When it’s not all merry and bright

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My cell phone jingled with the notification of a text: “Can you play for a funeral on Saturday?”

It is my only day this week with nothing scheduled. I respond, “If you need me.” What a silly response. Of course I’m needed or otherwise I would not have been asked. I say “yes” because this is the gift I can offer.

Just because it’s December with Christmas around the corner, we are not immune to heartache. Death does not take a holiday. More email brings announcements confirming it.

I remember back to other years, other people, other funerals. Other sorrows.

I ache at the thought of families enduring heartbreak at the time of year when so many celebrate with gusto. Children are excited at the prospect of their wish lists showing up under the tree. Holiday parties fill calendars. Family gatherings are planned and anticipated. Preparation for out-of-town relatives is a labor of love as we look forward to being together once again.

If only it were all so merry and bright. We kid ourselves if we think it is.

For some it is not: a couple facing Christmas for the first time without a beloved granddaughter at their family table; a woman whose mother died in December and the anniversary brings poignant memories; a friend who is learning to live in the unknown of a diagnoses that is terminal.

Others deal with their own sicknesses and disabilities. Caregivers carry responsibilities that drain the life from them some days. A husband and wife wonder about a job that may be ending and an uncertain year ahead. Bills stack high on the desk as funds dwindle low. Families are divided for one reason or another. Plans we made for a joyful season implode when the unexpected report crushes them.

Life can be hard even at Christmas time.

The good news is Jesus. Jesus is Christmas. Plain and simple. He is the One and only reason for any kind of celebration.

God’s plan was formed before the foundations of the earth were laid, and He planned for Christ to come for us.

Jesus birth was not haphazard but detailed in every possible way. In the fullness of time, the eternal blueprint began to take shape exactly as the grand Architect designed it.

Jesus came for just such a time as this, to give us unspeakable joy and to share in our inconceivable sadness. His name is Emanuel, God with us. He is the Comforter, the Sustainer and Provider, the Friend of sinners, the Way to the Father, the open Door to forgiveness and freedom, the Wisdom and Power of God.

He is Wonderful. Counselor. Mighty God. Everlasting Father. Prince of Peace.

He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end of it all. Period.

Who else offers this kind of relationship, who invites us to cast our burdens upon Himself, who bore our sins – all of our sins – on a cross and rose from the dead to assure us of an eternal home in the Heavens?

The circumstances of our lives do not dictate the celebration of Christmas. If we are expecting the picture-perfect magazine layout, where everything and everyone looks great, to be hour holiday experience, we will be disappointed every single time.

But if we are looking for a Baby in a manger, a Child who embodies the very presence of Almighty God, we will find Him. He came to be one of us. He invites us to come to the celebration of real life.

There is cause for celebration this December. It is Jesus. 

The tinsel and lights may droop. The presents under the tree might be scarce. The family get-together could be somewhat dysfunctional. The cookies might burn in the oven. The hospital corridor may be familiar ground. There may be the sound a funeral song in the distance.

Do not be dismayed. Do not fear. Do not lose hope. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.

He is the reason for this season of celebration. Let us rejoice with exceeding great joy!

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When we wait for the glory

I’ve had some prayer requests that turned out differently than I planned. And I have prayers for which I am still waiting to see the answers come to pass. Perhaps you have too.

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Zachariah and Elizabeth, characters in the Nativity story, would have understood. Luke’s gospel introduces us to them.

” . . . there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.”

These were people who followed God, exemplary in keeping the regulations given by Moses to the people. They had intrigty. It would seem they would have been rewarded for such dedication.

Instead, they were childless. And children were the reward, the heritage of a family who was blessed to have “their quiver full.”

Elizabeth’s fertility problem had affected them both. There were the years of hoping this month there would be a delay in her cycle. Disappointment met them again and again.

Heartbreak and grief were Elizabeth’s companions. Not only were her own desires unfulfilled, she was unable to give her husband an heir. And then there were the implications, the remarks whispered among the family, the community, their Levitical tribe. Comments perhaps like, “They appear to follow the law, but why is she barren?” While Elizabeth probably tried to carry herself with dignity, walking with her head held high, her heart must have been broken by the weight of not having the one thing she desired: a child. It was the one prayer she kept repeating.

She had given up long ago. She was old now, her childbearing years well past, and this was her life. The sadness still lingered. Her hopes were dashed. She would go to her grave with her prayer unanswered.

Sometimes we have to wait for the glory.

Zachariah was appointed to his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enter the Holy Place to offer incense at the time of prayer. How many times had Zachariah prayed for a child, a son to carry on his name and the priestly duties. When did he give up on that hope?

As he offered the incense on the Golden Altar, Zachariah was greeted by the angel Gabriel and told his prayer had been heard. I wonder if Zachariah thought “Which prayer?” The prayer for a son, the one he had presented to God over and over, remained unanswered and it was now years too late.

It is never too late with God.

There is no evidence that Zachariah told anyone of his vision. The people waiting for him outside the Holy Place simply recognized something significant had happened because he was unable to speak. But surely he managed to share some of the angel’s message with his wife, that they were to have a child in their old age. What in the world went through their minds?

It was impossible. But with God nothing is impossible.

I wonder how Elizabeth knew she was pregnant. There were no quick drugstore pregnancy tests or doctor visits. The monthly period had ended years ago so no early physical sign would give a clue. What would be her first indication that there was indeed a new life growing inside of her?

Did she believe immediately with her heart that the angel’s words were true? Or did her struggle with her faith like Zachariah? Did she fast and pray one more time for the child she longed to hold? Did she read Scripture and renew her hope in a God who hears prayers and answers?

Luke tells us Elizabeth hid herself away for five months. As she experienced morning sickness and a growing baby bump, the extreme tiredness that accompanies pregnancy in the first trimester, did she recognize the symptoms she had seen in other women? Did her faith grow as her body changed and rounded and began to show evidence of God’s word being fulfilled?

Those who have experienced the heartbreak of infertility can feel Elizabeth’s pain and longing all those years. Imagine the joy she experienced in the reality of God’s promise coming true before her very eyes.

I love the part of the story when Mary, pregnant yet unwed, came to Zachariah and Eliazabeth’s home. At Mary’s greeting Elizabeth’s baby leaped in her womb. The aged form of God’s faithful servant experienced the power of the Holy Spirit as had her young companion. These two women had a lot to talk about.

Zachariah and Elizabeth’s baby was always in God’s plan. They just didn’t understand the plan or the timing. This baby had a special purpose, to prepare the way for a Savior who is Christ the Lord. He would be neither early or late but right on time.

Sometimes we have to wait for the greater glory. Our prayers seem to go unanswered, even unheard. And we wonder where God is. We wonder what is keeping our petitions from coming to pass. We wonder.

And yet there is wonderful glory ahead. The purpose God has for each of us will be fulfilled in His time, not ours. But His word is true; His promises are sure. And He can be trusted with our prayers and our lives.

In the waiting we will see the greater glory.

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Christmas grace

I remember becoming engaged. The excitement of it. Showing off the ring. Gathering my trousseau. Conversations with my mother that only women understand. The look on Sweet William’s face.

It was a time of anticipation, and my dream of becoming a wife and then later a mother was coming true. And that is what I had wanted since I was a little girl playing with my dolls and setting up my pretend house.

Did Mary feel the same?

Matthew 1:13 tell us Mary was engaged to be married to Joseph.

Her situation was similar yet different. In first century A.D. marriages were arranged by the parents. Mary didn’t get to “fall in love” or “find her soul mate.”  A contract was drawn up and covenant confirmed by both families. It was done.

Marriage was the hoped for dream of a young Jewish woman, to have a husband to take care of her and provide a home for her. And they would pray for children. Mary would expect to bear a child.

Neither Mary nor I had any idea what the future would bring.

None of us ever do. We dream, make plans, follow through with our promises, and begin walking out the life we hoped for, the perfect little white cottage with the picket fence and a life of happiness.

The unfolding of our days never plays out exactly like that.

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways.”
This is the Lord’s declaration. “For as heaven is higher than earth,
so My ways are higher than your ways, “

God’s plan is so much loftier, elevated, immense, huge. It is deeper than we can fathom. It is wider than our minds can comprehend

Mary expected a normal Jewish life, the way she had seen it lived out in her mother, her aunts, and the women of her community.

But God had grander things in His infinite mind. Plans that would take Mary on a journey she never could have imagined. Plans that would embrace a world in need of a Savior.

God’s plans for me have been surprising, unexpected, even unwelcome by my limited viewpoint. While I hoped for a flower-strewn pathway, the road has often been rough and rocky, an uphill climb, a test of endurance.

I am comforted by the promises made to Mary by the angel Gabriel.

Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. . . . 
The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.

Like Mary, God tells me not to be afraid. He says I am loved and cherished. He promises the Holy Spirit will be with me and in me, to comfort, guide, and teach. I have assurance that nothing is impossible with God and that He is faithful to His promises.

Can I respond to the mystery of the unknown like Mary did?

“Behold,I am the servant of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.”

I want to. I bow my face before a Holy God in surrender to His will and His plan for the rest of my wild and wonderful life.

And this is my assurance and consolation, that we will walk together.

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December beginning

I think perhaps we’ve had a bad impression of Martha for too long. Not Martha the American mega-business woman. Martha from the book of St. Luke.

We’ve chastised her for being a busy woman. There are a lot of busy, hard-working people whom I admire. They stick to the task. They get things done. They don’t mind getting their hands dirty. They keep at it until the job is complete. We can count on them.

Have we equated being diligent with being un-Christian?

Our first introduction to Martha is in chapter 10 of Luke, ” . . . a woman named Martha opened her home to him [Jesus].” She had the gift of hospitality and she welcomed Jesus and his followers.

When we bring people into our homes, there are things to do. Martha set herself to the task of feeding a group of hungry men.

We see the problem arising a couple of verses later: “Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.” Ah, the distractions. I have walked in Martha’s sandals.

Other versions of Scripture say she was worried and troubled, disturbed by all her responsibilities. I especially like the rendering of the Message:  “Martha was pulled away by all she had to do . . . ”

I have been pulled away too. Pulled away from sitting at Jesus’ feet, pulled away from what is important by what seems urgent, pulled away from the people I am to serve by my need to finish all the preparations.

As I see it, herein lies some of the problem with the Christmas season. It has become complicated, full to overflowing, demanding, over abundant. We have become distracted by all the preparations. And we have been blinded to the beauty of Christmas.

Martha lost sight of her Lord, the very nearness of His presence in her home, while she became engrossed in the work at hand.

Her distraction and worry brought on accusations and demands. “Don’t you care?” she asked Jesus. “Make Mary help me,” she commanded Him. The audacity.

I have found myself guilty of Martha’s sin. I have wondered if God cared. I have stomped my feet like an angry child who didn’t get her way. I have been distracted, troubled and worried by the tasks and the schedule and have overlooked the reality of Emmanuel.

How can we approach Christmas with a work ethic like Martha and a heart like Mary?

Jesus said Mary chose the best, the place of sitting quietly and listening. Her attention was focused on His words that were Life to her.

That is the challenge. We live in a culture of extravagance, and our schedules fill quickly as we try to do more and be more. Yet we are not called to do everything or be all things to everyone. We are called to be still and know our God first. Then we are called to serve.

We cannot walk in power and peace if we lose connection with the Prince of Peace.

It will take determination, imagination even, and a made-up mind to spend some quiet time with Jesus each day, especially in December. So many voices call after us seeking our attention. We have to make a decision what is most important to us.

If you wonder where to begin, seek out someone you know who has developed the discipline of quiet meditation each day. Or simply ask the Holy Spirit for guidance. It is His specialty.

In the quiet of His presence, we will hear Him speak. We can take a deep breath and feel the calm infuse us. We will get a clear focus on what is important. And we gain wisdom from God who gives it liberally.

His plan for my day is always better than my own.

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November ending

The first day of November found Sweet William and me on the long road home after a three-day trip to see our precious ones and celebrate our second grandchild’s 16th birthday. It was sweet few days of being very present with ones we hold dear. As we neared our home and the familiar sights comforted our weariness, a beautiful sunset greeted us, an apt ending to our journey.

November days exchanged the smell of freshly mowed grass for wood fires burning in fireplaces. The leaves began changing – finally, as if they were waiting for something. When it looked like the fall colors would dissolve into muddled browns, suddenly the reds emerged: crimson, wine, mahogany. I saw the sun shine on muted golds that seemed to set them afire.

2013-faI discovered reds in my own little woods this fall and was thrilled. Except for our old Bradford pear, which waited until Thanksgiving week to show off her change of dress, red has been rare on our lane, and I delighted in its appearance.

101_1266Daylight saving time befell us in November and set my inward clock reeling. I wanted to get up at 4:30 am and go to bed at 7 pm. Maisie and I both are slowly adjusting.

I read the Velveteen Rabbit, written by Margery Williams, for the very first time. I knew the story line but not the entirety of it. I think Sweet William and I may be real by now because it feels like a lot of our fur has rubbed off.

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The presidential election came to an end. Trouble still brews in our country. There is no solution to hatred except love. Racism will continue to exist until we have a heart change. That happens through Jesus Christ. We can try our best to love people and change our behaviors, but we cannot do it permanently. The ugliness eventually raises its head. When we have been graced with extreme mercy from the blood of a cross, it becomes easier to give grace to another.

Maisie and I enjoyed the crunch of fallen dry leaves as we walked, her nose to the ground nuzzling what may be underneath. Cold days brought out sweaters and coats, scarves and gloves for those chilling morning ventures. Though our route is the same each day, she sniffs as if to discover something brand new. I breathe in God’s creation and breathe out a bit of my stress.

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My piano students performed at fall recital, a time when they show their progress. Each year they improve their abilitiy to play more difficult pieces. I bask in the afterglow of their accomplishments and marvel that I have the pleasure of passing along my love of music to young hearts.

The week of Thanksgiving gave us sweet time with extended family and our precious ones who drove from afar to spend three glorious days with us and share our holiday table this year. It was a gift indeed. We drank gallons of coffee as we caught up on news and opened our hearts to one another at the table. The visit was over too quickly, and my eyes filled with tears at their parting. I waved until their car was out of sight.

The hot water heater went out while they were here and we had to get creative. The grandchildren went to cousins’ homes to bathe. Some of us did the frigid shower here. I heated water in the tea kettle to wash dishes, even the enormous stack piling up as we prepared the Thanksgiving recipes. After our time in the desert this summer, I took it as a challenge. There are just these remaining questions: Why does the air conditioner go out on the hottest days of summer, and why does the hot water heater go out during a holiday week when businesses are closed and the house is full of people? Anyone?

The Monday after Thanksgiving brought repair men, and a hot shower felt especially good.

I began Christmas shopping this month, wanting to make the season simpler this year. That is always my goal as December approaches. I read something  that I hope might be a guiding principle as I make choices for the coming month. Perhaps it will even guide the coming year.

  1. Will this activity make me feel light or heavy, free or burdened?
  2. What is God saying to me right now in this moment?
  3. What is the purpose? Is love the motivation? What do I hope to achieve?

December approaches and Christmas is imminent. I hope to celebrate it for its true purpose and not be persuaded by marketers and advertisers who would talk me into a stress-filled season.

November’s colorfest fades and the bright-colored lights of December are already twinkling at us. The sparkle and shine of Christmas can be intoxicating. We can anticipate it with joy or we may already be feeling the pressure.

What will we be pursuing this Christmastide? What will be the guiding principle for the coming month? What is the end goal?

Perhaps those are questions we should ask ourselves.

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Sunday grace

It’s the Sunday after Thanksgiving and also the first Sunday of Advent. They greet each other today.

The admonition in my devotional book points me to a continuing path. “Be joyful always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

The few days of the holiday leave memories lingering, thoughts of my family, my precious ones, gathered around tables of food and fellowship, the conversations as varied and tantalizing as the recipes we prepared. Love for one another overlooks our differences of opinion.

Laughter rings from room to room. Children relish time with each other and lay forth a challenge to jump in cold waters of the swimming pool as adults stand around and remember being this young and adventurous.

There is much for which to say “Thank You” to my Father in Heaven. Not just on Thanksgiving Day but every day of my wonderful wild life.

We press forward toward year’s end, the compulsions of Christmas pursuits weighing upon us.

Giving thanks is followed by the invitation to look for the Christ child. The coming of the Promise rides on the heels of a grateful heart. Is there a message for me here?

As I look for joy, count gifts, acknowledge my  blessings from a benevolent God, my heart opens to the prospect of what will come. A good, good Father gives good to His children. His word is true and faithful. What He says He will do indeed.

I will anticipate the season of Christmas with gladness for it is the fulfillment of the promised Messiah. He didn’t come as expected in robes of royalty. But He came none the less, in humble attire and amidst uncertain ways.

My gifts often come disguised. They are still gifts. And I will be thankful.

Sunday grace.

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On this day of giving thanks

It’s early morning. Gentle winds blow the chimes on my deck and I hear music.

The house is quiet except for the popping of the gas longs. The window close to where I sit is open slightly. Even outside there is a stillness on this Thanksgiving Day.

My house is full, all beds and some couches nestling warm bodies in sleep. Three dogs still doze in the darkness of the yet unbroken new day.

I am thankful they are all here, all snuggled in, us together on this special occasion. I have been broken and grief-stricken on other holidays throughout my life time. Death and distance can wreck havoc on a heart.

But today, loved ones are here. And for that I am filled full with joy and gratitude.

I have not always been thankful in all my circumstances. In the dark place of the not knowing, in the wondering how good can come from my trial and my pain, in my own house of self-pity, I have been doubtful and fragmented.

I have coddled my misery too much and sat in my despair too long.

Life is not always an easy, flower-strewn pathway. It is often rocky and rough, the climb steep and foreboding, the night dark and long. We work muscles, reach for every ounce of strength, and learn endurance as we press on to the new dawning and the green pastures in our vision.

For there is always the hope of God’s Presence, His Word of promise of His never-forsaking love for us. He is our Immanuel, the with us God. We do not have to do this life on our own.

He calls me to a mature mentality of praise and thanksgiving, even in the hardest of circumstances. Even when loved ones are not gathered around a table. Even when death takes one held so dear. Even when pain is my companion.

He calls forth hope in Himself, asking me to focus my gaze on His beauty, to see glory, to see everlasting love, to remember His faithfulness always.

This is His will in Christ Jesus, to give thanks in all circumstances, to see Him in every situation, One who is working all things for my good, One who is redeeming every heartache and disappointment, One who is planning on bringing beauty out of my ashes.

He is a good and loving Savior who makes all things new. He mends our brokeness, filling us with Himself and shining through the cracks of our humanity so that the world may see Him in us, His children.

Give thanks to the Lord for He is good, His love endures forever.  — Psalm 118:1

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