Will I Recognize Him?

All throughout the month of December, my mind has been on the hope and expectancy that the season of advent brings. I don’t think I have been as aware of those aspects of the season during any previous Christmas season as I have been this year. The sense of anticipation for what God wants to show up and do in my own life has been growing for months, and this season has heightened my awareness of that anticipation.

One major aspect of that anticipation which has come to mind repeatedly is the danger of expectations. I have written before about the difference between expectancy and expectations, but it is beautifully illustrated in the coming of Christ. God’s promises had been spoken through the prophets on so many occasions, and Israel’s sense of anticipation was high for the coming of the One Who would deliver them.

The children of Israel had expectations of this coming King of the Jews, and Jesus fulfilled few of them. Many of them didn’t recognize Him because He didn’t meet their expectations of a warrior and ruler who would free them from the oppressive government they lived under. Instead, their Savior was a baby born in a scandalous way and in a Bethlehem stable to poor nobodies from Nazareth of all places! “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46)

 How many times have I been guilty of hearing God’s promises and then building my own expectations for what they will look like based (sometimes loosely) on His words? How often do I miss the fulfillments of God’s words in my own life because I am looking for my own idea of how He will bring them about? How many times have you done the same?

Yes, hope and expectancy are vital. As I have just been reminded throughout the advent season, God will show up in the midst of our circumstances. He is God with us, and we should live with a sense of anticipation for His coming every day – not just the coming that will bring with it an end to tears and pain and establish His Kingdom forever – but His appearance in our everyday, ordinary lives.

The danger of expectation is in painting our own picture of what His arrival will look like. The vision we end up with may be based on His words, but I have learned that my pictures are often far too small for Him to actually fit into. His ideas are so far beyond what my mind can come up with that my expectations are ridiculously small compared to what He has in mind – despite the fact that they feel nearly impossible to me!

In pondering Mary’s story over the last couple of weeks, God’s appearance in her circumstances must have seemed – in the natural, at least – more of a burden than an answer to her prayers. His arrival in her life meant a tarnished reputation, the responsibility of raising the Son of God, and eventually, watching her firstborn tortured and crucified. And yet, her response was immediate acceptance of God’s plan and a worship session.

As we enter into 2016 in a couple of days, think about the promises God has spoken to you or the areas of your life where you are still awaiting His arrival. Do you have a certain idea of what His appearance will look like in those situations? Will you recognize Him if He appears in a different way than you expect? Will you respond with acceptance and worship no matter what His coming means for you?

I hope my answer to those final two questions is yes. Today, I am surrendering the expectations I’ve built of what His coming and His promises fulfilled will look like in my life, and I am choosing to live with a sense of hope and expectancy for His vision instead.

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Blessed Is She.

The verse God gave me for this year was Luke 1:45, and it is in reference to Mary: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.” Because that verse is found in the middle of the Christmas story, I have been reminded of it a number of times in recent weeks…. And each time it has been a much needed reminder!

As I reread the passage again recently, focusing specifically on this verse, I noticed a note in my Bible – a reference to verse 20 of the same chapter. Near the beginning of the chapter, we find Zacharias serving the Lord in the temple when Gabriel shows up and gives him the news that he’ll be a father. There are extraordinary words spoken about the son that Zacharias and his wife, Elizabeth will have. I will admit that it would be a lot to process, but Zacharias obviously doesn’t respond in the way the angel hoped he would…

In verse 18, Zacharias asks, “How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.” Gabriel’s response, found in verses 19-20, is pretty pointed. “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.”

Wow. Don’t mess with Gabriel when he tells you a promise from God.

As I looked back at the passage where Gabriel was giving Mary her own extraordinary news, I noticed that she also asked a question of how it could be true based on her circumstances… The difference is that Mary only asked how her news could be true, not how she could be sure it was true…

Mary didn’t ask for proof. Even in the midst of wondering how God might actually pull off this ‘impossible’ thing, she simply believed. And she was blessed for her faith.

The other thing I find interesting about this chapter is that both Zacharias and Mary received the promises. They each had the son that Gabriel told them about, and they both had their words of praise to God recorded in the chapter. The difference is that Zacharias had to wait more than nine months to be able to praise God aloud.

As I look at the promises God has spoken to me, the reasons that Luke 1:45 is my verse for the year, I wonder which of these responses mine most resembles… Unfortunately, I’m afraid that far too often it looks like Zacharias’. And while my physical voice hasn’t been affected, my ability to praise God in the hearing of others certainly has been!

The consequences of Zacharias’ doubt has painted a powerful picture in my mind. As one who feels like the ministry God has given me has much to do with my ability to communicate through teaching, writing, and even singing, the loss of that ability would be a significant hindrance to fulfilling God’s purposes for me. And yet every time I doubt the promises of God, I am hindering my ability to proclaim His goodness and truth.

So, once again, I choose to trust. I may not understand how His promises can come to pass in my life. In the natural they seem nearly impossible – or at least still very distant – but as Gabriel told Mary, “…nothing will be impossible with God.”

Whatever dreams you’re holding onto, or even struggling to get a grip on, I encourage you to join me in declaring Mary’s response to the great news Gabriel spoke to her: “…may it be done to me according to your word.”

Never Ending…

I have just finished two of my least favorite chores: washing clothes and cleaning the kitchen. I think the reason that I dislike them is that they are relentless. As I am writing this, I’m drinking a cup of tea, and an attempt at making peanut brittle is cooling in a pan in the kitchen… That means that, while I say I’ve just finished cleaning the kitchen, there are actually already three items to be washed again…

As I thought of the never ending cycle of washing (whether clothes or dishes), I realized how often that is the case with my thoughts too. I taught last month on finding identity and purpose, and a large portion of the lecture dealt with how we often have to take captive the same lies in order to walk in the truth of who (and Whose) we are.

The lies that keep us from the freedom to be ourselves are often lies about ourselves. Despite the fact that I teach others about finding their own identity and purpose, (and some think that means I’ve got my life all figured out), I still fight lies that I am insignificant or ‘less than.’ This fight isn’t constant, but there are days, or even seasons, where I am very nearly convinced that I am not worth notice and certainly not worthy of any of the things I believe God has promised.

The lies may also be about God. What better way for the Enemy to keep us from walking in the truth than to make us doubt the Source of all truth, the One Who is Truth itself? This was the original temptation in the Garden, and it has been tripping up all of humanity ever since. The lies may whisper to us that God is holding out on us, that He cares more about everyone else, that He is not faithful or worthy of our trust. Maybe they tell us that He doesn’t really understand what we’re going through, that He just doesn’t ‘get it’.

To me, that is the beauty of Christmas – or at least one of the many beautiful things about this season of celebration. God became one of us. Instead of holding out on us, He gave all He had. He stepped out of heaven, lived a life like yours or mine, and understands every ache, every longing, and every temptation. Emmanuel, ‘God with us,’ is the Truth that can put to rest every lie, not just about Himself, but about us too!

We have this wonderful season every year when we are reminded of just how far He came to be Emmanuel, but it is so easy to forget even with all of the reminders around us. We so often get busy with the events and shopping and whatever else the season brings, and forget to take time to remember why we are doing all of those things.

When we lose sight of the Truth of Emmanuel, the lies sneak in again to steal our joy and peace and hope and victory and all that Jesus came to bring. It seems like a never ending battle to keep the Truth in focus and take captive the thoughts that would bring doubt. I encourage you to take some time each day throughout the year to refocus on Jesus, God with us, and the freedom His truth brings… Maybe you can do that while you’re washing up after dinner! 🙂

 

Spoilers…

Spoilers… A word hated by most fans of fiction, whether in print or on screen.

I have been taking a break from television during the past few weeks, and during this period of time I have missed a number of episodes of two of my favorite shows: Doctor Who and Once Upon A Time. I have had to be careful about visiting certain websites or even looking at Facebook to keep from having my future enjoyment of the episodes spoiled with knowledge of what happens.

Today, I am aware of the opposite reaction when it comes to real life. All too often, I find myself asking God for spoilers instead of trying to avoid them… When will a new main character enter my story? Will any of the current characters play a major role in a future plot twist? How many chapters until this or that takes place? Will the setting of my story change again, or can I feel settled here? Are any others leaving the story soon? My mind and heart are filled with questions I tend to believe I want answered.

Why is it that spoilers for fictional stories are to be avoided at all costs while I long to have questions about my own future answered yesterday? Why is it so difficult to enjoy the story of today without wondering about the plot twists of tomorrow?

In reality, if God gave me a view into future chapters of my story, I would likely run the other way. His story tends to be much bigger than I feel capable of living in, and spoilers might prevent me from fully engaging in the story – perhaps even altering the plot as I run from the big things coming in the pages that I have not yet lived.

God, in His wisdom, rarely gives me spoilers. Even during those rare times when I get miniscule glimpses of my story, I have to remind myself that one word here or there does not make a story. When God speaks a word or gives me a glimpse or a dream for my story, I cannot paint a full picture of my future around that one piece.

I have tried to write my own version of the story around a picture or phrase I believe God has spoken, and it has never been as good as His story would have been if I’d left the writing to Him alone. I would like to say that I have learned my lesson, but I’m afraid I continue to pick up my pen and try to write the story I think I want to live.

So, once again, I am choosing to put down the pen and allow God to write His best story for my life. I don’t have a clue what it will bring my way, and I don’t always enjoy not knowing… And yet, I do know the Author, and I know I can trust His story to be far better than any I could write for myself.

A Paradoxical Tale

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Charles Dickens knew what he was talking about when he began his A Tale of Two Cities. These sentiments which seem so opposite are so often true simultaneously. It is one of the major paradoxes of life that those times that seem worst visit alongside those that we remember as some of the best.

This past weekend in my life was one of those times. I received a call on Saturday morning that my grandmother had passed away. Her final breaths seem to have been around the time that I was kneeling by my bed asking God to end her suffering and grant her wish to go to her permanent home. She was ready to see her Jesus face to face, and her wish was finally granted.

The weekend was a busy one for me. Moments after I received the news of her death, I left the house to go and pray for people in the center of the town where I live. Healing on the Streets is a ministry I have the joy to be involved with each Saturday, and this one was no different. The rest of Saturday flew by in a flurry of visitors, laughs with a friend, writing projects, cleaning and rearranging my flat, and I was left with little time to process the news I had received.

Sunday was also a busy day. I was part of a team leading worship at church, singing with renewed passion the words, “Now death, where is your sting? Our resurrected King has rendered you defeated.” After church, I prepared to go and be part of an advent service with the choir I get to sing with. The afternoon was filled with more laughs, praise songs, and a message of hope and expectancy for the coming season of celebrating the coming of our Savior.

And then came Sunday evening… I knew the time of the service for my grandma was nearing, and I was home alone. I chatted via text with a couple of friends who told me they would be praying for my family, but communication felt somewhat sparse. I felt alone with my grief, and for the first time since receiving the phone call, there was nothing to distract me from it. All thoughts of the hope and expectancy I had just been celebrating mere hours before were forgotten, and loneliness and sorrow filled their space.

About the time I imagined the memorial service would be wrapping up, I received a reply from a friend I had messaged earlier in the evening. The friend offered condolences and prayers and then asked if I would share a bit about my grandma. As my words and tears flowed, healing and comfort came. With a simple question, my friend had given me the opportunity to have my own sort of memorial service via Facebook messenger. I had no idea that I needed space to share and celebrate the life and legacy of this special woman whom I got to call Grandma, but God did. At just the right time, He sent someone to open that door and provide the space I needed to remember and to celebrate.

Monday morning brought with it a worship time with friends, more tears, and lots of hugs. (For the record, to any of my local friends, hugs are always welcome!) I was no longer “alone” with my grief, but surrounded by people who would be a shoulder to cry on, and in some cases, eyes to shed tears right along with mine.

Just before I left the church where our worship and class times take place, setup was going on for a funeral. I stood alone in the church hall where overflow seating would be provided with the service shown on screen. Standing there, staring at the preparations happening on the screen, I couldn’t help thinking of the previous night and the service I had missed.

This time, though, there was joy mixed with the sorrow. The paradox of grief and hope was there, and I could feel the hope growing again. Those few days were certainly among the worst of times, but in the midst of them was the hope that this advent season represents – the coming of Christ. Immanuel, God with us, has come to walk with us through the darkness and bring hope that never dies. His arrival in the simple request from one friend and the hugs of other friends broke into the midst of my pain. The worst of times collided with the best of times, all because of Him and the hope He brings.

I don’t know what you’re facing during this holiday season. What I do know is that, just as God showed up in a most unexpected way all those centuries ago, He is still showing up today to those in need of the hope He brings. He may not come in the way you expect, but keep your eyes open and you will see Him. He is here!