GOD'S EXTRAORDINARY SURPRISES
READ: Luke 1:1-22, 56-66 (click on verses to read)
I love surprises. To my poor husband's chagrin, I have refused for years to participate in the shabby tradition of telling him what to get me for Christmas. I know it's a practical way to exchange gifts, and one that lots of people prefer, but to me, Christmas without surprises is like a cupcake without the frosting. I still eat it, but feel like I've somehow missed out on the best part.
I know I'm in good company here, because when you read the stories of Christ's birth, it is easy to see that God loves surprises too. Take the first narrative Luke unfolds for us, where an unknown priest shows up for his annual ministry at the Temple and gets waylaid by an angel as he burns incense on the altar. When Gabriel announces Zachariah's role in the grand Gospel story, Scripture says he became paralyzed with fear. Terror soon gave way to cynicism, however, as the angel promised him the surprise of his life--a chance to father a son in his very old age.
The thing about God's surprises is that so often they come when hope is gone and dreams have died. Not only had Zechariah given up on having a son, but he was one of millions of Israelites who had heard nothing from God for over 400 years. Think of it. For ten generations there had been no angel visitations, no angry prophets, no clouds by day or fires by night, no temples filling with smoke or Mount Sinai's quaking with the glory of the Lord. It would be safe to say that most of God's children were living with little anticipation of the promised Messiah showing up to free them from the tyranny of Rome.
But the blessed truth about God's surprises is that so often, just when we feel as if time has run out, God breaks in and we realize He had a plan all along. In His sovereign wisdom, our heavenly Father has been carefully lining things up, preparing the way for break-through, even though we are oblivious to His ways and at times have given up completely. Yet as we look back, we see how every detail of of God's plan was perfectly chosen with our best interests at heart.
Another thing about God's surprises is that so often, just when we feel as if time has run out, God breaks in and we realize he had a plan all along.
In this story, for example, Zachariah had left the hills of Judea to come to the busy metropolis of Jerusalem. He was not ministering at the temple alone in the early morning or late at night, but at mid-day, when the crowds came to offer prayers and hundreds would see him come out and know that something supernatural had occurred. And though Zachariah came as a priest to perform his temple duties once a year, this was the only time in his life when the lot fell for him to enter into the holy of holies. Surely this was no coincidence. What better place to be ambushed by God?
All in all, when you consider what would soon unfold, God had a pretty novel idea to kick the whole thing off. Not only did an old man get a wish that he'd long ago given up on, but his miracle baby would prepare the way for the fulfillment of the greatest promise ever given, the coming of the Messiah.
All in all, when you consider what would soon unfold, God had a pretty novel idea to kick the whole thing off.
So as we enter the final stretch before Christmas, let us ponder deeply the story of a faithful priest and the people of God who endured 400 years of Sovereign silence. May we hold onto hope and take delight in the reality that we have a heavenly Father who, when least expected, loves to come crashing into our world with glorious surprises.
Are there areas of your life where you have given up hope of God breaking in? Do you long for some fulfillment of a promise, some sign that God is here for you? If so, reflect on this story and offer these things to the Lord, asking Him to give you fresh hope in Him. Be as honest as you can with the Lord, but end with an affirmation that He will accomplish His purposes in His time, just as he did with Zechariah. Write your thoughts to the Lord in a journal.
Zechariah burst out in praise as soon as God loosened his lips. Read his words below aloud, personalizing them as your own prayer of praise to God.
"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."
A CHRISTMAS ACTIVITY
Plan a way to surprise someone who might least expect it today. As you experience the joy of doing so, reflect on how God takes pleasure in bestowing surprises upon you, his child.
I am excited to share my Christmas message with you! Watch below for 15 minutes of hope, inspiration, and some Biblical tidbits that may just surprise you this Advent season!
12 days of christmas DEVOTIONALS on their way!
In just a few days my Twelve Days of Christmas Devotionals will once again be available here. Check back in here on December 12-25 for a daily dose of spiritual focus and fun. You can also sign up to receive the links daily in your email here.
Christian authors are often stuck between a rock and a hard place. We are supposed to promote our books (publishers are sort of unhappy when we don't), but we also want to be humble and never appear self-promoting. Besides that, most of us are introverts who love the quiet space writing affords us, and don't really care much about cavorting with crowds in order to sell our resources. Like I said...a rock and a hard place.
But I have to be really honest with you--I feel like shouting from the rooftops right now about the new updated version of my book The Soul at Rest: A Forty Day Journey into a Life of Prayer. Why? Because I know how it has changed lives. When I rewrote it last year, I was pretty humbled at how poor my writing skills were almost a quarter of a century ago (it was my first book, after all). And yet, it is the one book that has had more of these kinds of responses than any other:
This book turned my life around...
This book is designed to take you on a journey of intimacy with Jesus and that will change anyone's life. So the truth is, even though this feels like a hard place for me, if I don't promote this book, then I'm dishonoring the God who called me and gave me the grace to write it. He so passionately wants intimacy with you that He will use anything to draw you to himself!
Therefore, I'm going to be relentless in trying to get you and everyone I know not only to buy it, but to take the time to actually DO the practices it shows you how to do. I'll even go so far as to offer a guarantee that if you work through the chapters and your life isn't changed, I will personally refund your money.
The most exciting part of this is the new version has a group guide so you don't have to go through it alone! Groups of any size --book clubs, Bible studies, Women's groups, Men's groups, Missional Communities--it is a great way to spend several weeks helping each other grow deeper in intimacy with Jesus. What could be more fulfilling? Let me know if you are going through it--I have a couple of videos to launch and end the 10-week study. (email me for the link at email@example.com)
ORDER YOURS NOW--click here!!! For more information and watch the trailer, click the link at the top where it says "Soul at Rest Book".
In just a few short weeks, the new, revised and updated edition of my very first book, The Soul at Rest: A Forty Day Journey into a Life of Prayer will be released. I am so excited about this, it keeps me awake at night! So I am here asking for your help. I need everyone I know to help me get the word out about this book, because I know it changes lives--thousands of people developed a deeper relationship with Jesus through the first edition and I believe this one, with the small group guide, will impact even more. Here's what you need to know:
Who can apply for the Launch Team? Ask yourself these questions:
Launch Team Benefits (What you’ll get from me)
Launch Team Requirements (What I need from you):
I WOULD TRULY LOVE TO HAVE YOU ON MY TEAM--AND I'M NOT KIDDING!
I've been silent around here because technically I'm on a sabbatical. Watch the video below to find out how that's going for me. Then scroll to the bottom for some exciting news!
The new edition of my very first book, The Soul at Rest, will be released this November. While it is still the same book that thousands relied on to help them explore their journey with God, I think this version is so much better. Here are a few changes:
New subtitle: The Soul at Rest: A Forty Day Journey into a Life of Prayer
Billy Graham’s body now lies in the Capitol rotunda, an honor shared by only three others in history. Some of the most powerful people in the world are paying tribute, even as I write this, with their presence and proclamations, all broadcast on a live feed you can follow here. In his life, the evangelist, who once practiced preaching to birds as he sat on a creek in a canoe near his country home, ended up sharing with over 215 million people worldwide, visited with no less than 12 sitting presidents and attended a record-setting number of eight inaugurations. Thousands have already paid their respects, filing by the coffin in his Charlotte home, including former presidents such as George Bush and Bill Clinton, and now thousands more will do so in Washington before the funeral on Saturday. At this moment, President Donald Trump is speaking of how Billy Graham changed our lives and indeed, changed the entire world.
the evangelist, who once practiced preaching to birds as he sat on a creek in a canoe near his country home, ended up sharing with over 215 million people worldwide
I have watched these things with some sadness, but more gratitude, not only for Billy Graham’s ministry, but for the consistency of character he demonstrated, a rare phenomenon, that in this day and time, perhaps speaks louder than his lifetime of powerful sermons. I was privileged to hear Graham at two different stadium events—once as a child and another as an adult, but in this past week, I have been captivated by a video of his “last words” that is circulating in various forms across social media, with this youtube link alone having over two million views. Among other things, he said the following:
Of all the things that I’ve seen and heard, there’s only one message that will change people’s lives and hearts. I want to tell people about the meaning of the cross.
I want to tell people about the meaning of the cross. When I heard that, I wept.
Over a quarter of a century ago, I set out to prepare for Easter by pondering the cross and Jesus’ final days for a month. That journey ended up taking almost a year and I have never been the same. Every year since, I have spent the Lenten season reliving those days with Jesus, meditating on the message of the Cross, being overwhelmed by the paradox of its utter simplicity and profound power.
Every need I have ever faced, every struggle I’ve endured, every painful question I’ve asked, every confusing season I’ve experienced, and every heart wound others inflicted has taken me to Jesus in those final days, where again and again I taste a fellowship of his suffering that soothes and settles and restores my soul like nothing else ever can.
The reality that Jesus paid the price for me to not only experience hope and joy and peace in this world, but to live in His presence for eternity is still an unfathomable mystery to me. In some small measure, I feel I’ve barely begun to understand Paul’s passion to know nothing but Jesus and him crucified.
I want to tell people about the meaning of the cross.
The opening service in the rotunda is ending now, with Michael W. Smith singing the song that invited broken souls to come and receive the gift of new life at every Graham event:
Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me,
And that thou bidst me come to thee, O Lamb of God, I come.
This is the message of the Cross in all its simplicity—we come with nothing in our hands, but the promise that 2000 years ago Jesus died for sinners, the perfect Lamb of God shed his blood so that you and I could come to him. When Billy Graham took his final breath last week, I know he was singing that line--O Lamb of God, I come—with joy inexpressible as he beheld his risen King face to face.
When Billy Graham took his final breath last week, I know he was singing that line--O Lamb of God, I come—with joy inexpressible as he beheld his risen King face to face.
Today and every day, and every minute of the day, I too say, O Lamb of God, I come. Emboldened by the price you paid Jesus, and the righteousness you purchased on my behalf, O Lamb of God I Come. And in my heart of hearts, I hope one day that I too can summarize my entire life’s purpose as Billy Graham did with that one simple line: I want to tell people about the meaning of the cross.
Today is Day 13 of Lent--if you haven't begun focusing on the Cross, you still have 27 more days! Pick up Contemplating the Cross here-click on the book below.
Yesterday I moved my brother’s meager hospital belongings into a different room for the fourth time since he checked into a rehab and skilled nursing facility after a massive stroke in October. They seem to schlep patients around there like pawns, but this time we carried his things to the wing they call custodial, where elderly or disabled people are shuffled off when their mounting needs can no longer be met at home. Most of these residents live their final years there, rarely seeing a visitor. As my brother is only 62, the enormous sadness of it all settled on my 87-year-old mom and me like a shroud. I found myself sitting in the public bathroom crying like a baby, trying to pull myself together. Writing about it now brings me to tears all over again.
My brother, on the other hand, took it all in stride. In fact, he has patiently endured an incredible amount of suffering these past months—left-side paralysis, excruciating nerve pain, invasive stomach-wrenching bacterial infections, painful catheters, careless and insensitive attendants, and mushy meat-like substances served as meals, this as a vegetarian—for starters. Yet through it all, even on his sickest days, he has accepted whatever came with few complaints.
It’s hard to imagine that before this stroke, even the slightest change in his routine could send this guy into high anxiety. Last week a neurologist explained why. The stroke’s effect on my brother’s brain has left him with a condition they call “La Belle Indifference,” which lacks a clear definition, but is described by various experts with words like a naïve lack of emotion…inappropriate calmness…unconcern with symptoms. In general, it means that my brother is far less concerned with his daily condition than the rest of us—there are times he can almost seem indifferent to it all.
La Belle means the beautiful, and that is the paradox.
La Belle means the beautiful and that is the paradox. From the start I have tried to drive my brother to work at his rehabilitation, to do the arduous therapy needed to enable him to come home. But because he doesn’t connect the daily grind with his future, it makes no sense to him to endure the pain that therapy requires. The neurologist told us we shouldn’t even try to get him to connect dots he cannot grasp. I have to say that beautiful sure doesn't describe the way this condition sabotages his recovery. And yet, I have seen beauty.
It was beautiful when a couple of his former nurses came by just to hang out and assure him they would be back to visit. He has endeared himself to them and others simply because he connects so well with the present moment. He knows janitors, aides, therapists, nurses and doctors well enough to ask about their children or their dogs by name, something he never forgets to do, even in his sickest moments. He pats them on the hand, asks to see pictures on their phones, encourages them in their struggles and makes them laugh with his uncanny wit. This altered state, as his wife calls it, is beautiful because he has no fear for his future and no bitterness about the cards he’s been dealt. He seems blissfully unaware of how bad things really are most of the time, and this indifference is a grace, a beautiful grace.
to rest means to learn to sit with the now, and no one does that better than my brother.
I’ve thought a lot about this as I’ve tried to press into my word for the year--rest. As I wrote in my last blog, to rest means to learn to sit with the now, and no one does that better than my brother. Because he cannot connect the present to the future, he has an almost hyper-sensitivity to the now. He sees and hears everything, and is so keenly in tune with people’s emotional needs as a result, that he continually asks discerning questions so he can offer meaningful encouragement. Today I tried to wash his hair, insisting he get into his wheelchair so we could go to the sink. After a harrowing ordeal that nearly left him prostrate on the floor, I reluctantly let the nurse put him back to bed, dirty hair and all. As I left a little a bit later, he took my hand and reassured me, saying: “That was a valiant effort, Tricia.”
I read of one journalist whose husband demonstrated La Belle Indifference in his final weeks, and she described her experience with these words: “It is a phenomenon of naive or inappropriate lack of concern about one’s illness or disability, also called a conversion disorder. I call it heaven.”
I get that now. La Belle Indifference—the beautiful indifference—sitting in the now—rest. I still have a lot to learn, but I know someone who can teach me.
Last week Joe went to Ethiopia and I binge watched three seasons of cooking shows on Netflix and devoured three pints of Haagen-Dazs Vanilla Swiss Almond Ice Cream. That’s just for starters. They say confession is good for the soul, so there you go. Embarrassing? Well, yes, but there was a redemptive quality to my downfall that I hope I can articulate here.
People at times ask me how our transition is going, but as I noted in my last blog, the word God gave me for this year isn’t transition, but rest. How is my rest going? That’s a tricky one. First, I am a planner by nature, hard-wired to envision the future, to lay down tracks for myself and others who might appreciate the guidance. When I’m not planning, I’m looking back, learning from the past so I can regroup to do better next time. But in this moment, there is nothing to plan or organize, no ministries to oversee, no messages to prepare. I am in transition, which seems like a perfect time to rest, right? Not so simple.
The sluggish pace surfaces insecurities about who I am when the doing stops.
Rest, it seems, means learning to sit with the now, to embrace, experience, and enjoy it for all its worth. But something in me resists. The sluggish pace surfaces insecurities about who I am when the doing stops. Empty spaces loom large, like a bottomless pit I must avoid. It’s hard to rest when you’re on the run, even if from your own demons.
The passage on rest that has spoken deeply to me these past few days is a warning the prophet Isaiah gave the Israelites. The story was that Assyria was going to destroy them, and the best outcome they could hope for was years of captivity. Their national identity was about to be obliterated, so it only makes sense they would look for solutions—like getting help from Egypt, Assyria’s enemy. I can imagine how outrageous God’s idea sounded to them: “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15)
Four simple words: return, rest, quietness, trust—this was their mandate and the one I’m learning to immerse myself in as well. Here’s my paraphrase:
Do you want to experience wholeness? Then for now you must pull away and embrace the quiet. Do you want to become stronger through the struggle? Then you must learn to embrace the sobering stillness, and put your confidence in me alone.
So, while my default is to pack every minute I can with busywork, to prop up my identity with productivity, God is calling me instead to sit with the now...
So, while my default is to pack every minute I can with busywork, to prop up my identity with productivity, God is calling me instead to sit with the now, to trust what is rather than what will be, to ignore the niggling doubts about my future and resist the futile assessing of my past. This rest may be the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but in some weird way, I can’t wait to see how it plays out.
More about that later, but first, the back story. Every January I pray for a word or phrase God might want to be my focus for the year. This year I was pretty sure I knew the answer without asking--transition. So many pieces of my life are in upheaval, not the least of which is that Joe and I are letting go of our shepherding role for the church we planted over 36 years ago. We are in what feels like the greatest transition of our lives.
...letting go of our shepherding role for the church we planted over 36 years ago. We are in what feels like the greatest transition of our lives.
But as I prayed, I heard a different word--rest. I resisted—reminding God that this transition is front and center for me every single day, along with all the other changes in my life. Still, I heard rest, so I set out to contemplate that notion, and what it might mean for me in 2018.
There are so many great truths about rest in Scripture, but the one that intrigues me most is the instruction in Hebrews to strive to enter into rest (Hebrews 4:11). This oxymoronic admonition—striving to rest—is where I found myself a few days into 2018.
As I sat with this, the image of swaddling babies came to mind—of how they often resist at first, but once they give into the constriction, they are able to rest. That’s when I began to grasp that for me, rest and transition are synonymous; that this upending of my life is God’s way of wrapping me so tight I have no other choice but to rest.
God is swaddling me with circumstances I cannot control, with a future afloat with uncertainty
God is swaddling me with circumstances I cannot control, with a future afloat with uncertainty, with days and weeks and months of ambiguity ahead, and a sense of loss so profoundly unfamiliar that I cannot find the edges.
Everything in me wants to resist—to throw off these constricting circumstances and return to what is sure, what is known, to a life that I have loved and never really wanted to change. But in resisting, I cannot find rest, so instead I must strive to trust God’s ways—day in and day out, moment by moment.
How is God swaddling you these days? What are the circumstances that constrict you, that threaten your faith, that make you waver in unbelief? What does resisting look like for you? What would it mean to strive for rest? I’d love to hear from you.
The song below is sustaining me with its truth day by day. So thankful to Jason Upton--Click here to get his latest album free and be blessed!!!
Contact Tricia here.
Tricia McCary Rhodes
Author of 7 books and a professor for Fuller Theological Seminary, Tricia specializes in helping others experience God’s presence through practicing soul-care.