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.
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
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
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.”
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?
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…
Tuesday, December 15
I give you my own peace and my gift is nothing like the peace of this world. You must not be distressed and you must not be daunted. John 14:27 (J.B. Phillips New Testament)
This Phillips paraphrase unexpectedly caught my attention. It’s no secret that stress, anxiety, and depression are common challenges during these Covid crisis days. Zoom keeps us in touch, but we long for hugs and mask-less greetings. Creative home cooking is on the increase, but we miss café conversations. Online classes stimulate the brain, but we long for the classroom. One woman is creating a Covid scrapbook to include humorous quotes, positive notes from friends and newspaper articles cataloging the pandemic, but she admits the scrapbook may never be reviewed.
But these are only temporary Band-Aids unless something deep within is altered. What did Jesus do when hungry for bread—hungering for both physical and mental food? When tempted to take matters in his own hands? When isolated from family and close friends? Imagine him living today. Can you see him weeping with the brokenhearted, grieving with those who mourn, standing close to the lonely, and in the midst of it all, possessing and expressing perfect peace? Able to lovingly touch a leper, draw children into his arms, wash a betrayer’s feet, accept a prostitute’s kiss?
Don’t be ashamed to express heaviness of heart, but also actively reach for Jesus’ own peace, that which protects us from giving up, enables us to help others, and disarms the enemy who works only to discourage and defeat God’s children.
The “remedy” is both simple and cataclysmic: Don’t worry over anything whatever; tell God every detail of your needs in earnest and thankful prayer, and the peace of God which transcends human understanding, will keep constant guard over your hearts and minds as they rest in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7)
Monday, December 14
…why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” Acts 1:11
I grew up in a church with a heavy emphasis on end times teaching complete with charts of the various events: the return of Christ, the tribulation, the reign of Christ, etc. While I applaud the church’s effort to teach biblical truth, unfortunately I was left with the impression that its version was the only viable option. It was only after personal study and the influence of wise Christians who hold alternative views that I began to understand the rich depth of other perspectives.
The angels’ question to the disciples revs my imagination into high gear! These precious followers have walked and talked and eaten with Jesus for forty days, but their understanding is still blurry—Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?
It’s good to remember that we don’t have a record of every word Jesus said, every act he accomplished. There are so many other things Jesus did. If they were all written down, each of them, one by one, I can’t imagine a world big enough to hold such a library of books (John 21:25). While remembering that Luke wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, did he omit something between Jesus’ mild rebuke (It’s not for you to know the times or dates…), and his ascension? Did the angels’ words hold just a trace of holy sarcasm? Could they mean—perhaps by tone of voice?—OK people, you have all the information you need now to get to work. Just go to Jerusalem because you’ll soon have more power than you’ve ever imagined. Don’t keep looking into the heavens for information you don’t really need now.
I’m afraid all the charts from my childhood tended to emphasize the important but neglect the urgent: Stop peering into what I’m keeping mysterious. Just go. Good words as we celebrate the first advent and anticipate the second.
Sunday, December 13
I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
Joy is the traditional emphasis on this third Sunday of Advent, and years after that hillside experience, the Apostle Paul from a Roman prison exudes joy while writing to his distant Philippian friends. But is this merely an admonition to “suck it up” or “put on a happy face”? One source describes joy more convincingly as “a state of mind and orientation of the heart. It is a settled state of contentment, confidence and hope.”
Those sheep herders on Bethlehem hills were terrified when awakened by an angel. Scholars differ on the subject of shepherds’ place in society, but the reaction to an angel is indisputable: they were terrified. Have you ever awakened from a dream that seemed more real than reality? Or comforted a child screaming in the night? It’s no wonder that the angel immediately said, Do not be afraid…
The angel’s nighttime declaration first brought terror but concluded with promise: I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. All the people. Not just the wealthy and healthy. Not just the religious and right living. Not just the Democrats or Republicans, the white, brown, or black. The angel pronounced a radical wake-up call, a post-Eden re-adjustment to all of culture. I believe the shepherds were still weak kneed and stumbling as the skies filled with a great company of the heavenly host. This was a wake-up call beyond all others.
Matt Erickson comments: Sometimes, real joy requires a wake-up call. A study of people who had breakthroughs to greater meaning and joy in their lives…showed that these breakthroughs were often triggered by some form of psychological turmoil, such as stress, loss, or bereavement… C. S. Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Difficulty, even suffering, can serve as a wake-up call to joy.
Are you experiencing a settled state of contentment, confidence and hope this Sunday? Could God be calling for a re-orientation of your heart?
Saturday, December 12
He energizes those who get tired, gives fresh strength to dropouts…those who wait upon God get fresh strength. Isaiah 40:29 (The Message)
With less than two weeks before Christmas, God’s message to Isaiah is not a promise for us to whip through stores, frantically search Amazon, or stay awake in morning’s wee hours to finish a project. Maybe you’ve already followed Dave Ramsey’s holiday advice:
- Make a list (Lost my lists weeks ago.)
- Avoid too many commitments (How to say no to her, Dave?)
- Don’t wait until the last minute (Ha!)
- Make a budget (What budget?)
- Decorate minimally (I’m already down to pinecones & wrinkled ribbon.)
- Get rid of clutter (Where do you suggest I put it?)
- Ask for help (People run as I approach.)
- Avoid family conflict (What world do you live in, Dave?)
- Don’t overeat (No comment.)
You’re still tired and ready to drop out!
Could it be that Christians’ ranting at the “secularization” of Christmas, our refusals to declare “Happy Holidays,” our vigorous shouting at the world about the real meaning of Christmas contributes to the drain of our energy? In our attempts to keep Christ in Christmas (was he ever absent?), our energy is focused on what’s outside rather than on the source of fresh strength.
Lists, budgets, clutter removal, all can help make the holiday truly more a holy-day, but all are externals. It’s Isaiah’s last phrase that contains the foolproof prescription: those who wait upon God get fresh strength. Determine now to place WAIT at the top of the daily To Do List.