Heart · Holidays

The First Whisper of Christmas

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Today is December 1st. The big meal and big deals are behind us. We started lighting advent candles at our dinner table two nights ago, and tonight, at bedtime, we will crack open a brand-new storybook that will carry us through these next 24 days, tracing the family of Jesus, the promised Messiah.

It begins with the promise that God made to Israel, through the prophet Isaiah:

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him–the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD–and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. 
“He will not judge by what he see with his eyes or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
“The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
“In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the people; the nations will rally to him and his place of rest will be glorious.” Isaiah 11:1-10

This is what the whole Old Testament has been leading up to, what all of creation itself has been waiting for since Adam and Eve took that very first bite of sin. This is where we place our hope, this Coming One, who will reconcile us to God and bring us peace.

My advent devotional reading this morning asked where in my life I was longing for a tender shoot of hope, and I wanted to ask back, “where am I not longing for hope?” Two thousand fifteen has been, without question, the hardest year I’ve had yet. Truthfully, there’s a large part of my heart that would be willing to box up the tree and skip right over this season and right into a new year.

This year has been a year of circling the story of Elijah. There’s the story of Mt. Carmel, when God answers Elijah’s simple but faith-filled prayer by sending fire from heaven. It is, to my mind, one the most astounding miracles in the whole BIble–this fire that burns up soaked wood and laps the water filling the trench beside it.

But that’s not the story I keep coming back to. In the aftermath of that miracle, Jezebel threatens to kill Elijah, since he killed her false prophets.

And Elijah is DONE.

“He came to a broom tree, sat down under it, and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, LORD.’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.'” 1 Kings 19:4

It is this story that I kept coming back to.

“I have had enough, Lord,” I prayed in April.

Then we put our dog to sleep.

“I’ve had enough.”

My son, who is about to start kindergarten, can’t stop having accidents.

“I’ve had enough.”

Attendance numbers at our church leave me feeling discouraged.

“I’ve had enough.”

My doctor can’t figure out why the medicine isn’t helping my asthma, and in the meantime, I can’t walk a block without getting winded.

“I’ve had enough.”

My friends move away.

“I’ve had enough.”

Hurt. Betrayal. Loss. Failure. Fear.

“I’ve had enough.”

Every single thing that happened, small or large, felt like the last straw, and I would kneel in my bedroom and read this story and pour my heart out before the Lord.

Like the people of Israel waiting for a political Messiah to throw off Roman oppression, I want Jesus to come in big and loud and rescue me out of this mess. I want God to be in the mighty wind or the earthquake or the fire. But that isn’t how God appeared to Elijah, and it’s not how he appears to us.

“After the fire came a gentle whisper.” 1 Kings 19:12

“She gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and place him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” Luke 2:7

All year long, I’ve been begging God to come and change my circumstances. But instead, he offers to come in quiet and small, and change me.

Come, thou long-expected Jesus.

 

Heart · Holidays

What it Means To Celebrate Freedom

God bless America, land that I love. Stand beside her, and guide her, through the night with a light from above. 

I was at a church service on 4th of July weekend a number of years ago, where we sang this, along with a handful of other patriotic hymns, such as America the Beautiful and Battle Hymn of the Republic. About halfway through the set of songs, I looked around the room and was surprised to see a number of people with their hands in the air.

I’m from a charismatic background, so it’s not strange or surprising to me to see people lifting their hands as they sing a worship song. But we weren’t singing worship songs. At least not to Jesus.

Are these people even listening to what they’re singing? I wondered. Are we so accustomed to raising our hands simply because a song is slow and moving, that we’ll do it no matter what the song is about? Or are they intentionally raising their hands to this land, this nation, this government that was formed by human hands?

Neither answer makes me feel any better. In fact, both are terrifying. Whether we are worshiping America on accident or on purpose, it’s still idolatry.

Please don’t get me wrong, I love this county. I will help my kids play with sparklers in the driveway today, and then go see a fireworks display later tonight. I will have my hand right next to my beating heart if they pledge allegiance to our flag, or if they sing the national anthem. I will probably cry if they play “God Bless America.”

I count myself blessed to have been born under the stars and stripes, a nation affluent enough that we never went hungry, even when we were poor, and progressive enough that I received a free education even though I am woman. It’s not because of anything good that I did that I was born an American. I am so very, very blessed. And I love this nation that I call my “home” for now.

But I love my Jesus more. 

If America falls apart tomorrow, I won’t lose my identity, because I am first and foremost a citizen of heaven (Philippians 3:20).

If God calls my family to leave America to proclaim the gospel in a foreign land, we’ll be okay, because we are already strangers and aliens in this world (1 Peter 2:11).

And if I begin losing the civil liberties that are currently afforded me as an American, it doesn’t matter, because I am free in a way that has nothing to do with the Bill of Rights (2 Corinthians 3:17).

If in the days to come, the government begins to take away from me my free speech, my right to peaceably assemble, my right to bear arms, my protection against unlawful search and seizure, even my right to vote, it’s not going to shake the core of who I am. Jesus promised us that in this world we would face trouble, and that if we choose to follow him, people will hate us in the same way that they hated him (John 15:18).

For today, my right to worship whatever God I choose is protected under our government. But if that went away tomorrow, if the government decided that my proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord was grounds for my detainment, torture, or even execution, it wouldn’t ultimately be the end of me, because I have already died with Christ and have secured eternal life through his resurrection (Colossians 3:3).

I will celebrate America today. I’ll read my kids the Declaration of Independence and teach them about the America our forefathers envisioned.

But freedom? I will celebrate that every day. Because my freedom doesn’t come from the White House. It comes from Calvary.

Heart · Home

Broken

A quick word search through a concordance reveals that “broken” appears numerous times in the Bible.

Vows were broken. Commands were broken. People were broken under the burden of slavery, until God broke the yoke that hung heavy on their necks. The Sabbath was broken.  Vessels deemed unclean had to be broken to keep the Israelite people holy before their God. When people sinned, sometimes God’s wrath broke out upon them.  Altars to foreign gods were built and then broken down by the few righteous among Israel and Judah’s kings.

Brokenness is everywhere in this fallen world.

Brokenness found its way into our home at 5:30 on a Tuesday evening, when my four-year-old Caleb slipped on the railing of his bed and snapped his humerus clean in two.

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We both knew something was really wrong right away, and sobbing in the kitchen as I assessed his injury, he cried out, “Mommy, I’m breaking.”

I was too.

As much as we try to prepare for the hard moments, the moments where our faith proves itself, we are never quite ready to stand and face tragedy head-on when it strikes. We work hard to protect ourselves against it. When it comes, we resist it, we try to run from it.

I’m so thankful that’s not what Christ did.

“The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 1 Corinthians 10:23-24

He broke the bread. And then he allowed his own body to be broken. Why?

Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5)

In my heart, I knew this, but my mind raced on ahead with concerns, both trivial and serious:  What if he needs surgery? How will we bear that? How will we afford it? Will his arm ever be the same? Will we be able to swim at all this summer?

As I drove home down the highway from the doctor, wildflowers in brilliant blue, purple, yellow, and white greeted me from the small strip of grass in the median. And the words of Jesus came to me unbidden: “If that is how God clothes the grass of the field which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them” (Matthew 6:30-32).

And Bebo Norman was singing loud on my stereo: “If you offer up your broken cup, you will taste the meaning of this life.”

I wouldn’t choose this brokenness, but Christ did, so that I might be made whole.

I wouldn’t choose a flawed offering to the Lord, but God accepts it, and remakes me into something that displays his glory.

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It would be easier, safer from here on out, to bundle Caleb up, to cover him in pads head to toe, to prohibit activity that includes any kind of risk, to protect him from being broken again. He could exist safely in a cocoon of his momma’s making. But he wouldn’t really live. It’s riskier, of course, to keep offering yourself, brave and vulnerable in a world where bones, bodies, hearts can be broken. But it’s through the brokenness, the vulnerability, the fragility of life, that God reveals his power in us.

“We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” 2 Corinthians 4:7-10

I don’t really want to carry around death in my body. But if that is how the life of Jesus is revealed in me, so be it. And we can trust God as we journey through this broken world. I don’t know what kind of brokenness you’re facing this morning, but I know this: God never abandons us. I know he doesn’t leave us alone in our brokenness, but instead entered into it with us. And I know that God, who raised Christ from the dead, is able to bring his resurrection power to bear in your life today.

“Come, let us return to the LORD. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds.” Hosea 6:1

 

Church · Holidays

Why I’m wearing the Same Thing I Wore Last Easter (And it’s Not a Dress)

Easter Sunday

This is me last Easter. I wore jeans to church, and I did it on purpose. It was my first Easter as the pastor’s wife of the congregation we lead in Ozark.

I like dresses and skirts, don’t get me wrong. I wear them on a pretty regular basis on days that aren’t Sunday, and even sometimes to church. I also wear jeans to church a lot. Our church has a very casual dress style, mostly because that’s how my husband, Jason, likes to dress. I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve seen him in a tie in the almost 8 years we’ve known each other, and they’ve all been very solemn occasions: weddings, funerals, ordinations, etc. But for the average Sundays, a button-down shirt and jeans is his idea of “dressed up.” And that’s okay with me. I’m not a big fan of dress codes, either, and while I like to dress up more than he does, I would probably bristle at having to be in a church where the pastor’s wife was expected to be in a dress and pantyhose every Sunday.

But Easter is its own thing, and I LOVE dressing up for Easter. It was always an occasion in our house growing up. We would go to the store and pick out dresses (or in the leaner years, fabric) and then wait anxiously for forever with that pretty dress hanging in the closet until FINALLY it was Easter Sunday, and we could put it on, complete with new tights, white shoes, and a few times, a hat. And back then, by the time Easter rolled around I usually legitimately needed a new dress – being a growing child and all.

But now that I’m an adult, I admit, I still like picking out a little something new for myself for Easter. One of my favorite dresses to this date is one I bought for Easter when Jason and I were newly married. And then there were two years in a row when I was pregnant on Easter, and finding a pretty maternity dress those two springs went a long way in boosting my attitude and ability to be at peace with my growing belly. Two years ago on Easter, I was nursing Garrett, and I wanted to be able to wear a dress really badly, but I didn’t have any that were nursing-friendly.

So then last year rolled around. I was planning (and excited) to wear a dress. I hadn’t even really thought about it all that much. I could, I wanted to, and so I was going to. But a few days before Easter, I began to feel the Holy Spirit stirring up something inside me about that choice.

Being a pastor’s wife is not for the faint of heart. A lot of people in that role assume some unnecessary pressure and let the weight of people’s expectations for them dictate their every decision, and I agree that this is not healthy. But at the same time, you can’t be in that role and expect to have zero influence on people’s perceptions and expectations for the church.

People tend to wear their very best on Easter. As I toyed with the idea of wearing jeans on Easter Sunday, I was a little worried – would I be the only one? That’s when it hit me – Easter is also a Sunday when people who do not regularly attend church are most likely to set foot through your doors. And I knew in that moment that if someone visited our church in jeans on Easter, I most certainly didn’t want them to be the only one.

I remember getting ready on Easter morning last year, still a little self-conscious about my choice. I’m not completely above the superficial side of myself. But what’s funny is, almost a year later, I have no memory of whether anyone else was in jeans that morning. After all the mental debate last year, I must have ended up being totally comfortable with my decision to wear jeans.

So as I started planning things for Easter this year, I settled on jeans without even thinking about it. But the more I read and studied during the season of Lent, meditating on what it means to go without, to fast, and to deny oneself things that very well may be your right, as Jesus did, the more and more I came to this conclusion: I don’t need anything new to wear.

I’m not that 7-year-old little girl who outgrew last year’s Easter dress anymore. The clothes I wore to our last Easter service still fit me, and by some miracle they have survived several rounds of closet purges in the last 12 months. So I’m not going to try to find anything different. This year, I am planning to wear the exact same thing I wore last year.

Now, if you buy a new dress to wear to church, do I think there’s anything wrong with that? Of course not. This is about thinking through my unique position in my own church, and what God is doing in me right now. I just want to leverage the little bit of influence I have to proclaim the message to anyone who walks through our doors that they can come exactly as they are to the foot of the cross. And I know my own tendency to focus on everything except what Easter is really about, and I want to leave as much room as possible in my mind and my heart for God to move and speak and resurrect as He chooses.

Because I don’t want to get something new for the outside at the expense of God doing something new inside me.

I hope you all have a great Easter, regardless of where you go and what you wear. And if you live in the Springfield metro area and don’t have anywhere to go on Easter, we would love for you to join us at Life360 Ozark!

Heart · Holidays

Why I’m still listening to Christmas music

I know my mom will be appalled, but I have a confession to make:

It’s February, and I’m still listening to Christmas music.

Let me explain myself. By the end of December, I am usually ready to say goodbye to to all things Christmas. The stockings and lights and parties and candy canes have had their month in the limelight and I itch to start January with a clean slate, a lighter diet, and freer schedule.

This year was no exception. In fact, I don’t know if I have ever been as anxious to see Christmas behind me as I was in 2013.

For some reason that Jason and I have not quite been able to articulate yet, we found this Christmas to be one of the most stressful, complicated, and overwhelming holidays we have faced as a couple (or perhaps ever). It was probably a combination of the weather’s unpredictability, the ping-pong feeling of bouncing back and forth between home and the various celebrations, and the sheer vastness of the stuff that our kids received this year. Those things, coupled with the normal way that tensions and expectations run high over the month of December made us feel that this year, Christmas just drained the life out of us.

So when January 1 rolled around, the tree was already in the attic, the house had been swept clean of all the junk we’d been pigging out on for weeks, and it felt like we all just took one huge sigh of relief. I’ve put all of Christmas behind me, save for one thing: a playlist on my phone I’ve called “Christmas worship.”

One of the things I feel that, unfortunately, we did not do well in December was to spend time stilling our hearts long enough to focus on the image of Jesus in the manger, to remember that he came, and to receive the peace he came to give us. I don’t want to throw that baby out with the bathwater of everything I was so tired of by December 28. So I find myself, more than ever, irresistibly drawn to songs that remind me that that stuff’s not Christmas. Jesus is.

So yes, I’m still listening to Christmas music. Because my soul still needs to hear words like these:

From our fears and sins release us
Let us find our rest in thee
(“Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” Matt Redman & Christy Nockels)

And these:

God with man is now residing
Yonder shines the infant light
(“Come and Worship,” Bebo Norman)

And these:

We’re not that far from Bethlehem
Where all our hope and joy began
(“Not that far from Bethlehem,” Point of Grace)

And these:

Rejoice, rejoice
Emmanuel shall come to thee
O Israel, rejoice
(“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” Stephen Curtis Chapman)

I still need to remember that Jesus did not come as an infant to give me a parade with free candy, and lit-up snowmen in the park, and hot chocolate, and packages wrapped in red and green paper, as wonderful as all of those things are. He came to reconcile me to God. He came so that I, sinful as I am, would have a way into the Father’s presence. He came to be God with me.

And I don’t ever want to stop celebrating that.

Heart · Holidays

Advent

At work today, I overheard a lady say that she was so sick of everything, she wished Christmas just wouldn’t come.

I was heartbroken for her. 

On the one hand, I totally get it. My to-do list is long, too, and my wallet is starting to wear a little thin as we buy up the last few things we feel we need. I understand the stress of managing family obligations and expectations and the tug of covetous desire warring against the cry of our hearts to throw off the materialism just for a moment. 

If I thought all that was what Christmas was, I might wish it would not come also.

In my home are two little boys who have landed squarely on the other end of that spectrum. They are driven crazy with anticipation and hardly unable to stand the waiting. In fact, on Thursday, Caleb simply decided for himself that it was Christmas, and had opened two presents before I was able to make it into the living room and effectively kill all their joy. Now we have a calendar on the refrigerator that we reference almost every hour to see how many more Xs we have to make until we get to the box with the 25 in it. 

And I get that, too. 

I get the pull of wanting something that will be yours but you aren’t allowed to have yet. I get the desperation for the waiting to be over, to cry out incessantly, “how much longer?,” because I’ve been there, too.

And that is why we MUST have Christmas. It was into a world of busy-ness and work and impossible expectations that Christ came and said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

The law was a burden the people of Israel could not bear. It told them what to do and how to live and they could never measure up. And then in the 400 years of God’s silence, the Pharisees studied those laws and heaped more and more rules upon the people’s already burdened shoulders. They had to much to do and they couldn’t take it. So they cried out to God. Over and over, the prayers of the righteous could be heard. Righteous and devout men like Simon, who were waiting for the consolation of Israel. Their prayers rose up to the throne of God, crying out “how long, Lord? How much longer?” 

And then the waiting was over. 

Christ came.

He came.

Our Messiah came to us. To end the waiting. To give us relief from our burdens.

So as we look forward to this Christmas, as our calendars point to December 25, and as we turn our longings toward the blessed hope, that second Advent in which we eagerly anticipate the day when Jesus will appear in the sky and call his church home, we can still rejoice with Simon because Christ has already come.

Even with the groaning the earth makes as it waits for redemption. Even as we still do battle with sin. Even as we experience pain and grief and shame in this broken world. Christ has already come, and he is with us now.

We don’t have to wish Christmas away. We don’t have to wait for it. We can experience the hope and joy and peace and love of Christmas today.

“For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people. a light for the revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Luke 2:30-32

 

 

Heart · Home

The Legacy I Want to Leave

Early Friday morning, after he had taken Caleb potty, Jason climbed back in bed with me as he often does. “I need to tell you something,” he said. There was a serious note in his voice. I thought maybe it had to do with our over-priced air conditioner repairs or something with the church.

But then he looked at me and told me what was wrong: “Brooke died.”

My sister-in-law was only 34 years old.

If I live another hundred years I will never understand this. But Jason and I spent the weekend pouring over our Bibles anyway, searching for truth and hope and comfort.

As I read and wept and prayed and read some more, I was reminded of two things.

First, God is bigger than me. And not just a little bigger. Infinitely bigger. When Job lost his wealth, his children, and his health in one fell swoop, he cried out to God about his anguish, but God never explained to Job why he was suffering. He simply reminded Job how big he was. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” God says. “Have you ever given orders to the morning?… Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons?” (Job 38:4, 12, 32)

I wasn’t there when God made the world. I can’t control the weather or the wild animals. I am not God. And sometimes, in this magnificent world that He had the wisdom to create and is able to sustain, there will be things that I cannot understand.

Secondly, death is not the end. As Jason and I studied together, we kept coming back to passages about what happens after you die. For people who have trusted in Jesus, this is a great comfort, as we know that after we die, we will go to be with Him and our loved ones who have gone on to eternal life ahead of us.

But I also couldn’t escape the fact that this will not be the reality for all people. Brooke’s obituary, a beautiful piece penned by my farther-in-law, says “The end of Brooke’s life and her personal struggles do not define her,” and that is so true. My sister-in-law left a beautiful legacy of love. But ultimately, there is one choice that will define each of us: whether or not we choose to follow Jesus.

So I found myself sitting on the floor of my bedroom, crying big, ugly tears, not just because I was grieving a beloved sister, but because it had hit me all over again that life is fleeting, and that there are people around me who need to know the truth.

Heaven and hell are real places. And God is a true and righteous judge. He’s provided a way for us to escape the punishment we all deserve for disobeying Him, but if we reject his Son, and the atonement he made for our sins, there is no hope for us.

2 Thessalonians 1:7-8 says, “When the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire… he will punish those who do not know God and who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be shut out from the presence of our Lord and from the majesty of his power.”

I don’t want my friends and loved ones to be shut out from God’s presence. I want every one of them to surrender to Jesus before they breathe their last breath. And the truth is, we have no idea when that will be. I never imagined that the last time Brooke was here would be the last time I’d see her this side of heaven. But we are not promised tomorrow.

So don’t waste today.