Sunday, November 27, 2011

One Flame of Hope

This evening marks the first Sunday of advent, the season when we Christians pause in concert to remember the sacrifice a King made when He chose to enshroud himself in the flesh of a newborn babe.

After sundown, Husband, the children, and I gathered still unsure stomachs around small cups of soup and cornbread to light the first of the long purple tapers.

As husband searched for the matches, I stepped to the living room and reached for the most well-worn Bible in the house, a New American Standard version that husband and I clung to through the worst season of our lives.

The faded cover has long since ceased to be attractive; its binding has been glued more than once; and some of its pages are stained from always being set down in the midst of life, itself. Its words, however, are still just as piercing and perfect as when the book was glossy and stiff bound with that audible crackle upon opening.

Little eyes watched as red-tipped match struck, sulfur sputtering, leaping to golden flame.

"This candle represents hope," I proclaimed.


Even though at times we may despair, feel there is no hope, none of us really knows what it is like to live in a world without hope.

The prophet Jeremiah spoke of hope. In his letters to the exiled Israelites, to those people who felt as if their God had abandoned them to their this group, he spoke words of hope.

"'For thus says the LORD, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.’" (Jer. 29:10-14).

Even in exile, in judgment, in slavery, in the midst of God's wrath--even then, there was hope for them.

A Savior was coming, one who would save them from their sin, who would reunite humanity with a holy Father.

The same holds true for us today. As Peter rejoiced, "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade"(1 Peter 1:3-4).

Hope has come.

Hope is here.

Hope is coming.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Blessing of Thanks

In the midst of the turkey and cranberries, family stories and laughter, remember to raise your voice in thanks to the One who provides the very breath of life, itself.

Wherever God may have placed you for this Thanksgiving season, from our very frigid family to yours, I wish you a blessed Thanksgiving.

Photo: My three heat-loving Louisiana children sitting on Grandma's blazing hearth in Michigan.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Why I Worship at Church

The sounds of my oldest son cradling the porcelain toilet in our hotel room woke me from a deep sleep. The clock read a few minutes past 2:00 am, and I sent upwards a prayer for this to be just a one-time incident, perhaps our late on-the-road supper just not quite agreeing with his always-tender stomach.

A quick, warm bath and no PJs, I sent Wyatt back to his makeshift bed and snuggled myself down beneath the plush duvet for some much needed rest after a long day's travel. Seconds later, I heard his feet padding back across the room, bathroom light blinding as it pierced the darkness. My next action was not very motherly--I sighed...loudly.

And so it went till morning when the grown ups sat around wondering what to do. Should the grandparents leave me and the children for my husband to pick up and continue their journey northward? Should we all just turn around and go home?

Stomach flu is as contagious as wildfire in my house, three preschoolers not yet wise enough to keep anything and everything out of their mouths. This was disaster waiting to strike.

I finally decided we would just continue north; I'd live in the hotel room with sick ones if it came to that. And I prayed. I called my husband and begged both him and my inlaws to drop and pray. But I just felt more was needed. So, I texted the one person in my church whose number I had in my phone; I begged her to tell everyone to pray.

My son who couldn't keep air down for over seven hours suddenly stopped gagging and started keeping down ice chips, then a biscuit.

Even before I received her reply, I knew what had happened. God's people had prayed. My church family had gathered together before worship this morning to include my child in their prayers...and God had heard and answered.

Having a church family to worship with? It's more important than most people think.

In the book of Hosea, one of God's primary charges against Israel is adultery, playing the harlot by worshiping other gods. In the midst of describing God's anger over the idolatry, the prophet offers this criticism: "They offer sacrifices on the tops of the mountains And burn incense on the hills, Under oak, poplar and terebinth, Because their shade is pleasant" (Hos. 4:13, my italics).

I was surprised by this critique--that the people of Israel chose to worship in places where worship was easy, was pleasant.

My first thought was that I like air conditioned buildings with plush seats that don't make my bottom fall asleep. I find that environment pleasant. So, did that mean my worship wasn't measuring up?

But no. To find the answer required going back in time toward the beginning of Israel's history after Solomon died.

When Solomon's son, Rehoboam, inherited Israel, he ruled the entire united kingdom, but that soon was pared down to just two of the twelve tribes. The remaining ten tribes revolted and crowned Jeroboam King of Israel because they weren't so happy with Solomon's heavy yoke or his son who planned to continue acting just like dad.

God promised Jeroboam rule of these ten tribes down through the generations if he would only obey Him. But Jeroboam was scared of losing it all "just" by trusting God's word and, instead, sought to make his own destiny.

As Scripture says, "Jeroboam said in his heart, 'Now the kingdom will return to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the house of the LORD at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will return to their lord, even to Rehoboam king of Judah; and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah'" (1 Kin. 12:26-27).

Mainly, Jeroboam was fearful of God's requirements for worship, which included sacrifices only at the temple in Jerusalem. His fear was that when the people went up to worship several times a year for the required feasts, they would dethrone him and reunite with Rehoboam.

In his unbelief, he made it easy for the people by setting up two golden calves at two alternate places for sacrifice to God at Bethel and Dan.

Looking at the map, Jerusalem was quite a long distance to travel for those located in the northern tribes, especially in the days of dusty dirt roads, exhausting foot travel, and dangerous marauding thieves and wild animals lurking about.

Jeroboam even said as much: "and he said to them, 'It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem; behold your gods, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt'" (1 Kin. 12:28).

And that was the beginning of the end for Jeroboam and for his people who quickly realized those alternative sites for sacrifice were more "pleasant" than a hard journey to Jerusalem.

They turned worship into a man-centered event rather than a God-centered event, one where they were more concerned about themselves than about what God commanded.

Somehow, the Israelites failed to understand that the actual trip to Jerusalem was part of the worship. They failed to understand that worship wasn't about merely sacrificing an animal or two, but was about personal sacrifice.

I may not be able to sacrifice as much as that weary pilgrim did long ago, the woman who put one foot after another as she walked in obedience up to the God-ordained temple to offer her sacrifices. But worship still must be a sacrifice for me.

Yes, I can worship in my car, in my back yard, in front of a TV where I can watch and participate in a streaming worship service.

But there's no sacrifice in that, no personal cost to me.

Attending church each Sunday? Anyone who has tried to awaken early; dress herself and three children in frills, clip-on ties, and freshly shined shoes; and feed a household of malcontents who really need more sleep...anyone who has accomplished this and made it to worship service on time knows corporate worship is a sacrifice. I give up sleep, one of only two days a week I have with my husband, a day I could catch up on house and school work--all because this is part of my worship, the sacrifice of my time, my energies to God.

But what I gain from my sacrifice? It's so much more than I could ever imagine. I gain a family of believers who is there for me when I need prayer. I gain the blessings of corporate worship, when the family comes together as one to lift up voices in praise to our Maker and Lord.

This day. This Thanksgiving. I am thankful for that local body of believers whom I can call upon at any moment and know they will not just say they will but pray, but who will pray.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Thanksgiving Before Pilgrims & Indians

I've always heard that holidays are the hardest on those left behind, their loved ones' absence creating a conspicuous void at any festive gathering.

Although most of my loved ones are still on this side of the great divide, the miles between us will find my family scattered like bright points on a map for Thanksgiving Day. My parents will be out of state with my dad's family; my brother will be "on call" at his military post in D.C., and my in-laws will be away as well, serving at their church's week-long, three-services-a-day Camp Meeting.

By last Saturday, I was so overwhelmed with images of empty chairs around the table that I'd just about decided to skip the holiday altogether.

The children are young. They wouldn't remember whether or not we gorged ourselves on a pop-up-timer turkey, cholesterol-slathered dressing, pumpkin pie, and (my favorite) chilled cranberry sauce that makes a sucking sound as it wobbles Jell-o style from the can. Since every past event happens either "yesterday" or "forever" ago in their young minds, I could just tell them Thanksgiving had already past.

And so, with husband watching what he referred to as "the most or second most important football game of all time," I entertained excited children by letting them help box up the turkey, the swags of autumn leaves, and the cornucopia; wrap up the ceramic pilgrims and pumpkins; shove the plush Indians back into their dark closet hole...all before breaking out the ruby-colored poinsettias, evergreen garland, pink sparkly tree, and white twinkle lights.

Instead of being sad over what would not be, I decided to be thankful for what was to come, to move forward to December when my family would be back together again, if only for a few days.

Even in the midst of tinsel and holly, though, I've still been thinking on Thanksgiving, but not so much the first Thanksgiving in America. No, I've been thinking further back to a "Thanksgiving" of sorts that I only recently learned about--the first one celebrated by those Israelites who had been taken into captivity to live as exiles in Babylon for 70 years.

When the exiles finally returned to Israel, can you guess what was the first feast the people celebrated? No, not Thanksgiving, but something quite similar--the Feast of Booths or Feast of Tabernacles, a harvest celebration that occurs in the seventh month of the Jewish calendar, Tishri, which corresponds to our September/October.

Ezra writes, "Now when the seventh month came, and the sons of Israel were in the cities, the people gathered together as one man to Jerusalem...They celebrated the Feast of Booths, as it is written" (Ez. 3:1,4).

In Leviticus, the Lord spoke to Moses requirements for this feast: "‘On exactly the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the crops of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of the LORD for seven days....Now on the first day you shall take for yourselves the foliage of beautiful trees, palm branches and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days. You shall thus celebrate it as a feast to the LORD....You shall live in booths for seven days; all the native-born in Israel shall live in booths, so that your generations may know that I had the sons of Israel live in booths when I brought them out from the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.’" (Lev. 23:39-44).

A feast, a harvest celebration to occur after the people had gathered the crops from the land? A feast to remind them that God had freed them from "exile" in Egypt, had taken them to a promised land He had covenanted to give them?

Harvest. Religious Freedom. Sounds a lot like our Thanksgiving to me.

Years later after both the exiles had rebuilt the temple and Jerusalem's city wall, the prophet Nehemiah emphasizes the celebration of this feast again: "They found written in the law how the LORD had commanded through Moses that the sons of Israel should live in booths during the feast of the seventh month....The entire assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in them. The sons of Israel had indeed not done so from the days of Joshua the son of Nun to that day. And there was great rejoicing" (Neh. 8:14,17).

Returning home after 70 years of captivity had to make that first Feast of Booths quite special. And then this second mention of the Feast after the city of Jerusalem's walls were restored is described as even more special--a nationwide celebration that hadn't been this "big" since the days of Joshua.

Just as in the days of Moses, God had once again brought the exiles home to the promised land, where they could worship their God in His holy temple, in the manner in which He had prescribed to be worshiped. And there was great rejoicing.

To me, Thanksgiving has always meant Pilgrims and Indians, Plymouth rock, and the Mayflower. But now? I'm looking back a bit further to the Jewish Feast of Booths, a harvest celebration to remind the people of just what God had set them free from, of a time when they lived in tents ("booths") and relied on Him for their literal daily bread.

Even in this season I wanted to skip, I'm finding myself being caught up in the atmosphere of gratitude, thankful for God freeing me from the chains of sin God, for the harvest He keeps sending each season, and for the daily manna He rains down on those of us on our own journey to the promised land.

Image: For parents of young children (intended for ages 7 and up), I recommend reading Barbara Cohen's Molly's Pilgrim, a precious, beautifully illustrated story of a Yiddish girl whose classmates tease her relentlessly and the Thanksgiving project to make a Pilgrim doll that teaches Molly (and your children) what it means to be a modern-day Pilgrim in a world still marked by religious persecution.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

God & My Bank Account

Moving from green beans to corn, from yams to Stove Top stuffing, I take a box and add it to my pie crust mix, my frozen turkey. Just a few extra items added to my regular grocery run. Not enough to change the world by myself. But enough to give one needy family a well-rounded Thanksgiving meal.

We have entered the season of helping others. And yet a recent survey states “of the nation's 400 largest charities, half of them projected a decline of at least 9 per cent.”

In past years, Americans have been used to giving from their excess. But now with the loss of jobs, salary cuts, and higher costs at the store, we have tightened our budgets. Now, we’ll feel the pinch if we give. And for many, that has meant choosing to give less or nothing at all to those not as fortunate.

I, like many of you, am not rich by the world’s standards. With three hungry little mouths at the table and the permanent loss of my husband’s career into one with more flux than stability, I know how to stretch a dollar. And I know about learning to do with less.

But I also know that no matter how stretched the dollar is around our house, God always has provided enough for us to give something when He places a need on our hearts.

I’m not talking about God blessing my family just enough to give our 10% tithe as commanded in Scripture. I’m talking about God enabling us so that we can give an offering above and beyond the requirements. I'm talking about giving extravagantly through God.

For we as Christians to be generous in our giving, though, our hearts first must be right with God so that we are willing to release the offering He has given us already. Secondly, we must understand that in the previousness of God, He has already provided us with offerings to give. Scripture gives several examples of these two concepts.

In the Old Testament when Hezekiah became king of Judah, he led the people to get their hearts right with God and then said, “Come and bring sacrifices and thank offerings,” and “all whose hearts were willing” brought more offerings than anyone could have imagined (2 Chron. 29:31). This wasn’t an ego-trip for the people, though. They “rejoiced at what God had brought about for his people” (v. 36, my italics). The people understood they were merely giving back what God had given them to offer in the first place.

King David understood this same concept when he asked Israel’s leaders to give an offering to help build the temple. They did—again, in great abundance as well as “freely and wholeheartedly to the LORD” (1 Chron. 29:9).

David’s prayer over this offering beautifully expressed his thankfulness to God for the ability to offer these gifts: "But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand….O LORD our God, as for all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple for your Holy Name, it comes from your hand, and all of it belongs to you” (v. 14, 16).

Oh how I love David’s prayer. But my favorite passage is found in Israel’s early history when Moses was building the tabernacle and asked “Everyone who is willing to bring to the LORD an offering” (Ex. 35:4). The people brought so much that Moses ordered everyone to STOP: “’No man or woman is to make anything else as an offering for the sanctuary.’ And so the people were restrained from bringing more” (Ex. 36:6). Can you imagine too much giving?

Paul perfectly sums our why Christians should give with a willing heart: “You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God….Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else….Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Corr. 9:11,13,15)

What if everyone who read this posting ate one less meal a week? Bought one less toy for our children this Christmas?

Small sacrifices to give out of the abundance God has given us.

I thank you for grace in my reposting this from a few years ago. It just seemed to speak my heart best as I look forward a few weeks on my calendar.