What to Do Now

Friends, I am deeply troubled.

Today, amid more turmoil than I’ve ever seen surrounding an election, the Oval Office gained a new inhabitant. Facebook — and doubtless every social media platform I don’t use — is abuzz with commentary. While some from both sides of the aisle are simply resigned, many liberals are angry; conversely, many conservatives are triumphant…gloating, even.

If you know me or my blog, you know that I avoid politics to the point of appearing (perhaps accurately?) wishy-washy. I will probably continue to do so in the future…but today, for a few moments, I will step into the messiness of this season with a simple plea.

Fellow Christians, please show the world around you, more fervently than ever, what it means to be a lover of Jesus.

Some believers abstained from voting because of Trump’s *ahem* questionable moral character. Others reluctantly voted for him because of the Supreme Court and the sanctity of life. Still others cast their vote as enthusiastically as if Trump were King David himself, a man after God’s own heart.

The world likes to accuse Christians of hypocrisy. It saddens me, as most of us who are honest will reply that the very sin nature that condemns us is the reason we need a Savior. However, I can’t help but wonder if they have a valid point these days.

We vilified Bill Clinton for his philandering, and many Christians considered him unworthy to be a leader because of his unfaithfulness to his wife. We now applaud a man whose behavior is no better, saying nobody is perfect and it’s irrelevant to his leadership abilities.

We read Galatians 5, which tells us that fruit of the Spirit includes faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, but swear that a man who displays none of these things — who admits to never having asked God for forgiveness — is probably a Christian simply because he says so.

Please understand: I am not claiming that voting for Trump is an indicator of one’s salvation (or its absence). Much could be said on the comparative virtues of voting against him, voting for him, or not voting at all. (I know and love believers who fall into all categories. Yes, I said that). Such a discussion is beyond the scope of this blog post, though.

My plea is simple: If you love Jesus, and want to have any hope of convincing those who don’t believe in Him that He is worthy of their faith and devotion, please model His love for the world to see.

Be compassionate.

Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to become angry. (James 1:19).

Let your speech be always with grace. (Colossians 4:6).

Show those who associate Christianity with an insistence on wholeheartedly endorsing a brash, crude, pompous bulldozer of a man that loving Jesus looks so much different from what we’re seeing in the news.

Or, to put it in the words of Jesus Himself:

“Let your light so shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in Heaven.” (Matthew 5:16).

 

Getting to Know a Father’s Heart

During my first pregnancy, I learned something surprising: Many daughters have difficult relationships with with their mothers. Having enjoyed a close relationship with my own mom, I needed time to process this. What I’ve since concluded: mothers either drive us crazy or keep us sane, but, regardless, most of us do have some sort of powerful bond with them. 

I suspect this is part of the reason Mother’s Day became an official holiday in 1914, whereas Father’s Day — though unofficially observed much earlier — didn’t make it on to the calendar until 1972. There’s something about that emotional bond — whether it’s “Thank you, Mom, for being my best friend” or “Mom, even though it’s been rough between us, I’ve always known you’re there for me” — that makes us empty the flower shops and fill The Cheesecake Factory to overflowing every year in the beginning of May.

Father’s Day, on the other hand, often stops us in our tracks. We know Dad doesn’t really need another tie, and eating out isn’t that big of a deal for somebody who doesn’t cook,* and golf is expensive, so…how do we show our appreciation? For that matter, who is this guy, anyway?

*I realize this is just one of many sweeping generalizations I’m making here. Truthfully, I don’t know many men who cook regularly if their wives are home. Bear with me.

 

I confess that, for quite a while, I felt closest to my mom. The same is true for many of my friends. Even those who had difficult mother-daughter relationships end up calling mom when adulthood has become overwhelming and they just crave a heart-to-heart talk. We instinctively sense that Mom knows how to listen.

Fatherhood, I begin to suspect, can be very isolating.

Over the past decade or so, I’ve learned a lot about my own dad. Almost everything I’ve learned has always been true; I just didn’t realize that the lines of communication — the emotional connection that made it possible for me to know his heart — had always been there. He just had a different way of showing it.

My mom is a gusher. It’s awesome. She makes me (and everybody who knows her) feel so good about themselves…and she really is being genuine, too.

My dad . . . is not a gusher. He doesn’t waste words, and is very honest, though never cruelly so. In my younger years, what I didn’t see was that, when my dad did offer words of encouragement and admiration, it came from deep down, where he really, truly saw something exceptional and felt moved to express it out loud.

When my dad compliments my writing, it buoys me up for weeks afterward, because he has read extensively and written excellently, and if he thinks I’m good, I must have some business trying to be a writer.

When he describes me as a good musician, I have to believe him, at least partly, because he is one of the most gifted and dedicated musicians I know…so maybe I wasn’t wasting my time as a music teacher.

When he says he’s proud of the person I’ve become…I feel like going on. Because he must see some good in me that I can’t see when I feel like I’ve failed at almost everything. Because of who my father is, words of encouragement from him are among my most precious treasures.

It’s easy to think of Mom as the nurturer, the sympathetic listener, the one whose heart breaks when her kids are hurting. With my mother, all these things hold beautifully true. Something I’ve discovered, though — the thing that blows me away — is this:

My father feels my joy and my sorrow even more deeply than I do.

When I’m in pain, it hurts my dad, and I know he fervently lifts me up in prayer with more passion and persistence than I do. When I rejoice, he rejoices along with me, thanking God that his girl is happy. I know that whatever I confide to him, he will tuck away in his heart and guard carefully.

Not everybody is fortunate enough to have a father who so wonderfully reflects God’s love for us. Some are deprived of even having a father who is present. As long as the world is fallen, broken relationships will exist, and it will be harder for many to believe that God really loves them.

He does, though, and a father who truly loves God with all his heart will embody that love, giving his children a glimpse of what God’s love looks like.

I am so thankful that I have a dad like that.

 

**********

 

The Hidden Beauty of Hope

What aspect of agape love do you find the most challenging?

In 1 Corinthians 13, the apostle Paul presents a beautiful, detailed, rigorous list of qualities that reflect the love God shows us and that we, in turn, are to show others. Most of us, when we’re honest, admit that we fall far short in more than one area. I, for one, cringe particularly when asking myself: “Am always patient? Do I seek my own? Am I easily provoked?” Ouch, ouch, and ouch.

Nestled in the middle of the chapter, however, is a phrase I’ve somehow neglected to contemplate; one that I have, in fact, been skimming over for years.

Love…hopes all things.

I’ve read it, obviously. I know it’s there. It sounds pretty rolling off the tongue: “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” But once upon a time —  a short, short time ago — I finally stopped and wondered: “Do I hope all things?”

The answer, of course, is “no.”

One can easily see the merits of being patient, kind, free of jealousy and arrogance, and so forth. Those close to us can easily see (and point out for us!) the characteristics Paul mentions in verses 4-5, and those same people will feel more or less loved according to how well we manifest these more visible aspects of love. Accordingly, we tend to work — with varying consistency — at adopting these virtues.

But…hope?

At some point in our lives, we will all encounter somebody who is difficult to love. Our capacity for patience will be stretched; we may battle jealousy more strenuously than usual; it might require all our willpower to resist keeping a record of wrongs. The circumstances will not involve a one-time event from which we can recover and move on, but instead will be an ongoing situation demanding that we continually take up our cross so as to live in a manner that reflects our Savior.

Through determination…with reliance on the Holy Spirit…by giving ourselves time to recharge emotionally…we may succeed in showing love as well as the situation allows. Inwardly, though, the story may be very different. We may, in fact, have given up.

 

* * * * * * * * *

 

Hope.

It sounds almost frivolous.

Muscle through…put one foot in front of the other…mind over matter. It seems like the only way to survive. Clinging to hope? Sounds like a perfect way to set yourself up for disappointment, and more heartbreak. We are not promised that the circumstances will improve, so — isn’t hope just a pointless indulgence?

I’ve certainly felt it to be so. But…

If Paul told us that love hope all things, there must be a reason. An example. Something more solid than a cheery smile and a “Don’t lose hope, dearie, I’m sure everything’s gonna turn out just great.”

It might not surprise you that, for these things, we need look no farther than Jesus…and His relationship with wonderful, flawed, oh-so-human Peter.

On more than one occasion, Peter messed things up badly. None of his foibles, however, came close to what happened after Jesus was arrested. Three times that night, Peter was given a chance to stand up for his Friend…and three times, he failed. At the time when Jesus was the most alone, when the loyalty of friends would have been most meaningful, Peter let Him down. If Luke 22:61 had reported that, after the third denial, “The Lord turned and looked at Peter, shook His head sorrowfully, and forsook all hope for this wayward disciple,” we could hardly blame Him.

 

* * * * * * * *

 

The next time we see Him interact with Peter, Jesus has died, risen again, and appeared to His disciples several times. After breakfasting with the disciples, Jesus asks if Peter loves Him — not once, but three times. He certainly has plenty of evidence to the contrary; plenty of reasons to give Peter the cold shoulder. Instead, He looks at Peter with love…and hope.

Hope that there’s more to Peter than bumbling brashness and latent cowardice.

Hope that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, things can look different for Peter.

Hope that Peter will fulfill the words Jesus spoke to him in Matthew 16:18: “I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”

I don’t think it’s wild speculation to imagine that, if Jesus had lost hope for Peter — if He had concluded, after the denials, that this disciple wasn’t worth fighting for — Peter’s ministry would have died before seeing the light of day. Peter would have sensed Jesus’ hopelessness, reflected on the choices that caused it, and concluded that he was, indeed, beyond hope.

Praise the Lord that it didn’t end this way!

If we lose hope for the people we are trying to love, we will quit fighting. Or maybe we’ll keep fighting, but our hearts won’t be in it. And those who have disappointed us…hurt us…failed us…they will realize, sooner or later, that we consider them a burden to be endured rather than a soul worth striving for. And then?

Then, hope truly will be lost.

Love hopes all things.

Jesus showed us the kind of love that pursues; believes; trusts in the redemptive power of a God who can turn darkness to light and give beauty for ashes. He showed us what it means to have hope for somebody who doesn’t deserve it. He showed us that hope just might be the underlying current driving the tenacious love that will enable us to hang on.

This kind of hope isn’t easy; in fact, it might be the hardest part of 1 Corinthians 13. It carries no promises regarding specific situations. And yet, even if our hopeful love never makes a difference in those who have let us down…it will make a difference in us.

If you’re running on empty, perhaps hope is the thing you’ve lost that you didn’t know you needed.

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In the Palm of His Hand

“Why do you say, O Jacob, and assert, O Israel,

‘My way is hidden from the Lord,

And the justice due me escapes the notices of my God’?”

~ Isaiah 40:27

One thing I’ve learned in my almost-forty years of life is that you can’t let one bad day get you down. Sometimes I find things going wrong, find everybody around me uncooperative, find myself short-tempered, and realize: I’m having a bad day. With that realization comes relief: no matter how long this day seems, it will eventually end, and tomorrow will likely be better.

Then there are those times when tomorrow isn’t better.

A steady stream of those days eventually sends me into a downward spiral, and at the bottom of it is that monster, depression. I don’t have time for it, I try to fight it off, but the struggle is wearying. I try to close my ears to the inner voices: “You’re not enough.

“You’re not talented enough…not smart enough…not disciplined enough…not kind enough…not strong enough…not productive enough…not good enough.”

In those times, I cry out to God, but truthfully, I don’t feel as reassured as I should. I can’t help wondering if those voices are right, and if maybe everything about me really is wrong. The monster begins to wear me down, and I feel like I’m fighting it alone.

But I know better. I always know better. Because God “does not become weary or tired, [and] his understanding is inscrutable” (Is. 40:28). Over and over, He has given me tangible assurance of His love and care just when I’ve been tempted to feel forgotten.

Earlier this week, after realizing the futility of trying to hold it all together, I called my mom. In the few minutes she had free that morning, she spoke words that showed me I wasn’t a complete failure. We hung up, and, continuing to fight tears, I checked my email. Out of nowhere, a dear, wise older friend had written to say she had sensed my struggle and would be praying for me throughout that day. Her words were just what I needed to read to strengthen me for the day ahead.

So far, this week has been much like last week. I won’t pretend I’m sailing through it with a smile and an aura of unflappable serenity. But I do know that God is good. He hasn’t forgotten me. He loves me so much that He provides beautiful people, His image-bearers and beloved saints, to give me tangible reminders of His love. And I cling to this:

Even when I can barely hold on, God is always…ALWAYS…holding on to me.

“If I take the wings of the dawn,

If I dwell in the remotest parts of the sea,

Even there Your hand will lead me,

And Your right hand will lay hold of me.”

~ Psalm 139:9-10

Keeping the Real Treasures Close

“But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” ~ Luke 2:19

I have a rather specific mental picture of how the perfect Christmas should look. (Doesn’t everybody?) The details don’t have to be the same every year — I’m not a control freak or something like that — but, starting on December 24th, certain elements should be present for Christmas to feel…right.

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A beautiful, reverent Christmas Eve service.

Lots of hugs from family.

Children listening, rapt, while Granddad begins the gift exchange by reading from Luke 2.

Everybody loving the gifts they’ve received.

Plenty of time playing games while scarfing down my mom’s amazing Christmas cookies.

Singing with my family from the Oxford Book of Carols.

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I feel pretty good about this list. Aside from the gift thing (which is about others, not me, see?), nothing on it smacks of materialism or shallowness. As an adult, I’ve truly learned to savor the beauty of the Incarnation, and to love contemplating, once more, what it means to me as a Christian. All of the above items, in one way or another, provide me with tangible reminders of the truths we learn from the Christmas story.

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But what if those reminders don’t play out the way I’d hoped?

Some years, the schedule just ends up all wonky. Time doesn’t allow for some things to happen, or for them to occur in the proper sequence. Other people have different plans. Sometimes, the time I hope to spend in reflection is swallowed up by distractions — not self-inflicted distractions such as Facebook or YouTube, but kids…emergencies…life.

And suddenly, I face an uncomfortable question: When life gets in the way, am I still able to worship?

What about the believers in China, who risk arrest simply for professing faith in Christ? Do they have a mental Christmas checklist? Did Corrie Ten Boom get to spend the WWII years celebrating Christmas the way she remembered it from her childhood, or did she postpone worshiping the Christ Child until she was in more comfortable surroundings? For that matter…what about Mary?

I’ve read many times about how, when the shepherds came to the stable and reported the words of the angels, Mary treasured up and pondered all she had heard. I’ve imagined Mary going on to live a contemplative life, often finding a quiet spot in the starlight where she could meditate on the meaning of everything she’d experienced. I’ve envisioned her cradling the sleeping Jesus and quietly praying in breathless wonder. It never occurred to me that these were luxuries she very well may have missed out on.

She was poor.

She had a newborn to care for.

She and Joseph were forced to flee from a madman bent on killing every male child under two.

Mary did not have an abundance of resources, time included. She probably would have loved to take some time to be alone with God. To celebrate her Son’s arrival in the company of her loved ones. To look up at the sky and just breathe it all in. However, while I don’t know the details of her personal life, it’s safe to say that her circumstances were probably far less than ideal, and that her opportunities for reflective solitude were minimal.

And yet — despite the challenges of poverty, oppression, and becoming a new mother — Mary worshiped the Lord.

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Instead of letting circumstances dictate her spiritual attitude, Mary kept God’s truths close to her heart. We know this, because Luke made a point of telling us about it. And only now do I realize how difficult that must have been.

Life sometimes disappoints us. The holidays are no different; in fact, our ideals often set us up for bigger disappointments than those of “normal” life. As we contemplate Luke 2:19, though, perhaps we can remember that, if our treasures are laid up in heaven, nothing external can take those treasures from us. We can, like Mary — like Corrie Ten Boom — like believers who still face oppression today — worship Christ in our hearts as we face the struggles of an earthly life that often falls short of our expectations.

My prayer is that, by God’s grace, I will become less dependent every year on the trappings of Christmas — however beautiful and good and praiseworthy they may be — as I learn to treasure the joy of Christ’s birth in my heart, and to worship Him wholeheartedly. Even if…especially if…things don’t go according to my plan.

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The Visited Planet

There was once a time — though we rarely remember it now — when most scientists envisioned a universe in which Earth lay at the very center. Not until the sixteenth century, when Nicolaus Copernicus challenged this geocentric model — and Johannes Kepler further explored and propounded a heliocentric view — did scientists begin to accept the idea that not only was Earth part of a system that actually revolved around the Sun, but this “solar system” was one of an uncountable number of galaxies in an immeasurably vast universe. Earth was, in fact, comparatively tiny…and, in a cosmic sense, insignificant.

Reading Psalm 8, one senses that David, writing thousands of years ago, recognized this apparent insignificance:

As I flash forward several thousand years to an era of satellites and space shuttles and the Hubble Telescope, all of which allow us glimpses of the breathtakingly beautiful universe out there, I find myself wondering the same thing.

If size indicated importance, we would be right to consider ourselves, along with our earthly home, inconsequential. Our planet is not the biggest, and we have only one moon. We don’t even live in the center of our own galaxy, let alone the universe.

And yet…

God, who is before all things, and in whom all things hold together, is mindful of the fragile, temporal beings who tread the surface of this little planet, dancing behind Mercury and Venus around a sun thousands of times bigger than itself. So much so, in fact, that some two thousand years ago, while innumerable stars, moons, and planets whirled in the heavens, God Himself quietly visited our humble, tiny home…in the humblest, tiniest form possible.

“God, who knows no before or after, entered time and space,” writes Philip Yancey. “God, who knows no boundaries, took on the shocking confines of a baby’s skin, the ominous restraints of mortality…Could it be true, this Bethlehem story of a Creator descending to be born on one small planet? If so, it is a story like no other. Never again need we wonder whether what happens on this dirty little tennis ball of a planet matters to the rest of the universe.”

Astronomers are continually learning more about the cosmos, and their discoveries teach us just how immense –and how stunningly beautiful — space truly is. As we contemplate it, we can let ourselves feel dwarfed by the vastness of it all…or we can ponder anew just how significant we must be in the eyes of our Creator. James Lovell, Command Module Pilot on the Apollo 8 Space Mission in 1968, touched on the nature of this significance when he reflected on viewing Earth from orbit around the Moon:

It was just another body, really, about four times bigger than the moon. But it held all the hope and all the life and all the things that the crew of the Apollo 8 knew and loved. It was the most beautiful thing there was to see in all the heavens.

It doesn’t matter that Earth is not the physical center of the universe. What matters is that God, who spoke into being galaxies and oceans, who created beauty and gave us hearts and minds to perceive it, loves us so much that, some two thousand years ago, He showed how highly He valued us…by clothing Himself in human flesh and walking the surface of this little planet along with us.

Immanuel…God with us.

As we celebrate the Incarnation, may we discover fresh awe in contemplating that tumbledown stable in which Heaven and Earth met. May we, with David, marvel at the glorious truth that He does care for us. And when we look at the stars, may we realize, not how small we are, but how big God is…and sing for joy at the wondrous mystery of it all.

You’re Not Crunchy Enough

Years ago, I saw a poster containing the following message:

WARNING: IT HAS BEEN DETERMINED THAT EATING OR DRINKING ANYTHING, AT ANY TIME, IS BAD FOR YOU.

I don’t remember what the latest food scare was, but the poster made me laugh because it reflected reality. Eggs? Great source of protein.

…Wait, no, they’ll kill you because cholesterol.

…Oops, we made a mistake, it’s good cholesterol. Sorry we scared you; have an omelette.

Red meat? Too much fat.

…Hang on, fat is good, so eat up!

…Just a sec — okay, turns out it causes cancer. Run away!

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This waffling, however, is old news. If you really want to be a Health Nut Foodie Guru, there’s a new pasttime that proves your dedication. It involves four easy steps:

  1. Identify something good for you.
  2. Find out (this is crucial) the MOST NUTRITIONALLY BENEFICIAL WAY to eat it.
  3. Prepare it accordingly for yourself.
  4. Warn everybody (also crucial!) who hasn’t observed Steps 2 and 3.

Perhaps an illustration will empower you, so here’s a scenario I observed recently (with names and situation changed to protect the innocent).

~ ~ ~

FRIEND: “I’ve been trying to make better food choices for my family recently. Today we had homemade chicken soup! Fresh vegetables, chicken, parsley, and bouillon. Yummy!”

NOT FRIEND: “Bouillon? You know, it would be much more nutritious to use bone broth.”

FRIEND: “Oh. Sorry.”

~ ~ ~

Making improvements in health is all well and good, but darn it, if people are not going to go ALL THE WAY to prove their commitment, they might as well serve Lunchables. Or so I’m ready to conclude. Because seriously, it’s everywhere.

Coconut oil? SO good for you. Magical, in fact.

…oh, but it really MUST be organic if you’re even going to bother.

…by the way, if you keep it in the pantry instead of the fridge, it will probably kill you. Yes, I know it seems fine at room temperature, but it’s lying.

Spinach? It gives you superpowers!

…as long as it’s organic, of course.

…oh yes, and it must be cooked to reduce oxalic acid content.

…but keep in mind that if you’re not combining it with a Vitamin-C-rich food, you’re wasting your time anyway.

People, this is getting out of hand. I’m probably on the crunchy-mama side of the spectrum, but I have yet to make kombucha or kefir or sourdough bread or my own ketchup recipe or baking-soda toothpaste. Which, according to some Health Nut Foodie Gurus, would probably indicate that I just don’t love my family enough to do what’s REALLY good for them. Go big or go home, they would say in the comment sections of the natural-living blogs. (Or to the Frozen Burrito section of the grocery store, since that’s what I might as well be serving).

If you’re a successful whole-foods, from-scratch, natural-living person, awesome. It’s the ideal. However, life happens. For numerous reasons, not everybody is ready for that. And some people are slowly making the journey toward a healthier lifestyle. The most discouraging message you can convey to them is: “You haven’t done enough.”

I guarantee you that, as somebody is taking baby steps toward better health, the most encouraging thing you can do is to say, “Chicken soup? That’s fabulous. It’s so inspiring to see you make progress in doing what’s best for your family.”

Trust me. It sounds crazy, but it really works.