December 30, 2009

Out With the Old -- In With the New

Happy New Year! We survived our drive from PA to FL and are enjoying a wonderful visit with family. I wish you a blessed New Year and pray that in 2010 you go deeper still in your experiences with our awesome God.
I posted over at Exemplify Online today. I hope you click over the check it out.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Get fit. Lose weight. Enjoy life more. Quit smoking. Get organized. Learn something new. Spend more time with family. Help others.

New Year’s resolutions. We make them. We break them. And in a few months we forget all about them. But two years ago I made a resolution I not only kept, it changed my life. On December 31, 2007, I gave my writing to God and promised Him I’d stop talking about writing and actually start doing it. Since then I’ve written over 100,000 words on my blog, attended writers’ conferences, published articles and made wonderful friendships with fellow writers.

Along the way, I’ve battled doubt, discouragement and insecurity. Yet each time I felt like giving up, I recalled my divine promise and asked the Lord for strength and reassurance to press on. With His help, I have…and do. 

As writing brought me into a deeper understanding of God, He challenged me to go further still. So last year I resolved to follow the Lord as He led, and to that end I prayed, “Empty me, fill me, use me.” Looking back on 2009, I am awed at the concrete evidence of God’s answer to my prayer. The year was filled with a whole new set of “firsts.” Some wonderfully rewarding (like our mission trip to the Dominican Republic), others incredibly scary (like sharing my testimony from that trip at church) and others painfully sad (like the passing of our dear friend Kirsten). But in each, I experienced the Almighty in intense and profoundly personal ways.

I share these things not to boast about me, but to boast about our Lord. Christianity is not an attractive accessory with which we decorate our lives. Jesus is the real deal. He has the power to transform our lives in ways we—and our me-focused resolutions—NEVER can. The Bible promises that when we align our desires with His will, there’s no limit to power of the Spirit working in and through us.

However, while I can point to evidence of the “new” in my life, I’m often frustrated with how much of the “old” remains. Paul's words in 2 Corinthians make the process seem immediate and complete. Have I failed because I still have far to go? I choose to read the verse as an ongoing promise—“the old is going, the new is coming.”

Transformation is a process—sometimes dramatic and other times painfully slow. It’s not so important how fast we transform, but that we continue to do so. Step by step. Year after year. “Let the wonderful kindness and the understanding that come from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ help you to keep on growing.” (2 Peter 3:18, emphasis mine).

There’s nothing magical about January 1 as a time to evaluate and start anew, except that it marks a logical rest area on our journey. Spiritual change is more than a list of New Year’s resolutions. It requires perseverance, patience and participation. We’ve got to roll up our sleeves and get involved in the process. He directs; we follow. We take down; He builds up. We empty; He fills.

Do you want a faith that’s alive and active? Are you tired of the “old” and want to usher in the “new?” Do you want your life to be about more than yourself?

Reflect on the year. Can you point to evidence of God working in and through you? What’s holding you back from taking the next step…or taking any step? Do you want to go deeper in your experience with the Almighty?

Why not start the New Year, focused not on how YOU want to change, but on how HE wants to change you. Pray for direction. Resolve to follow. And prepare for 2010 to be a year unlike any other.

December 22, 2009

The Best Christmas Gift Ever

Six years ago I received the best Christmas gift ever.

When my children were little I was relegated, as most moms are, to drive a minivan. Ours was a green one that transported my kids, their stuff, their friends, their friends’ stuff, a week’s worth of groceries and the family dog—all at the same time. As practical as it was, I hated the thing. Not just that car in particular. I hated minivans. They weren’t me. Not then, not ever.

What I wanted was a lime green punch buggy with a stick shift and a sun roof. I dreamed about having one. I pointed them out every time I saw one: “Look, there goes someone driving away in my car!”  The kids and I “punched” each other whenever we spied one. And as the kids got older, I weaved my longing into their spelling homework. No matter what the word, I could interject my heart’s desire into it:

·         Path: It is much easier to find the path while driving a punch buggy.
·         Leg: I banged my leg on my mom’s lime green punch buggy.
·         Summer: This summer my mom opened the roof in her lime green punch buggy.
·         Petunia: My mom fit a whole flat of petunias in the back of her punch buggy.

You get the picture. In time my kids started to ask their dad for help with their homework.

This went on for years, until my oldest was out of a car seat and my youngest was in a booster seat. While still impractical, owning a VW Beetle was finally a remote possibility. Christmas was coming and I dropped hints like mad, hoping Dan might catch on. One day he’d had enough and told me to knock it off.

Still, I didn’t give up hope. Christmas morning came and I peered outside to see if Santa had left a lime green something parked in the driveway. To my disappointment, the driveway was empty. I peaked into the garage. Nothing in there either. Oh well, it was a crazy thought anyway. I set my hope aside and happily rejoined the festivities with my family.

While enjoying our breakfast, Dan feigned surprise and produced one more present for me. (We always save the biggest presents for last and act like it was a big Santa oversight.) I removed the wrapping to find a velvety jewelry box. It obviously didn’t hold a car and I was a little disappointed. I’m not an expensive jewelry kind of person, so I couldn’t imagine what was inside.

I opened the box. A note taped inside the lid read, “Be still…” Nested inside was another velvety box.

Intrigued, I opened the second box. On its lid another note read, “…and know that I…” Nested inside was a third box.

My curiosity was piqued. I slowly opened the third box. The final note read, “…am driving a punch buggy.” Inside that box was a key. A VW key.

I started screaming…and laughing…and crying! The kids had no idea what was in the box and wondered, with some fear, why their mom was losing it. I ran to the front door and flung it open. There in our driveway sat a lime green punch buggy with a sun roof and a stick shift…and a big red bow on top of it! Just like the commercials.

I was in shock!

Completely without my knowledge, Dan had found the exact car I wanted, purchased it and arranged for our neighbor to hide it in his garage…and then drive it over when he got the “signal.” I told Dan he never had to buy me another present again. Ever!
Punch buggy in hiding

It’s been six years since that Christmas and I still love my car! I still feel giddy when I realize it’s mine. And I’m still blown away by my husband’s extravagant gesture of love.

It reminds me of God’s extravagant gesture of love for us. With the coming of Jesus…Emmanuel…God with us…we’ve received the best Christmas gift ever. Lying in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes. God’s plan for all of humanity realized. Because He loved us.

With Jesus’ life, and then death on the cross, He bridged the gap of sin that forever separated us from God. This gift of grace is so amazing our minds can scarcely conceive or fathom its true meaning.

But God doesn’t want us to analyze the gift, question our worthiness of receiving it or worst of all, reject it.

Imagine if I refused Dan’s gift to me? Or if I let it sit in the garage unused? Or if I spent all my time trying to figure out how the car works? Or if I neglected it? Obviously he’d be hurt. Dan gave me that present because he loves me and wants me to enjoy that little car to its fullest. Doing so brings him joy.

He wants us to do the same—to accept it, to experience it, to be transformed by it and to tell others about it—with joy and thanksgiving!

As much as I love my lime green punch buggy, nothing compares to God sending us the babe in a manger. He’s our true heart’s desire. I am still giddy when I realize the gift of salvation is mine. And I am blown away by God’s incomparable act of love.

He did it for me. And He did it for you, too!

Merry Christmas! I pray that you and your families experience a joyous, wondrous and blessed Christmas.

December 15, 2009

Do You Hear What I Hear?

There’s like ten days until Christmas (I’m not counting) and I feel a big freak out coming on. No, I didn’t lie when I previously said I have a peace about this Christmas season that I haven’t experienced in years. But c’mon, I’m human. And no amount of chocolate-covered Christmas cheer, festive wrapping paper or sparkly lights can keep life from encroaching/intruding/crashing/interloping onto the carefully crafted scene.

So much of Christmas is about our feelings. Our nostalgia for Christmas past. Our expectations of Christmas future. And our hopes for Christmas right now. Being a sentimental fool, I love the warm fuzzies of Christmas. But emotions are a fair weathered companion and often lie or mislead.

Years ago I learned Christianity isn’t an emotional experience. We can’t rely on our feelings to tell us whether we are or aren’t a Christian. I know that sounds like a no-brainer, but for me it was a revolutionary concept. For years I’d chased elusive feelings believing when I caught them I’d be a Christian. But when the warmth of Christmas (or some other "high") faded, my emotions left with them and I'd be left disappointed and distanced from Jesus once again.

Now, looking at Christmas from the vantage point of a Christian (and also a pragmatic skeptic), I think we waste a lot of time trying to creating something that won’t last and missing the One thing that will.

Christmas isn’t magic. But, Jesus is miraculous. And we have our entire year, not just the Christmas season, to adore/worship/spread goodwill/tell it on the mountain. 

With evidence of God’s presence all around, I wonder (as I’m prone to do) why it’s so hard for people to accept His gift of grace?

Why did it take me thirty-some years to finally “get it?”

Why, when churches are filled to the brim on Christmas Eve, don’t more people take Jesus home to grow after visiting Him in the manger?

Why, when we use all the right words and try our hardest, don’t our loved ones believe?

Why, when Jesus is the answer to ALL of life’s problems, don’t more folks reach for the cure?

Why do some people have ears that can hear and others don’t?

I sure don’t have the answers, but I know many of you struggle with the same questions. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

My Christmas expectations may crash and burn. I might lose my cool. I might not get everything done. I might buy the wrong presents. And I’m okay with that. Because I realize that Christmas isn’t a moment to be captured that fades until next year, it’s the start of a story that lasts forever. And I, for one, want to be a part of that story.

“But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.’” (Luke 2: 10-11)

December 9, 2009

Ouch! I've Got Something in My Eye!

“If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7)

The other day my friend, Jill, told me about her friend Hope who’s a fanatic about bullying. Whenever Hope catches wind of meanness among other children she goes to the parents, teachers or whomever to bring the situation to light—often to the point of overstepping her bounds. As Hope went on about the latest incident in their children’s shared classroom, pointing fingers at several students, Jill shared her thoughts.

However, one thought Jill didn’t share was the one circling in her head, “Uh, about the bullying…did you know your daughter has been bullying my child?”

How ironic the mother who’s so critical of mean behavior in other children is completely unaware of that very behavior in her own child. That’s the thing about finger pointing. You’d better be prepared for that finger to come pointing right back at you. As I recently learned.

I had a conversation with someone whose opinion I respect. I complained about a project I’d handled and was frustrated with the lack of response by several of the folks involved, especially one person who never replied despite repeated attempts on my part. My subtext implied, Can you imagine someone so rude and inconsiderate?!

To my surprise, instead of offering understanding, the person to whom I spoke recalled a recent example when I’d been unresponsive to a request he’d sent out. I tried (but am sure failed) to maintain a calm exterior. Inside I thought: Are you kidding me? That wasn’t the same thing at all! I was offended and shocked at the comparison.

A few days passed and I mentally revisited the criticism. The emotion faded, but the truth started to emerge. I thought of several recent instances when I’d put off responding to someone and then forgotten about it. While my intent hadn’t been to ignore, my silence sent a message of disrespect and was inconsiderate. I realized I was guilty of the very thing I’d been so critical about. My friend was right. Ouch!

The experience made me confront a shameful habit: I’m a judger. Honestly, I don’t try to be, but it seems that’s where I end up a good bit of the time. It’s not just me. In our flesh, it’s far easier to judge, condemn or hold a grudge than offer the alternative—compassion, mercy and forgiveness. And it’s a cycle that’s hard, if not impossible, to break on our own. Thankfully Jesus understands our weakness and offers us a way out. His solution? A Plankectomy.

“How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:4-5)

Look at the Pharisees. They were supposedly the most godly among the Jewish people, yet they lived in perpetual finger-pointing mode, identifying infractions, judging misbehavior and punishing rule breakers. They’d perfected their trade: Identify, judge, punish. Condemnation in three easy steps.

Then Jesus came. He revealed their hypocrisy and turned the Pharisees’ wagging fingers back on themselves: “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7) He left those who thought they had it all together and went to those who knew they didn’t. Jesus’ message found a home among the outcasts – tax collectors, widows, prodigals, lepers, prostitutes, cripples, thieves and the like. He offered a refreshing, and life-giving, change: Follow, repent, believe. Restoration in three easy steps.

We have no idea how blinded we really are. There may come a day when we may need to help our sister with the speck in her eye, but good grief we have a lot of work to do on ourselves first! While I wasn’t happy at the time, I needed to be reminded of the plank in my eye. I don't want to be a condemner, I want to be a restorer like Jesus. I want to help build people up, not tear them to down; offer grace not hold a grudge;  and forgive not finger point. But Lord, I need help!

Even though I messed up again, I’m so thankful Jesus freely offers mercy to me (and to all) as He did the adulterous woman. “Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:11) Jesus follows up this story by telling the crowds “I am the light of the world.” (v. 12)

It’s funny how much better I see that light without hunks of wood in my eye.

December 7, 2009

The Curious Case of "Yeah, But…"

We’re well into Advent and I imagine most churches are seeing an increase in attendance as folks try to get “in the spirit.” Pews are more crowded, parking spaces harder to come by. And come Christmas Eve, it’ll be standing room only in some churches as all gather near to get a glimpse of the babe in the manger.

But, come back on January 3 and you might get a whole row to yourself. Quickly forgotten like the present wanted so badly as a child, but cast aside once received, the reality of Jesus isn’t quite so appealing as the expectation of Him—adorned in beloved Christmas music, sparkly lights and festive trimmings.

C&E Christians, as they’re called, fill churches to overflowing on Christmas and Easter but stay away the rest of the year. I know these people well—because for many years I was one of them. Filled with a sense of tradition, familiarity and sentimentality I never missed a Christmas Eve service. But I couldn’t be bothered to return in January…or February…or March (unless it was Easter).

Yet even though I stayed away 50 out of 52 Sundays, I think I (and most C&Eers) went for one reason. There was something about the baby that made me want to believe. But time and again the “yeah buts” got in my way and I couldn't.

We all have our own "yeah, buts." They’re the roadblocks thrown up that block our path of faith, cause us to detour and sometimes keep us from even getting started. Faced with the truth of Jesus doubt/intellect/fear/pride replies, “Yeah, but.”

Yeah, but…
…Christianity is only one way of many ways to get to God.
…It was easier for the disciples to believe because they saw Jesus.
…A loving God wouldn’t allow so much suffering.
…The Bible was written so long ago and doesn’t really apply to life today.
…I’m a good person.
…I’ve done things that God could never forgive.
…I can be a Christian and not go to church.
…I have nothing special to  offer.
…I’ve stayed away too long.
…I’m too busy to go to church on Sunday/attend a small group/volunteer/read my Bible.

For so long I felt an inner tug toward Jesus, but couldn’t get past my “yeah buts.” Yet God didn’t give up on me. Eventually He brought me to a place where I could set aside my biggest roadblock—my skepticism. When I did, He gave me eyes to see and I met Jesus as if for the very first time. Seven years later I can’t imagine life any other way.

I don’t know what “yeah buts” block your path this Christmas season, but I know you're not alone. Think about Mary and Joseph. They navigated obstacles of all sorts as they journeyed to Bethlehem. And so will we.

Faith isn't easy. There’s a lot about God that’s fuzzy and hard to understand. But some things are crystal clear. God, the creator of the universe, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-everything, didn’t just snap His fingers and make it so, He came down to earth as a helpless little baby to live among us. To be one of us. And He didn’t chose royalty as would have been fitting, He chose common, overlooked, lowly. All because He loves us.

Doesn’t this blow your mind?

But, the hope and excitement of the baby is just the beginning of the story. To pay our respects and leave Bethlehem is to miss the best part. Jesus was born, lived and died for you…and for me—no matter who we are, when we live or what we’ve done (for better or worse).

ALL have sinned.
ALL are invited to receive the gift of Jesus.
ALL are forgiven.
ALL will have eternal life.

“This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:23-24)

Amazing grace. It’s a gift we can’t earn and one we don’t deserve. But when we accept it, there’s no “yeah buts” about it!

December 3, 2009

Christmas Playlist Party

Advent is upon us and only 22 more shopping days until Christmas! But, after my Black Friday experience I’m determined to choose a different way this month and focus on keeping Jesus at the center of my preparations. I’m excited to see what wonders lie ahead in the coming weeks.

To kick off the season I’m going to jump in (late as usual) to a festive “gathering” Kristen, the cupcake-in-chief at Exemplify Online, is hosting— a Christmas Playlist Link Up. What fun! We love Christmas music in our house and have lots (and lots) of CDs that we play continually all through December. I’m not sure I’ll be able to narrow my favorites for a playlist, but I’ll give it a try.

From sacred to silly…majestic to mirthful…regal to rockin’…and in no particular order, here they are:
  • Silent Night by sung by any choir at a Christmas Eve candlelight service.
  • O Holy Night by Luciano Pavoratti
  • Christmas Wrapping by The Waitresses
  • Santa Claus is Coming to Town by Bruce Springsteen
  • Hark! The Herald Angels Sing by Manheim Steamroller (Fresh Aire Christmas)
  • A Baby Just Like You by John Denver and the Muppets (A Christmas Together)
  • (Everybody's Waitin’ For) The Man with the Bag by The Brian Setzer Orchestra (Boogie Woogie Christmas)
  • White Christmas by Raul Malo (Marshmallow World and other Holiday Favorites)
  • Bells of Dublin/Christmas Eve by The Chieftains (The Bells of Dublin)
  • Christmastime is Here (Vocal) by Vince Guaraldi Trio (A Charlie Brown Christmas)
  • Walking in the Air from The Snowman soundtrack
  • Miss Fogerty’s Christmas Cake by Mick Moloney and Eugene O’Donnell
  • Mele Kalikimaka by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters (Merry Christmas)
  • River by Robert Downey Jr. (Ally McBeal: A Very Ally Christmas)
  • Carol of the Bells by The Choir of Trinity Church (Candlelight Carols)
  • I Pray on Christmas by Blind Boys of Alabama (Go Tell it on the Mountain
  • Run Rudolph Run by Tommy Conwell (A Live Christmas Extravaganza)
  • Someday at Christmas by Stevie Wonder (Someday at Christmas)
 Whew! I could go on…and on, but I’ll stop here. Most of these songs are from our favorite Christmas CDs—which I now can’t wait to start playing tomorrow. Hope you discover a new favorite to add to your list.

Merry Christmas and happy listening! 

To join the Christmas Playlist Party, go to Exemplify Online.