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A Christmas story

Ever felt like asking the question, what in the ever-lovin’ world is going on? Disappointment. Heartache. Broken relationships. Death and grief. Wounds that won’t heal or scars so deep they constantly remind.

What do we do when no answers come? Where do you turn when there’s no place to go? Who can offer comfort when we all are hurting?

Go with me to another time, another land, and understand from those who have gone before us.

For hundreds of years, no prophets proclaimed, “Thus saith the Lord.” The Jews scattered, wandered and wondered where God was, a nation scarred by their rebellion. The kingdom that once shone like a brilliant star had darkened, and the people were lost without a shepherd.

As the Hebrews lived daily with promises still waiting, perhaps there was excitement in the heavenlies, preparation for the Word of the Lord soon to be delivered.

Heaven’s attention turned toward a small blue and green planet in the universe and a temple standing in Jerusalem, the city of David, where Israel’s long history was venerated.

A grey-haired man had served there faithfully all his days, more years than he cared to count. Mundane tasks were ingrained in him, receiving and preparing sacrifices, the continual ritual washing of pots, pans and himself, necessary duties that kept order as people came day in and day out.

This day was different from the routine, as the choosing of clan, of family, of a man privileged to serve in the holy place was about to take place.

Was Zachariah surprised when his name was called? He was aged by now, and his bones ached. He moved slower than the young priests eager and ready to assume responsibilities. But it was his name he heard. What stirred in him at the recognition? At long last he would be the one to present sweet incense on the table of God, offering prayers of intercession for himself and for his people.

On the appointed day, he prepared himself, dressed in pure white garments, and gathered the special spices and fire as he approached the place where God had once dwelt as visible cloud. Those days were but a memory now, the Presence departing as Ichabod was pronounced.

Still Zachariah was ready and willing. Entering behind the first curtain into the holy place, he went about his duties, memorizing his special day. He would share the details with Elizabeth, the love of his life, when he returned home.

See the source image
from “The Nativity

He heard a rustling, the dividing curtains shifted as if moved by a gust of wind. Light appeared on the right side of this somber room revealing a being like none he had ever seen.

Zachariah trembled in fear, his aged bones shaking as he looked and listened, trying to grasp everything this angelic being was saying.

“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. There will be joy and delight for you, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord and will never drink wine or beer. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother’s womb. He will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God.

And he will go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to make ready for the Lord a prepared people.”

The old man was barely able to stand, astonished and trembling. The admonition not to fear didn’t help. “Your prayer has been answered,” and he wondered which prayer? He’d offered thousands of supplications in his lifetime.

The words sounded jumbled, confusing. A son? Elizabeth, his equally old wife, had resigned herself to being childless decades ago, carrying with her the shame and disgrace of it.

Name him John? Who in his linage was ever called John? A son from his loins would be great, like Elijah the prophet? To prepare the way for the Lord? The messiah was coming? Now?

Who could believe such a wild tale?

And so Zachariah asked, “How?

The angel was given the right to see into Zachariah’s doubting heart. What were his doubts? Doubt that he was worthy of such a visitation? Doubt in the message and the messenger? Doubt that Elizabeth was physically capable to conceive and birth a child?  Doubt in the God who can do whatever He chooses?

It had been a very long time since anyone heard anything from God. And Zachariah was doubtful.

Zachariah’s doubt resulted in his silence. He was speechless. He could not explain this marvelous experience to anyone with words. He could gesture, or perhaps write words on a parchment, but otherwise, he was left with his own thoughts and memories of the most momentous event of his long life. In his silent days, he remembered the years of God’s silence to Israel. He soon realized that God decided to speak up.

When God speaks, we would do well to listen.

When Zachariah went home after his service in Jerusalem, he took his dear wife in his arms like days when he was young and viral. She conceived. And the words of Gabriel sang to him for months, “Make ready for the Lord a prepared people.” With his own eyes he watched Elizabeth’s belly grow round and beautiful, exactly as the angel said, the sure message coming to pass.

God will do what God will do. He will use whom He will to accomplish His purpose. His promises are sure though we wait long for them, though fear and doubt creep into our hearts. God is long-suffering and patient with His children, and when He speaks, the words are true.

What promises are you holding in your heart? Have you lost faith that God will accomplish it? Do you sometimes wonder if He remembers where you are? Do you feel He has forgotten you?

Tell Him all that is in your heart. He will not turn away from an honest confession. He will draw you near and whisper His love to you.

The days of her confinement ended and Elizabeth delivered a beautiful baby boy. She called his name John. And Zachariah believed.

Monday grace

I remember being a fearful child.

Afraid to sleep by myself. Afraid for my mother to be out of my sight. Afraid to be left alone. Afraid of the dark. Afraid of strangers. Afraid of failure. Afraid of what others thought of me.

Life experiences force us to face some of our fears.

I cried on the first day of school, unable to comprehend being away from my mother all day. But I overcame, finished the day, finished first grade and the next eleven years to graduation without my mother holding my hand.

When I was old enough to stay at home by myself, I kept my bouffant hair dryer turned on, it covering the mass of pink curlers like a balloon. The noise of the dryer kept me from hearing any unusual sounds in the house while there all alone. I learned it was OK to be by myself.

When mother sent me next door to the neighbors’ house in the dark, I quoted Bible verses memorized in children’s church all the way there and back to keep the demons away. I learned to enjoy the night seasons.

Somehow I managed to stand and giver a report in school, though my stomach ached with anxiety while I waited my turn. I’m still learning I can “do it afraid” when I speak to a crowd.

Life made me face some of my fears and overcome them.

Still, fear hunts me down, hides in unexpected places, rises up without warning, and screams unspeakable things. Other times, fear comes like a whisper, planting doubt and uncertainty in my unsuspecting mind. “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

And I hear a question proposed to me, like it was proposed to twelve men two thousand years ago, a voice familiar and beloved:

“Why are you so afraid?”

If I try to formulate a reason, the words flounder and fail in the explaining. I must be in a similar fearful company since Holy God pronounced so many “fear nots” throughout Scripture, enough for every day in the year.

I ask myself, why are you so afraid? What is there to be afraid of? Is not He who holds all creation holding me?

Fear not because God is with me.

Fear not because He will never leave me.

Fear not because my times are in His hands.

Fear not because He hears my prayers.

Fear not because He is working all things for my good and His glory.

Fear not because darkness is as light to Him.

Fear not because He will give me strength for the task.

Fear not because He will help me.

Fear not because He takes away my shame, disgrace, and humiliation.

Fear not because He is God and there is none like Him.

Fear not because no one can snatch me out of His hand.

Fear not because He has a hope and a future for me.

Fear not because He loves me with an everlasting love.

I hear the power of His voice, His commanding strength, His gentle entreaty, “Why are you so afraid, my dear one?”

I respond in faith, humbly bowing, “Lord, with You there is nothing to fear.”

Monday grace.

Sunday grace

The gas logs burn in the dark of dawn, and I snuggle under the quilt, sitting in my rocker, sipping hot coffee. It’s spring they say. The cold chills me. And the bird song filters in through the closed window in the morning hours.

Maisie and I walk, me bundled in my corduroy coat and a scarf at my neck. Buds on the forsythias are peeking yellow. I cut some long branches, put them in a vase of water, hoping for spring to bloom in the house.

A redbud tree sustained wind damage a week ago, the multi-part trunk broken and a piece of it lies near the ground. I’ve done nothing with it yet. It makes me sad, this beloved tree I planted to commemorate the first grandchild’s birth almost 22 years ago.

While the geese move in pairs, one female already sits on her nest, like she’s trying to get a jump on the others. Her head is bent low and curled into her body as she tries to stay warm. Her mate swims and eats grass, always near but still living his goose life. She sits faithfully in the waiting.

The moon is full in the night sky. It will wane and wax as the season of Passover approaches. I observe its phases this time of year and remember the familiar story in Exodus.

The Israelite people, in Egyptian bondage, clothed in their slavery, crying out for deliverance, wondering when it would come. In their waiting, God was moving to bring his plan to fruition. A Passover night would symbolize their deliverance and point to their future.

We all wait for something. We do it patiently in hope or we live with frustration and anxiety. It’s my choice.

I wait for spring to fully form. I wait for prayers to be answered. I hope in the waiting, knowing that God is strong and God is good.

I choose to trust that He is moving while I wait.

Sunday grace.

February ending 2019

Though spring is three weeks away, signs are evident in February. Frogs croke in the puddles. Birds sing early mornings in the little woods. Geese pair up and honk loudly. Fat brown rabbits emerge from holes and search for patches of grass. Buds appear on trees. Crocuses surprise me by the front steps. Day breaks earlier, just before we ruin the natural rhythm with daylight saving time.

Maisie celebrated her 4th birthday in February. Actually, we don’t know when she was born. I’m told she was found on the streets of Mississippi with a litter of pups before she was rescued and restored to good health. We gave her a birth date because everyone needs a beginning.

Sweet William and I watched a lot of basketball, cheering our home team. Our guys are doing well this season. With the approach of March Madness, we will wear our colors with pride.

I finished a project that languished on my goals list far too long. Today black and white photographs of our families hang on the wall. Generations are represented, history is framed, and grace is revealed on faces. God has been good to us.

Little Women Poster

My favorite movie this month was the 2018 version of Little Women, the March girls thoroughly modern set in the sweet familiar story. Near the end of the movie, when grown sisters gather in their childhood play room, I watched, misty eyed, and wished I’d had siblings.

Bathed in Prayer, Jan Karon’s latest book, is my pick of the month, and I was the very first to check it out of my library. Father Tim’s prayers, sermons, and wise counsel are grouped together according to each book in the Mitford series. Tender and sincere, the requests seek God’s mercy and strength, with large doses of the prayer that never fails* filling the pages. I’m inspired to pray better.

I cleared out a couple of file drawers that held too many papers I’d saved through the years. I went through the alphabetic folders one by one. The file marked Stress Management was full of articles and helpful technics, and I recall when my life felt stressed on a regular basis. I was always looking for something to relieve it.

Thanks be to God, I’m not there anymore. I threw away the entire folder.

A friend asked me to help her organize her quilting shop. She has a great space where she sews and gives classes to help people like me learn the art of making a quilt. She pulled everything out of cabinets and drawers so we could see what she had and decide what to do with it. I told her more than once that she really didn’t need to keep this item or that. We decided that it’s easier to get rid of someone else’s stuff than it is to let go of our own.

“Lo, the winter is past,” said the wisest man. It feels like it should be as February ends. But we’re not out of the wintery woods yet. I’m not ready to put away my warm snuggly clothes. But I can already feel my energy rising. I notice that it is still daylight when my last piano student leaves my house.

Nature knows the seasons. Sometimes I think the animal kingdom has something I don’t. When the river rose from days of rain, we drove to the bridge to see how high it was and felt anxiety rise with the water. The geese on the lake across the road were not concerned. They continued to do what geese do.

Granted, they don’t have the same understanding as I do. Yet I have knowledge of the holy, the God who feeds the birds and the geese, who controls the wind and rain, whose promise to be with me no matter the situation gives me reason to rejoice.

I gaze at the pictures of my family on the wall, some of them I never met. There lives confirm God’s plan, His grace, and His redemption, and they have left their fingerprints on my life, in some way or another.

The sound of singing is in the air, the birds sensing a change. The season of winter will pass and spring will follow. Because God has purposed it to be.

He is fully trustworthy. My life is in His hands. The faith of my fathers resides in me. I have no reason to fear.

* The prayer that never fails: Thy will be done.

Sunday grace

I’m such a saver of memories.

I’m a keeper, this I know for sure. I don’t swing to the side of hoarding, but my family will tell you I hold onto things. Like the grandchildren’s animal-shaped sippy cups, though the three of them are practically adults. Like the dolls I played with when I was a child. Like our son’s cub scout shirt. Like my dad’s hammer and my mother’s girlhood autograph book.

And then there are the cards people sent. These are difficult to part with. They hold deep sentiment and recollections of people who have been important to me.

I have a small file cabinet in the upstairs office. It contains things saved: trip maps used recently, Bible studies I’ve taught, my high school report cards and resumes of my work history, among many other things, filed alphabetically of course. Those drawers hold pieces of my life, and somehow remind me who I am as much as the photos organized in boxes.

I determined I would go through the file cabinet while this year is still new and throw out what I can, to lighten the load of stuff kept. And there were piles of papers that went into the trash.

Occasionally I will come upon something special. As I was finishing this final organizing project, I found a 3-by-5 inch lined index card with a simple eight line poem written in my mother’s handwriting. She’s been gone from this earth for 36 years, but I know her penmanship well.

She was such an example of faith to me. I watched her live it out through many hard places. As she faced death, I asked her if she was afraid. She immediately replied “No.” She had learned that Jesus is faithful through her years, and she didn’t worry about her future.

There is no author to whom I can give credit for this simple verse. But it is worth sharing.

Doubt sees the obstacles
Faith sees the way.
Doubt sees the darkest night.
Faith sees the day.
Doubt dreads to take a step.
Faith soars high.
Doubt questions, Who believes?”
Faith answers, “I.”

Sunday grace.

The prayer

I do enjoy the re-reading of a good book. This morning, it is the account in Luke of a couple of old folks with whom I can identify. The words are anciently familiar, yet they are fresh like a sip of pure spring water on a parched tongue.

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I opened the Book to the story of Zachariah, the aged priest, who just so happened to be chosen on this particular day for a special assignment. He entered the Holy Place of the temple to offer incense on an altar that represented prayer and petition to God. The people were praying outside while the priest prayed inside.

As he offered up prayers, the smokey fragrance of incense encircling him, I wonder if Zacharia thought of that one prayer he had prayed again and again through his many years? That one prayer for blessing, for a child, a son from his loins?

Yet here he stood, an old man whose wife was equally well along in years, childless the two of them. Because Elizabeth was barren.

God’s timing for answering prayers are so often out of sync with what I envision.

The angel’s appearance was awesome, causing fear, but his announcement must have been confusing to Zachariah. “Your prayer has been heard.”

Which prayer was that? You mean the one I stopped praying years ago? The one I stopped expecting to be answered because I’m old now? The prayer that would have been on a timetable more suitable for me? That prayer?

Zachariah and I, we have things in common.

The prayers I am grappling with sometimes grip my heart with their urgency. I cry out to my Father, my eyes filling with tears, longing for an answer. And please, can it be today?

How many times have I read that God’s ways are not my ways, that His time is not my time? And yet, I want Him to do it according to my prescription and on my schedule.

Faithful Zachariah and Elizabeth had lived blameless lives, following the commands God gave to His people. Surely their prayers would have been answered. Undoubtedly their desire for a child would not have gone unheeded.

After so many years they must have become resigned. Head shakes and whispers behind their backs would have been hurtful. People can wonder when trouble beats us up and we are not being blessed in the conventional sort of way.

And yet, on this day in an old man’s life, the angel Gabriel, who stands in the presence of the Almighty, was on a mission to proclaim wonderful news to Zachariah. “Your prayer has been heard.”

Praying Hands Image
Praying Hands by Albrecht Dürer

God declares in His word that my requests, petitions, prayers are heard. He answers when He gets good and ready, in His own sweet time, because He alone knows when all the pieces are in place.

So, my fellow traveler, don’t let discouragement weigh you down. Don’t give in to doubt and unbelief. Throw off the lie that you are forgotten and forsaken. Keep believing God. Keep bowing the knee. Keep trusting in a faithful God who hears your every plea and preserves your tears in a bottle.

Believe that your prayer has been heard. In the fullness of time, and according to the perfect plan of God who does all things well, there will be an answer.

And it will be spectacular.

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Revised and reposted from December 2018

We gather and we pray

How quickly a ride in the park can turn on its heels and take you in another direction, down a dark tunnel where you cannot see the light.

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After a companionable family gathering on Thursday, I got a call while still out on Black Friday. “A mass in her brain . . . being admitted to the hospital . . . it’s very serious.”

Entering my house, I tell what I know while I fumble about with the insignificant, still trying to assimilate in my own mind what I’ve just learned. When unexpected trauma appears I ask the same question, “How can this be happening?”

I put on my coat and scarf, gathered Maisie’s collar and leash to go walk. I aimed for the end of our lane where an old cedar post used to stand. It was a place my dad went to pray when trouble blindsided our family.

As I reached that spot, I paused to remember.

My cousins’ parents and mine moved to this piece of undeveloped property in the 1960s. We grew into adults on this lane. We added spouses and then houses sprung up, all of us living in proximity to one another. As our children were birthed, one by one, the sounds of childish play roamed these 40 acres, all the neighbors being our kin. It was unusual for sure, and it was beautiful beyond description.

I think of all the prayers our parents prayed for us, sometimes when we knew it, but more often when we had no idea.

The family leaned on my dad as our prayer warrior, his habits and customs unusually disciplined and structured. It was  his agreement between him and his God. He called all our names in prayer daily, nightly, and he interceded when we were in trouble. He stood at that cedar post at the end of our lane on several occasions that I can remember to speak to the One who knew us well.

Dad had a list with family names on it. It grew longer through the years as we increased in number. After mother’s death and his remarriage, he moved away from this lane into the house of  my step-mother. Though miles away, he had a nightly ritual of going outside and turning toward the south, where we still lived, to pray for each of us one by one.

I returned from my reverie of memories to the present. The old cedar post that stood as a memorial is gone. I looked about my surroundings. The fields that used to surround our homes are filled with subdivisions, privacy fences and apartment complexes. Other people live in the houses that used to be home to my family members. Things are different now.

While standing where my father stood, I reminded myself that my God is the same, never altering from His awareness of us, not any less compassionate and kind. Though our parents are gone, their prayers are not. The Lord stores them and remembers the faith of our fathers and mothers.  All of those words of petition did not vanish into thin air. Instead they are treasured in heavenly vessels.

As tears rolled down my cheeks, I prayed too. The words that came were simple: “Lord Jesus help!” I knew He heard me just as He heard my ancestors years ago.

He is a God who leans down to listen. He was not surprised by a devastating diagnoses like we were. His intention and purpose are already in place.

Our family has a traditional day-after-Thanksgiving evening meal of Hot Browns to finish the leftover turkey. I asked my cousin, who hosts us, if she still wanted to do this. She answered “I think we are better together than apart.” I agreed.

Sweet William and I entered the house and the atmosphere was somber, so unlike the day before when cheerful noises greeted us at the door. This night we are quiet, faces solemn. The axiom, “when one hurts, we all hurt,” is true.

Before the meal we were not really hungry for, we joined hands and lifted our praise to our God who has been faithful to us through the years; who has seen us through troubles great and small; who has shown Himself huge and performed miracles we didn’t deserve; who has given grace to walk the hard places; who has never left us alone to ride out the stormy gales.

We asked Him for mercy, for healing, for strength, for wisdom, for His comforting presence. Our hearts are assured He will answer our cries.

This is what my family does in times of crises. We gather and we pray.

Today I turn on music to soothe my heavy heart. This is the song I wait for:

 I Love the Lord

And pitied every groan.
Long as I live, and troubles rise,
I hasten to His throne.

When trouble comes, family gathers. We are better side by side than trying to stand alone  We hasten to God’s throne with full of assurance of His loving welcome.

We will trust, believe, and wait to see what God will do.

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