader who is equipped to step in and fix all that is broken in any people group, be it local or national. God already sent the world a Savior and His name is neither Donald nor Joe, but Jesus. He is not hanging around with a physical presence anymore, but the Spirit of Jesus is alive and well — and those of us who claim to follow Him are called to be His hands and feet here. The song says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”

To my friends…Christian or not or unsure…(which include those of widely varying skin color and political ideologies, btw) — I am a sister in Christ and/or friend to you before I am in any way political. After the election dust settles, I will continue working behind the scenes to bring blessing to you where I can. I will continue to pray for you and be a friend to you.

Hoping compassion is contagious…

Available Now: Incomparable Power

In this moment, my heart is full and I’m just sitting at my desk in awe of God. Not because the virus has gone away. (It hasn’t.)  Not because all humanity has figured out how to treat each other with respect, love and kindness. (They haven’t.) Not because all the nations of the world are governed by wise leaders who care first and foremost for the well-being of all their citizens. (We aren’t quite there yet.) My heart is full in this moment because Ephesians 1:18-21 took my eyes off immediate problems and refocused them on “bigger-picture” power…God’s power… available to me and to everyone who follows Jesus.

God’s power displayed through Jesus
To avoid any confusion caused by reading God and Jesus as if they are two different beings, Christians speak of God as one God in three “persons,” for lack of a better word. There is only one God. However, God includes God the Father (planner of creation and of the salvation of believing people), Jesus the Son (the “instrument” used by the Father — such as God’s Word that brought forth all created things and the God-man who died on the cross to save people), and the Holy Spirit (whom I think of as the invisible power of God — hovering over the waters at creation and strengthening Jesus to complete His work on the cross). All three — God, Jesus and Holy Spirit — are fully God and work together in perfect unity.

So back to God’s “bigger-picture” power displayed in Jesus — the Son, who died on the cross.  How strong was that power? Ephesians 1:19-20 speaks of God’s “incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of His mighty strength which He exerted in Christ when He raised Him from the dead.” It’s easy to think of God’s power working to bring Jesus from death to life, which is an amazing, miraculous thing in itself. Yet as big as the chasm between death and life is, Jesus’ real journey and the power that enabled it was even greater.

Starting on the cross, Jesus actually went from a place lower than death and ended up in a place much higher than what we think of as everyday life. Jesus was sinless, unlike regular people. He had never known shame or guilt or the feeling of having messed up and being distant from God, His heavenly Father. Jesus was perfect. That was the point. The wages of sin is death. Sin earns death. Someone had to pay for all the wrong things all people had done (and are doing right now and will do) throughout time, or all people would be doomed to spend eternity apart from the loving God who created them for tender, close relationship with Him. So Jesus went to the cross still in a perfect love relationship with the Father, but there was a moment on the cross where Jesus hit an all-time low — lower than death.

Starting on the cross, Jesus actually went from a place lower than death and ended up in a place much higher than what we think of as life.

It happened in the hours between noon and 3PM. From a thick, physical darkness that covered the land, Jesus cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In that moment, Jesus bore the sin of all humanity. Scripture tells us He “became sin who knew no sin.” All our sin for all time was placed on His shoulders and the holy Father God, who can’t be connected to sin in any way, had to do something drastic. He let His Son suffer eternal punishment for all that sin. A contemporary Christian song says it this way. “How great the pain of searing loss. The Father turns His face away….Behold the man upon the cross. My sin upon His shoulders.” That was the place that was lower than death, separation from the Father. Each person who rejects Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for their sin will still suffer that dreadful, dark separation from God and punishment for their sin forever. But that does not have to be your eternity. Jesus was and is infinite God, not limited by time or space, so He took the full eternal punishment of all who believe in that marked span of time when the Father turned His face away. In that lowest of low moments, Jesus made possible a new eternity for all who believe.

Of course, Jesus didn’t stay in that low place. And He didn’t just come back to continue life on earth as we know it, only to die again like Lazarus, (though Jesus did hang out here for awhile so everyone would know He was alive.) No, that incomparable power of God ultimately brought Jesus to a much higher place as we can see going on in Ephesians 1:20 — “That power…which He exerted in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.” That incomparable power took Jesus from the lowest low of being scorned by God all the way up to God’s throne room! And God does the same for all who believe in Jesus as Savior.

That incomparable power took Jesus from the lowest low of being being scorned by God up to God’s throne room!

God’s power displayed to me
Unlike Jesus, I was not (and still am not) sinless. Aside from being born a sinner like every human, I got really good at doing what I wanted (often opposite of what God wanted) and I even spent years running away from Him. It’s not hard to see that I was separated from God, but even in that low and broken place God still extended protection and help to me. I certainly didn’t deserve it. God just kept pouring out love and grace, like an incredibly patient parent creating and enforcing safe boundaries until the troubled child decides to obey and live in the close, loving relationship for which she was created. I know now that what I was thinking, saying and doing in the days before I turned to Him was all detestable to God. I was familiar with the idea of Jesus dying on the cross, but had decided that I was too busy to care. If I had died during that time, God (who is not only perfectly holy, but perfectly just) would have had no recourse except to send me to eternal punishment because I had chosen not to pay attention and accept the sacrificial gift of Jesus paying for my sins on the cross. That is about as low as it gets.

If I had died during that time, God (who is not only perfectly holy, but perfectly just) would have had no recourse except to send me to eternal punishment because I had decided not to pay attention and accept the sacrificial gift of Jesus paying for my sins on the cross.

ENTER: The incomparable power of God in my life. God didn’t leave me there. He let me fall into crisis so that I would realize how low I really was. My world collapsed as all the things I had wrongly built my life around crumbled. When I finally took my eyes of myself and looked up to Him for help, He was right there — ready to prove that His incomparable power was able to lift me up from the lowest low to the highest high. Suddenly, I saw that the cross was for me. I prayed and confessed my sins and Jesus forgave them. I breathed in the assurance of eternity in Heaven with the God who loved me enough to give His life for me. I felt weight lifted off my shoulders, saw life begin to make sense and discovered that I had a divinely-assigned purpose in living. Talk about going from low to high, but that’s not all.

God’s incomparable power ultimately promises to take all who believe in Jesus as Savior to where Jesus is now, the Father’s very presence. Speaking in past tense because this highest high is such a sure thing, Ephesians 2:6 says, “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with Him in the heavenly realms…” How high is this high? Look at this description from Revelation 21:3-4. “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

THAT is the incomparable power of God, the only power with strength enough to rescue the believer from the lowest pit and sweep him or her up to the highest place, the throne room of Heaven, treasured by holy God, Himself. This incomparable power takes people from the pit to the pinnacle, from an eternity of destruction to an eternity of perfection. My heart is full as I ponder the incomparable power of God available to you and to me. I pray that in this moment your heart is full, too, because you have already called out to Jesus as Lord and are already experiencing the incomparable power of God in your life. If not, it’s not too late. Jesus’ hand is extended to you right now from the throne room of God the Father. Take hold. Ask Him to be your Savior and begin to live in His incomparable power right now. And if Jesus already is your Savior, then look with fresh eyes at His incomparable power at work in you. Call out to Him for help. God is still in the business of “lifting up,” whether from sin or sickness, from crumbling relationships or self-esteem, from fear or feeling too faint to take on the task He has given. When we are weak, He makes us strong with His incomparable power.

Thank You: Small Words for Such Big Sacrifice

On Memorial Day in America, we say, “Thank you,” a lot to our military members and their families. Yet somehow, this common phrase seems inadequate for such an uncommon level of sacrifice. Less than 1% of Americans serve in the armed forces today. How do we express sufficient gratitude to the son who watched his hero leave for war on his own two feet and come home in a wheel chair, or to the bride who does not have her father to walk her down the aisle at all? How do we adequately affirm the soldiers who are still living battles in their minds or the families who support them?

With no exposure to military life at all, I took a job in my 20’s working for a company that provided insurance and financial services to military families. It was an eye-opening experience. As a 20-something, my life focus was doing what I wanted, living where I wanted and pursuing the career I wanted. I wanted to be in control. Suddenly, I discovered a new breed of people, many of whom were my age, who had intentionally given up control of their lives to serve their country. Deployment could take them anywhere on short notice, leaving behind fiancés, spouses, children or aging parents. These men and women signed up to live where someone else told them. They were even prepared to be sent into harm’s way to protect my freedom to do what I wanted, live where I wanted and pursue the career I wanted. What a contrast: sacrifice versus selfishness.

Only later in life as I had a family of my own did I begin to grasp what military members and families sacrifice routinely as they serve apart from each other. I came to understand that the whole family serves and sacrifices. So, for lack of a better phrase, “Thank you.” Thank you for all the missed holiday celebrations, birthdays and even births of sons and daughters. Thank you for trading in your plans, hopes and dreams for the new realities with which many of you came home. Thank you for being one of the military one percenters — men and women of high character — who care more for your fellow Americans than yourself. Thank you to the families of those who did not come home. Thank you, military members and families, for choosing courage instead of cowardice, sacrifice instead of selfishness. I pray that we Americans who enjoy freedom because you fought can find it in our hearts to serve others in our sphere of influence more than ourselves, to pursue the good of our fellow man and woman more than our own greatness. Perhaps living out your legacy of putting others first is a more adequate way for us to say, “Thank you.”

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13)

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)

Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. (1 Corinthians 10:24)