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Advent Joy

joy 2

Joy.

It’s so much more than just being happy. It’s a feeling that starts deep down in your heart. It rises above common sense and is the secret behind smiles even when circumstances seem to be more suited to tears. Ill winds may blow on the outside but joy lives in the depths of a God-centered soul and storms will not affect it. True joy springs from a loving God. It is bigger than the scope of your vision and the width of your wildest dreams. Therefore, the limits of this world cannot affect joy. It is a Godly thing that depends only on faith.

Young Mary sets off to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Both women are dealing with frightening circumstances. Elizabeth had long ago given up on a dream of motherhood. Now she finds herself in an unexpected high- risk pregnancy. Mary is betrothed to Joseph. According to Hebrew customs, she must remain in her father’s house for one year preparing herself for marriage while Joseph builds their house. They consider themselves married once the betrothal begins in all ways except intimacy, so an unexpected pregnancy is a disaster for both families involved. Joy is not a word that I would expect to use to describe either of them. but that is only because I am thinking in earthly terms, not in Godly terms.

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women Mary and Elizabethand blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”       

Luke 1: 41-45

When Mary first greets Elizabeth, Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, immediately recognizes who is standing in her doorway. She refers to Mary as the mother of my Lord.  She knows the baby that Mary is carrying, is Messiah. Elizabeth’s words to Mary are filled with wonder and joyful excitement.

In this, we catch a glimpse of Advent Joy. An anticipatory joy at the thought of the gift God is holding out to us. As Elizabeth comes to understand who this baby is, she responds to Him in joy and wonder.

When was the last time you read the familiar Christmas story in the first and second chapters in Luke? Can you feel Elizabeth’s excitement as she greets her young cousin.  In her response, we see a measure of how we can respond to Him.

During Advent, we light candles for Hope, Peace and this week, Joy.  When I read Mary’s words in the passage, I sense her hope and peace despite the situation. In Elizabeth’s words, there is joyfulness. They had been given understanding through the Holy Spirit that they are about to meet Messiah, the Hope of the world, the Prince of Peace and the Joy of salvation. They respond in faith which results in hope, peace and joy.

May you be filled with His joy as you experience the beauty of this Christmas season.

christmas joy

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Advent Peace

candle-peaceThe wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.

Isaiah 11:6

Such a beautiful verse referring to the coming Messiah, whom the prophet has already titled “Prince of Peace” in chapter 9, verse 6 of Isaiah. It’s envisions a future time when those who had been mortal enemies will live peaceably together. Peace is the focus of the second week of Advent. Whether it is the Prince of Peace the world is awaiting or the peace that is born in a believer’s heart, peace is a highly sought- after prize in our society. This week we will hear it proclaimed from pulpits and sing songs of Peace on Earth, while all the time, we will be stressing over Christmas preparations and all burdens that we each carry.

So, what is peace and how can we find it? Or maybe it is easier to ask what the opposite is? The person who is not at peace, is stressed, anxious and often freezes in uncertainty. Therefore, the person who is at peace should not be stressed, not riddled with anxiety and have a conviction about what they are doing or where they are going.

Honestly, when was the last time that you met such a person?

They are few and far between.

Most of us live with some level of daily anxiety. Medical textbooks are filled descriptions of physical ailments that are caused by anxiety. The numbers of children and teens diagnosed with anxiety disorders each year is skyrocketing.

We tend to think of the nativity story as peaceful, but the Prince of Peace was born into a violent world under brutal circumstances. Yet in the second chapter of Luke in verses 19 and 51 we see that Mary responds to all she has been through in an unusual way. She “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” That doesn’t sound like she was too stressed. It sounds remarkably calm to me!

Twelve years later, the family is returning home after spending the Passover in Jerusalem. Each parent assumes that their oldest son is with another family member in the caravan, but Jesus has stayed behind in Jerusalem. It will be several days before they find him. Mary asked him what he is doing and again we see that she is incredibly calm. Verse 51 tells us that she “treasured these things in her heart”. If it was me, it would have taken days just for my blood pressure to return to normal after all the time spent tracking down my lost child in the big city. Yet Mary seems accepting of it. As a parent, I can’t help but think that before she got to a place where she could “treasure”, I’m willing to bet that she panicked. I know I would have. My question is what brought her from panic to peaceful pondering?

Last week’s advent candle represented Hope. Hope in Christ in a crazy world is not easy. Hope for Mary that her wayward son hadn’t gotten Himself into trouble while in Jerusalem must have been difficult as the days ticked by before they found him. But God gives us that Hebrews 6:19 soul anchor of hope that is secure and firm even in troubled times. We only panic when we lose our grip on Him. The doubts and fears that invade our hearts are the result of a loosening grip. I think that Mary, having the benefit of experiencing miracles firsthand, had a pretty strong grip and that allowed her to treasure and ponder (and maybe still hyperventilate a little bit).

Don’t get me wrong. I think the church has done much damage by accusing people of bringing on their own issues due to a lack of faith. This is not what I am saying all. However, we do see Biblical evidence that faith – trusting in God – helps us to develop hope and hope is a weapon we can use to beat back anxious thoughts. As we learn to use hope against the darkness of this world, we will gain a measure of peace. And God promises more! He tells us that we can experience His peace, a peace that is far beyond anything our finite minds can produce.

peace of Christ

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your mind in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:7

 

What a beautiful promise of peace! While Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom alludes to a future time, this promise is here and now. Be the sheep that stays close to His shepherd and let His Peace guard you in a darkened world.shepherds-1

 

 


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Advent Hope

subtleadventhopeLately my daily reading has been jumping me all around the Bible. Today I added some Old Testament prophecy to my readings as we head into the Christmas season. It seemed fitting to be reading about the hope of Israel during the first week of Advent when we focus on the concept of hope.

While I hope that I don’t blow my gift giving budget this year and I hope that my kids can all get home safely and stay for Christmas week, and I hope that I don’t get really sick with bronchitis like I did last year – these are not the things that Advent hope is all about.

Hope can be hard to find in today’s world. Things can seem very dark and dangerous. In my personal life, hope often seems distant and hopelessness threatens to overwhelm. But this is exactly the time that God’s promises start to make sense to me.

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 sees with his eyes,

Or decide by what he ears with his ears

But with righteousness he will judge the needy.

With justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.

Isaiah 11:1-4a

This is the type of hope that is so desperately needed in our world, the Christ that God has alluded to throughout the Old Testament. He promises us a coming time of wisdom and understanding. He promises us a justice that is beyond the limits of our earthly senses and it will be given to those who can’t get the help they need. These verses speak of a future that mankind has longed for.

And then the ultimate hope.

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the Blessed Hope-                                                the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Titus 2:11-13

So does this mean that we have to be very good boys and girls and just do the best we can while waiting for the promised Savior in whom we hope? If so, I’m in big trouble. I’m not all that good and am constantly in danger of falling into hopelessness as the world crowds in on me.

This is why I find the words of the 40th chapter of Isaiah so startling and beautiful. It starts with:

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.” (verses 1-2)

I am stunned by the outpouring of Godly love that drips from every word of these verses. God is comforting, speaking tenderly to his child (Israel) saying, “I know how difficult things have been, but I am here. I love you and I will comfort, protect and provide for you in the measure that you will need. The chapter continues to explain how the troubles, heartache, pain and cruelty that we may face are temporary. Just yesterday I was forced to face my grief over the anniversary of my first born son leaving this earth many years ago as an infant. Funny, how the pain can still be so sharp. But the God who offers us comfort and is often seen in Scripture sharing in our tears, offers me hope wrapped in a love deeper than I can imagine. He tells me that there is something better coming and I can place my trust and hope in that fact.

In verses 27-28, God reaches down and gently chides His child, “Why are you complaining? Do you not know, have you not heard? I, Yaweh (a personal name, not just a title) am the everlasting God.”

And then this magnificent promise to those who cling to His hope:

“But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength, they will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”

 Isaiah 40:31

He offers Hope for living here in this crazy fallen world. He offers Hope that will wipe away the tears we shed. He offers Hope for our eternal future.

One night, two thousand years ago, the world waited for what it did not know. Hope entered into our world in the form of a helpless infant who would survive against all the odds and bring with Him that glimmer of Hope that still flickers today, waiting for the victorious return of the Blessed Hope.

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Of Herons and Egrets

IMG_0087It’s official! My hubby and I have become the ultimate nerd couple. We spent a weekend in Cape May, NJ birdwatching with binoculars around our necks, cameras in hand and apps making bird calls on our phones. We may look weird but we are actually having a lot of fun!

Each fall hundreds of bird enthusiasts descend on the little town of Cape May at the tip of IMG_0085New Jersey, to watch the migrating birds that will gather there before crossing the Delaware Bay as they continue south for the winter. Our anniversary also happens to fall in October, so it’s a perfect excuse to splurge ourselves on a weekend at a Victorian bed and breakfast while spending the days hiking the trails along the beach and salt marshes in search of birds and the last few straggling monarch butterflies.IMG_0195

This weekend’s viewing was spectacular – hawks and kestrels, warblers and goldfinch and I lost count of how many different species of ducks we found. We even saw a bald eagle in flight, who stuck around and gave us quite a show! The only thing missing were my favorites, Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets. Water levels seemed a bit low so I wondered if they had moved inland in search of deeper water for fishing.

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Great Blue Heron

On Sunday morning, we tried a new spot, bigger than a pond but too small for a lake and were delighted to find many ducks and water birds there. As we drove up, my husband was trying to look through the trees on the bank and excitedly pointed out something big and white in the trees above the water. “There’s your egret!” he shouted as he pulled over to park. As I turned to look, the trees had obscured my view of the egret but I could see two great blue herons sitting in the trees. “What are you talking about? I asked. “Those are

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Great Egret

two herons”. He grabbed his binoculars and ran to the lake’s edge. Training his binoculars on the egret. “Herons? he laughed, “that big white one is a egret.” Now I’m confused because I had focused my binoculars on the herons just twenty feet away from the Egret. Even though egrets and herons are roughly the same size, they are clearly two very different birds. “What are you talking about? There are two herons right there.”

IMG_0174At this point the gentlemen standing about ten feet away from us put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Do you two realize that there are both egrets and herons here? The egret is there (pointing to the left) and the three herons are there (pointing to the right). We lowered our binoculars to get a wider view and realized that we were both looking at two different birds that were only about twenty feet from each other. And there was even a third heron in the water that I couldn’t see because I had my binoculars trained on the two roosting in the trees. We all had a good laugh at how blind people can be and all it takes is one kind stranger to point out the obvious.

Now, I started to think about that. We weren’t within the four walls of a church building that morning but God had taken us to His church. We were surrounded by creation, but each of us had chosen to focus on a very small portion of it and had almost missed the bigger picture. Perhaps if we had focused on God first, instead of relying on our binoculars, we would have avoided the frustration and misunderstanding. God has so much for each of us, yet we tend to live within very narrow perimeters that we set up thinking that we are protecting ourselves. If I can only remember to keep my focus on God, and not worry about what birds I haven’t seen yet, I bet that I will get to see a lot more of what He has in store for me.

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.

Hebrews 12:2a


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Welcome to the Threshing Floor

wheat, handI love when God pulls things together in a way that I can understand. All summer I have been working through a Bible study on the book of Ruth. The climax of Ruth’s story in Chapter 3 centers on the threshing floor at the end of harvest season. For six weeks, the workers and Ruth have been gathering the wheat harvest. In chapter three, the action shifts to the threshing floor, a hilltop overlooking the fields where the wheat is brought to be prepared for storage. It is here that Ruth proposes to Boaz. It is here that Boaz tells Ruth to rest as he springs into action to tie up any legal hassles that might prevent a wedding. She trusts him to clear away any obstacles and places her future in his hands. Over the years, this moment has become synonymous with a person placing their trust in Jesus. When we admit that we need Jesus to secure our future and realize that by dying on the cross, He has already taken away any obstacles to our eternal life in His home, we are standing on a symbolic threshing floor where we can offer ourselves as a bride to Jesus, trusting that everything He has already done for us will suffice.

threshing floor

The Threshing Floor

 

Yeah, it’s kind of a big moment for a Christian.

The last few mornings I have been reading thru the book of 1 Chronicles. Chapters 19-22 tell the dramatic story of how God enabled David to conquer the countries around Israel that had been threatening them. David is a charismatic leader with a brilliant military mind. He is the one that takes the struggling young nation of Israel and makes them into a power to be reckoned with. David is also the great grandson of Ruth and Boaz so I liked that my reading was pulling these generations together for me. After reading of the cultural and symbolic impact of the threshing floor in Ruth, couldn’t help but noticed that a threshing floor figures prominently in David’s story, in fact all of Israel’s story, too.

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remains of a threshing floor 

 

David’s army has been victorious and he decides that he wants a census taken of the army. He wants to see just how strong his army is. Problem is that God had already instructed Moses about taking a census and David does not follow those instructions. It’s not really about counting the men, it’s the reason he wants to count the men. After all those victories, David is feeling pretty good about himself and seems more inclined to trust in a strong army rather than an all-powerful God. When David realizes that he has disobeyed God, he repents (21:8). But God, being perfectly just, must exact a punishment. God is not being petty. He is teaching David and all Israel that the only way they will survive is through complete faith in Him. When we first meet David back in 1 Samuel 16:7 we learn that God looks at our hearts and is not impressed by outward appearances. David’s heart is not aligned with God at this moment and as king, it will affect the entire country. God moves quickly and decisively. He sends a plague on the land, but just as the angel of death is approaching Jerusalem, He orders His angel to stop (1 Chronicles 21:14-16). David is able to see the angel “standing between heaven and earth, with a drawn sword in his hand extended over Jerusalem.” And the angel wasn’t just on the outskirts of town – he was “standing at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite” (v.15).

David is instructed to build an altar there and offer sacrifices. This is the place where God’s justice stopped and His mercy begins. Reading on, we see that David didn’t stop with an altar. He lays the plans for the temple to be built there and begins gathering a staggering amount of supplies. His son Solomon will be the temple builder but it started right here with David’s repentance of his lack of trust in God and his acceptance of what God is offering him.  We see the threshing floor as a place where God displays His love for us and we only need to accept and submit. Ruth did it. David did it. So must we.

The threshing floor goes down in history as the place where God’s justice meets His mercy in an earthly setting. But in God’s hands, it goes even further and becomes a place of Grace.

God’s justice – When He gives us sinners what we deserve even though it breaks His heart (Matthew 23:37)

God’s mercy – When He doesn’t give us what we deserve (1 Peter 1:3)

God’s grace – When He give us what we do not deserve – His love given eternally (it’s basically the whole Bible)

Following the example left us from Ruth and David, the only thing we must do is go to the threshing floor – find ourselves in a place where we can finally admit that we need God’s help, admitting that what Jesus did for us, really is enough to transcend this world and lift us into heaven. (Rev 3:20)

wheat, sun

Welcome to the threshing floor a place where justice, mercy and grace live eternally.


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Summer Sunflowers and My Beautiful Boy

P1040320I admit it – I still have a wall calendar hanging on the wall in my kitchen and over my writing desk. And yes, I still write appointments, birthdays and special dates on them. I find that it helps to keep track of everyone’s schedule if they write them out for all to see. Then I have to remember to transfer the dates to my electronic calendar. I’m still working on that.

I find the open calendar is really helpful for anything that will need a card sent, a birthday, graduation or other event that requires the purchase of a card a few days ahead of time. Yet, even then, I am often late at sending out that card.

But there is one date that I do not write on the calendar. That day has been burnt into my memories and it would be far too painful to see it in writing. It’s the day that my first born son left us after a short, nearly nine months on this earth. It’s a day that creeps up on me each year and always catches me by surprise. I will start to feel edgy and off balance by mid August and never realize why until I look at that empty square on the calendar and then… I remember. A quiet morning at the park, then he needed a nap. He woke struggling to breathe. His damaged heart was failing and his time with us was at an end.

I shake my head to clear the thoughts that are swirling in my brain. So many images that are both dear and heartbreaking.

P1040321I walk out to my garden. I have always grown sunflowers each summer to honor my father. He had an amazing green thumb and was very proud of the extra- large sunflowers that he would grow. I have never been able to grow those large ones but this year I have a mass of smaller multicolor blooms that he would have loved to see. Strangely, I can’t remember if I had managed to grow any sunflowers the summer we lost Troy, but something about this year’s garden is reminding me of him. Beautiful cheery flowers that are telling me to stop being so maudlin. He is free of all his physical ailments, no more surgeries looming in his future. He is running through a field of sunflowers in God’s gardens and laughing. I soak in the colors and feel a smile start somewhere deep inside, working it’s way to my face.

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I have always tried to be encouraging in this blog and I apologize for the somber tone of this entry. The anniversary of his death is still a few days off. Each year I work through fresh grief. For now, I will let the memories run free in my head and comfort my heart as time continues to slip by. Thanks for listening to my ramblings. Thanks to God for letting me get to know him. One day my beautiful boy…one day.

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LIttle Troy – Summer of ’97


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What Can Be…

 

20180730_084306I’ve just returned from a week at the Jersey shore. I can still hear the seagulls cry, feel the sand between my toes and the taste the salt spray on my face. But what I really love about the beach are the seashells. Those broken, jagged bits of marine life scattered on the sand which most people only see as a barrier to step over on their way to the water. I can spend hours walking the surf, head down and plastic bag in hand, searching for any shell that strikes my fancy.

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One morning, as I strolled along the shoreline, scanning the piles of driftwood and shells to see what had washed up overnight, I noticed a woman up ahead, head down and walking slowly. Her plastic bag was pretty full already. “She’s one of me!” I thought. We stopped to talk for a minute.

“I’m looking for broken pieces” she said. “I have a whole garage full of broken shells that I plan to make mosaics out of. I want to use them as stepping stones in my garden next year”, she explained.
“What a great idea!” I agreed. I could already picture it in my head. The mismatched castoffs that most people would toss aside would become the most beautiful art, but only if you have the eyes to envision what can be.

I guess that’s how God can see the beauty in our crushed spirits, dejected souls and sorrowful eyes. He’s looking beyond what has washed up at His feet and seeing the new creation He will make of us, complete with our tears and scars and all our jagged edges. He sees what can be.

I remember, as a kid, collecting what we called “jingle shells” and running a string thru P1040241the hole in the center of each one to make a necklace that was considered high fashion among the children at the beach. I had no idea that the hole had been made by a seagull’s beak as the bird tried to get at the meat inside the shell. Those holes in each shell are the remnants of the pain and defeat which the creature felt in life. But if a kid with a length of twine and the patience to find a couple dozen shells can make them into a necklace that will be the envy of all the other kids on the beach, imagine what God can do with our broken, tattered souls if we trustingly place ourselves in His hands.

He sees such beauty in the lost and raggedy lamb, that He left the ninety-nine.

He sees inspiration in the destitute widow and her last few coins.

He sees courage in Peter as He beckons to him to step onto the waves.

He sees strength in Gideon as he cowers from his enemy and hides grain in a winepress.

He sees dignity in the woman accused of adultery and sentenced to death.

He sees worth in the woman who has led such a questionable life that she is forced to draw water at a time when she will not have to face the other village women and endure their sneers and sideways looks.

P1040249God sees beauty in places we would never think to look. He works with our wounds and creates an earthly version of His image in us. Our scars are outlines for Him to color vibrantly and add depth to our character. He teaches us compassion from our own pain, empathy through our tears and then turns us loose on a world that is hungry for hope. He makes us into instruments that will sing His song and speak His words, words that are etched in love. He will teach us how to speak them with humility. And this is something that we could not imagine happening but He knows what can be.

I spent the rest of my time on the beach taking a second look at the broken bits of shell imaging what can be…

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