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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Wondrous Love: Being a Child of God

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One of my favorite pasttimes is eavesdropping on my children.

Of course, opportunities to do so arise rarely. I’m usually in close contact with my kids, and when I’m not, it’s because I’m trying to fend them off so I can accomplish something productive (or eat chocolate in secret). Every so often, though, I manage to observe them undetected. I peek through the windows of their Sunday School rooms; listen outside the door while they’re playing nicely together at home (did I mention that this happens rarely?); or sneak into their bedrooms after dark to marvel, once again, at how beautiful they are when they sleep.

On one of these occasions, as I gazed intently at my precious little girl, it suddenly hit me: They really have no idea how much I love them. 

In fact, they probably suspect, sometimes, that I don’t love them. Frankly, it’s not always easy. They often resent my interference with their goals; they take much more than they give; when I do something special with them, they complain when it’s over instead of thanking me for a fun time; and, on the whole, they don’t truly believe that I have their best interests in mind.

None of this, however, alters the fact that I am head over heels for these baffling little creatures. Why? Sure, they’re cute — and sometimes they’re fun — but factoring in both the good and the bad, I can’t say they’ve earned it. The truth is: I love them because they are mine.

Only as adults will they truly begin to grasp this. I know, because the same is true for me. Although young adulthood taught me to appreciate my parents more and more, I had yet to recognize the depth and self-sacrificial nature of their love for me…to realize that this love didn’t reflect how lovable and charming I was, but how faithful and selfless they were.

Who else displays this depth of devotion — this boundless love, undeserved yet freely bestowed? Only one Person — and I, like a child, am not only undeserving of His love, but am wholly incapable of grasping its immensity. When I think on the vast difference between my children’s love and mine, it stuns me to consider the immeasurably greater difference between my love and God’s.

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In truth, my confidence in God’s love sometimes wavers. I occasionally question His plans. I act out of selfishness and pride instead of gratitude and trust. In fact — let me be perfectly honest — I can be a real ingrate. And yet He loves me with an everlasting love (Jer. 31:3), not because of my character…but because of His. This assurance quells my fears and puts my doubts to rest…and the longer I know Him, the more deeply I experience and believe in His love for me.

Whether you have children or not…whether your relationship with your own parents brings joy or frustration…you can be assured that our Father’s love is perfect. He is the Parent in whose image every parent was created; we are the children who bear that same image, and with whom He desires an intimate relationship…whom He pursues passionately, even when, like the prodigal son, we stray far from home in search of our own foolish desires. As time passes, I marvel more and more at the awesome truth expressed in 1 John 3:1:

“Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!”

 

You Are Amazing

I have this friend who’s just amazing.

She homeschools her three children, each one a paragon of academic excellence as well as expertise in a specialized area. One is a gifted pianist and artist; another spends his free time designing intricate and baffling engineering projects; and the youngest, at age five, already reads flawlessly. In addition to raising prodigies, my friend also creates perfect French braids, bakes bread every week, speaks three languages, and plays piano for various chamber ensembles…superbly, of course. Everything she does, she does well.

Another friend of mine also astounds me. She works from home, and spends several days a week helping with or leading various ministries in her church. Because one of her children has Cerebral Palsy, she devotes a large portion of every day to physical therapy, as well as helping him with basic tasks most of us take for granted. Somehow, though, she still manages to keep her house clean enough that she can regularly open her home for Bible studies, Girls’ Nights, pool parties, or one-on-one time with those of us who need a friend and know she will listen intently and advise lovingly. She has an incredible heart.

There’s this other friend who blows me away, too. She had a difficult upbringing, and got pregnant at fifteen. Despite unsupportive family members, she kept her baby, yet still succeeded in completing high school. Now, as a married mother of four, she works part-time, takes care of the household finances, cooking, and cleaning, and dedicates all of her remaining time and energy to playing with her kids, cheering them on at soccer games, and teaching them about Jesus’ love for them. Although she faces ongoing challenges with extended family, she meets them with grace, and, as far as I can tell, serves as the glue holding them together. Her strength inspires me to face the challenges in my own life.

I could go on…but I’ll mention just one more person. She struggles to keep her house in order, and hasn’t fully managed to teach her kids to do it either. While she likes to plan fun and educational activities for her kids, she can never quite get on top of things, and often ends up just taking them to the playground or the library again. Although her efforts to be a good mom require most of her physical and emotional resources, she often feels like she doesn’t quite cut it…yet, by now, she doesn’t feel like she’s too great at anything else anyway. The funny thing is, her friends don’t see her that way. Actually, they think it’s pretty cool that she cooks family dinners from scratch (even though the ingredients are from the grocery store, not homegrown); that she runs (even though she’s, like, NOT fast); and that she plays piano (adequately, but she’s hardly a professional).

I know all this because, of course, I am this person. I can so easily see and acknowledge what is distinctive and admirable in those around me, but dismiss as insignificant what is good in myself. And yet…God has designed everyone differently, and has laid out a unique path for each of us. When I consider the friends described above, what I admire, fundamentally, is not their accomplishments; it’s the grace and strength with which they walk the paths they’ve each been given.

So here’s what I want you to remember. Each of the people I mentioned would describe herself as ordinary. Wishes, in fact, that she could do better at this, that, or the other thing. But I know the truth…because I gain inspiration and encouragement just from knowing them, and they are precious to me. Maybe you, too, feel quite ordinary; you simply muddle through from one day to the next. There’s a good chance, though, that those who know and love you see things very differently. They might be looking at you and wondering how you do it all.

In fact, you know what? They just might think that you are amazing.

Rest For Your Soul

Every day, it happens. Usually several times, and almost always during a rare moment of relaxation. The little nag inside my head gives me a poke and says, “You should be doing more.”

“You’ve made a summer schedule. When’s the last time you looked at it? It’s almost July, and you haven’t done a single math game with the kids! And how about the towers of outgrown clothes in the shed – the ones you said you’d sort through this summer? Still towering. Oh, and the kitchen cabinets? Nope, still haven’t learned to clean themselves. WHY ARE YOU SITTING DOWN? Snap to it, young lady!”

And then…a gentler voice. “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)

But…the Nag is right – those are things I really need to do! They would help our household run more efficiently, enable me to be more patient, educate my children. I mean, some days I don’t even get them out of their pajamas. I have to get on top of all this. I need to get it all together, and every moment lost represents one more step down the road to failure. Back to work – now!

Then once again, like the voice of a mother soothing a frantic child, another reminder from God’s Word gently calms me: “For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust.” (Psalm 103:14)

And the more I reflect, the more I realize that God never tells us to hurry – or to be superheroes. Instead, He invites us to “find rest for [our] souls” (Matthew 11:28), and promises that “Like a shepherd He will tend His flock…He will gently lead the nursing ewes” (Isaiah 40:11).

If we look around, we will always find something that needs to be done. Or, at least, would be helpful; an improvement on the way things are. And if we allow ourselves to believe that things won’t be “right” until we get through our to-do list…we will never stop. Yet, when I remember that God knows my weakness – not just intellectually, but experientially, as the One who came in the flesh to live with us, as one of us – I realize that many of these demands and deadlines are self-imposed.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should just be indolent; we can find plenty of Scripture that endorses the value of work, and the importance of making the most of what God has given us in the form of time, talent, and even material things. When we cross over into perfectionism and workaholism, though, we doom ourselves to frustration, exhaustion, and failure, setting ideals for ourselves that God never demands.

Does God call us to honor Him with our lives? Absolutely. BUT…does He fold His arms and tap His foot impatiently every time I let a day get away from me…let the clothes pile up for a few days (or weeks) too long…neglect to follow through on a consequence the children have been told to expect for breaking a certain rule? Goodness, no. God’s grace covers and redeems all my failures, real or imagined; “His lovingkindnesses never fail. They are new every morning.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)

And so I remind myself anew to take one day at a time. To remember that some things can wait until tomorrow. To gratefully accept the gift of rest that God has given us. And to revel, every day, in His crazy, unimaginable grace.