READ: LUKE 2:8-20 (CLICK ON VERSES TO READ)
Footloose and fancy free. That's what comes to my mind when I think about those shepherds in the Christmas story, I suppose because of the way they dropped everything and went the Bethlehem to see the new born king. That term has a storied past, but most agree that it refers to someone who has no obligations to anyone, no love or family interests to consider as they choose their path day in and day out.
But footloose and fancy free doesn't really describe those shepherds. After all, they were poor peasants, trying to make a living in one of the most difficult occupations of that time. Day by day they wandered the hillsides outside of Bethlehem, moving their small flock around, making sure they got their fill of healthy foliage. At night they drew together – perhaps for camaraderie or comfort or for the safety found in numbers. Sleeping under the stars, they had to protect their lambs from predators like wolves or other savage beasts, making sure they didn’t wander off. The livelihood of a shepherd’s family, which may have included their parents or widowed sisters, rested on his shoulders. Even if he was a free spirit at heart or footloose in his yearnings, a shepherd didn’t have the luxury of doing whatever suited his fancy at any given time.
...a shepherd didn’t have the luxury of doing whatever suited his fancy at any given time.
That’s what makes their reaction so intriguing. There they were, resting after a long day, perhaps sharing some bread and swapping stories, having no idea that they were about to be brought into the central drama of history. Out of nowhere, some strange and ethereal light splattered the night sky and an angel materialized at their feet, telling them of a Savior born in a stable. If that wasn’t enough to make them want to run for their lives, the deafening sound of an angel choir singing something like the Hallelujah Chorus came crashing in on every side. What in the world were they to think?
But that’s just it – they didn’t think. They didn’t stop to talk about what they had seen, or to plan a course of action. They didn’t debate what to do with their sheep, or how they’d convince anyone of what they had seen, or where they would go once they got to Bethlehem, a city bulging with a million pilgrims. Someone said, “Let’s go”, and they all took off as if they hadn’t a care in the world.
Someone said, “Let’s go”, and they all took off as if they hadn’t a care in the world.
Those shepherds were making space for God, something that, ironically, I find harder and harder to do during this season. Reading their story makes me want to change all that. Though I’ve never witnessed the glory of the Lord filling the sky above me, or had an angel set my heart pounding, or heard a heavenly host singing arias to the Most High God, I know that God can break into the ordinariness of my days with thundering grace, leaving me with the same decision they faced. Will I drop what I am doing and run to see what and where and when and in whom and how He wants to show me His glory? Will I make space for him?
Footloose and fancy free. Will you join me during these days of Christmas by offering Christ a heart that will drop everything to invite Him in? In the shopping, caroling, wrapping, eating, gathering, cooking and partying, will you determine to be a footloose follower of Jesus, if only for a minute or an hour or even a day? Who knows what glories might be ours for the taking if we do?
Think of times when you have made space for God. What did He show you? How did He meet you? Spend a few minutes reminiscing with a grateful heart. Now, what would it look like for you to drop everything and make space for God today? This week? Journal your thoughts with the Lord on this.
Worship the Lord as you imagine what it would have been like to hear the choir of angels singing, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."
Offer your own song of praise, personalizing the Psalm below:
Send forth your light and your truth,
let them guide me;
let them bring me to your holy mountain,
to the place where you dwell.
Then will I go to the altar of God,
to God, my joy and my delight.
I will praise you with the harp,
O God, my God. (Psalm 43:3-4)
A CHRISTMAS ACTIVITY
Ask God to enable you to do something completely out of the ordinary today. Listen for His voice throughout the day and when you hear that gentle whisper, drop everything as best you can, and go do it.
READ: MATTHEW 1:18-25, LUKE 2:3-5, MATTHEW 13:54-55, LUKE 4:22 (CLICK ON VERSES TO READ)
If there is one character in the Christmas story that seems to get short shrift, it's probably Joseph. This could be because he wasn’t Jesus’ biological father or because Scripture doesn't say much about him after Christ's birth. Whatever the reason, people don’t talk about Joseph much, even today.
But when you think about it, being the step-dad of the Messiah had to have turned that carpenter’s life upside down in ways we probably fail to fully appreciate. It would be hard, for example, to measure the price Joseph paid in loss of reputation and privacy and respect, when he married the young pregnant woman instead of finding a nice way to get her out of his life.
Or consider the inner turmoil that must have plagued Joseph as he faithfully raised the boy – wrestled with him and taught him and fed him and disciplined him and tucked him in at night – knowing all along that it wasn’t really his son at all. Can you imagine how Joseph’s heart must have been pierced after searching frantically all over the temple for Jesus during their annual visit, only to have the twelve year old ask, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”
Though we can surmise about these things, the reality is that Scripture gives us little to remember Joseph by. After the temple visit, he fades from view and we have no record of how or when he died. In all of the Gospel narratives, there is nothing written about what he felt or the things he might have said--when the angel woke him, or he took Mary as his own, or when the baby Jesus was born. It almost feels as if Joseph was a strangely silent bystander, with nothing to say at all.
Or was he?
Truth be told, Joseph left us a profound legacy – not in words, but through his acts of quiet obedience.
Truth be told, Joseph left us a profound legacy – not in words, but through his acts of quiet obedience. When Gabriel told him to wed his pregnant fiance, he did so without argument. When an angel warned him to leave Bethlehem, he took Mary and baby Jesus and traveled to a hostile land where they would have no family, no friends and no source of income. When Herod died and God told him to take his family back to Israel, Joseph packed up and went, once again. And when he got there, only to be warned not to settle in Judea--the place that clearly would have made the most sense--he journeyed instead to Galilee to set up housekeeping, ensuring that a prophecy about the Savior being a Nazarene would be fulfilled.
What can we glean from these few scattered verses about the legal guardian of our Lord? Whatever else Joseph might have been, it is clear that he was a man who loved God enough to relinquish his rights to comfort or career or status or security or even social identity. Over and over God asked Joseph to make hard and costly choices, and he did again and again, seemingly without complaint.
May his life cause us to consider what kind of message our stories send to those who may be watching on any given day.
So as we approach Christmas, let us look a little more intently at this one whose quiet obedience tells a story all its own. May his life cause us to consider what kind of message our stories send to those who may be watching on any given day. And as we remember this one who stood so humbly at the edges of the Christmas chronicle, may we offer our hearts afresh to the God he served with such abandonment.
Spend some time prayerfully meditating on Joseph’s quiet obedience in light of your own life. Are there acts of qiet obedience that no one knows about in your life? Do you need to hear God whispering to you, "well done, good and faithful servant"? Let God minister to you today. Consider your own desire to follow, even when no one knows or affirms you. Hear God's affirmation of love.
While our tendency is to glorify such awesome obedience, there is a hidden reality that is far more important. Why did Joseph obey? What had he seen of God that made him so willing to sacrifice? Only the Almighty, full of grace and glory, could inspire such incredible submission. Worship Him this morning as you make the following verses your own:
Psalm 104:1-2, 31-34
Bless the LORD, O my soul!
O LORD my God, You are very great;
You are clothed with splendor and majesty,
Covering Yourself with light as with a cloak,
Stretching out heaven like a tent curtain.
Let the glory of the LORD endure forever;
Let the LORD be glad in His works;
He looks at the earth, and it trembles;
He touches the mountains, and they smoke.
I will sing to the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have my being.
Let my meditation be pleasing to Him;
As for me, I shall be glad in the LORD.
A CHRISTMAS ACTIVITY
Look for opportunities to respond with quiet obedience to the Lord as you go throughout this day, and rest in the wonder that He is pleased with you, no matter who else sees what you do.
READ: LUKE 1:26-35, 46-56, MATTHEW 12:46-50, ACTS 1:12-14
(CLICK ON VERSES TO READ)
One sunny day in March of 2008, Abdel-Qader, a government employee in southern Iraq discovered that his 17 year old daughter Rand had been seen in public chatting with a British soldier. Enraged, he waited for her to come home, at which time he stomped on, suffocated and then stabbed the young girl to death. Though he was arrested, he was released two hours later, after having been congratulated by the police for acting to restore his family’s honor in the face of the girl’s immorality. The murder was fully sanctioned by Sharia law, though Rand had done nothing more than engage in conversation with the soldier during her breaks at work.
Though there were no such laws in first century Judea, the culture in which the teenage Mary had grown up would have had some similar values. People, for example, were not viewed as individuals, but rather as members of their group or clan, and therefore, whatever one person did, reflected on all of them. Nazareth was a small, conservative village with only about 400 inhabitants, which meant that everyone would most likely have been drawn into her pregnancy in some way. The fact that she claimed it was an act of God could only have made matters worse.
Yet, when the angel appeared announcing God’s call to Mary, her response was nothing short of miraculous. Though deeply troubled at first, she answered with humble acquiescence and then broke out with the Magnificat – one of the most glorious psalms of worship ever written. This girl had a tender heart toward the God of her childhood.
Mary was mired in a crucible of God's making...
But can you imagine how Mary must have felt as she stood before her father, sharing the news? Even Joseph’s plan to marry her could not have assuaged the rage and shame and sadness that the teenager’s dad must have expressed. Mary’s baptism by fire had begun. As if months of rejection and scorn weren’t enough, the very pregnant girl had to travel 80 miles in six days through the desert on a donkey, only to encounter a maelstrom of frustrated pilgrims fighting for lodging, finally giving birth in a grotto that sheltered sheep. With no sister or aunt or mother or midwife to hold her hand, Mary was mired in a crucible of God’s making, toughening her up for even greater heartache to come.
By the time she’d raised Jesus, Mary had become a strong, confident, even headstrong woman. At the wedding in Cana, she quickly dismissed her son’s objection to doing miracles before His time, telling the servants to do whatever he said. She traveled with him off and on after that until the day Jesus discharged her by declaring that all those who did His Father’s will were now his mother and brothers and sisters.
That is the last we hear of Mary until Jesus hung in a bloodied heap from the cross of Calvary. While most of His disciples fled in fear, the woman whose womb had carried him into the world looked bravely on as her first-born took his final breaths. What memories flashed across her mind in those painful hours? Did the roar of the mocking crowd bring back the ridicule she had faced so long ago? When the soldiers bartered for his ragged robe, did she see herself in that stable, swaddling her infant against the chill of night? When water and blood shot from the stab wound in her Son’s side, did she hear a distant echo of Simeon in the temple, warning her of a sword that would pierce her soul? In that moment, did she wonder how in the world she would ever recover?
Only eternity will reveal the role she played in those days of the early church and the spreading of the gospel throughout the land and beyond.
But recover she did, at least in part, for the book of Acts tells us that Mary was there after Christ’s ascension, praying with Peter and James and John and all the others in the upper room. Only eternity will reveal the role she played in those days of the early church and the spreading of the gospel throughout the land and beyond.
So as Christmas comes, let us consider this woman who pondered things in her heart and pressed through her pain again and again for the higher good. Let us remember the way her trials shaped her and the strength she gleaned from the sacrifices she made. And as we see her pushing through and persevering in the face of a struggle we cannot even begin to comprehend, let us give thanks; for we are all to this day in that woman’s debt.
Consider this amazing woman and the words she begins her spiritual venture with: Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word. Imagine the many times she must have reminded herself of this throughout Jesus' life and death. Now think of what she must have experienced when the Holy Spirit fell at Pentecost. Radical obedience always produces incredible rewards. How have you seen this in your own life? Where might you need to say these words again?
Worship the Lord by personalizing the Magnificat, the prayer of Mary upon learning of God’s call:
Psalm 104:1-2, 31-34
"My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever,
even as he said to our fathers."
A CHRISTMAS ACTIVITY
Write Mary's words of submission on a card and carry it with you throughout the day, offering it up as often as possible as your own prayer. Share it with someone else.
BEHOLD, I AM THE SERVANT OF THE LORD;
LET IT BE TO ME ACCORDING TO YOUR WORD.
READ: LUKE 1:13-16, 39-43, 57, 80, JOHN 3:25-30 (CLICK ON VERSES TO READ)
In 1623 a young woman in France gave birth to one of the greatest mathematical minds in history. From early on he demonstrated amazing genius; discovering at the age of 12 that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles – a fact now taught in every basic geometry class. As an adult, Blaise Paschal devoted himself to mathematical experiments, traveling about to lecture on his findings. Then one night something happened that changed everything.
He was driving a coach home when the lead horses took fright and fled wildly across a bridge, railing into the dark waters below. Had the reins not snapped, Paschal would have plunged to his death, a reality that deeply affected him. Later that night as he pondered his near-death experience, the presence of God descended in a dramatic way. He wrote of it on a piece of parchment and secured it in an amulet that he kept next to his heart. Giving up mathematical pursuits, he went on to devote himself completely to the study of Christ. Upon his death they found the amulet around his neck, with the paper he’d written that night. It contained these words: . . . O righteous Father, the world hath not known Thee, But I have known Thee. Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy. . .
Joy, joy, tears of joy...
Joy is the birthright for all of us who follow Jesus, for it flows from the heart of God and resonates on page after page of Scripture. The Christmas story is peppered with whispers of joy. One of the lesser known ones is found in the story of Jesus' forerunner and cousin, John the Baptist. Though we often see John as some kind of odd prophet, eating locusts and wild honey in the wilderness, the truth is that his life made him a courier of joy from the very start. First, the angel Gabriel promised John's father Zechariah that his birth would bring him great delight. Then the infant John leapt for joy in his mother's womb when Mary came to visit. And the entire village celebrated John's entrance into the world with one big party.
As a young man, John's joy was wrapped up in wonder at being chosen to announce the coming of the long-awaited Messiah. We see this in a conversation he had with his disciples one day when they were worried that he was losing his standing to a newcomer named Jesus of Nazareth. Though he’d told them many times that he was only there to prepare the way, they lost sight of that as the crowds thinned around them and people flocked to hear Jesus.
John patiently explained to his disciples that he was like a best man in a wedding, waiting with everyone else for the bridegroom to arrive. Once he heard the bridegroom’s voice, he realized that the wedding was imminent and he was filled with joy. John's happiness flourished as he saw his ministry fading into the background, even as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world gained in popularity. This, even though Jesus’ appearance on the scene was the beginning of a terrible end for John; one that he may very well have anticipated even while speaking of his own fullness of joy.
So with every Christmas carol we sing in the coming days, let us remember that we are made for joy...
As we practice joy, we too prepare the way for Christ this Christmas--in our hearts and lives and families and workplaces and neighborhoods. As we listen carefully for the Bridegroom’s voice and open our hearts to the wonder of His coming, we are blessed to be His couriers of joy.
Although joy is our birthright as children of God, we can easily forget in the busyness of the season. Pause for a few minutes and just sit with the joy of having been chosen by Christ to know Him and walk with Him and celebrate His goodness. See everything about this season--from the shopping to the partying to the gifting and receiving--as an invitation to joy. How will you respond?
John the Baptist rejoiced to hear the Bridegroom’s voice. Ask Jesus to speak to your heart today by giving you a revelation of who He is and His presence with you, as you read the following verses. Spend some time worshiping by rejoicing in Him.
1 Chronicles 16:32-34
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it!
Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth.
Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever!
A CHRISTMAS ACTIVITY
Make the Christmas Carol, JOY TO THE WORLD your song of the day. Go to online hymnal and read/sing all the verses. Or watch this joyful rendition of the hymn: Chris Tomlin with Watoto Children's Choir. As you watch or sing it to yourself, think of joy as the greatest gift of all in Christ. Celebrate!
READ: LUKE 1:24, 39-45, 57-66 (CLICK ON VERSES TO READ)
There are people like Elizabeth in each of our lives – those unsung heroes who walk quietly and faithfully before God. They are the ones we want to run to when we struggle, as well as when we soar. Knowing that they are there and will give us just what we need when we come to call, is like an old, familiar song that plays somewhere comfortably in the back of our minds.
What made Elizabeth the kind of person her teenage niece would want to stay with during her first months of pregnancy? Scripture tells us Elizabeth was six months along herself, but would that have been enough to make Mary journey all that way alone to see her? What else do we know of this woman who played such a significant role in preparing for the coming of the Messiah?
First, Elizabeth was a righteous woman who walked honorably before God. This means that she had really tried to keep His commandments diligently all the days of her long life, no small feat under the best of circumstances. But in her case, it meant trusting God even as the one thing that defined her identity as a Hebrew woman -- having a child of her own – eluded her, year after year after year, into old age.
What I love about Elizabeth is that there is simply no trace of bitterness in her story.
What I love about Elizabeth is that there is simply no trace of bitterness in her story. Though others around her probably believed she was deficient in some way, there's no evidence that she took offense, nor does she seem to waste time with self-recrimination or second guessing God about how this could have happened in light of her faithfulness before Him. This, I believe, is more than anything, what made Mary want to be in her presence during the most trying time of her life. The young girl needed someone who would do exactly what Elizabeth did – rejoice with her and give God glory over an outrageous situation that would cause countless others to question or condemn her outright.
Those three months must have been a special time for the two women, with Elizabeth encouraging and instructing Mary in everything from a proper diet to handling false contractions. I suspect they had many conversations about what it would mean to raise children who belonged wholly to God and His purposes. I can just see them pondering, praying together and preparing their hearts for the days to come. In the end, there is no doubt that Elizabeth’s gentle strength was a gift Mary would treasure her whole life, as the mother of the incarnate Christ.
On these days before Christmas, let us consider what it means to trust God in every circumstance, to walk before Him with honor, even when we cannot see His hand.
On these days before Christmas, let us consider what it means to trust God in every circumstance, to walk before Him with honor, even when we cannot see His hand. Above all, let us remember the spiritual strength of this amazing woman, and choose daily as she did, to refuse to be offended at how God orders the course of our lives. This is the greatest preparation we can make for the miracles that have yet to unfold and the call to God’s purposes that await us in the days to come. REFLECTWhat situation might you face today that makes it harder to walk honorably with God? What might be His heart for you in this? Pause and ask the Holy Spirit to speak to you, asking Him questions such as: Lord, how do you want to encourage me with Elizabeth's life? What do You want to show me of Yourself through this? Jot the things you sense Him saying down in your journal.
Read the following passage prayerfully, asking God to impart its truths to your heart and life. Then re-write it in your own words, as it relates to your personal situation. Make it a psalm of praise and worship to the Lord.
Though the fig tree should not blossom
And there be no fruit on the vines,
Though the yield of the olive should fail
And the fields produce no food,
Though the flock should be cut off from the fold
And there be no cattle in the stalls,
Yet I will exult in the LORD,
I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.
A CHRISTMAS ACTIVITY
Call, write, text or send and email to someone who has been there for you spiritually in the past, and thank them for their faithfulness and witness in your life.
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.
It was the call you never want to get, the kind you never forget. I was rehearsing with our church Christmas choir on a Sunday afternoon, when someone tapped me on the shoulder and whispered: “Your mom called and needs you to come to the hospital right away. It’s your dad.” I dropped everything and drove as fast as I could, a sinking feeling in my stomach. The ER staff smiled sadly and pointed me to a room somewhere downstairs. As I walked down a long, intimidating hallway, mom came out of a room. When she saw me she whispered through tears, “He’s gone Tricia. Dad’s gone.” In that moment, my world was irrevocably changed. Because I was uncommonly blessed with a loving, doting, very hands-on father, his passing left a huge whole in my heart and life.
It’s been over a quarter century now, yet Christmas always evokes that sadness of losing my dad. Memories tend to come flooding back, at times making the season bitter, yet ever more sweet. One came a few days ago as I pondered one of my favorite passages for the Advent season--Isaiah 9:6.
Dad bought me a Hershey bar (my favorite comfort food), and as we waited in the courtroom, I discovered that the paperwork proving my innocence had gone into the trash with the candy wrapper. Dad patted me on the knee, whispered that I could handle this, and left to try and retrieve it. I’ve often looked back on that experience and my sense of safety and security because of dad's presence, rare commodities in our world today.
This week as I’ve spent hours helping my brother in the hospital, shared emotionally at my dear friend’s Memorial service, and tried to manage all the pieces of life made more complex by the Christmas holidays, I’ve clung to these things, resting in their profound reality. This is the precious impact of Advent—to not only remember that Jesus has come, but that in His presence is everything I will ever need to live in this broken world.
MAKING ADVENT MEANINGFUL
It was supposed to be the surprise of the century! My sister Sue was hitting a landmark year on Thanksgiving Day (I won’t say which year, but she’s old enough to get social security and young enough to enjoy it!). Mom had planned to spend a few weeks visiting her in Hawaii, and unbeknownst to Sue, I was going to show up and surprise her so we could celebrate in style. Teaming up with her sons and close friends, we’d made all sorts of fun plans. Joe was coming a few days after me, and we were all going to whisk her away to spend Thanksgiving in a lovely hideaway at the beach--a birthday she'd never forget.
This is the way our family rolls. Last year, mom, Sue and I traveled to Lithuania to do the same for my older sister Carol, who ministers to graduated orphans there. Loving and supporting family is a value my parents deeply ingrained in all five of us kids, which is why what happened next threw us into a tailspin of epic proportions.
Early one Sunday morning we received a call that my younger brother, Chris, had suffered a large stroke and was in the hospital. Over the next few days it would become clear that he was completely paralyzed on his left side, and would be hospitalized for some time. Within a few days mom knew she could not travel to Hawaii, and to be honest, I felt I couldn’t either. But after lots of conversation and prayer, we all agreed that celebrating with Sue for this birthday was more important than ever. And so I went, bearing gifts and greetings from all the family I had to leave behind. It was truly bittersweet.
The trip is now a memory and we celebrated well. I know Sue felt loved, honored and treasured, and being a part of that was a great joy for me.
When I got home a few days ago I jumped right back in at the hospital—working with caregivers and family to help my brother get what he needs, to shower him with love, and help plan for the future, a somewhat daunting task.
As I pondered the season of Advent that begins tomorrow, I was struck by the juxtaposition of my experiences over the past few weeks—celebrating and struggling, grieving and giving, laughing and crying, planning and waiting—the list goes on. I can’t help but think that in the end, this is what advent is all about. The word itself means “arrival” or “coming” and so we celebrate Jesus’ coming in three ways—as a baby in a manger, as our future king, and, most importantly for me—as the Presence that sustains and carries and makes life not only bearable, but immensely joy-filled, even through pain.
Advent reminds us to celebrate, indeed gives us permission to rejoice, even when, or especially when the circumstances of our lives are fraught with struggle or suffering. When we don’t know what the next day is going to hold, we celebrate the reality that our Lord came as a babe in a manger, setting himself up to experience every struggle humankind could ever know. When we feel like our dreams have been dashed or our hopes fragmented, we celebrate the truth that we serve a King who is good and powerful, and will one day make all that is wrong, right. And when we feel like it’s hard to put one foot in front of the other, we celebrate the very real presence of Christ who lives within our souls and loves us with infinite passion.
Making advent meaningful
Here are a few ways to make this Advent season especially meaningful:
One of Jesus' most beloved passages on prayer has a rather odd twist to it:
So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!
Why did Jesus use the metaphors of snakes and scorpions? Of course he is making a dramatic point that we have a good heavenly Father who only gives good gifts, but I suspect there is something more here. I shared this message last Sunday at New Hope Church--titled: When God's Answers Look Like Scorpions and Snakes. You can listen below.
It's hard to believe my last post was Easter. In case you wondered where I went, I've been teaching two classes for Fuller, plus rewriting my first book The Soul at Rest (to be released in 2018!). I've had so many moments when I wanted to blog about things that deeply matter to me, but it just hasn't been possible.
Today I am writing to share something very special. Joe and I have had the privilege of working with a Syrian refugee family for several months now, and I want to tell you their story and ask you to consider being a part of it. I've never used this blog or website for anything other than resources for your spiritual journey, but just this once I felt compelled to share my heart! Here then is their story.
When the war between rebel forces and the Syrian government made this family's home of Aleppo what can only be described as a living hell, Saleh, along with his pregnant wife Alia and their two small children packed what they could carry and began a trek across the desert, trying to reach Jordan. They walked for some 30 days, occasionally hitching a ride in trucks with goats and sheep, and every night they slept out under the open stars. As they drew near to Jordan, the danger increased, so they found an abandoned house, where they hid in darkness for 11 days, terrified they'd be found and killed by ISIS. Finally, braving the terrain and imminent risks, they worked their way to a camp on the border of Jordan that had become the home of some 83,000 other refugees like them. For the next three years they went through the incredibly extensive vetting process hoping to immigrate as refugees to the United States. Last October they made it to San Diego.
Joe and I met this beautiful family through a refugee sponsorship program and we have been getting to know them for several months now. When we visit, they always insist on laying out a beautiful meal for us, even during Ramadan when they weren't eating. They show immense gratitude for our friendship and any help we offer. A couple of weeks ago we took school supplies to the two older children and watching little Esraa's delight in a simple pencil box brought tears to my eyes. Their life is not easy. They do not speak English and Saleh, who once had a successful business as a builder, now drives an ice cream truck and waits daily at a car-wash, hoping they will need him. The U.S. government offers minimal help with food stamps and welfare, but also requires that they begin to repay the money that was spent in bringing them to the United States within six months.
While we have been very thankful for a dear Syrian friend at church who usually goes with us and translates, and also helps support this family, over the past few months we have begun to see that we need to bring others along with us on this journey. We hope some local folks can get to know our Syrian friends, but beyond that, there are financial needs we cannot meet by ourselves.
If you live in San Diego and want to join our team, please email me--we'd love to have you! For the rest of you, if you would like to give towards helping this family get established, you can do so through New Hope Church as a tax-deductible donation. Right now this family is about four hundred dollars a month short in income just to meet the bare minimum bills, and our goal is to set up a one year plan that will move them gradually on their own. They are working very hard to be independent, but the hurdles are immense.
Finally, we would ask you to pray for these precious people, and indeed all the refugees that are in the same situation. If you would like regular updates on how things are going, please email me--this is the only time I will post this on the blog. You can give through New Hope in any way you wish--a one time gift or some regular amount.
Here is how you can give:
Click here first. Once there, click on the "online giving link." Choose "Syrian Refugees" under the Ministry Donation link and complete the form.
You can also mail checks to:
New Hope Church
10330 Carmel Mountain Road
San Diego, CA 92129
Contact Tricia or sign up for her newsletters here.
Tricia McCary Rhodes
Passionate about spiritual formation, slightly obsessed with technology and the soul, author of 8 books, affiliate professor at Fuller Seminary, wife of one, mom of two, grandma of four.