I have a confession to make: five nights ago (April 3) will mark the first time I cracked open my Scriptures since MARCH 7. My resolution to read through the entire Old and New Testaments has been seriously challenged as of late. Oh, I could cite so many valid (to me) reasons for this: grad school end-of-term chaos, getting my grades caught up and posted for mid-term progress reports in my day job, utter exhaustion from just having way too much on my plate…but really? Here’s the actual reason:
Yes, I made it through Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, surprisingly. I made it through the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan and all the judges, the exciting history of Israel’s first monarchy, the ups and downs of David’s reign, and the aftermath of his egregious sin with Bathsheba. But by 2 Kings? My brain just couldn’t take anymore long names! And one night of being “too tired” to crack open those five chapters was enough to arrest it indefinitely.
I don’t know what it was that inspired me to pick up my Bible before bed and pick up reading, but I did. (Well, yeah, there’s the Holy Spirit. Touche.) Right where I left off in the middle of horrible Israelite rulers, people who couldn’t remain faithful to their covenant with God, and invading armies that never gave them any peace. The same stuff that rather made me zone out and abandon my plan before…but I kept reading, all the way to the story of King Hezekiah. One of the few decent rulers who at least attempted to follow the Lord, he himself struggled with similar issues as I. Specifically, when he was facing the armies of the Assyrian king, Shalmeneser, he was dumbstruck as one of the enemy’s spokesmen came with this message (roughly translated for you, the modern reader):
“Yo, Hezekiah! Just who do you think you believe in? I’ve conquered the WHOLE WORLD – where is this god you put your trust in?”
And Hezekiah wilted.
I often wilt. I wilt when people – especially people I love – attack and ridicule my belief in and love for God, when they attribute all of what I consider absolute proof of His existence and love for me (and everyone else, for that matter) coincidence, fantasy, brainwashing, mental instability, yada yada yada… it just makes me quake in my shoes and ties my tongue. Eyes get pretty damp, too. I’ll bet Hezekiah was feeling pretty damp…
After he wilted, though, he consulted the prophet. Not just any prophet, the prophet of prophets. The overly-eloquent, poetry-addicted, succintness-is-not-my-style prophet, the prophet who’s words continue to shake hearers to their souls (although we don’t always understand why…):
Actually, you should say his name like this: “I-SAI-ah!” Use your best James Earl Jones voice for it. There, you got it.
And here’s what I-SAI-ah! said:
Thus saith the Lord, Be not afraid of the words which thou hast heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have blasphemed me.
Don’t be afraid.
What? This loudmouthed, arrogant, know-it-all Assyrian king is mouthing off all over the place, roaring like a rabid hyena and causing all sorts of bedlam and distress, and all God has to say is “Don’t be afraid?”
It kind of reminds me of that Disney cartoon, The Three Little Pigs, with the wolf hollering: “I’m gonna huff and puff and blow your house in!”
And all Hezekiah got was a “Do not be afraid.”
Then I guess that’s the answer: do not be afraid. So there are those who don’t believe and holler and bluster and call you addled? Do not be afraid. So you don’t always have a witty answer that will shut their mouths and give you the last word of victory? Do not be afraid. And if you keep reading, you’ll see that God assures Hezekiah that Shalmeneser will get his. And history tells us that, although he was successful in sacking Samaria and exiling those in the Northern Kingdom, he did not succeed in taking down Jerusalem. In fact, the prophecy that “I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land” was fulfilled in 722 AD when his brother killed him and seized the crown.
So, be not afraid. Haters are gonna hate. Be not afraid. God has my back, as He has the backs of all who put their trust in Him.
Here’s one of my favorite songs I listen to when that fear and anxiety threatens to overwhelm me; thank you, David Haas:
Be not afraid. He will bring you Home. He loves you and you are His. Be not afraid.
Oh, and get back to the Scriptures…who knows what the next chapter has?
It’s been a while since I’ve written anything, mostly because life has been so busy and, even though God is very much alive and active and always communicating with me, I haven’t been much about the journaling lately. Thank the Lord for emails and Facebook messages…eventually I’ll print those out and paste them in my hard journal; my conversations with friends are as close to documenting what the Spirit has spoken to my soul over the last month or so.
But today the message was so strong and loud and persistent that 1) I snuck a Facebook post in the middle of the sermon (#seethebigpicture), and 2) I knew I had to blog it before the muse drifted away. So here we are. Today is the 5th Sunday of Lent and we are traveling with the Savior ever closer to Jerusalem, where His destiny – our Atonement – waits. In fact, where we find ourselves today is so close to Jerusalem that His closest pals, the 12 disciples, wonder what He’s thinking. As we look at John 11, we find ourselves in Bethany, a little suburb outside of the metropolis that was Jerusalem, along with a trio whom some consider to be Christ’s closest friends outside of The Twelve.
But not at first. No, at the end of John 10, Jesus and The Twelve have gone beyond the Jordan, after the religious leaders thought they would kill him in the Temple for yet another mouthful of blasphemy (what was Jesus thinking? SMH…). We’re not sure just how long He was “beyond the Jordan”, but after whatever length of time He was there, He received communication that may have, for all intents and purposes, changed everything:
“Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. (It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.) Therefore his sisters sent unto him, saying, Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick” (John 11:1-3).
I don’t know about any of you, but if I receive an intentional message about someone’s illness, it’s usually pretty serious. I’ve only received a few phone calls about urgent health conditions, and those calls usually indicate imminent death and “let’s gather round” is either implied or stated directly. As Facebook was not even a glimmer in Mark Zuckerberg’s ancestors’ eyes, we can be pretty sure that someone went out of their way to deliver this message to Jesus, with the understanding that He was being asked to come.
So the next little bit really disturbs me:
“When he had heard therefore that he was sick, he abode two days still in the same place where he was. Then after that saith he to his disciples, Let us go into Judaea again” (John 11:6-7).
Not one verse earlier, the text clearly, directly, no-questions-asked states that Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. They weren’t mere acquaintances; they were friends – and not the Facebook type. These were people who opened their home to Him, had dinner ready when He came knocking, and, based on other passages, understood who He was and His mission, and fully supported Him. But He didn’t go. He waited two days and then, walking, as they did 2000 years ago, made His way to Bethany. But it was okay, because as He Himself said in verse 4, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.”
But it wasn’t okay. Because when He got there, Lazarus was gone. Dead. Putrefying in the family tomb. Just look at the sisters’ reactions when He does arrive:
“Then Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met him: but Mary sat still in the house. Then said Martha unto Jesus, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee. Jesus saith unto her, Thy brother shall rise again. Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day. Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this? She saith unto him, Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world. And when she had so said, she went her way, and called Mary her sister secretly, saying, The Master is come, and calleth for thee. As soon as she heard that, she arose quickly, and came unto him. Now Jesus was not yet come into the town, but was in that place where Martha met him. The Jews then which were with her in the house, and comforted her, when they saw Mary, that she rose up hastily and went out, followed her, saying, She goeth unto the grave to weep there. Then when Mary was come where Jesus was, and saw him, she fell down at his feet, saying unto him, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.“
For some reason, even knowing how this ends, this is one of the most heartbreaking passages of Scripture I can ever read, because it echoes the cry of my own heart when I don’t understand why God doesn’t jump when I call. Why He doesn’t resolve situations when and how I think He should, why He lets me sit behind a piano at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church every Sunday, weeping the same prayer over and over and over again. The tears of those two sisters are my tears: “Lord, if You had only…Lord, if You would only…” And as He wept with those two women – not because He didn’t know the outcome, but because He fully felt and experienced their pain with them – I have to believe He weeps with me; not because He doesn’t know the outcome, but because He fully feels and experiences my pain with me.
But that’s not the point. He gave us the point in verse 4 – this whole scenario was to what? To bring glory to God, and to glorify the Son of Man. And so, without much further ado, He raises Lazarus to life. 4 days after the fact. That’s pretty amazing. The crowd goes wild, and gives praise to God. But that’s not the glorification to which verse 4 alludes; it’s what we find just immediately after this:
“But some of them went their ways to the Pharisees, and told them what things Jesus had done. Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many miracles. If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation. And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not. And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation; And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad. Then from that day forth they took counsel together for to put him to death” (John 11:46-53, emphasis added).
Jesus waited – not to test people’s faith, not to create a spectacle, not to prove anything at all – but to set in motion the events that would make the Atonement possible. It was this event that unified the Pharisees in their plan to kill Him. Verse 4 wasn’t talking about the glory that people gave God at Lazarus’ resurrection, it was talking about the glory the God receives as He, even to this day, gathers together His scattered children, which was only made possible through the tragic beauty of Christ’s suffering in Gethsemane, death on Calvary, and triumph over the grave on Easter morning. Yet in the middle of their pain, in the depths of their self-centered (and naturally so) tears, no one could see the bigger picture.
It’s the same in our lives. God often waits so that His glory may be revealed and that many people may believe. I have to remember that. My struggles – those things for which I plea to be resolved – are not necessarily all about me. If God is making me wait (and I don’t like to wait), it surely must be so that His glory may be revealed and so that many, many people may believe. God can see the big picture; with faith, so can I.
UNANSWERED YET? – THE PRAYER
Lyrics: Charles D. Tillman, 1894
Performed by Michael McLean
Unanswered yet? The prayer your lips have pleaded In agony of heart these many years? Does faith begin to fail, is hope departing, And think you all in vain those falling tears? Say not the Father hath not heard your prayer: You shall have your desire, sometime, somewhere, You shall have your desire, sometime, somewhere.
Unanswered yet? Though when you first presented This one petition at the Father’s throne, It seemed you could not wait the time of asking, So urgent was your heart to make it known. Though years have passed since then, do not despair; The Lord will answer you, sometime, somewhere, The Lord will answer you, sometime, somewhere.
Unanswered yet? No, do not say ungranted; Perhaps your part is not yet wholly done; The work began when first your prayer was uttered, And God will finish what He has begun. If you will keep the Spirit burning there, His glory you shall see, sometime, somewhere, His glory you shall see, sometime, somewhere.
Unanswered yet? Faith cannot be unanswered; Her feet were firmly planted on the Rock; Amid the wildest storm prayer stands undaunted, Nor quails before the loudest thunder shock. She knows Omnipotence has heard her prayer, And cries, “It shall be done,” sometime, somewhere, And cries, “It shall be done,” sometime, somewhere.
I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, right about the time that hippie-style “Jesus Folk” music was becoming a staple in *gulp* dare I say it? – stodgy – mainline, evangelical churches. Hymnals were being replaced by songsheets and the occasional overhead projection; organs, pianos, and, in our case, brass bands were being supplemented (not replaced) by guitars; and defined song selections gave way to pick-your-favorite sing-a-longs (this was, you realize, years before “seeker-sensitive” and super-tech-savvy productions happened; we still hadn’t become production-oriented).
At the time, it was all very hip and wonderful. Now, though, as a solidly middle-aged person who has run the church gamut multiple times, I tend to gravitate toward the grander hymns of the faith and have to admit, nothing stirs my soul like a well-played organ (especially if that organ is playing Kingsfold or something else by Ralph Vaughn Williams). Nonetheless, there are some of those “pick-your-favorite” sing-a-long songs that, on occasion, really stir my soul. Here’s one of them:
Today was just such a day. Started yesterday, actually. Maybe it’s the “late-winter-bucket-of-suck” time of year, maybe it’s the grad school schedule I’m pulling on top of full-time-plus work, maybe it’s the 20 pounds I’ve packed on since September, maybe it’s all of those things. Whatever it is, I’m tired. So, so very tired. Waiting for this particular season (meteorological, professional, spiritual, personal…again, whatever…) to pass and for spring to bloom in my heart and mind and soul and, for Pete’s sake, in my yard! Right before I went to sleep, as I was getting in my read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year chapters (5 on a good day, 15 on a catch-up day; that was last night), this is what popped up on my phone:
Timely, right? Nonetheless, I cried myself to sleep, praying, “Hasten the day, Father…please, hasten the day.”
Now, if you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll remember that, on occasion, I’ve been known to treat Facebook posts like fortune cookies. Sometimes, it’s amusing; other times, it’s absolutely uncanny. This morning has been uncanny. First, while I was slapping on my pretty-for-the-public face:
Just like a 19th-century preacher to slap me in the face. They were good at that, you know. (Smith Wigglesworth smacked a corpse – well, kind of threw it against a wall – it got up and went home. True story.) But let’s not leave it to revivalists; here’s what came from, for cryin’ out loud, Toby Mac:
My season of waiting. Waiting for spring – new life, new purpose, new vision, new hope – to burst through the cold, unyielding, frozen ground of winter. But winter is when all that life gathers energy to explode at just the right time. And while I wait, I must remember that the Lord Himself is renewing my strength…not to run forward, but to wait. The mounting up, and the running, and the walking all come after the waiting.
When I was in the 4th and 5th grades, I attended a little Christian school where we had chapel every morning. One of the “pick-your-favorite sing-a-long” songs we sang frequently was a musical setting of Isaiah 40:31. The emphasis wasn’t on mounting up, or running, or walking. Look at the lyric structure and notice how it begins and ends:
They that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength:
They shall mount up with wings as eagles,
They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
Teach me Lord, teach me Lord, to wait.
The emphasis is on not the forward or upward or explosive motion, it’s on the waiting. In waiting on God is our strength renewed. And in remembering this, I feel my strength and resolve and joy being renewed. It’s like Proverbs 15:23 says so beautifully: “A man hath joy by the answers of his mouth: and a word spoken in due season, how good it is!”
God’s word to me today – word spoken in due season – is truly good, and His mercies, so tender and compassionate and tailor-made for me, are new every morning! Great is His faithfulness!
I’ve been thinking a lot about the wilderness lately. I live in a wilderness, first of all; Eastern Oregon, other than some fairly nicely developed, habitable areas, is little more than a sagebrush-laden wasteland (Virtue Flats, anyone?) It’s through this wilderness that those hardy pioneers traveled while blazing what we now know, and somewhat revere, as the “Oregon Trail”.
I can imagine the excitement and joy those pioneers felt as they egan their trek. Oh, the happy, joyful songs of anticipation they sang while leaving the East…but those songs soon turned into silence as feet got tired, food ran low, people got sick, and little rock mounds marked those who weren’t going to make it to their promised land, the West. No, eventually, the excitement of the journey became just a stalwart putting one foot in front of another, day in, day out, hoping against hope that “the West” would present itself soon. I wonder if I’ll ever feel clean…or rested…or full…or hopeful…again.
But those weren’t the first pioneers. The first pioneers I know of were the Israelites. Miraculously delivered from Egypt in a blaze of drama and excitement and heart-stopping, neck-breaking motion (go read Exodus or, second best, watch The Ten Commandments), they saw, first-hand, the mighty power of God working on their behalf. They would follow Him anywhere! They would walk with Him through the wilderness to the Promised Land…
…they didn’t even make it 2 weeks before they grew disheartened (now, read Exodus; this part isn’t in the movie). Little did they know they would be sojourning in this loveliness for forty years. The Promised Land, I’m sure, became little more than a fairy tale for their children to hang onto as they trudged, day after day, one foot in front of the other, wondering if they’d really heard what they thought they’d heard, seen what they thought they had seen, believed what they thought they believed. I wonder if I’ll ever feel at home again…
It’s been cold this winter in Baker County…bitterly cold; the kind of cold that settles into your bones and doesn’t leave, no matter how many blankets you pile on top of yourself. It’s the kind of cold that makes you want to stay in bed long past the alarm clock and crawl back into bed at 7:oo pm. I think I rather wish I could sleep away the winter and wake up when the six feet of snow outside my house has yielded to some happy little tulips. These snowy, grey, cold days just keep going though…and sometimes I wonder if I will ever feel warm again.
But it’s not just the cold that has gotten me feeling like that lately; it’s the silence. There have been times in my life when God has bent over backwards to show me His love, to make sure I hear His voice, to make His plan so plain that there’s no mistaking Him! Those times are exciting and full of sparkling wonder. I wake up in the morning with songs of praise bursting out of my mouth, bounce through the day, and then go to bed with prayers and tears of gratitude overflowing. It’s beautiful. I love those times.
But these are not those times. This time is the silent time. The grey time. The time when I simply have to trudge through the daily monotony of living without angels and visions and mind-blowing revelation. It’s at these times that I have to just keep putting one foot in front of another, trusting that God is God and His Word will stand. He will keep His promises, regardless if I “feel” it from one day to the next.
But He does punctuate the silence…today’s tender mercy was a Scripture that popped out of nowhere onto my computer screen:
Right when I need it the most, He whispers. No great light show, no booming voice from heaven, no divine GPS or Google map to reassure me that, although the wilderness seems unending, I am going in the right direction.
Just a nudge. Just a whisper. Just enough Presence for me to know that I am not alone.
It was one of those Facebook quiz things: “Which Bible verse will guide your life in 2017?” I can’t help but click on them, and being this was at least semi-Scripture oriented, it held even more of a draw. I must confess, I sometimes treat them like a fortune cookie: discard a stupid result, proudly display something that resonates.
Boy, did this one resonate:
As I write this, I am watching a lovely snowstorm. The geese flew early this year, the summer and Indian summer were rather extended, we had about 2 weeks of genuine autumn, and then BAM! It started snowing in early December and I don’t think it’s stopped. This town of no-snow-days has had one already, and more may be coming. State highways are closed, and the interstate is closed for about 150 miles. No one is coming or going. It’s the great blizzard of 2017, one we can all remember in the future when we tell our grandchildren and great-grandchildren how we had to tie a rope from the door to the outhouse so we wouldn’t get lost while going to the loo…wait, that’s a Little House story. Nonetheless, it’s been a winter wonderland on steroids this year. And I’m totally looking forward to a summer in my boat on the lake that will be full to overflowing because of it!
Anyway, when I saw this verse, I started chuckling, because I automatically added, “And the blizzard will not overtake you.” Me, a middle-aged woman chuckling at a Facebook quiz result while standing in the aisle at the market, looking for gluten-free pasta…because that’s where I was. Stocking up. Dropping dollars for groceries that I wouldn’t be otherwise because preliminary reports have it that there will be no food deliveries for the greater part of the week. So my prepper husband whisked us off to the store to make sure we had enough groceries to get through at least this particular incarnation of the Apocolypse.
As we were unloading and I was stuffing items into the fridge and the pantry, wrapping those value packs of hamburger separately so I wouldn’t have to get too creative with three pounds of meat at a time, and as I watched our chest freezer fill up, package by package, I started thinking of winter about 15 years ago. It was a difficult time in our young marriage; we’d been broken financially and had lost everything. Our son was living with his grandmother, and my husband and I put a bed in the back of my downtown piano studio. Complete with microwave, fridge, hot pot and chest of drawers, we called a 20-square foot space home. With about $75 available each month for groceries (which, even all those years ago, wasn’t much), we packed as much bang for our buck into two backpacks and as we trudged from the store to our makeshift home we hoped that, between those and what we got from food boxes, we’d be able to eat.
One month during this particular winter, we couldn’t. It was a cold and grey Saturday; no students to teach and my husband was at work. As I looked at the shelves where we kept odd canned goods and other sundry food box items, I realized that there was simply nothing to make for dinner. My stomach was growling; I hadn’t eaten in about 2 days. I knew my husband was hungry. We’d tapped out any available food box programs…there was just too much month and not enough money or food. In desperation, I prayed, “God, just some ramen…I would love some ramen.” There may have been tears; knowing me, there probably were.
Not 15 minutes later, right as my husband was arriving, a friend came by and asked us if we could possibly use some ramen; he had a surplus and didn’t know what to do with it. My eyes bugged out of my head as I realized that “some” meant EIGHT CASES. Needless to say, that tided us over until the next paycheck and, not too long after that, we found ourselves in a new, much more stable position.
That was a blizzard. Oh, there were blizzards before and blizzards after…and God has safely brought us through every single one. He has been with us through the water, the rivers have not swept over us, and the fire has not set us ablaze (although it has gotten uncomfortably warm from time to time!). Last night, a friend called and asked if she and some other ladies could stay with us if they were unable to make it to their destination; based on the current road conditions, that stay could be relatively lengthy. As I unpacked all of those groceries, so easily gotten, I was overcome with gratitude. We have not been left stranded in the cold, but have been brought to a place where now it’s our turn to be able to provide shelter and offer others sustenance from our bountiful stores of food.
This journey, this series of 80 or more trips around the sun that prepare us for whatever is next, is not always easy. In fact, it’s rarely easy; it’s usually rigorous and challenging and, more often than not, we find ourselves shaking our heads in frustration and confusion wondering, “What is God thinking?” But what tender mercy He offers us, and what a promise that, no matter how difficult the situation, He is with us in the middle of it, leading us to a better place. The blizzard will not overtake you. There will always be a rope to hold; hang on, and you will find yourself safe and warm again.
Today is the day, the first day of 2017 CE. Common Era. I love how they tried to eliminate the whole BC-Before Christ and AD – Anno Domini (in the year of our Lord), but really, what makes the Common Era, common? The division is still delineated by none other than the history changing presence of Jesus Christ on the earth. The world can try to erase His existence and ongoing influence…they can try all they want…
Moving on, today is the first of January in the year of our Lord Two Thousand Seventeen. And I absolutely welcome it. I’m not just wishing happy new year in a trite, habitual manner; no, I absolutely welcome 2017, red carpet rolled out and eyes bright with anticipation at what this year will bring.
Some people might say, “Yeah, I’m glad it’s here, too; couldn’t wait to say sayonara to 2016!” That’s really not my case. I am thrilled with the prospects of 2017 because of what the Lord brought to me during 2016. My heart is so filled with gratitude and thrilled to watch His hand at work in my life and in the lives of others – it was a truly fantastic year!
What was so fantastic? Well…
…My spiritual life – my understanding of God as my Heavenly Father and my ongoing relationship with Him through Jesus Christ – has become stronger. After years of wandering in a spiritual netherland, not really knowing what I believed or why or if I did at all, 2015 and then 2016 became an ongoing adventure in hearing God’s voice and learning to obey. I’ve experienced obedience as the way to my truest freedom and, although I’ve a long way to go in the trust department, I’ve learned far more readily trust my Father, even when I don’t understand what’s happening at the moment.
…My professional life has been growing in leaps and bounds. Again, starting in 2015, I experienced what can only be described as a miraculous, midlife career change, transitioning from social work to music education. There have been some major challenges along the way – re-entering grad school and, after only one year, a sudden, very unexpected transfer from primary to secondary music – but each of these challenges is forcing me to more fully rely on God (F.R.O.G.) day by day and is helping shape me into someone that looks a bit more like His Son.
…My personal life: when I see where God has brought me over the last two years (yes, one more time, going back to 2015) in my family relationships and friendships, I stand utterly amazed. There were times when I didn’t think our marriage would survive…we celebrated 19 years in August! We bought our first (and last, I think) house together two months ago! I can look at my husband today and truly confess that I love him more than any other human on this planet…and that’s only because God has so beautifully healed my once utterly broken heart and psyche. And in so doing, He has surrounded me with a web of precious brothers and sisters in Christ that pray with me, laugh with me, and mourn with me. And as they have borne my stretcher, dropping me into the direct presence of that Great Physician, I have found myself able to bear some of their burdens, as well.
2016 was a year of beauty, healing, and growth. Regardless of the difficulties along the way, I can only say, “Thank you, Father, for a great year…that and better will do!”
“While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease” (Genesis 8:22).
We’ve done it. Yet again, we’ve made one more trip around the sun. Millions of people are, as I type this, celebrating with friends and family in a variety of ways; some are at clubs with food and wine, others are in private homes with board and card games, and some are even at the odd church that may still hold a Watch Night Service, praying in the New Year. Outside my window someone has just set off fireworks. Some folks are glad to see 2016 fade into history, hoping for a better trip this time around; others look back and say, “Not bad…not bad at all.” Balls will drop, Auld Lang Syne will be sung and kisses will be exchanged; people will drive home either very carefully or carelessly, depending on the amount of alcohol they have drunk, and hopefully, tomorrow morning, there will be few or no reports of injuries as a result of too much revelry. Regardless of anything that happens tonight, tomorrow will go on, much as today has and much as yesterday did, as the days, weeks, months, years did before them…
But for us, a new calendar is exciting. Unlike my cat, who is so very present in the now (Now I want petted, Now I want food, Now I want your side of the bed) and, to my knowledge, has no recognition of the passage of time or of the differentiation between years, people have, for all recorded history, marked time. Before calendars, we watched the weather patterns and ordered our lives around the changing of seasons, each solstice and equinox celebrated with great joy and festivities. Different developments of marking time are still present; religious communities follow a yearly pattern, as do societies, and the celebration of the New Year is, at least in the western world, one of the most significant. Somehow, the turning of the metaphorical page from one year to the next gives us hope of forgetting what has been painful, and whets our appetite for better things to come. Reflecting on the last 12 months inspires many of us to make grand resolutions for self-improvement and, even those grand intentions have gone completely flat by January 31, the very act of making them indicates their importance to us as a people.
Does God mark the New Year? God, as I understand Him, stands outside of time, being omnipresent, present in our past, present, and future simultaneously, able to behold the end from the beginning and all points in between. Fortunately for you, I am not going to try to explain that particular phenomenon; some things are best left a mystery. I do know that God understands time, and recognizes its importance to us. I was reading the story of Noah earlier this week, and God’s promise in Genesis 8:22 jumped out at me: no matter how crazy things get, the world will keep turning. The sun will set, the sun will rise, there will be evening. and morning, and another day…
I’ve been amazed at how many people have posted on social media how they just can’t wait for 2016 to be over: multiple celebrity deaths, a chaotic and difficult U.S. presidential race, catastrophe and calamity, poor decision, poor outcomes, yada yada yada…but the world will keep turning. Nothing about changing a digit on the year designation is going to alter the normal procession of life. Babies will be born, people will die, nations will rise and fall…but day and night will not cease. Until God deigns it so, the world will not end, and I take great comfort in that.
For me, 2016 was fantastic – maybe tomorrow I’ll reflect on all of the wonderful things God did in my life. When I wake up in the morning, God will not have mysteriously disappeared, taking all His blessings with Him. No, I will wake up as I always do, still safely tucked under my Father’s wings and hearing Him sing over me. Because as long as the earth is, and as long as I have breath, He will remain faithful.
I can’t think of a better way to bid farewell to 2016 and welcome 2017 than by singing the hymn, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” (Thomas Chisholm, William Runyan):
Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father, there is no shadow of turning with thee.
Thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not; as thou has been thou forever wilt be.
Great is thy faithfulness, great is thy faithfulness, morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed thy hand hath provided; great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.
Summer and winter and seedtime and harvest, sun, moon and stars in their courses above
Join with all nature in manifold witness to thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.
Great is thy faithfulness, great is thy faithfulness, morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed thy hand hath provided; great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.
Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth; thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide.
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow; blessings all mine with ten thousand beside.
Great is thy faithfulness, great is thy faithfulness, morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed thy hand hath provided; great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.
Today’s tender mercy is brought to us compliments of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square:
I absolutely love this song (enough that I tend to loop it), probably because I love the Scripture from which it was written:
Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin; and yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.”
So a few weeks ago, for my 47th birthday, I adopted a cat – a big, fluffy black boy who needed a home. I named him Edgar (a very dashing and dapper name, I know) and brought him home to a brand new litter box and premium food, toys and warm blankets. He now sported a brand new yellow collar. I love kitties and it had been far too long since I’d had one.
Within two days he was gone. Spooked by something, he found the doggie door and was OUT.
I was terribly worried; our Indian summer had, overnight, become a blizzard-y winter and this poor cat was out there alone. I will say that I prayed for him, and asked God to bring him home at best, but if this wasn’t to be his home, to keep him warm and safe. And every time I looked at the untouched litter box, the dish of food, the feathery toy…I missed him and I still wanted a cat.
I browsed Facebook classifieds and turned in an adoption application with our local shelter organization. Due to nasty roads, today I even cancelled a 5-hour round trip to bring home a kitty a few towns over. I figured there had to be a cat out there…it was just a matter of the meeting being made.
At dinner tonight, a friend of mine re-posted a picture posted by one of her friends, a picture of a lost cat who looked amazingly like Edgar! I contacted the original poster and, sure enough, “Blacky” had a yellow collar! He had found a warm basement less than 4 blocks away and was safe and warm. Within 30 minutes I was reunited with Edgar and he is, at time of this posting, purring and kneading the bed next to me. He and Abby, our Welsh Corgi, have hit it off swimmingly and Edgar is quickly establishing himself as king of this particular hill.
I’ve been worried the last few days, about lots of things: money, work, life direction…but Edgar’s sudden reappearance reminded me that if my Heavenly Father is big enough to notice a homeless black cat and provide for his needs, then He’s big enough to notice me and provide for mine. And if my reunion with a cat is worthy of Father’s attention, then I am pretty sure that everything else is, too.
Remember when Christmas was totally magical? When seeing the same old downtown decorations and hearing the same old elevator-version Christmas carols in every store and the thought of eating the same old food brought by the same old family members year after year after year brought excitement and anticipation and joy? Remember when wrapping presents was fun? I remember the first Christmas Eve Communion service I ever attended; it was in 1991 at Wesley United Methodist Church in Yakima, Washington. That evening was so magical and, for some reason, the message of Christ’s incarnation and the partaking of His memorial was overwhelming, so much so that I fell to my knees in gratitude and remember it well, 25 years later.
After nearly five decades of church, and Christmas, and the annual routine, however, all of it has become, well, just a little bit stale. I’m no longer a congregant sitting in awe; I’m a music leader who plays the same old carols year after year. The Sacrament that was so powerful to me a quarter-century ago is now commonplace and habitual. The story is the same; heck, out of so many options we have in the Gospel to read of the birth of Christ, even the Scripture passage is the same, every Christmas Eve, year after year after year. Christmas Eve comes, songs are sung, candles are lit, presents are opened, and bed is eagerly welcomed as Christmas Eve goes.
The sameness of it all is so apparent that it was mentioned in last night’s sermon. In the Episcopal Church, the Scriptures are studied in a 3-year cycle so that the entirety of the Bible is covered in that timespan. However, even in the presence of Matthew and John and even the beautiful poem in Philippians (2:5-11 if you care to look), Luke 2:1-20 remains the Christmas Eve Scripture year after year after year. Why? Because the story is so amazing, it bears repeating, and repeating, and repeating. The event is completely ordinary, but extraordinary; completely impossible, but possible; completely natural, but supernatural.
The magic is in the mundane. To the common onlooker, what would they have seen 2000 years ago? An impoverished couple unfortunate enough to have to bring their child forth in less-than-desirable circumstances. A band of shepherds fresh in from the fields (as if the stable wasn’t stinky enough already). Dirt, cold, and cramped quarters; anything but the cozy warmth we associate with new life. It wasn’t even mundane, it was mean, shabby, inferior.
But. But God. But the One who makes the impossible possible, the ordinary extraordinary, and who magically turns the mundane into the miraculous was in the middle of it all. And because of that, the ordinary, mundane, and impossible bits of my life are just as much a manger for His miracle as that manger 2000 years ago in Bethlehem. “Lord, that I may receive my sight” (Luke 18:41).
It’s almost time for resolutions and such. I stopped making those years ago; I can only barely take life one day at a time, much less set a goal for a whole year. But if I were to make a resolution, it would be to be more mindful of how my Father is working in the plain jane-ness of my life, to be faithfully vigilant as He exalts the humble to accomplish His will, in me and in those around me, to be thankful for whatever comes my way because I know that all of it is serving His purpose, even when I don’t necessarily understand what that purpose is. As I welcome Him into my day-to-day, mundane existence, He will turn the water of my life into wine.
This year, during Advent, I read Max Lucado’s book, Because of Bethlehem. He sums it up beautifully: “The moment Mary touched God’s face is the moment God made his case: there is no place he will not go. If he is willing to be born in a barnyard, then expect him to be at work anywhere – bars, bedrooms, boardrooms, and brothels. No place is too common. No person is too hardened. No distance is too far. There is no person he cannot reach. There is no limit to his love” (p. 135).
Thou didst leave Thy throne and Thy kingly crown, When Thou camest to earth for me; But in Bethlehem’s home was there found no room For Thy holy nativity. O come to my heart, Lord Jesus, There is room in my heart for Thee.