Small Houses Don’t Mean Small Minds

I have lived in many houses in my lifetime, from the house of my childhood on ten acres where I could roam, to the cozy house my husband built for us to begin our life together, to the house in the country for our growing family, to a one-bedroom apartment in South Central Los Angeles where for eighteen weeks we lived with two teenaged sons(!), to the three-story house in Bonn…and several between. We’re now in a two-bedroom condo where, because of minimal storage space, I’ve decided that no new item can be purchased unless its replacement is donated to Goodwill!

But as the rooms have shrunk and the walls may seem to have closed in at this time of life, I’ve observed in others and the temptation in myself, to succumb to a small world mentality along with a small house. Matters that concern me more important than events, circumstances, conditions that affect the larger world. 

The tragic events in Washington, D.C. are just one example. While not advocating 24/7 attention to mind-grabbing media, neither could I avoid deep, heart-searching, even weeping attentiveness. On January 2nd I wrote in my journal: I want this to be a year of continual newness, continual growth, greater awareness, deeper thinking. So what practical, though uncomfortable, steps to the goal? As I watched the tragic events in our nation’s capital, was I merely a viewer? Or was I being called to ponder and pray? To ask hard questions about myself, about motivations of the mob, their targets, our leaders?

I realize that this process doesn’t occur in isolation from the “dailies” of life. Beautiful babies were born as rioters wreaked havoc. Grandmothers peacefully died of old age as others struggled for breath in the grips of Covid. But a “double life” is reality for the serious Christian. We dare not let our minds hide in seclusion as our bodies live in shrinking shelters. We must purposefully walk into the blur of hard questions, carefully weigh what we’ve “always believed” and—equally crucial—those leaders we’ve “always followed.”

No matter the size of my house, I want the “square footage” of my heart and mind to continually expand. As a French writer of the early 20th century wrote, It’s never too late to think big. Widen your horizons. Look beyond your normal limits. See things in a larger picture. Consider the next step… Perspective will emerge… (Paul Bourget)

Advent Promises

Thursday, December 24
Christmas Eve

He did not wait till the world was ready,

till men and nations were at peace.

He came when the Heavens were unsteady,

and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.

He came when the need was deep and great.

He dined with sinners in all their grime,

turned water into wine. He did not wait

till hearts were pure. In joy he came

to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.

To a world like ours, of anguished shame

he came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,

to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.

In the mystery of the Word made Flesh 

the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane

to raise our songs with joyful voice,

for to share our grief, to touch our pain,

he came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

—Madeleine L’Engle

Soli deo gloria

Advent Promises

Wednesday, December 23
I am the Lord’s servant… May it be to me according to your word.   Luke 1:18

When Mary spoke those words, she had no clue what lay ahead. We dwell in pandemic; she endured grief over murdered boy  babies. We live with loss of jobs, security and health; she traveled as an immigrant to a foreign country. We mourn the death of loved ones; she would watch her oldest son whipped and stabbed, mocked and crucified.

Mary’s profound I am the Lord’s servant was picked up years later by Paul as a standard for those of us calling ourselves servants:  Here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. (Romans 12:1-2  The Message)

Have you heard or sung Amy Grant’s “Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song)” this season? Are some of the words yours today? Listen well. And maybe weep.

I am frightened by the load I bear

In a world as cold as stone
Must I walk this path alone?
Be with me now…

Hold me together
Be forever near me…

Lighten my darkness
Pour over me your holiness…

But I offer all I am
For the mercy of your plan
Help me be strong…
Hold me together
Be forever near…

Advent Promises

Tuesday, December 22

After (Joseph) considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home to be your wife because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you are to give him the name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.
Matthew 1:20-21

“Don’t be afraid, Joseph. I know I’m asking the impossible. Breaking all the comfortable cultural and familial rules sounds incredible. I know this is hard to believe; I know your reputation will be in tatters; I know your business will suffer. I’m asking you to believe something no one else—except Mary—will believe. I’m asking you to act on your belief. Just trust me.”

Has God ever called you out of the believable, the normal, the expected, the comfortable? Maybe no angel appeared but you knew as surely as Joseph that this was something BIG. You knew that—if you obeyed—friends and family wouldn’t understand. Financial security might be threatened, social standing be in jeopardy. 

But God’s call—often a whisper—may not be as grand as a career choice or a move across cultures. It may be as simple as inviting a Muslim or Hindu or gay neighbor to join you for Christmas dinner. Would you be misunderstood? Or would you too see miracles?

…Forget convention and marry the overshadowed girl.
Forget plans and flee to a place
as alien and angular as its monuments.

Forget your fears and journey again through the desert
to the occupied country of your father.

Forget home and settle instead in the land of prophecy…
Who acts so boldly on what he knows in himself
against the evidence of everything he sees?Who believes so humbly that he is chosen, too,
for a role that makes miracles possible?

                                         —Author Unknown

Advent Promises

Monday, December 21

“Don’t be frightened, Mary,” the angel told her, “for God has decided to wonderfully bless you! Very soon now, you will become pregnant and have a baby boy, and you are to name him ‘Jesus’… 
and she gave birth to her first child, a son.
Luke 1:30-31 and 2:7 (The Living Bible)

The longest nine months in young Mary’s life! The faithful Jewish remnant had been waiting six centuries for the prophesied Messiah, but a chasm existed between theology and personal application. Gabriel’s message to Mary gave her an inkling of the profound event that lay ahead but her swelling belly, aching back, and sleepless nights are her current and very human reality.

Madeleine L’Engle beautifully captures what might have been Mary’s experience:

I know not all of that which I contain,
I’m small; I’m young; I fear the pain,
all is surprise: I am to be a mother,
that Holy Thing within me and not other
is Heaven’s King whose lovely Love will reign,

my pain, his gaining my eternal gain
my fragile body holds Creation’s Light;
its smallness shelters God’s unbounded might.

The angel came and gave, did not explain.
I know not all of that which I contain.

For some God occasionally reveals his plan with clarity. On occasion the call is clear enough to take calculated steps relying on continual guidance from the Holy Spirit. But the “nine months” between the call and the “giving birth” are frequently filled with what a 14th-century mystic called the “cloud of unknowing.”

There’s no going back. Labor pains will begin because pain is part of the process. know not all of that which I contain… But the promise is sure:

…(be) confident of this, that he who began a good work (in Mary and in you)
will carry it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

(Philippians 1:6)

Advent Promises

Sunday, December 20

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in his wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim In the light of His glory and grace.*

…gaze on the beauty of the Lord… Psalm 27:4

While living in Germany, we traveled with a friend from the United States to the beautiful tulip gardens of Holland. Afterwards we meandered through Amsterdam’s illustrious Rijksmuseum where the works of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh and other artists of renown fill the eyes with beauty. Because I’d visited the museum before, knew a little of the layout and, aware that our time was limited, led Dave to some of the more famous works of art. But I suddenly realized that he had stopped before an artist’s depiction of a courtyard scene with hundreds of tiny figures–men, women, children, dogs and cats. Glued to the spot, Dave gazed long at the painting and pointed out details I’d never noticed before.

That day’s art lesson has stayed with me through the years so when I read the phrase gaze on the beauty of the Lord, I stopped like Dave. Too often I’ve fixated on Isaiah’s words that Jesus possessed no beauty that we should desire him, and the Hebrew writer’s fixing our eyes on Jesus as a prescription for mental attention to Jesus’ life and words.

Gaze. Have you watched a new parent contemplating the newborn? Did you choose a Christmas card depicting Mary looking deeply into the infant face of Jesus? These aren’t mere exercises, but attention-gripping reactions to the beauty before them.

The things of earth scream at us five days before Christmas. It’s time to stop for important gazing time. Find a quiet space, light a candle and, using your sacred imagination, sit with the face of Jesus before you. What do you see in his infant face? His adolescent years? At the Samaria well when he broke all the rules to heal a woman’s heart? At the beach grilling fish?

And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.

*Helen H. Lemmel, 1922

Advent Promises

Saturday, December 19
…as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. Psalm 102:12

Without a counselor nearby to ask, I “googled” this question: “Why is it so hard to believe I’ve been forgiven?” Six of the eight sites I found emphasized why it’s so hard to forgive others. Only two addressed the difficulty of believing that I’ve been forgiven.

Nothing steals Advent joy like living under a cloud of perceived unforgiveness. When I refuse to believe that I’ve been forgiven—or when I don’t feel forgiven—it’s good to examine the “why.” Since it’s God’s good will for me to walk in freedom, the dark doubt my head and heart struggles with can’t be from him. If the message isn’t from God, it’s likely from the Enemy who is called the accuser (Revelation 12:10), the one who wants me to stay mired in shame, unable to intimately walk with God. God convicts of sin for the sake of leading us to freedom. Our enemy taunts us for the purpose of keeping us in bondage.*

After acknowledging the author of the defeating message, remembering the cross is crucial. Dr. Slattery goes on: He’s (Satan’s) happy for you to wear one (a cross) around your neck or hang one in your house as long as you don’t remember that Jesus’ death on the cross forever canceled sin!

In Screwtape Letters, C.S.. Lewis brilliantly reveals Satan’s ruse by letting us in on Screwtape’s reasoning: When they (Christians) say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired at the moment.

But the Enemy doesn’t give up easily. I’ve discovered that when he persists with his Policy of Shame (and incidentally, he seem to never give up this effort), it’s time to actively worship the One who grants forgiveness. Sing praise, meditate on Psalm 145 until David’s words are your own. Walk in Advent freedom!

*Dr. Juli Slattery, Clinical Psychologist

Advent Promises

Friday, December 18
(He) satisfies your desires with good things… Psalm 103:5

Have you ever hesitated singing all the words to “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”? I have no problem with the theological truth of the hymn. I firmly believe “he changest not,” and when I look at the snow-capped mountains here in Colorado, I have proof aplenty that “summer, winter, springtime, harvest, sun, moon and stars witness his faithfulness.” But what about the times when “all I have needed Thy hand hath provided” doesn’t flow from my heart, when tears stream as my heart aches with the reality of unfulfilled desires. Pat answers flow freely:

Delight yourself in the Lord: my desires just aren’t lining up with his…

Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will act: I’m so tired of waiting…

Commit your work to the Lord and your plans will be established: I’ve “committed” all that I know and my

plans have been smashed beyond recognition…

May he give you the desire of your heart: sounds like another pious benediction…

Too often we stuff such times deep into the soul: Just don’t talk about it; you’ll hinder someone’s faith. Or we claim (in spite of reality) that we should have outgrown such weakness: My faith should be stronger now.

Did Mary have “can’t sing” moments? In humility and trust she claimed May it be to me according to your word, and My soul rejoices in God my Savior. We don’t have any of her recorded words as she watched her son and Savior bleed and scream at the cross, but I suspect her heart wept and wondered. If she was one of the women who took spices to the tomb, she and her grieving sister expected a body, not a rolled away tombstone.

Remember that it’s just fine to not sing what you can’t believe at the moment. Be still and remember that mustard-seed faith will eventually grow and allow you to sing the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

Advent Promises

Thursday, December 17

Out of His fullness [the superabundance of His grace and truth] we
have all received grace upon grace [spiritual blessing upon
spiritual blessing, favor upon favor, and gift heaped upon gift].
John 1:16 Amplified Version

Several years ago I was in Russia as part of a team at a Teachers Convocation. An exciting aspect of the three days was meeting with small groups of educators to share teaching methods not generally used in their teach/learn-by-rote system. We talked about question/answer methods, critical thinking exercises, role play, etc. As an exercise for the latter, we used the story of the prodigal son from Luke 15 with each group acting out the story…including the pigs!

After much laughter while watching the creative ways people interpreted the story, we examined the prodigal account in more detail and since by this time, we had been together long enough for very honest exchange of ideas and opinions, discussion flowed freely. Almost without exception, the women in my group declared—some quite vehemently—that the father didn’t demand enough from his wayward son. He should have been required to pay back the money or live in a shack far from the house or… Grace was not a concept understood or acceptable to the women who had been living under a strict regime.

In a recent extended time of meditation, I was struck by how little I rest in God’s grace and how bland is my celebration of that grace. Probing self-examination is prioritized over praise and worship. How dare I think that I am purified from ALL unrighteousness (1 John 1:9)? Can I dance before the Lord like David? Why can I follow the rules more easily than lean on Jesus like John? Why do “should” and “ought” characterize my prayers?

Dare I live just one day this Advent swimming in the ocean of grace upon grace, spiritual blessing upon spiritual blessing, favor upon favor, and gift heaped upon gift? And then extend it to others? How about you?

Advent Promises

Wednesday, December 16

Do not worry…look at the birds of the air…your heavenly Father feeds them…Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.  Matthew 6 

We have a small bird feeder attached to our dining room window where the chickadees and sparrows delight us with their antics. Swooping from the nearby large pine tree, sometimes their tiny feet scramble as they land on the slippery peak instead of the sturdy ledge.

On one of the first frigid days of this winter, I re-filled the feeder just in case the predicted snow became a reality. Soon what looked like a bird gang frantically dove for their fair share of food, larger birds intent on displacing their smaller relatives.

In bird language, is this what I might have heard? 

Out of the way…I got here first. 
Don’t trust that human; she’s sure to forget about us.
Walmart food isn’t as good as seeds from the specialty shop. 
Did you see the banquet on the patio next door?

Ridiculous? Take a minute to examine your honest conversations with God about his supply. Any demands? Distrust? Envy? Impatience? Weariness? 

You owe me after all I’ve done for you.
It sure seems like you’re forgetting me.
I’m tired of “just enough.
I’m crying with the psalmist: “How long will the wicked prosper?”

Your “feeder” might be a little scant this year, but the way we look at the Father’s supply is a good indication of what and how we worship. Meditate on Matthew 6:25 and 26 from The Message:

If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes (in the bird feeder!)…  Look at the birds…