Unexpected

The Christmas cards were mailed, all of the packages sent, and our little mobile home was decorated. So we decided to celebrate by eating at a newly-opened buffet in town. (For those of you who have read my recent blogs and have come to the conclusion that retired folks in Florida eat out a lot, let me say this…you are absolutely correct.)

It was fairly crowded, with several families enjoying a restaurant setting in which each child was bound to find something that they would actually eat. One gentleman in particular passed our table several times. In each instance, he had a different child by the hand, obviously preparing to “guide” the menu choices. And then we would hear little, running feet and the cry of “Poppi! Poppi”.

Around the corner of our booth would gallop a young boy with an infectious smile. He appeared to be approximately three-years-old and at the height where his main view of those around him consisted of knee-caps. Carrying a well-loved stuffed puppy, he would soon locate his father and sibling and march behind them back to their table. And, each time, he would grin at us as he passed.

About the fourth time, he abruptly turned back to our table. “ ‘Mere”, he smiled, crooking his finger for me to lean down. Expecting to be introduced to the puppy he was holding, I leaned forward. Suddenly, he planted a sweet kiss on my cheek. “I gibbed you a kiss!”, he announced with a giggle, and off he ran. A totally unexpected gift.

I recalled that incident last Sunday when our pastor was preaching about Christ the King, coming to earth in such an unexpected way. “And you shall find the Babe…lying in a manger”, Luke 2:12. This certainly wasn’t the King that the Jews, especially the Zealots of that time, were praying the Messiah to be. They expected…no, demanded…a powerful conqueror, like King David. Valiant! Mighty! Someone who would show those Romans a thing or two! Not a helpless baby.

They had forgotten that young David had not originally been the Israelites image of a mighty king either. The baby of the family, who had been given the job of a shepherd. He played the harp and wrote songs and poems, for crying out loud. Why would God choose him to lead the army into battle? To be the future King of the nation?

Totally unexpected. Our loving God loves to surprise us with the totally unexpected. An unusual location for a birth. A baby King. A motley group to be the first to meet the Messiah. A kiss on the cheek from a generous child.

This Christmas Eve, listen to the familiar narrative as if for the first time ever. Sing the hymns of praise with the amazement of the shepherds. Open your heart to the absolute and complete JOY of the unexpected. Have a blessed Christmas!

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That Smiling Baby

It was extremely crowded last week at our favorite, local restaurant. The waiting area there has benches for six, skinny people and a wine bar the size of a drink coaster, so “crammed” is a kind word for the situation. Many of those waiting looked tired – perhaps from a long week of work, perhaps from a long day of Christmas preparations. There were large groups of people, celebrating a holiday gathering if the small gift bags were any indication. There were couples – some standing in silence, others chatting loudly. There were even a few families, corraling bored children, while sneaking a peek at the wait list for a glimmer of hope.

It was noisy, it was stuffy, it was congested. I hadn’t even noticed the baby carrier tucked between a young couple. Then there was a little squeal, and two, chubby fists appeared from the confines of the car seat. The father lifted a squirming, bald-headed, bib-overalls-clad bundle of flailing limbs up into the air. Heads turned, conversations ceased, and grouchy faces started to form smiles as all attention focused on that baby.

The little guy had obviously just awakened. He rubbed his eyes, seemed only curious as he slowly looked around the sea of faces staring at him, and then…he began to chuckle. That contagious, absorbing, from-the-toes giggle that months-old babies deliver. It was not loud, that laughter, but it changed the entire atmosphere of the crowded room. No more grumpy faces, no more readjustment of elbows, no more impatience. A baby had changed everything.

It is stated so simply in Luke 2:7, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger…”. The many details of the Christmas night must have come from Mary, who had “pondered them in her heart” (v. 19) for so many years. So few words to encompass so many facts. The relief at finally finding shelter, the actual birth experience for a first-time mother and a father who was way out of his element, the frantic transition from “The baby’s coming now!” to “Look at him!”. Mary had intentionally packed the cloths needed to clean and tightly swaddle the newborn, so that he would feel warm and secure. Joseph and Mary had come prepared.

What I want to know when I meet Mary in heaven is this…how prepared were you to look into the eyes of the Messiah? What did you feel when you first saw the face of the infant, Jesus? When Joseph handed you that squirming little form, did you touch his face with a trembling hand? Could either of you comprehend that this was the Almighty God in the body of a baby? A baby who changed everthing.

The ordinary life of Mary and Joseph was changed at that moment. They spent many years loving that child, teaching him the scriptures, teaching him manners, teaching him a trade. Sometimes forgetting who he truly was…other times marveling at the realization that God was sleeping in the next room. That baby changed everything.

Advent is the time to prepare our hearts to receive the Christ child. To try to grasp that the God who created us as His own, humbled Himself in order to redeem us. What we could never do for our sinful selves, He choose to do in our place. The Holy One became sin. The Almighty became a human fetus, a helpless newborn, a baby who changed everything – all for you, all for me. Amazing Grace!

That is what the JOY of Christmas looks like – a bald-headed bundle of failing limbs, smiling at us with unconditional love. A baby who changes everything!!!

A Grandmother’s Trust

One of the people I want to meet when I arrive in Heaven is the mother of Mary, the mother of Jesus. I want to meet Jesus’ grandmother.

So much is familiar to me about the Christmas account in Scripture, that I tend to gloss over the details. Some parts are so common that I have them memorized. I realized many years ago that sometimes this familiarity can actually distance me from its message .

Then I began to ponder the reality of the events. It is not a story – it truly happened. These were average people, much like me, thrust into unanticipated events. As everything was actually happening, they had no clue as to the outcome. They simply had to live it. Which is why, at a recent Advent service, I got to thinking about Jesus’ grandmother.

According to church historians, her name was Anna. I tried to put myself in her place. I tried to imagine my feelings and reactions if I were her, the Jewish mother of a teenage girl. Although there are thousands of years separating Anna and myself, I am convinced that maternal instincts have not change that much. How would I have reacted to my daughter’s announcement of her “good news”? Especially when she claimed an angel’s visit, a holy conception, and that the grandson would be the promised Messiah!

The noble part of me wants desperately to believe that I would have praised God in my own, personal Magnificat. The honest part of me knows that is so not true. The reality is that I would have been shocked, sad, disappointed, angry, and disbelieving. This daughter, who has always been so trusted, is standing there begging me to believe the unbelievable.

My mind would have had a thousand questions. Has my daughter lost all touch with reality? Why did God choose my daughter? What will the neighbors think? Should I take her to the priest at the Temple? Does Joseph know? If he is not the father, will he claim adultery? Under the law, she could be stoned! Why is this happening to us?

Then I wonder…did Anna cling to the words of Proverbs 3:5 as I so often have? “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding”. There have been so many times in my life that events or circumstances have left me totally bewildered. I have questioned my heavenly Father’s purpose in the poor choices of loved ones or the fractured results of my own best intentions. My life spins out of control, worry is my constant companion, nothing makes one bit of sense. All I can do is cling to trust in a merciful God who sees the end from the beginning.

Sometimes the Lord graciously lets me see how things come together for good; sometimes I am left wondering. Did Anna come to trust what she could not understand? Did she ever teach Jesus how to make matzoh? Was she part of the family that searched frantically for the twelve-year-old Jesus on the way back from the Temple? Did she ever hug Jesus and suddenly realize she was hugging God?

This is speculation only – I have a vivid curiosity and imagination. Still…it opens my heart to the reality of the Creator becoming a newborn, living in a real family. All because He wanted me back in His arms, as His redeemed child. Amazing Grace!

I can hardly wait to meet Jesus’ Grandma!

Old Blue Sofa

It’s the national day of gratitude, and I have come to this conclusion. I am thankful that our Creator God sees me…like an old, blue sofa.

I traveled back to Wisconsin from Florida recently (ain’t that love) to help one of my daughters move into her long-awaited, first-ever house. Moving is quite the project. Amongst the pieces of furniture to be loaded on the truck, the one most in limbo was the old, blue sofa.

The sofa that had been a hand-me-down to begin with…the one that had been climbed on, slept on, spilled on over the years…the one with dog hair, nail polish stains, worn fabric. A decision was finally made to move it to the grandson’s claimed “media room” in the new basement.

Now, the challenge was to lift the solid, long, and heavy giant up a flight of stairs and into the truck. The young people who strained, manipulated, and grunted their way through the process were definitely not cherishing that old, blue sofa.

It should have occurred to one of us to measure “Old Blue”. If we had, we would have realized that the behemoth was not going to fit into a single door on the new house. I, frankly, suspected that the well-maintained, older home had seen that monster coming off the truck and deliberately shrunk every door!

So, back on the truck it went. Back to the old duplex. Dumped unceremoniously on the front lawn to await the arrival of garbage truck to haul it to the dump – for a fee, of course. After the burden of lifting that old sofa numerous times, any remaining fondness had disappeared. There it sat, unwanted and unloved.

And then came a knock on the door. A smiling lady asked, “Is the sofa for sale?”. Seriously? My daughter couldn’t say, “It’s yours for the taking!” fast enough. The lady explained that her family was moving into a neighboring apartment. They desperately needed a sofa. Her excitement was visible as my grandkids helped load the old, blue sofa onto her pickup. “Look!”, she called to her husband, “It’s just like new!”

God sees me, sees each of us, in the same way. The promise is written in II Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away, the new has come”.

I am that old, blue sofa – aged, stained by sin, burdened by guilt and shame, of no worth of my own. Feeling unwanted and unloved. Yet, Jesus chose to come to earth and take my place there on the curb. Through His victory on the cross and the sanctification the Holy Spirit works in me, God sees me through a loving Father’s eyes. No blemishes, no defects. He sees His perfect child.

How utterly incredible! God He looks on me with delight. He calls me His own. He welcomes me into His heavenly home.

I am so blessed this Thanksgiving. I love being an old, blue sofa!

All Those Names

Have you ever forgotten someone’s name? The person is walking straight toward you, smiling in recognition, and POOF! The brain cell that holds their name chooses this moment to keel over in death. I cannot tell you how many times that has happened to me. Faces…I’m pretty good at. Names…not so much.

My current study of God’s word has me in the Old Testament, in Kings and Chronicles. Oh great, I often think, more of those impossible names. My step-dad used to say that he had read the entire Bible at least eight times. Except for the “begats”. I find myself doing the same thing.

Now, be honest! When was the last time your church celebrated “Asaph Day”? Does your women’s organization have a “Huldah Circle”? When your Grandma said, “Jumping Jehoshaphat”, did you immediately think of royalty? Yet, these are just three of the numerous individuals mentioned in Scripture.

Think of all the chapters that consist of a listing of the tribes of Israel, name by name by name by name. And only a handful of them can be pronounced quickly or accurately. Frankly, I have never met anyone whose confirmation verse was I Chronicles 7:33, “The sons of Japhlet (were) Pasach, Bimhal, and Ashvath”.

How strange, I think, that the Almighty God would inspire the author’s of His Holy Word to include all those names. The genealogy of Matthew that shows the lineage of Jesus through the line of David makes sense to me. However, I find it difficult to understand how any of those tedious names can enlighten my faith and worship.

Then it occurs to me. All of those names…each of those individuals…were supremely important to our Lord. Each was a special child of the Heavenly Father. He created them specifically. He loved them, despite of their unfaithfulness. He sent His only Son, Jesus, to die for each one of them. Those names are as precious to our God as mine is, as yours is.

Hear the amazing words of Isaiah 43:1. “This is what the Lord says….Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine”. Did you really hear that? The God of the Universe knows your name. You are His precious workmanship (Ephesians 2:10). You are so important to Jesus that He has carved your name on the palm of His hand (Isaiah 49:16).

Maybe we should have a hymn-sing to celebrate Asaph, the very first choir director in the Temple. Or show more respect for Jehoshaphat, who was one of the rare kings of Judah who tried to follow God’s laws. Then there is Huldah, mentioned in II Chronicles 34. The prophetess Huldah, who had to verify for King Josiah that he had indeed found the Book of the Law when cleaning the Temple. Want to know how important Huldah was to the Lord? Scripture even mentions where she lived…in the Second District! Our merciful God of details, of individual people, of names.

I think I’m going to go back and really read all those names. Maybe I’ll actually remember some of them when I meet these folks in Heaven.

For Granted

There was so much news so catch up on, so we searched our calendars for a date to meet for lunch. She worked full-time across town; I had busy days of “retirement stuff”. Her younger son graduated high school; I spent a week-end at my sister’s. Her family enjoyed time on their boat; I was finally painting a guest room. She was spending a week in Florida; my daughter’s family was coming from South Dakota. The summer was flying past, and still no lunch date. Texts, phone calls, but not enough time.

Then the phone call came from a mutual friend. A brain tumor?! Surgery tomorrow?! This simply could not be. God, please, we were definitely going to get together next week. Frantic prayers. Fearful thoughts. Falling tears. For granted…I had just taken for granted that there was enough time. That we would always laugh and talk and pray together.

God is full of mercy and abounding in steadfast love! The tumor was removed successfully. She did not lose any function, or memory, or personality. Though the tumor was cancerous, it had not invaded the brain. Treatment was needed, but the prognosis was excellent. Dance of Joy! Dance of Joy!!

Now my “calendar” did not matter. At the first opportunity given, I would be at her side. And when I went to comfort her, what a revelation. There she was – same joy-filled smile, same bubbly laughter, same concern for those around her. Yet, it was evident that her strong faith was even more solid. Her trust in the plans God had for her future was unbroken. Through the entire event, she told me, she had truly experienced the peace that passes all understanding. No matter the outcome.

Still…we did talk about all the things we take for granted in our lives. How easily we assume that we can postpone plans because there will always be enough time. How the people God places in our lives are vastly more valuable than the “to-do“ list for which we slave.

I went home to find a scripture verse on giving thanks that I could send to my friend. Guess what my Bible search app listed as a possibility? II Corinthians 1:11, “Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted in answer to the prayers of many.” It was so accurate in regards to the many prayers that had been lifted for my friend, as well as the praise and thanksgiving for her healing.

Yet, two words jumped off the page. For granted! Exactly what God had been trying to teach me. Then I saw the phrase enclosed in those words, the gracious favor. The gracious favor of my merciful Father is what I most take for granted. The gracious favor of my redemption from sin and death. The gracious favor of the promised life with Him in heaven or on earth. Whichever He decides for me, at any time. Thanks for the reminder, Lord!

This is for my recovering friend. This is for the loved ones in my life. This is a life-affirming reassurance for me. Praise God that, because of Jesus, we can each take for granted, the gracious favor of life everlasting! Hallelujah!!

Precious Friends

To anyone walking past the room, it would appear that a group of ladies were simply enjoying coffee and conversation. And that we were! Eight of us, seated in a circle, several conversations going at once…and laughter. Lots of laughter.

My eyes wandered over the group. Such a variety of ages. Such a variety of occupations. Some with young children, some grandmothers. Any stranger would wonder what these ladies could possibly have in common. But I knew.

The “center” of this group was an empty cross. One symbol that spoke both of our Lord’s death in our place and His glorious resurrection. A shared faith that carried us over the roughest times of our lives and danced with us during the celebrations. The certain hope of our salvation that gave us deep and abiding JOY, even in the midst of tears.

These ladies had become my “sisters in Christ”. Not just a phrase to describe our kindred spirits, but the definition of what we truly were. Because God our Father gave His Son to redeem us, we were adopted into the family. Christ became my brother in my baptism, and I now have a new family!

Maybe you were adopted as a child, so you realize the impact of being chosen to be part of a family. Maybe you struggled with childlessness for years and then were given the pricelss opportunity of bringing a child into your home. Suddenly you were a family. You understand the importance of adoption.

It is such a simple statement in Psalm 68, but verse six packs quite a wallop! “God places the lonely in families”. Wow! God sees past our family of origin and knows that our hearts also yearn for an extended family. It could be that you are geographically distant from your parents or siblings. It could be that you are emotionally distant. God knows…God cares.

You know what else? Even if we were not searching for these “sisters”, He knows what delight these friendships bring. How gratifying it is to have friends who know you, warts and all, and still love you. Those friends you haven’t seen for months, but your conversation begins with…”so as I was just saying”. Those friends who see your heart and help guide your actions. Those friends who make you laugh until you have to change your underwear. Those friends who dance with you in joy or sit by your side until you feel like dancing again.

You know who your “family” is. Give one of them a call today. Send a silly card. Invite them over for coffee (and dessert, of course). Ask for a hug. And give thanks for this precious gift from the God who created families.

Sorry…can’t write anymore…I am busy doing the Dance of Joy for each of you.

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