Lights in the Darkness

…let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. (Jesus) Matthew 5:13 NIV

We took down our outside Christmas lights last week. Yes, it was time. The glorious party that is Christmas is over for another year. And I’m okay with that. Really. It’s far easier to let it go when I understand Christmas in all its joy is God’s doing, not mine…and that He will bring it around again in due time.

But oh! This morning was dark. I know the days are getting longer, minute by minute, but right now it doesn’t feel that way. I pulled the eastern curtain to see yet another sky of low, gloomy cloud, another view of our pasture ugly with brown grass and stubble. How I long for some sunshine, or even the fresh glow of white, fluffy powder.

It’s hard to shine in the darkness.

Yet, that’s what we’re told to do. I hear Jesus saying, “You be the lights of Epiphany, shining in the gloom of winter. Your good deeds will cause the dark world to turn to and praise God.”

I’m tempted to respond, “What good deeds, exactly?” But I know the answer: giving and forgiving; refusing to take offense; being kind and tender-hearted; offering grace and mercy to those who don’t deserve it.

Uh-oh. Sounds a little like New Year’s resolutions, doesn’t it? “I’m going to be a better, more faithful person this year. I’m going to do more good deeds, work even harder…”

We all know where that ends up.

For example, I remember those mornings as a young mother when I would get out of bed, vowing I would be extra kind and patient with my kids, only to lose my temper by 10 a.m. What one teacher called “taking a few more cranks on the willpower screw” never works.

What does, then? Jesus wouldn’t command us to do something we can’t.

At the risk of sounding like your high school English teacher, let’s look at the verb in this passage. Jesus didn’t say “make” your light shine but “let” it shine. We do not cause the light but we allow it. Like Christmas, shining is not our job but God’s. He fills us with His love; we are to let that love flow through us to the dark world around us. All we have to do is be aware of His heavenly Nudge and follow His leading.

Then our good deeds are not a burden but a joy.

LORD JESUS: This is Epiphany season; You commanded me to shine. Show me how and where, for “apart from you I can do nothing.” (John 15:5) Amen

Submitted for publication, “Bozeman Daily Chronicle,” January 16, 2020.

The True Joy of Christmas

How was your Christmas season? Whether it was busy and exciting or quiet and nostalgic, I hope you had a “God moment”—a time when you knew He was real and He was really with you, no matter what. A moment that, as C. S. Lewis put it, you were “surprised by joy.”

I believe that, in His compassion and grace, God reveals Himself in ways uniquely suited to each one of us. He came to my scientific husband most clearly in the calculations and astronomy of “The Star of Bethlehem.” He comes to me best in music and poetry. Words that sing of His presence.

Imagine that.

So my special moment happened on the Sunday before Christmas as I was flipping through the TV channels, looking for something seasonal. I stumbled on a show about the composer George Frederich Handel and his writing of “Messiah.”

Now I have a long and happy history with that glorious piece of music, starting with the world-famous “Hallelujah Chorus” with which we finished our high school Christmas concert every year. When we sang more of the full oratorio in college, “Messiah” began to move me from performance into faith. The chorus, “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” filled my eyes with tears and choked me up so much I could hardly sing.

It was the first time I realized who Jesus was.

And here was the story behind “Messiah.” Music and history—my passions.  Of course I stayed to watch.

I was fascinated to learn Handel wrote his famous oratorio during the darkest period of his life, when he faced failure and bankruptcy. Moreover, his collaborator was dealing with depression and the suicide of a beloved brother. His favorite lead singer was traumatized by abuse and scandal. The themes of darkness and light, of hope and despair, of suffering, rejection and eventual triumph woven into the composition had deeply personal and emotional roots for all the artists involved.

No wonder I was so moved.

But God had another surprise.

Unsure of the “Messiah’s” reception in London, its first performance had been in Dublin, Ireland. The composer and musicians decided to donate the proceeds to a fund for the relief of people trapped in debtors’ prison.

Eighteenth-century prisons were horrible places—cold, dark, damp, filthy, crowded, full of disease and abuse of all kinds. The show depicted such a prison– stone walls, filthy straw-covered floor, ragged, dirty, people sitting in complete despair. As the chorus “Lift Up Your Heads, O Ye Gates” was sung, the iron gates suddenly swung open and the stunned inmates were ushered out, blinking, into the sunshine of the courtyard. They stepped forward, one by one, as the jailers read their names and amount of their debt, crossing each person off the list and pushing a stack of coins across the table. Overwhelmed by joy, the freed prisoners ran into the arms of their waiting families.

“Jesus paid a debt He didn’t owe,” said the narrator, “because we owed a debt we couldn’t pay.”

It was the clearest picture of redemption I have ever seen. And of the glorious reunion at the gates of heaven when, freed and forgiven, we stagger into the arms of our waiting loved ones…to live forever.

Wow.

“And that,” whispered the Voice to my heart, “is what Christmas is about—not Santa and presents and ho-ho-ho. Not even a celebration of love and good feeling, nice as that is. I came—not just to love the world, but to redeem it.”

When the show finished with “Hallelujah” as sung in different languages and different ways by people around the world, I got a glimpse of the glorious Christmas moment yet to come “when every knee shall bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord…” (Philippians 4:10)

Surprised by joy? I was flooded with it.

And my Christmas was merry, indeed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our Unexpected God

And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. 1 Kings 19:11, 12 NIV

In Advent, we await a God Who delights in the unexpected.

From the prophet Elijah standing before his cave to the Jews longing for their Messiah, who wouldn’t have expected their mighty God to come with power and glory—in the wind, in the earthquake, in the fire, in a powerful, shining Being who would rescue His people with the stroke of His arm? Who would listen for a still, small voice? Who would look for a baby born to an ordinary couple in a borrowed barn? A child growing up in a hick town in a far corner of Galilee?

It was such a surprise that many just couldn’t believe it. Many still don’t.

So what was God up to?

The most obvious answer was to hide Jesus plain sight. From the beginning, there were enemies who sought His life. No one would think to look for the promised King in a carpenter’s shop in Nazareth.

Then, God wanted His Son to live a normal life as we do–to feel human pain and joy, to experience hunger, weariness, suffering, rejection. Now, no matter what we go through, we know He understands.

Yet there’s something deeper still. He did not come in pomp and power as a king because He wants our obedience to grow out of love, not fear. Love is won, not commanded.

He often wins our love by coming to us in ways we don’t expect, at the times we feel lost and lonely—when we need Him the most.

I notice it especially during this season.

Yes, I love the candlelight and carols, the family gathered in church on Christmas Eve, but He touched me once most clearly when we were all alone in a hotel lobby. Or in the kindness of a stranger in Costco. Or in a dark car full of sleeping people as I drove back from Christmas dinner. All kinds of odd times and places.

My prayer for myself—and all of us—in this season is that we have those unexpected, special moments when we know He is present and He loves us.

Still.

LORD JESUS: You promised we will find You if we seek You with our whole heart. (Jeremiah 29:13) May it be so. Amen.

To be published in “Bozeman Daily Chronicle,” December 15, 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks for My Pastors

And now, friends, we ask you to honor those leaders who work so hard for you, who have been given the responsibility of urging and guiding you along in your obedience. Overwhelm them with appreciation and love! 1 Thessalonians 5:12,13 The Message

 

I walked into his church 61 years ago…perhaps even to the day.

A group of us in my freshman dorm had decided we would go to all the churches in our small college town to decide which one we would attend. (Interestingly, in that long-ago time, not going to church at all was not considered.)

The unorthodox church I grew up in was very spare and simple. Its services consisted of reading from the Bible and a book of interpretation. No sermon. No pastor, even.

Imagine my dismay when faced with the liturgy of his church, one which most of the people seemed to have memorized. They stood up and sat down, saying the responses, without any reference to anything I could see. Lost and confused, I was wondering how I could leave gracefully… when he stood up to preach.

I was hooked.

He was a great speaker. One of the best. Moreover, he talked about the issues we cared about. What did God want of us? What was our purpose in life? How did we live our lives well and faithfully? Small wonder his church was packed with college students, week after week–of which I quickly became one–liturgy and all. I was there, every Sunday, for four years. Even took my husband-to-be with me when we became “serious.”

That was all I ever did. I never joined a youth group, attended a Bible study, sang in a choir. I was surprised when he recognized me on the street one day. But that pastor’s sermons changed my life. They introduced me to the God I only thought I knew and started me on my life’s journey in faith.

Years ago, I was able to locate him in his retirement in Virginia and write him a letter of thanks.

I’ve sat under many pastors since then. Some were great preachers as he was…but not all. Some were gifted teachers…but not all. Everyone brings their own gifts to the job and gifts vary.

But all the good ones, like good shepherds, had a heart for their people, even the difficult, unruly ones. They fed us with their learning. When it was time to stand strong, they stood. When it was time to correct, comfort, encourage, they did that, too.

I don’t think I’d be who I am if it weren’t for them.

It’s Pastor Appreciation Month. Let’s go and appreciate!

FATHER GOD: Thank You for my pastors. Amen.

First published in “Bozeman Daily Chronicle,” October 6, 2019.

 

Into His Courts…Together

Enter His gates with thanksgiving and a thank offering and into His courts with praise! Be thankful and say so to Him, bless and affectionately praise His name! For the Lord is good; His mercy and loving-kindness are everlasting, His faithfulness and truth endure to all generations. Psalms 100:4,5 Amplified

 

Monday morning. I slide out of bed in darkness, note fresh snow on the deck when I let the dog out. As I walk to my prayer corner, coffee cup in hand, I realize I have a choice. I can complain about the too-long Daylight Savings Time (which saves no daylight, just rearranges it), about our too-early winter, or…

I can enter His gates with thanksgiving.

Hmmm…I sit in a warm, dry house. My heat came on with the flick of a switch. I sip my hot coffee, brewed with another flick of a switch. I have a kitchen full of food. Hot water at the turn of a faucet.

How many people in the world have none of those things?

Yes, I am blessed…and beyond my deserving. God is, indeed, good. My situation hasn’t changed, but my attitude has. Now I can pray with a receptive heart.

That’s what these verses are about.

God isn’t some sort of divine egomaniac who has to be praised and petted all the time. He knows Who He is; we don’t have to remind Him.

It’s ourselves we must remind–of God’s goodness, His love, His faithfulness, His mercy, His blessings—so we can enter His presence with thanks and praise.

But what of situations deeper and more difficult than a cold dark morning? What of people so overwhelmed they can hardly pray at all?

For instance, we have a cousin who enduring intensive chemo. Horribly sick. Scheduled for a stem-cell transplant from his brother, his doctors hold out every hope for recovery. But right now, gratitude is as far as the moon. I wouldn’t even suggest it to him.

Perhaps this is where we come in. As we pray, we could offer thanksgiving and praise in his behalf: for the medical advances giving him hope for survival, the skilled team taking care of him, the brother whose match will keep him alive, the small flame of faith helping him endure.

For we know, no matter how it seems, his God has not deserted him.

We could be “thankful and say so” knowing someone will have to do it for us someday. For no one escapes suffering in this broken world.

That way we can enter His gates and pass into His courts…together.

FATHER GOD: Help me to give thanks; enter Your courts with praise. And help me pray for those who simply cannot. Amen.

To be published in “Bozeman Daily Chronicle,” October 27, 2019.