Sufficient Grace

My journey through life in God's grace.

God of Amazing Details

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“You are the Lord, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you.”  Nehemiah 9:6

When God brought Tom and me together, He knew how we would compliment on another. Tom was the analytical, detail person, which served him well as an All-American football player and financial advisor.

I am a big-picture, creative, leave-the-details-to-someone-else personality.

Rarely did we have fights or arguments. Just as rarely did we go grocery shopping together! I learned to leave Tom at the meat counter so his detail-oriented mind could examine the marbling of a steak or analyze which was the better deal on a can of beans by dividing the number of ounces to the penny.  While he was doing that, I was gathering things from the next three aisles into the grocery cart.

When we built our home, Tom drew the plans to give to the architect. After the basement was dug and the actual building began, he turned it over to me. He said, “I can’t make a living and take care of all the day to day details of this project at the same time.”  I still joke today that if it were up to him to have chosen the stain color of the hardwood floors or which kind of door knobs to use, the house still wouldn’t be done today, 22 years later!

God not only gave us complimentary talents, He used us to show each other the dangers and blessings of each viewpoint.

When we would travel, no matter where we were, on the last night Tom would go to the dock or the beach or look out the window and take what he called “a mental snapshot.” He was painting a picture in his mind of all the details of the place.

On the other hand, I was usually crying because the time had flown by too quickly. Too often I hadn’t been present in the moment and missed so much.

On a walk last week with my puppy, Ellie, God showed me that I need to quiet my mind and notice life around me.

God is the ultimate big-picture creator who’s made not only 100 billion galaxies but also the delicate little purple and white violets poking through the leftover fallen oak leaves.

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He created over 25,000 types of orchids yet when I look closely at the ones blooming in my sunroom, I see the intricate patterns and colors that even the most talented human artist couldn’t paint.

He’s dressed the trees in our yard and the whole neighborhood in delicate pink and white spring finery. He’s scented the air outside my kitchen window with my favorite spring scent of lilacs. He’s given the birds songs to sing according to their own kind.

God is the perfect balance of details and wide-angle lens; of love and discipline, of grace and truth.

He calls us to see His awesome vastness and His caring small touches.

The most incredible thing is that this unfathomable Spirit who spoke the entire universe into being knows every hair on my head, every breath I’ve taken since I was born up until my last earthly breath and most amazing of all—loves me as if I were the only thing He ever created.

Not only me, but every person who has ever lived or ever will live on this earth.  He invites us to be awed by His immensity and humbled by His very presence with us each and every step of our life.

He created all of this for His glory and for our enjoyment while we are here on His earth.  And He wants us to experience Him and everything He created in relationship with Him.

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Dear Heavenly Father-You are so awesome! My mind cannot comprehend the billions of galaxies you spoke into being as well as your powerful love for everyone of us.  Thank you for being the creator of the universe and our personal God at the same time. Forgive me for too often missing the details of Your creation or getting too caught up in the minutia to realize Your great power and love. Help me in everything-large and small-to always glorify You.  In Jesus name I pray.  Amen

Breakfast with Jesus

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“When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it and some bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’”  John 21: 9, 12

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Photo courtesy of Timon Wanner on Unsplash

Eating is an important part of our family gatherings, especially with great cooks and our Italian heritage where food is the centerpiece of every celebration. Grandma Barbatti’s handwritten recipes are still used and our grandchildren—the fourth generation—are now doing some of the cooking.

Food offers comfort, like my mother-in-law’s chicken and dumplings. I remember one particularly challenging time several years ago when she was in the hospital for what we all knew would be the last time.  In addition, a friend of ours had attempted suicide. Our emotions were raw and we were tired.  I made a big pot of chicken and dumplings for Tom and me that warmed our tummies and our souls.

So many other great memories of special family times center around food—our crazy July 4th celebrations were everyone pitches in with a meal like homemade spaghetti sauce that has cooked for three days or the traditional Low Country Boil served off newspapers down the middle of the tables; the Thanksgiving feasts with two turkeys, a smoked lamb roast and fixin’s that could feed the whole neighborhood

Food is a symbol of love.

Eating was important in the lives of Jesus and His disciples. The Bible talks often about Jesus eating with friends and acquaintances—Mary and Martha, Peter and his family, Matthew and all of his tax collector friends and “sinners”.

The setting for these verses from the gospel of John take place after Jesus’ resurrection. He had already appeared to His followers several times.  On this occasion, the disciples are out fishing when they see a person cooking on the beach. They don’t recognize Him at first until John says, “It’s the Lord!”

Don’t you love the image of our risen Lord and Savior cooking breakfast for His friends?

One of my favorite miracles of Jesus is the first one when He turns water into wine at a wedding celebration. Our Lord loves fun and celebrations and provides for every detail of the party!

When Jesus teaches His disciples to pray, He says to ask for “our daily bread.” That is our God—He cares for everything in our lives whether it is spiritual, emotional or physical.

Sometimes “religion” tells us that God doesn’t care about the little things in our life like breakfast.  But in the words of Joyce Meyer, “God created the universe. Everything is small to Him!”

Jesus wants us to come to Him.  He wants to care for us.  He wants to fellowshjp with us.

The Bible also talks often of the feast of the Bridegroom that all followers of Jesus will partake of in heaven.  God is preparing that party for you and for me. I can’t wait to see the amazing food that will be at that banquet!

Lord, we thank you for our “daily bread.” We thank you for your fellowship with us that feeds our spirits. We thank you for your sacrifice for our sins that we remember through Holy Communion. Help us to claim all the blessings you have for us and share them with others as we eat together and in every aspect of our daily lives until we can eat the feast with you in heaven! In your holy name we pray Jesus. Amen

Life-changing Hope

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“On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightening stood beside them. In their fright, the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” Luke 24:1-6

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HE IS RISEN! ALLELUIA!

Easter always been the most meaningful holiday for me. When I was young, my sister and I would dye eggs with our dad on Saturday night. It was one of only special traditions we had with him. After the eggs were colored and sitting in their little cardboard ring holders, we went to bed early, really early! At our church, Easter Sunday meant sunrise services at 6:30! But even in my groggy state, I loved that tradition and the yummy Easter breakfast in the church basement afterward.

The church I attend today doesn’t have 6:30 a.m. services, but I still love the beautiful ceremony. A kaleidoscope of colorful spring plants adorn the entire front of the church. Joyful voices accompanied by trumpets and timpani sing praises. Little children are dressed in frilly new Easter dresses and uncomfortable bow ties that moms bribed them into wearing just one day.

But my favorite part is the most powerful best news ever–Christ is Risen!

I’ve always believed this statement, but it has become the foundational truth that guides my life since my husband Tom is now part of the great cloud of witnesses waiting for me in heaven with Jesus.

Jesus’ closest followers had lived with Him for three years. They left all they had to follow Him. On that terrible night in the Garden of Gethsemane, they all fled. I know I would have as well if I were faced with the fear and threats they experienced.

Those who stayed watched their best friend and teacher, the one who claimed to be the Messiah, die a horrible, gruesome death on the cross.

The disciples and followers of Jesus were crushed. They wept. They grieved. They were confused and in shock.

And they were afraid. They hid behind locked doors. Their leader was gone and there was no one stepping forward to take His place or to help them regroup.

Death sucks. There’s no other way to describe it. It’s touched my life deeply. It’s touched many of yours. I’ve cried tears to the point of exhaustion. I’ve woken every morning wondering what day it is and if it’s still a nightmare that Tom is gone. I’ve been overwhelmed at times and confused about what to do.

But I’m not afraid. Because even though the disciples were hiding and mourning behind closed doors, the most amazing thing happened: Jesus, their friend and leader suddenly appeared with them!

A few days later He appeared to them again and this time said something to them with us in His heart. “A week later His disciples were in the house again and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then He said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’ Thomas said to Him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen, you believe. Blessed are those who have not seen, yet believe.'” John 20:26-29

That’s us! Jesus looked all the way 2,000 years into the future and spoke these words for us!

Jesus saving hand reaching for the faithful

Several weeks after the resurrection, these same disciples who were lost and terrified and locked behind closed doors were boldly walking the streets of Jerusalem proclaiming the Good News that Jesus rose from the dead and was alive! They faced those who had put Him to death at the risk of flogging, imprisonment, even death to be witnesses to the truth of what they saw–a risen Christ. The rest of their lives they lived led by this great truth. Everyone who knew them couldn’t deny the change in them.

John Eldridge in his book, “All Things New” says, “If it is anything at all worth talking about, Christianity is supposed to be the triumphant entry of an astonishing hope breaking into human history. A hope above and beyond all former hopes. An unbreakable, unquenchable hope.”  He goes on to say that because Jesus rose from the dead, as His followers, our lives never end.  “If you woke each morning and your heart leapt with hope, knowing that the renewal of all things was just around the corner—might even come today—you would be one happy person! If you knew in every fiber of your being that nothing is lost, that everything will be restored to you and then some, you would be armored against discouragement and despair. If your heart’s imagination were filled with rich expectations of all the goodness coming to you, your confidence would be contagious; you would be unstoppable, revolutionary.”

1 Peter 1:3 also declares, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In His great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.”

One of my favorite Easter anthems, “Now all the Vault of Heaven Resounds,” declares “Oh fill us Lord with dauntless love! Set hearts and wills on things above, that we conquer through your triumph! Grant grace sufficient for life’s day that by our lives we truly say, ‘Christ has triumphed! He is living!'”

Shouldn’t the world notice a difference in us if we believe this?

The disciples couldn’t do what they did alone. Only the Power that raised Jesus from the dead could create this change when it came into them. I can’t do it alone either. If it was up to me and my strength, I’d have wasted away in bed a long time ago.

I still grieve and miss Tom, but I am totally confident that he is ALIVE with the risen and living Lord! And we will be together again with Jesus forever! What a wonderful promise and hope!

Heavenly Father–I praise and glorify You for Your incredible love and grace that, because You longed for us to be in relationship with You so badly, You sacrificed Your only Son to pay the price for our sin. Fill us with the Holy Spirit so that the world can see by our lives that we believe this great and awesome truth–that Jesus is Risen! He is alive! Help us to receive Your peace, boldness and unending joy. In His Risen name. Amen.

 

Strawberries

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“But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.'” 1 Samuel 16:7

I am NOT a fan of Iowa winters. The cold is bad enough, but days without sunshine make me sad. The color of the world seems to fade to nothing but grayness. My skin dries out and gets itchy and my fingers crack and make me just plain crabby.

The last straw is trying to push a grocery cart through the snow and slush of the parking lot! Arrgghh!

For many winters, Tom and I were blessed to escape the dreary, frigid weather and mountains of snow in the Midwest for the balmy palm trees and ocean breezes of Florida. On a boat in the blue waters of the Atlantic I discovered I was made for shorts and flip flops! Far better than mittens and snow boots.

Even grocery shopping was a more pleasant experience–the parking lot at Publix was never aggravating.

It might sound strange, but grocery stores in Florida, as well as Farmer’s Markets, were some of my favorite places. The variety of fruits and veggies and exotic, colorful flowers–orange and purple Bird of Paradise, scarlet Bromeliads and yellow and pink orchids–make me pause at the wonder of our Lord’s creativity and artistic talent.

One of my favorite treats from the markets are red, ripe strawberries. They are full of flavor and so juicy I need a napkin to wipe my face! The strawberries I buy in the winter in Iowa look pretty–big and red with perfect green tops–but when I bite into them, they are disappointingly tasteless and dry.

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Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

I wonder if this is how Jesus sees my life sometimes?

Andy Stanley has a series called “Christian”. He talks about how few times this word is used in the Bible-only three or four. Jesus doesn’t ask us to be “Christians”, he asks us the be His disciples. “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you shall love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34-35

Andy Stanley teaches that the word “Christian” has a very broad definition. “Disciple” is very narrow with specific expectations. Many people identify themselves as Christian. Far fewer consider ourselves true disciples or live by the qualifications of discipleship.

Too many times when I examine my life, I look good on the outside. I’m mostly kind and friendly. I wear my cross necklace. I go to church and Bible study and serve others.

But what is Jesus seeing in my heart? The selfishness? The pride? The jealously and self-righteousness? Am I really loving everyone I encounter as Jesus does?

I’m afraid that I am like the strawberries that are bright red and pretty on the outside but dry and flavorless on the inside, just like those that deceive and disappoint in northern supermarkets in the winter.

Am I living too often as just a Christian? Or am I striving through the Holy Spirit to be a true disciple?

None of us can do this on our own, nor does anyone achieve perfect status. The Holy Spirit is the only one who can “ripen” us on the inside. The world and its trappings can make us attractive on a superficial level but only a relationship with Jesus can give us rich fullness in our souls.

The first step in becoming more of a true disciple is recognizing how dry and empty we are inside no matter what our lives look like on the outside. Then we can ask the “Master Farmer” Holy Spirit to fill us with the Living Water so that our spirits might be full and rich for Jesus.

I want to be a rich, ripe, juicy strawberry inside for Jesus!

Jesus help me to be more like you every day. Send me your Holy Spirit to fill my heart and keep my eyes on you and our permanent home in heaven. Help me to become more and more a disciple of yours so that Your light shines in me and through me to everyone I encounter. In your name I pray. Amen.

Happy new year!

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“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you.” Deuteronomy 31:6

 

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Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind.

This line from the popular New Year’s Eve song always bothered me. Why would I want to forget old acquaintances? It makes more sense in the literal translation, “old days gone by.” Looking back on the years of my life, each one has its share of good days gone by as well as not-so-good days gone by.

Last year was no exception. There were days I would happily forget, packing them in a box and putting them on the top shelf of the closet.  Even if I could, I wouldn’t want to wipe all of last year from my memory. Like life itself, there were many good days sprinkled in with the challenges.

Reflecting on 2018, there were many reasons and occasions to celebrate. I was blessed to travel to Copenhagen with my step-daughter to visit family. The trip to Israel last summer was life-changing. I made many new acquaintances throughout 2018, some of whom turned into good friends. There were new marriages celebrated and a new great niece born.

Even the tough days grew my faith and resilience and reliance on God. I’m still learning to recreate my life without Tom’s physical presence.  Life after sending a loved one home to the Lord is like a beautiful vase that has fallen to the floor and shattered. God picks up the pieces and puts them back together, but we are never the same. There will always be cracks and evidence of something having been before.

But God is with me. He was with me every minute of 2018 and will be with me every step of 2019.  We grow most in times of trials and challenges because we are reminded daily of our dependence on and need for Jesus.

The anticipation of a new year brings mixed emotions. Some of you are in that same season as I am having sent loved ones home to Jesus or had other challenging changes the past year.  I know several people who have loved ones on the verge of death right now.

When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I always had a good cry on New Year’s Day. Sometimes it was for the good times that had gone too fast. Sometimes it was fear of what the new year might bring. I was always particularly anxious about losing loved ones or friends.

As I look back on those years, I find it strange. I knew God and trusted Him. But I knew I wasn’t in control of everything in my life. I would let anxiety take hold of my thoughts and emotions believing any great earthly loss or heartbreak would leave me crushed.

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Since then, God has drawn me closer to Him and strengthened my faith and reliance on Him.  He was with me when a dear friend went to heaven in 2013 after battling ovarian cancer. He gave me strength when my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and died in 2015.  He has carried me through the days and long nights when my dear husband was diagnosed in 2012 with pancreatic cancer that began a long, yet blessed journey of four and a half years before he also went to be with Jesus.

What will 2019 bring?  None of us know for sure. There will be joys–weddings, new babies, fun times with friends–as well as hard times–difficult diagnosis, continued political upheaval, personal loss.

The Lord doesn’t promise us a life of ease and comfort. In fact, Jesus warns His followers, “in this world you will have trouble.” But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He says “take heart! I have overcome this world!”  That’s a promise we can all believe.

And no matter what the year ahead brings, God is already there. He already knows our story and the good days and the challenges that lay before each of us.

God is above and outside of time. He is sovereign. No matter how bad things get this year, His will is still going to be accomplished in His perfect timing. He tells us to trust Him and the light He shines on our path.

Will you choose to trust and live each day as if it was the only one you have? Because it is.

Heavenly Father–thank you that You promise to be with us every minute of our lives. Thank you for so many good days and blessings and thank you that in the challenges and hard times, You draw us closer to You. Help us in this new year to always seek Your face and to show Your light and love through our lives to the world that needs You so much. In Jesus name. Amen.

What Israel Taught Me About Christmas

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But you Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from old, from ancient times.” Micah 5:2

Being raised in the church, I have always appreciated the sacrifice Jesus made for me at the cross. Until my trip to Israel this past summer, though, I never truly understood the significance of what Jesus gave up to come to earth in such humility out of absolute love for me.

Bethlehem is portrayed in Christmas carols and on cards as a quaint, pretty little hillside village.

At the risk of spoiling your Christmas visions, it’s not quaint or pretty. It is on a hillside.

Bethlehem is only a few miles from Jerusalem, but today there are some challenges in getting from one place to the other. Visitors from Israel wanting to go to the birth town of Jesus are required to pass through checkpoints complete with barbed wire and young military men and women carrying machine guns.

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It’s not exactly the picture of a silent and holy night. But that is reality in the West Bank today.

Our tour group visited the Church of the Nativity. This huge, ornate cathedral is built above and around the small cave where it is believed the king of kings was born. The accuracy of the location is up for discussion depending on whom you ask. Our tour guide was Greek Orthodox, therefore in his mind this is the real place. The Church of the Nativity is cared for by all of the Orthodox religions as well as the Catholic Church.

According to their tradition, this spot was the earliest place recognized as the birth place of Jesus, perhaps even told to the disciples by Mary herself. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Romans built a pagan temple over the spot to keep pilgrims from coming to worship.

Many years later when Constantine sent his mother Helene to Israel to reestablish the Christian holy places, the faithful pointed out this spot because of the pagan temple.

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Many of our “western” traditions surrounding the birth of Jesus aren’t culturally accurate. The Greek word for “inn” probably is more closely translated as a guest room in a home. In those days it was very common for animals owned by families to be brought into a part of the home or in a section attached to the home at the back or under the main living quarters. It was most likely a cave, rather than a barn where sheep were kept.

While this may change the way we look at our Nativity sets, it doesn’t take away from the humble circumstances of the birth of our Savior.

Jesus was and is and will always be God Incarnate. Imagine the most luxurious, pampered palace on earth and multiple that by 1,000. That would only begin to give us an idea of heaven that Jesus left to come to earth. And He wasn’t born to royalty or even wealthy or well-respected parents. He humbled himself to be born to peasants, as an infant, in a cave.

One speaker I heard not long ago put this in perspective–just being a baby with poopy diapers is about as humble as anyone can get!

In preparation for our trip I read Kathie Lee Gifford’s book “The Road, The Rock and the Rabbi”. Messianic Rabbi Jason Sobel co-authored the book and offers more historical and cultural insights. The shepherds who were watching the sheep were most likely guarding sacrificial lambs. These special lambs had to be protected from injuring themselves so they could be unblemished for sacrifice. Shepherds would use clothes to wrap the lambs. These clothes usually came from old robes that had been worn by priests.

These details add to the symbolism of Jesus, our sacrificial, unblemished lamb who became our high priest.

The fields where angels appeared to the shepherds could have most likely belonged to Boaz, the Old Testament ancestor of Jesus, where Ruth gleaned. Boaz was a relative redeemer to Ruth and Naomi and the great-grandfather of King David. In the same way, Jesus became our relative redeemer.

In another part of the Church of the Nativity is an altar to The Innocents, those children who were murdered by King Herod after the birth ofJesus. This is a reminder of the struggle between good and evil, the reason for Jesus coming to earth.

All that I saw and learned in Bethlehem shows how much God loves me and you, that Jesus left splendor of heaven and His righteousness not only to die for us but to be humbled in the lowliest of births with no place to lay his head in birth or later in life.

It truly is amazing grace and unbelievable love.

Dear Jesus–thank you for loving us so much that you were willing to leave the splendor of heaven to come to our dark and fallen world. Help us to carry the spirit of Christmas love and joy with us every day of the year and to shine Your light brightly in our world until you return again in glory. In your name we ask these things. Amen.

Joy > Happiness

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“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people.”  Luke 2:10

When the angel came to the shepherds, the first thing he said was “Don’t be afraid.” That always seems to be the first thing angels say throughout the Bible!

Then the angel said to the shepherds, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy.”

Shepherds were the lowest on the class totem pole in Israel. Because they worked with animals, they were considered “ceremonially unclean” to enter the temple. They lived in the fields and caves with the sheep. (Have you ever smelled sheep? And no hot showers available in a cave? That might be another reason they were shunned by common folk!)  They may have wondered what could bring them great joy and why were they singled out for this message?

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The angel Gabriel also said to Mary, “Don’t be afraid.”  Then he said, “You have found favor with God.” Notice he didn’t say “favor that will make your life amazing and easy.” He didn’t show up with a balloon bouquet from the prize patrol.

We know that Mary’s life wasn’t easy. She may have had happy moments but the circumstances of Jesus’ birth and life could not have been conducive to happiness for His mother. Being pregnant before she and Joseph were married was a dangerous position in which to be. It could have cost her her life.  Seeing Jesus hated and shunned by the Pharisees and rejected by the people of His own hometown of Nazareth had to be heartbreaking. And then to be at the foot of His cross watching His suffering, wondering why, if He was God’s Son, God didn’t save Him?  That would have been almost more than any mother could bear.

But we know that Mary did have great joy.

Happiness is different than joy. Happiness is dependent on our circumstances. It’s superficial. Joy is deeper than happiness. We can be filled with joy in spite of our circumstances. Mary was filled with joy in spite of being an unwed mom and giving birth in a cave. The shepherds also rejoiced after the angel’s message and went to see the baby Jesus.

I am blessed to witness this type of joy twice each month. My golden doodle, Ellie and I visit the residents at Country View county home every other week. Ellie enjoys our visits because she gets lots of petting and treats. The residents love the visits because she brings them joy

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Many of the residents have extreme physical challenges–amputations, lack of mobility and other hardships. Mental illness is common. All of their earthly possessions are housed in an area smaller than my master bathroom.

Yet, I see joy when we visit.

Not long ago one of our friends at Country View was sitting in the lobby talking to another resident when we walked in. With a loud squeal of delight, her arms flew around my puppy’s neck and she buried her face in Ellie’s soft fur. She repeated over and over in a muffled voice, “I love you Ellie!” When she finally looked up, a wide smile spread across her face and her eyes sparkled.

She told the activities person who was with us, “I was having a bad day, but now Ellie has changed my day!”

Nothing else had changed. She was still in the same living situation. Her mental and physical disadvantages were still part of her life.

She recognized the difference between happiness and joy.

Do we recognize this difference? Are we chasing material things and less-than-satisfying relationships for our happiness?

Only a relationship with Jesus can bring us true joy. His spirit allows us to persevere through difficult circumstances, not with happiness, but with peace and the joy that Mary experienced knowing her son who was also her savior.

Heavenly Father, thank you for sending your son Jesus to earth so that we can experience true joy that only comes from walking through life with Him. Help us to reflect the joy of your birth and life and resurrection in our lives, not just at Christmas, but every day of the year.  Amen.

 

Christmas Preparations

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“The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way—a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for Him.’”  Mark 1:1-3

It’s not “beginning to look a lot like Christmas” at my house.  The only evidence of the approaching holiday is a new Christmas magnet on the fridge along side a beautifully hand-cut red snowflake given to me by a friend’s 5-year-old son.

Several circumstances contributed to this delay.  I had great intentions last weekend to get started decorating, but ended up nursing a nasty cold. Tomorrow I leave for a short trip/long weekend to visit dear friends. The new kitty, who obviously doesn’t understand the phrase “curiosity killed the cat,” is creating new challenges!

Frankly, decorating for Christmas is not nearly as heartwarming when the one who shared appreciation of it the most isn’t here.IMG_2189

Don’t worry. I’ll get it done! I’ll figure out how to keep the cat from climbing the trunk of the tree and knocking it over. And on Christmas Eve when the kids and grandgirls come, the house will look like Christmas.

Because of all these things delaying the outward preparations for Christmas, God is helping me find time and space to focus on the spiritual preparations for Christmas this year, to experience a true Advent season.

One of the definitions of the word “Advent” by Merriam Webster is “the arrival of a notable person, thing or event.”

In our secular culture, this definition certainly describes our frantic preparations for all things Christmas. We decorate our homes. We bake goodies. We shop for and wrap presents. We prepare meals and rooms for visiting family.

Advent in the Christian tradition involves a preparation of a different sort. It requires a bit of a history lesson to understand the meaning of Advent.

God had promised a Messiah or savior since the beginning of time all the way back to when sin first broke the relationship between Him and His children. He assured all the people throughout the Old Testament of this coming event and special person for centuries. He sent prophets to remind the people of this excitement.

But like many of us today, the people lost interest. They became bored or got distracted. Some gave up hope that the promise would ever be fulfilled. They stopped looking for signs.  They stopped telling their children and grandchildren about the special pledge God made with their ancestors.  The prophets even stopped telling the people the stories about the promise. God stopped talking to the people all together.  No one heard anything for four hundred years about God’s Messiah.

There were some people who remembered the Promise. They still had hope. They passed the stories along to their children and grandchildren. Others studied the signs in the heavens and the stars.

Then when the time and circumstances were absolutely perfect, God fulfilled His promise, and the long-awaited Messiah of the world was finally born–quietly and unexpectedly.

Just like the promise God made centuries ago to bring a Messiah to earth came true in Jesus’ birth, His promise to return and reign forever will be fulfilled also in His perfect time.

How many of us today believe God’s promise or even look forward to the time of His second coming?

Even if we do know the Christmas story, do we put as much time and consideration into preparing our hearts and minds for the celebration of Jesus’ birth as we do into our secular and family celebrations?

For me, there is always a let-down after the holidays. It’s more fun to put up the decorations rather than take them down.  Many times, our expectations of the “perfect” Christmas don’t ever quite live up to the reality. The gift wasn’t the right size.  Or our family didn’t make it through Christmas dinner without the same old arguments and resentments showing up.  Or the celebration was fine, but the “empty chair” where a loved one sat still breaks our hearts.

This longing in our hearts can’t be completely covered up by our busyness or culture’s glitz and glamour of the “perfect Christmas” that we see on the Hallmark channel.

Scripture shows us how we can prepare our lives to receive Jesus fully this Christmas.

David, the greatest king of all time, prayed a humble prayer. “Create in me a clean heart, Oh God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation and uphold me with thy free spirit.” Psalm 51:10-12

Wouldn’t this be the greatest gift we could ever request? Who of us couldn’t use a clean heart and a right spirit in this time of divisiveness and lack of civility?  And I can always use a little more joy in my day!

This gift isn’t hard to receive. It only takes intentional focus on our part in these ways:

  • By setting aside quiet time for devotions or reflections on His word.
  • By making space in our busy schedules to remember the true meaning of the season.
  • By sharing love and joy and hope with family and friends and others who are less blessed than us.

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Jesus is the only cure for the hole in our hearts and the aching in our soul for perfect love, joy and peace.  He is the long-promised Messiah.  He left the glory of heaven out of love for us to come to earth, not only to provide a way of salvation, but to give us hope for today and peace that surpasses all human understanding.

This is my prayer for all of us this year—that our hearts would be prepared to receive the greatest gift of Christmas, that the Babe of Bethlehem would come into our hearts and make His home within us today and all throughout the coming year.

Lord Jesus, thank you that you left the awesomeness of heaven to come to this dark and fallen earth, not as a worldly king, but as a humble, small baby so that you could live a life like us and relate to everything we experience as humans to be able to comfort us.  Help us, Lord, to set aside time everyday from now until Christmas day so that our hearts can be ready to truly celebrate and fully accept the best gift we can ever imagine—the gift of your life for us!  In your name we pray.  Amen

 

Heavenly Minded

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“Now we do not want you to be uninformed, believers, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you will not grieve for them as others do who have no hope beyond this present life.” 1 Thessalonians 4:13 AMPC

It’s amazing how heavenly minded you become when someone you love dearly is there.

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God has turned my heart and mind more and more towards heaven and away from this earthly life these past two years. Grief is an unavoidable journey. If you haven’t experienced it yet, you most likely will. Few of us get through this life without being touched in some way by grief.

No one can know what it’s like unless you have walked the path and even then, every experience is different. I have offered apologies to friends for not being as supportive as I could have been in their time of mourning.

Grief isn’t a season that passes. It’s a new way of life. I would imagine it’s a bit like having a limb amputated. You have to adjust to an entirely different way of living every day knowing your old life is gone and can’t return. It’s not about wanting sympathy or pity, but simply acknowledgment that life won’t ever be the same for those of us who’ve undergone this life passage.

A year ago I wrote in a paper for a class I took in which I shared, “I am not suicidal. However, if God calls me home, I am ready to go.” Our world is lost and hurting and so divided. Why wouldn’t any believer long to be in heaven?

But God has left me here in this world to help accomplish His kingdom work. I know He has a purpose for me. His good news isn’t received by all yet. So I mentor and study His word and pray for friends and family. God offers me and all believers strength and hope for our time on earth.

As believers in Christ, we are called, as Paul says, to grieve “not as those who have no hope beyond this present life.” The hope of eternity through Jesus isn’t the same as the definition this world and our culture gives hope. It’s not “I sure hope my team wins this weekend” or “I sure hope I get that new job.” Hope in Jesus is complete assurance that heaven is waiting for us if we have accepted His gift of grace and salvation.

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I know this to be true in my heart and soul. If I would have had to depend on my own strength these past two years, I would have curled up in a sobbing heap long ago. I never would have imagined I could live without Tom. But God restored Tom’s faith in Jesus and brought him to His heaven. God continues to strengthen me and grow my faith and draw me closer to himself as well.

The past two years I’ve also seen how words and scriptures take on new meaning in this phase of life. The phrase in the Apostle’s Creed “I believe in the communion of saints” means so much more when you know one of those saints. I also take strength and comfort knowing Tom is among the “great cloud of witnesses” surrounding me and cheering me on from heaven. (Hebrews 12:1)

This isn’t to say I don’t have hard moments or don’t miss Tom. I certainly do, and once in a while I will have a good old pity party. Then I am reminded of the words to the Easter anthem, “Now All the Vault of Heaven Resounds”, that say, “grant grace sufficient for each day, that by our lives we truly say, Christ has triumphed. He is living!”

Jesus is alive! God has a plan and a purpose for all of us. I don’t know how many more days the Lord has for me here on this earth. However long that is, I trust Him. I will continue to live out of His strength and grace and anticipate the day I am home with Jesus and reunited with Tom for eternity.

Heavenly Father–thank you that through the sacrifice and resurrection of your son Jesus, we have complete and total hope and assurance of eternal life. Help us to live each day by your sufficient grace so that our lives say “Christ is alive!” Give us strength to not mourn as those who have no hope beyond this life. Give us boldness to proclaim your love and the Good News to every heart that hasn’t accepted your gift. We ask this all for your glory and in Jesus name. Amen.

Jesus Interruptions

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“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Romans 15:5-6

I had great intentions today.

My one morning meeting got canceled, so I dropped Ellie at doggy daycare. I had my iPad and notebook, which is still my preferred method of writing. My blog needed a new post for all of you new and longer-term followers. (Thank you!) A devotional writing project has been tugging at my heart also. Maybe today could be the start of that project.

I headed to the library to find a quiet corner.

On the way…

A dear friend and business partner of Tom’s called for some heartfelt conversation and encouragement. After talking about twenty minutes, I walked towards the library where I saw an acquaintance from church whom I hadn’t seen in a while. His wife went to heaven a few years ago so we visited about our commonality of life these days.

As I found a table upstairs by the window, later than anticipated, I opened my iPad and realized I needed to reply to several emails for a volunteer project for Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Arrggghh!

Sometimes I feel so ineffective. Those great intentions get waylaid so easily. Satan certainly uses subtle distractions to pull us off task.

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But were these from Satan?

Jesus was interrupted often during His work on earth. The Bible shows us many of these unplanned events.  In Matthew 9, Jesus has just invited Matthew to follow Him. They’re at Matthew’s house eating dinner when the Pharisees interrupted the disciples with questions.

In Mark 5, Jesus has just driven a legion of demons out of a man and is on His way back to town when a leader of the synagogue falls before Him pleading for healing for his daughter. Jesus starts to go with this man when a woman with an issue of blood comes from behind and touches His garments and is healed. Jesus stops to acknowledge her. Verse 35 of Mark 5 says, “while Jesus was still speaking…” a servant from the leader’s house steps in to say the little girl is dead. But instead of going back to His original plans, Jesus tells the man, “Do not be afraid. Only believe,” and continues on His way to the leader’s house.

In Luke 5 we see Jesus teaching in a crowded house when the roof above Him literally comes off and a paralyzed man is lowered down right in front of Him. Jesus isn’t even phased. He issues forgiveness to the man and heals him.

Even in His darkest hours in the garden of Gethsemane when Peter cuts off the ear of the Roman soldier, Jesus heals him. (Luke 22:51)

Were these interruptions sent by Satan to keep Jesus from doing His father’s work?  Or were they the Father’s work?

Jesus knew the difference between distractions sent by Satan and work put in His path by His Heavenly Father. His earthly ministry was only three years long, but He accomplished more in those years than I can even dream of getting done in the same time. He impacted more people in three years than any politician or business person before or since.  His love and grace has outlasted the best marketing campaign ever waged.

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I pray that I can be as discerning about what’s important. I pray that Jesus will give me wisdom to see opportunities to share His love as just that–opportunities, not interruptions. I pray God will give me grace to pay attention and be willing to heed His work and will over my plans when my intentions get waylaid.

Jesus, thank you for your example of grace and patience that you lived out on earth. Give me wisdom to acknowledge people and opportunities you place in my path. Help me to recognize each person who crosses my path every day as someone you love just as much as you love me. Give me discernment to know your will versus the distractions of Satan. Help me to come to you to listen for your guidance every day of my life. Amen.