For weeks I have struggled with thoughts about what to write to you as Christmas approaches. I have to admit that with so much ugliness happening around the world, Christmas can be a nice diversion.
But when we look to Christmas as a diversion rather than for instruction, we lose sight of the blessing God intends for it to be.
In the end what grabbed my heart to write about, were the instructions Jesus gave His disciples before sending them out to a world that was no friendlier then than it is today:
“The Kingdom of Heaven is near . . . Freely you have received, freely give.”
Matthew 10:7 & 8b
Jesus’s words serve both as a warning–that God’s Kingdom (the only kingdom that ultimately matters) is only a heartbeat away–and, as a reminder of how our lives are enriched as we follow Him. As I reflect on Jesus’s instruction I am touched by His simple directness:
“The Kingdom of Heaven . . .
freely . . .
For those who claim Christ, Christmas is not a seasonal event, wherein generosity and caring are in vogue for a set amount of days. No. For those who claim His name, Christmas should be:
A lifestyle–that reflects our awareness that Christ’s return is closer than ever before.
A daily reflection of Christ’s Presence in our lives–as we set our sights on loving Him and our neighbor as He requires.
Extravagantly given to those He puts on our paths–as we honor the Gift as well as the Giver who changed our lives for all eternity.
As I reflect on the times we live in, I am encouraged in knowing that living in such times, is meant to draw us ever closer to Christ. When you think about giving gifts this year, don’t limit your thinking to mere tangibles. Think instead about the treasure you have received in Christ Jesus, and give it away freely to a world in desperate need of His Light:
“I am the light of the world.
Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness,
but will have the light of life.”
Although it is the smallest room in our home–long and narrow, with windows lining two sides–our den has always been my favorite room in our home. It is a wonderful place to observe squirrels running and birds of all sorts swooping between the trees and feeders in our backyard. I especially love watching the first snow of the season quietly sift down and the contrasting scarlet beauty of cardinals against the sparkling whiteness–it leaves me breathless every single time. Best of all, our den has been a quiet place to reflect, read, write or to spend time with a friend.
But what if there were no windows in that room? Would the den have the same appeal? Humanly, I tend to think not . . . especially as I peruse a small bird book left by the previous owners of our home. In that book, the visits of unusual birds sighted through our den windows have been recorded since the 1950’s. Over the thirty years we have lived here, our family has excitedly added to that little book, our own sightings of various rare visitors.
Yet, I am challenged by the wisdom of John Newton*, who wrote about windows and light from a spiritual perspective more than two hundred years ago:
“All houses from the king’s to the laborer’s, however they differ to other circumstances, agree in this: that they must have windows whereby they may receive the light. A palace without a window would be little better than a dungeon; and a man would almost think himself buried alive in it. Many splendid houses are dungeons with respect to spiritual light.
A believer would not bear the thoughts of living in any situation,
unless he enjoyed the light of the Sun of Righteousness,
and with this any situation is tolerable.” (From Letters of Newton, pg. 138)
Where we tend to think about windows and light from a purely surface perspective, Newton urges us to go deeper by thinking in spiritual realities.
Indeed, apart from the blessing of a faith that sees beyond the immediate to the eternal,we are all short-sighted as to recognizing the blessings being worked out by God in this day of uncertainty.
The Apostle Paul knew this when he wrote his second letter to his friends in Corinth:
“For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,”
made His light shine in our hearts
to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory
displayed in the face of Christ. . . .
Therefore we do not lose heart.
Though outwardly we are wasting away,
yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.
For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us
an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.
Now comes what is the “to do” part of opening up those spiritual windows:
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen,
since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” II Corinthians 4:6, 15-18
There have been seasons when I have looked out our den windows and saw nothing but a dark hopelessness because of the heaviness of my heart–perhaps you have been there too? Indeed, in such times when Christ seems furthest away, we all experience that spiritual dungeon Newton referred to in his letter. Yet is has been during such times of despair, when I have opened my Bible–determined to focus not on my despair but on His Face–that the spiritual light and comfort of hope have ultimately prevailed. It has been during such seasons that our den has provided,
A shelter to prayerfully confront the various storms that have threatened
It has served as a place to receive comfort and ultimate healing as God’s light has strengthened me in my brokenness.
Best of all, our den has been a place of celebration, as God’s Divine Will has been worked out though those storms, to draw me and those I love closer to Him.
Having suffered through the perils of facing cancer among family and friends during the past year, and still suffering the loss of several of them, I was grateful for John Newton’s wisdom as it opened up the windows of my mind and heart to appreciate the spiritual realities of God’s Sovereign Goodness. The good news is that you do not need a special room to open the windows of your mind and heart. The light and hope found only through faith in Jesus, will open wide those spiritual windows as you determine to trust in Him.
Romans 15:13 is one of those windows in Scripture that saved me out of a season of darkness and fear; I pray that it will do the same for you:
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him,
so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
All to His Glory!
*John Newton, author of the classic hymn, “Amazing Grace” wrote his letter in 1774.
It was fun perusing Facebook last weekend to see what others had received on Valentine’s Day–flowers, chocolates and other gifts. However, it was the comments written by single friends that touched me. For many, our cultural emphasis so strongly bent on romantic love, makes the occasion a painful irritant to get through. While there is nothing sacred about the day, I do believe that to remember the history behind the occasion provides a wonderful opportunity for Christians to love neighbors, friends and family “more deeply from the heart.” (I Peter 1:22)
I was grateful on that same day to find three posts (also on Facebook) that offered a healthier, more thoughtful way to rethink our approach to Valentines Day as a means of blessing others:
The first post was a blatant reminder of the gap between how our culture celebrates loving through romanticism, and the actual basis of Valentine’s Day–sacrificial love. While our culture has largely reduced our understanding in commemorating the occasion with formula of Hearts + Chocolate = Love–Really?–we can richly benefit from the treasury of sacrificial love demonstrated by a man who truly loved God and his neighbors.
“Greater love has no one than this,
that someone lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13 (ESV)
The second post was a cartoon, taken from the cover of New Yorker magazine. I totally related to the worry and doubt on the man’s face as he stared at the series of deadbolts and locks lining the inside of his door. Yet, when I saw the Valentine that someone had slipped in despite all off his precautions, I found it to be a healthy reminder that, while we may be tempted to hide in uncertain times, Christians are called to reach out t0 others in the love, hope and mercy of Christ. Years ago I was challenged by a question someone asked, “If you were accused of being a Christian in a court of law, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Rather than allowing fear to rule us, we are called to love and serve others as we live out the gospel of hope.
“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is LOVE.” I Corinthians 13:13
The last post was very personal. My second daughter, Amy, put up pictures of her family observing Valentine’s Day in the tradition that developed as our family grew. When my children were small and we were living in England, I helped my daughters (then, ages seven and almost five) make heart-shaped baskets “woven” out of contrasting colored construction paper. We loaded the baskets with handmade valentine cards and small, heart-shaped candies imprinted with such messages as, “love” and “be mine.” Early the next morning, the girls and I left those baskets hanging on the door knobs of our landlord and several neighbors who had become friends. We snuck off quickly, leaving no trace of our identities . . . or so we thought! Later that morning I received several telephone calls, thanking us for the baskets. Puzzled, I asked how they knew it was us? One friend laughingly put it this way, “I saw it hanging on the door and thought, ‘It was the Americans!’. . . we don’t celebrate Valentines Day in this country!” (It never occurred to me that Valentine’s Day was not universal!) My children still have fond memories of the parties we threw to love neighbors and friends on Valentine’s Day.
It was after returning to the States and our children entered their teens that I proactively morphed our family tradition to a more personal level. The change was prompted when picking up my oldest daughter as a freshman in high school. It was Valentine’s Day and I was shocked to see so many girls walking out of the school carrying bouquets of flowers, balloons, stuffed animals and other “gifts” that had been delivered to them in school from their boy friends. (In a culture that is so focused on building self-esteem, I find it astounding that such a practice was (or is) even allowed!) Desiring to override the confusion of equating self-worth and being loved by trivial gifts, we shifted gears within our family. From that time until our children finally left home we made Valentines Day a special day we all looked forward to:
Special cards were made for one another that were affirming to that sibling or parent that was especially esteemed–“I appreciate how you . . . . “
We dressed up to share our meal in the dining room, where the table was set with our best dishes and candles we burning.
Dinner was kept simple but special since it usually was a week-day.
After finishing our meal came the best part: when we opened the cards stacked at the top of each place-setting we had made earlier. Every card was read aloud and enjoyed as we took time to love each other.
It was interesting this week when I asked my children (long out of the family nest with families of their own) about their memories of those times. They all said they enjoyed and looked forward to our family celebration. The memory we all still laugh about was a card Luke (our youngest) made for Amy (at the time Luke was probably eleven and Amy almost 15) that said, “Dear Amy, I appreciate it when you leave me alone!” (That one kind of slipped under the radar of what we hoped to accomplish, but it definitely reflected the tension between siblings and their parents so it was allowed.) Another comment I heard, was how reading positive comments from their family at a time when the tensions of daily life seemed to prevail, was an especially sweet gift.
No matter what your circumstance may be, whether you are young, old, married or single, if you are a Christian I write to encourage you to consider looking beyond yourself for opportunities to love others. We live in a hurting and increasingly dangerous world that tempts us to run, but if we will live our lives intentionally and sacrificially as a reflection of our love for God and others, the rewards will truly be out of this world! Hearts + Chocolate = Love? No way!
When thinking about Christmas, what comes to your mind? Like many, I get wound up when it comes to Christmas. Between the gift buying, wrapping and mailing of packages, the meal planning and the sorting out of “who is going to do what and when” as we make our way through the Celebration–Christmas can be a bit daunting! However for others, Christmas conjures up painful memories and can be a season of heightened loneliness–for them, Christmas is a season to get through.
Whether you embrace Christmas or you dread it, I write to remind you that Christmas is not about friends or family–Christmas is a call to worship (celebrate) Christ! Only as we make Christ the focus of our worship, as we humble ourselves before a holy, loving God, do we discover the glorious heights of experiencing Christ in this Holy Season.
In a conversation that took place between Jesus and a Samaritan woman true worship comes to the forefront. The woman was a mess by any cultural standard–married five times and the fellow she had been living with was not one of the five! Many Commentators suggest that the reason she came to the well in the afternoon heat, was probably to avoid being shunned or looked down upon by other townspeople. Jesus knew this when He started a conversation with her and quickly got her to thinking less about herself and more about her relationship with God. Verses 25 and 26 stood out especially to me last night:
“‘God is spirit and His worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.’ The woman said, ‘I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming. When He comes, He will explain everything to us.’ Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you, am He.'”
Jesus not only taught on the subject of worship, He pointed to Himself as the rightful Heir, deserving of that worship! Inspired by Jesus’ reminder, I remembered the words of one of my favorite hymns, O Come All Ye Faithful:
O Come All Ye Faithful
Joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.
Come and behold Him,
Born the King of Angels;
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.
Hungering for more, I hit youtube.com looking for more opportunities to worship Christ. Finally, I came upon this Christmas Eve service, recorded in King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, England. It was a perfect fit for me, having been there many times. The last time I was there was especially meaningful to me when I attended an evensong communion service with my friend Maggie. What I love about the recording is that it captures the smallness of men being surrounded by the gargantuan holiness of God–worship that fills and satisfies! If you get a chance set some time aside (the entire recording is about 45 minutes) and be blessed as I was.
May God bless you richly as you remember His Son . . . .
The diagnosis of cancer for a second family member hit our family hard. The fact that it involved Luke AND Shannon (married eight years) cast our experience into a realm all its own. For me, there are moments when I look at them and my mind goes back to their wedding–a day of promises and hope. During the service, I remember watching their faces as Luke sang a song he wrote for his beautiful bride and watching them recite their vows: “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health . . . .” Little did we know how vividly those vows would become the standard for living out each day.
Indeed, life has been hard for our family in many respects . . . let’s face it, who would ever sign-up for a double dose of cancer?!! Yet even so, we can say that God has been very, very good to us as we continue to count our blessings. I suppose that is why this verse from Isaiah has become so dear to me in recent weeks:
“Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides You, who acts on behalf of those who wait for Him.” Isaiah 64:4
Waiting is never easy, especially in this “fast-paced, gotta have it NOW, ‘time waits for no one'” world. I tend to think that the management of time and our frustration inherent in waiting is more intense now. However, Isaiah proclaims that our times are not unique when it comes to waiting. I cannot help but marvel at the patience of a God who continues to reward “those who wait for Him.”
In an odd way, it was a relief as we gathered in the hospital waiting room, trusting that our Shannon was in good hands. Hours passed . . . almost surreally . . . as we talked, read, shared stories, played games, snacked and watched the Surgical Update Board change as the progress of every patient having surgery that morning was listed. We bore the assorted fears that go with every surgery–but the truly heavy weight we bore was wondering what was to come after the surgery. Having learned over the past year that with cancer, fear lurks to pounce on even the most stalwart faith. So . . . we waited in hope, knowing that God will continue to work out His Perfect Plan in each or our lives.
Finally, Shannon’s surgeon walked briskly into the waiting room–we followed like ducks looking for crumbs; wary yet hopeful into the conference room. What came next was a lesson on what I can only call, “productive waiting” that gave us direction and hope. He started by telling us about the surgery:
The surgery went very well–it was minimally invasive and the “mass” was removed successfully.
He saw no other evidence of cancer but admitted that we will not know anything about future treatment until the pathology report was returned.
He explained cancer “staging” and how it ties to treatment success rates.
Here is what he said and did that helped our family in the moment and gave us a vision for the weeks to come:
He smiled at us with kind eyes, as he shook our hands one-by-one. (Totally bringing us “on board” as a team.)
He told us our primary role should be to help Shannon get well enough that she would be able to leave the hospital in three to five days.
Tying in with that, he told us to do everything we could to encourage Shannon to allow her body to rest over the next two weeks.
This may sound silly, but by equipping us with hope and direction in supporting Shannon AND Luke, our load was lightened immensely. When he left us, we felt energized as our fears slipped away! I thought about how the direction he gave us reflected the wisdom of Jesus regarding worrying:
“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.
Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
It has been eight days since Shannon’s surgery. She came home on “Day Five” and continues to gain strength each day. Family and friends have reached out in a multitude of ways as we prepare for the Celebration of Christ’s Birth. We still wait on the pathology report–not anxiously but in faith–trusting in God’s perfect timing.
A few weeks ago, a friend asked me if Shannon having surgery would “ruin” our Christmas? I must admit that I was grateful for the question as these words came out of my mouth: “Not at all! If anything, Christmas has become more precious to us as God has been with us every step of the way.” It’s absolutely true! We wait as the ancients did, on the only God who continues to care for His own.
We wait in hope for the LORD; He is our help and our shield. In Him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in His holy name. May Your unfailing love be with us, LORD, even as we put our hope in You.
It happened so quickly! My husband and I were in a hotel gift shop–killing time really. While looking at some terra-cotta Christmas ornaments, one I barely touched tumbled to the tile-floor and smashed into pieces. We looked around for help, surely everyone in the shop heard the crash . . . but no one came. Dutifully, we looked at each other and started picking up the pieces one-by-one, before making our way to the sales counter.
When I showed the manager the pieces, I must confess that part of me hoped she would forgive the debt owed. She didn’t. Instead, she looked at me and the broken pieces and said, “It’s okay Ma’am, I’ll give you a discount . . . that will be $14.” My heart sank as I looked at my husband and said, “I’m sorry, Honey.” She looked me and asked, “Do you want this?” With tears threatening to spill, I started to say “no”–why would I want such a painful reminder? However, my husband interjected, “Yes, we will take it–I will put it back together.” So, she put the pieces into a clear ziploc baggie and we walked out of the shop.
It was quite a while before either of us spoke. Inwardly my thoughts seemed to go everywhere at once–embarrassed at breaking the ornament, upset that the store manager was not willing to forgive the debt . . . I could feel my cheeks getting hot as I struggled inwardly with a growing anger. Yet, in a flash my anger dissipated as I recognized my sinful and foolish attitude. Suddenly, these words flew through my mind like an electric banner:
“Kathie, you love the idea of grace but you have forgotten that, from start to finish, GRACE IS A GIFT!”
I felt silly and downright arrogant when I realized what I had done–demanding what can only be received as a gift! Two passages of Scripture came to mind. The first was David’s prayer of repentance in Psalm 51. After being confronted about his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, David’s prayer reflects the kind of brokenness that pleases God in verse 17,
“My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.”
The second passage, written by the Apostle Paul in his letter to his friends in Ephesus (chapter 2, verses 4 and 5), boldly declares the wondrous love of God who, in His divine mercy, offers grace to all who repent of their spiritual brokenness:
“But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.”
As we continued to walk, I found myself bubbling over with excitement at God’s kindness in extending this lesson to me. Suddenly, I was grateful that my husband had the broken pieces in his pocket and could hardly wait for him to glue the pieces back together. This Christmas that very special ornament will be hung on our tree with special care, tagged with a note for all to see: Grace is a Gift from start to finish!