All the Dreams We’ve Ever Had

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One of the best-kept secrets of the Advent and Christmas seasons is that behind all the lights and music and revelry lies — for many people — a deep, lingering sadness.

This may come and go throughout the year, but intensifies as Christmas draws near. Not nostalgia, mind you; just sadness. And although the reasons vary widely, it often comes down to this: The happiness and togetherness associated with the season — EXPECTED during the season — accentuate, for so many, the brokenness of a life for which we had dreamed something very different.

The world assures us that we can follow our hearts and reach the stars if we simply believe in our dreams…

…but the proof is in the living, and life has revealed the emptiness of such promises.

Moreover, God’s Word gives us a much different story.

The Bible is full of people whose lives took unexpected turns that they might never have wished for — and rarely is that more acute than in the details surrounding the Incarnation.

Israel dreamed of a conquering King who would vanquish oppressors, ascend to the throne, and rule with peace and justice. Instead, the “suffering servant” depicted in Isaiah 53 turned out to be the long-awaited Messiah. His humble birth, kingdom, and the peace promised by the prophets, looked nothing like the Israelites’ visions of a Savior.

On a more intimate level, we have the story of Mary. Her dreams were, perhaps, small: marry a tradesman, raise a family, live humbly but contentedly. Gabriel’s announcement changed all of that…and yet, the honor of bearing the Son of God came with a price: that a sword would pierce Mary’s own soul.

In fact, the Gospels show us that Jesus spent much of His life challenging expectations.

What, then? Is God a crusher of dreams? Does He look at those who weep and tell them to buck up because life is full of disappointments?

If we know anything about Jesus, we know that isn’t true…and so there must be more to the story.

What we learn from Jesus’ birth, and everything that it entailed, is that the plans we make for our lives are rarely the same as God’s. More importantly, though: what He has planned for us is GOOD.

It may hurt; it may mean many years of waiting to understand; it may mean acknowledging that our idea of “good” is more limited than we ever realized. But through all of the weeping and the wondering and the waiting, He is there.

Immanuel: God with us. And one day, when we have shed our earthly bodies, and when sorrow and tears are past, we will be WITH HIM…and all the dreams we’ve ever had will be gloriously, beautifully fulfilled.

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Don’t Be Silly

The Spies Return with Discordant Views (Yoram Raanan)

Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness!’

* * * * * * *
 
Before I provide a chapter and verse for the above lament, I want you to guess what prompted it. Had the Israelites been attacked by enemies? Stricken by a fatal illness? Forced to travel for days without sufficient food and water?
 
No, no, and no.
 
God’s people were complaining, in Numbers 14:1, because Moses’s spies had reported that the promised land of Canaan, though luscious and fruitful, housed warriors of unusual size. Upon hearing this, the Israelites immediately envisioned their own defeat and accepted it as a foregone conclusion. It was so inevitable, in their minds, that they reacted as if they had already been vanquished and left to perish in the wilderness.
 
I actually laughed when reading this passage a few days ago. Such silly people!
 
But then, as often happens when I read the Old Testament, I stopped laughing as I remembered my own silliness… because I am, in fact, an expert when it comes to imagining how badly a given situation can turn out, then bewailing my fate long before I actually find out what really happens. Despite God’s enduring faithfulness, demonstrated not only in the Bible but in my own life, I fail to trust Him. Moses’s words, as he later recounts the experience, might have made some of his listeners squirm uncomfortably, as I do when reading them now:
 
Then I said to you, “Do not be shocked, nor fear them. The Lord your God who goes before you will fight on your behalf, just as He did for you in Egypt before your eyes, and in the wilderness where you saw how the Lord your God carried you, just as a man carries his son, and all the way which you have walked until you came to this place.” But for all this, you did not trust the Lord your God.” (Deut. 1:29-32, emphasis mine)
 
Such a beautiful picture of a father carrying his child. It should make all of God’s people want to rest in His strong, loving arms; to simply obey, and be at peace. But for all that, we still behave as if don’t know that we can entrust our futures to Him. Instead, we borrow trouble. Very silly indeed, but so perpetually human. It’s why Jesus said in Matthew 6, many years later:
 
For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
 
We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. God hasn’t promised that we will win every battle — in fact, Jesus acknowledged that our days on earth will bring trouble — but He HAS promised to supply our needs. If we truly believe what Jesus said…
 
Well, bemoaning imagined calamities is just plain silly.

Wormwood and Bitterness: When it’s Hard to Give Thanks

“Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall!

My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down before me.
But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning;
Great is your faithfulness.” (Lam. 3:19-23)
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Thanksgiving.
It’s a feast day; a time of togetherness; an opportunity to revel in life’s simple pleasures. It’s easy — more or less — to feel thankful when enjoying relaxation, laughter, and bounty with our loved ones.
But not every day can be a feast day, and during the in-between times, that Thanksgiving spirit can slip away, leaving hardly a trace of that homey well-being we tasted on a Thursday in November. It’s a mental strain, some days, to answer the question: what are you praising God for today?
I needn’t remind you of the importance of gratitude, or of the fact that every breath we take is a gift. We see that embroidered on pillows and adorning walls all the time…and it’s not wrong! Sometimes, though, even those breaths are a weariness.
Jeremiah understood that.
His most well-known words — those about God’s lovingkindness, compassion, and faithfulness — become doubly poignant when we remember that they follow a lengthy expression of despondency and defeat. And what makes these verses so beautiful to me is the fact that he doesn’t try to just “cheer up.”
He doesn’t look for the “silver lining.”
He certainly doesn’t hide his feelings from God.
What he DOES…is cling to God. He rests in who God is, and in the truth that he, Jeremiah, has not been abandoned. Like a child after a hard day, climbing into a parent’s lap and receiving solace from a lingering embrace that simply says, “I love you, and you are not alone,” the weeping prophet rests in God’s arms –and that is enough.
During the times when we can find nothing else to be thankful for, let us always remember: He is faithful…and He is more than enough.

When You Really Need Your Armor

When it comes to best-known Bible passages — the ones most of us can not only quote, but readily identify by book and chapter — first prize would probably go to 1 Corinthians 13, the “Love Chapter.”

But perhaps second, and only slightly less well-known, would be Ephesians 6 — Paul’s description of the armor of God. With good reason, too; it’s a powerful, vivid passage full of striking metaphors describing how God equips believers to resist the “schemes of the devil” (v. 10). Amidst the darkness that seems to prevail in our world, I love (and need) the reminders that (1) our enemy is Satan the Deceiver, not other people; and (2) we have what we need to resist him until, ultimately, he loses. Reading these verses emboldens me to face the world’s darkness with hope instead of fear.
I tend to forget, however, that the armor of God is about more than cosmic, epic battles between good and evil…the BIG stuff that’s happening “out there.”
Sometimes Satan attacks us much more intimately; when we’ve let down our guard, when we feel the most safe. And the things that hurt us — criticism from people we love, friends shutting us out for reasons we can’t understand, children rejecting our attempts to teach them truth — we fight them in our own strength, because we forget that Satan operates on all fronts, and that some of his most effective campaigns are waged at the most personal levels.
If I’m not wearing the belt of truth when others’ words hurt and discourage, I will believe Satan’s whispered lie that I’m inadequate.
If my feet aren’t shod with gospel of peace when disagreements escalate to arguments, I will let the tension spill out in hurtful words that I can’t take back.
If I remove my armor, thinking that I’m done dealing with Satan for the day, he will attack where I’m weakest, because the element of surprise is one of the most tried-and-true battle tactics.
We could, or course, be daunted by the prospect of having to be armed at all times, and by the reminder that Satan is unrelenting in his efforts to weaken those who love Jesus…OR…we could be emboldened. We can remember, when the Enemy’s attacks hit us on the most personal level, that the armor of God is for all of us, for all times, for ALL the flaming darts of the evil one, and not just for the “big” things that are done by people fighting battles much more visible than ours.
Finally, friends, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of HIS might. No matter how big or small your battle, you need not fight it on your own.

People: Who Needs Them?

 

There’s a weird thing I do once in a while, and I’m wondering if I’m the only one. My guess is that I’m not.

Occasionally, I sense a message that Christians are expected to rely so totally on God that we don’t need anybody else. A self-denial, in other words, of the benefits that come from communing with another person….because God should be enough. “Go to the throne before you go to the phone”; that’s how I saw it phrased once.

That is, of course, true. People will fail us; they will give us bad advice; they will disappoint us. God, conversely, is our refuge and strength, the source of all wisdom, the one who will never leave us nor forsake us. And we should go to Him first, last, and everywhere in between.

But here’s the thing:

If you’re anything like me, it’s possible that — at times — you’ve taken this to heart so thoroughly that you feel as if connecting with a human would indicate a lack of reliance on the One who should be your all. (If you’re not like me, and you think I might be crazy, good work: you probably don’t need to read any further). And so, in times of struggling, you’ve poured out your heart to God; you’ve dived deeply into His Word; you’ve journaled; you’ve prayed through the Psalms…and it’s helped. It truly has. And yet, the answers don’t always come immediately (actually, they do so rarely), and the days go by, and although your soul has quieted somewhat, and you’ve grown closer to your Heavenly Father, you still have some lingering feelings of sadness. You try to ignore them, but there they are — and you wonder: what am I still doing wrong?!?

Friends, hear this now: GOD HAS GIVEN US OTHER PEOPLE.

Right from the beginning, God made it clear that it was not good for man to be alone. This truth is reflected in the Trinity itself; in the many beautiful friendships depicted in Scripture (e.g. David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi); and in the many injunctions throughout the book of Proverbs to seek wise counsel. In the New Testament, we see at least two powerful indications that God does, indeed, intend for us to seek out other people.

The Body of Christ

As I read through the New Testament, this theme reappears over and over, even when it’s not specifically referred to as such. The implications of this analogy are manifold, so I will focus simply on one passage — from the chapter, actually, that most of us first think of in relation to this topic. Here’s what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:21, 24-26:

And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you” …but God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no divisions in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.

Did you catch that? We cannot say to another person, “Thanks, I’m fine; I can do this on my own.” In fact, we are called to both suffer and rejoice with one another…and both the rejoicing and the suffering affect the whole body, whether we notice it or not.

The Words of Christ

This is a blink-and-you-miss-it verse, but, despite its brevity, it blows me away every time I read the book of Luke. Speaking to His disciples the night before the crucifixion, amidst a discourse on servant leadership, Jesus says to His companions: “You are those who have stood by Me in My trials.” (Luke 22:28)

Jesus — God Incarnate, the second Person of the Trinity, who had a host of angels at His command — was thankful that, during His time on earth, He had people to lean on. And, in a beautiful demonstration of what it means NOT to lord it over those under one’s authority (something He’d addressed a few verses earlier), He acknowledged as much to His disciples. His flawed, argumentative, often undependable disciples.

Although they still hadn’t fully understood who Jesus was, they knew enough that they must have been bowled over by this declaration. I can’t even imagine how they must have felt. I’m just a regular guy! I’ve blown it so many times. Jesus says I’ve stood by Him in His trials? If “we’re not worthy” is ever the thing to say, this would be the time to say it.

———————————

At the end of the day, God is the One who satisfies everything in us that, ultimately, other humans will sometimes fail to provide. And yet, as long as we have these earthly bodies, we need not shrink from seeking out those who are made in God’s image. It’s how He designed us.

And I am so thankful.

Working Out is Hazardous…But in a Good Way

Sometimes God reminds me of His goodness through the encouraging words of a friend. Other times, He reveals it in the beauty of fall sunshine. And occasionally, He uses a twisted knee.

See, I work out on most days, even if it’s just for 20 minutes. Not purely for buffness (ha!), but for stress relief and for at least a teeny bit of leeway in terms of carb consumption. Recently, I became overzealous in attempting to follow the 25-year-old leading the workout video, and as soon as I completed one of the more vigorous moves, my left knee did something weird. I hope that doesn’t come back to haunt me, I thought.

Two days later — big shocker here — I’m still hobbling around the house, standing up very slowly, keeping my feet elevated as much as possible, and decidedly NOT working out. And I’m very, very annoyed with myself.

BUT…my kids have been amazing. Parenting has really been wearing me down recently, and I’ve seriously questioned my capacity to even be a mom, let alone a homeschooler. Though I constantly remind myself of Galatians 6:9 — “Let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due time we will reap, if we do not give up” — I have grown weary. SO weary. Will they ever learn to look outside of themselves? Will they ever give preference to others in honor? When it comes to the most important things we talk about — heart issues, character growth — am I just banging my head against the wall?

Through my messed-up knee, God has reminded me that He is at work. Both kids have asked me, over and over, what they can do to help. They’ve asked me how I’m feeling, and patted my knee sympathetically when doing so. They’ve accepted extra chores without complaint — cheerfully, in fact. In short: God has assured me that the seeds He has helped me to plant are not lying dormant.

Of course, I should know this. I’ve seen His faithfulness again and again. And yet, even though it’s really rather silly for me to feel discouraged, He knows that I am “but dust,” and when I am weak, He graciously gives me a glimpse of the work He is continually doing deep below the soil of my children’s hearts.

If a temporary limp is what it takes to remind me to keep trusting Him…well, I’ll gladly take it.

Not Just a Feeling, More Than a Verb

Why is it so hard for us to love perfectly?

One answer, of course, is obvious. Although I’ve known the above verses since childhood, I constantly fall short for the simple reason that sin gets in the way. It’s hard not to be self-seeking and easily angered when I am selfish and irritable. It’s hard to be patient, and always hope, when I’m naturally impatient and prone to giving up. My very nature prevents me from showing 1 Corinthians 13 love, without stumbling, every day and all the time.

While I could fill a book with the aspects of sin that hinder us from faithfully applying Paul’s prescription for godly love, I would like to propose, instead, that my initial question has another answer — one we often overlook.

Love comes from the heart.

As Christians, many of us tend to balk at such statements. We know Jeremiah 17:9, which tells us that the heart is “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.”  We know better than to trust our feelings. We’ve heard and read repeatedly that love is a verb.

The thing is, all of that rings true (especially the part from Jeremiah). Our hearts ARE corrupted by sin, which means those who use “follow your heart” as a guiding principle will soon stray far from God. After all, in that context, “heart” is essentially synonymous with “feelings,” and our feelings are surely the most fickle of counselors. Because of these truths, numerous teachers and counselors emphasize the importance of showing love through our words and actions, regardless of how we feel. Love, they say, is a verb; in fact, look at all the verbs in First Corinthians 13.

On one hand, they are absolutely correct.

On the other hand…real biblical love is so much more.

Reading Paul’s letters provides an eye-opening glimpse into the heartfelt love that motivated him to spread the Gospel throughout the world. He says of his brothers and sisters in the Philippian church: “I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you are all partakers of grace with me. For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:7-8). To the Thessalonians, he writes: “Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 1:7-8).

These are beautiful examples of loving from the heart; however, the Bible gives us more than just examples to indicate the kind of love that should mark us as Christians. First Peter 4:8 leaves no room for ambiguity about whether we really need to pursue deep, genuine love: “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins” (emphasis mine).

The trouble, of course, is that this is so much more easily said than done. How can we manufacture a feeling? Especially towards people who — let’s be honest — are pretty darn difficult? If we turn again to Philippians, we find that looking to Jesus provides the perspective that will enable us to do so.

Simply put: If I look at others from my own perspective, I will love very, very few people. Sadly, I can always point to one reason or another that a given person is not worthy of my love. Each one of us stumbles every day, and if I so choose, I can easily turn a blind eye to my own shortcomings while ferreting out the failings and foibles of those around me.

But if I look at people through the eyes of Christ, all of that is turned upside down.

Despite being in the form of God, Jesus took the form of a servant. He knew that our world was broken by sin, and saw into the heart of every person He encountered. Instead of being disgusted by what He saw, however — instead of comparing His sinless perfection with the sin-stained mess inside each human being — He saw the image of God. He saw people and “felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). He was moved, not to revulsion or a sense of smug superiority, but to pity and compassion.

Imagine if we did the same.

Imagine encountering a difficult person and remembering that Jesus feels compassion for him or her. That this person battles the same illness that you and I do — sin — though the symptoms differ from one person to another. That we are called to think even of unpleasant people as “more significant than [our]selves,” and to remember that they are — like you and I — in desperate need of grace.

Being a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17) isn’t just about having our behavior transformed. It’s about letting the Holy Spirit change us from the inside out; becoming more and more like our Savior every day; and about following Him so closely that, when we see our fellow human beings, we see them, not through our fleshly eyes, but through His grace-filled ones.

And the more we allow Him to transform our perception of others, the more we will find that we truly do love them from the heart.