Getting Ready to Receive, Day 11

Today I get to share another piece of wisdom from my sister, Laura, on what it means to follow the angel’s instructions.

Behold

And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” Luke 2:10 (ESV)

Behold! Or, to utilize more modern vernacular: Check it out! Listen up!

I’ve never had an angel stand before me and utter “behold”. Have you? It seems so dramatic and awe inspiring! While it hasn’t happened to me, I certainly have a very specific opinion of what it was like for those shepherds: A crisp, clear night. A blue sky sparkling with stars. The gentle sounds of sheep around them. No odor of any kind because, let’s be serious, I have idealized this moment in time. They had Febreeze, right? Jim and his buddy Jethro hanging out in the field, leaning against a rock with an arm tucked behind their head. “Hey, Jim, you think you can take the first watch? There’s nothing happening and I’m beat.” Such a simple night that suddenly became one of the most talked about, amazing moments in recorded history.

So often I envy those shepherds. They were given such a gift. They were in that field. That night. With that angel. And that message. Can you see it? If only God were to offer me such an opportunity to behold.

Oh, but He has! The problem is, I may have missed it.

This past week has been unique for my simple life. First, my husband underwent a knee surgery that has him quite limited in activity. This man keeps our crazy lives in motion and under control. So you can imagine, things have been… let’s go with interesting. Second, our lovely hamlet of Chillicothe, Ohio had a gorgeous snow. 6 inches of the wet, big flakes that somehow make your Christmas lights sparkle even more. And finally, my father in law drove two hours on Saturday morning, before dawn, to clear our driveway given my hubby’s recovery. This after my sister in law taking care of the “please Lord, just let me live until 8:30 am” process of getting my three young kids off to school while John underwent surgery, and friends bringing us meals as we regrouped on the homefront.

Did I behold in those moments? I live in a land where we have hospitals that can correct ailments that some persons cannot even have diagnosed, let alone have repaired. My family was warm and safe, able to look out at a world made gorgeous by falling, frozen water that makes unique, wonderous flakes. I have people in my life — friends, family, a small group and more, that have given of themselves to help care for my family in our time of need. What wonderous things stand before me!

No, an angel in a robe was not standing there. And no, I did not audibly hear the word “behold”. But, in a moment, driving down the road, with my kids fighting in the back of the van, God placed that word on my heart. Behold, my child.

Listen up, Laura: you have been blessed beyond measure! Check it out and see what the Lord has done for you. Behold! I am standing right here. Jesus came for you, to save you, to give you the opportunity for a life filled with joy and wonder beyond anything you can fathom.

Today, my friends, take a moment to reflect and behold all the good in your life. Behold, a savior has come for each of us!

Lord Jesus, thank you for all the moments and people you have placed in my life.  Teach me to behold. I want to listen and to see all that you are doing in my life and the lives of those around me. Your love is amazing. Behold. I bring you praise!

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Getting Ready to Receive, Day 10

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.” ~Isaiah 9:6-7
Have you noticed that it’s hard to rally energy for the things we don’t want to do, and yet somehow our time and even our best energy often gets eaten by those things? I used to think I should schedule the time for the things I didn’t want to do because I would naturally find time for everything else. But now, I realize that I have to schedule the things I want to do so they don’t get swallowed up by the everything else’s of life. For example, that coffee date with a friend, the run I’ve been meaning to take for months, a conversation with my spouse (oops, did I admit that?), those are things we assume will fit in our lives, but never do unless they make it onto the calendar.
There are lots of rationales behind this reality, but I think one of them is that we have lost our zeal.
Zeal is such a great word – and not just because it starts with a z and gets you good points in Scrabble. Zeal is defined as great energy or enthusiasm in pursuit of something.

We’ve lost our zeal the minute we’ve lost sight of what we are pursuing. When the days start passing by and we don’t know where they are leading, we get confused and settle into survival mode. We’ll never get where we want to go, if we haven’t identified “where” that is. Andy Stanley calls this the principle of the path.

When Jesus came, he was pursuing justice and righteousness, and he did it with zeal because he knew where the days were leading. Jesus lived with energy, enthusiasm and intentionality. He wasted no time, and more importantly, he didn’t waste moments – the moment with the woman at the well, the moment with the leper who came back to say ‘thank you’ after his healing, the moment with the rich, young ruler.

What are you pursuing? Where are you heading? Is your best energy pointed in that direction?

Getting Ready to Receive, Day 9

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” ~Romans 8:22-25

Waiting…patiently? Not my strong suit. And unfortunately, the world we live in is getting faster and faster, making patient waiting even more of a lost art. We are people who stand in front of microwaves saying, “Hurry up!”

And yet, as we grow older we understand what it means that waiting often makes things that much better. Good wine takes time (unless Jesus makes it, then it’s instantaneous). Friendships and marriages get richer and sweeter over decades of walking through the good, bad and ugly of life together. The waiting is when we learn to trust, because what we hope for, we truly can’t see.

Right now I have good friends who are waiting anxiously for the birth of their twins who are threatening to come far earlier than we hoped. They are waiting for each ultrasound to see if the heartbeats are still strong. They are waiting for each time a doctor walks into their room to know what the next few hours will hold. They are waiting and hoping for little lungs to develop faster than they would so they are ready to face this big world they are about to breathe in. But in it all, they hope for pray for the peace of Christmas and a community stands behind them to hope on their behalf.

And really, that’s how waiting patiently comes to life. We wait together. We hope together. We believe together that Jesus comes, and because he comes, we know our today will be okay.

Getting Ready to Receive, Day 6

Yesterday Nelson Mandela died, leaving behind a rich legacy of forgiveness, humility and leadership. He most certainly lived his life well and I am among the many who admired him greatly. Since the announcement of his death, I have heard several people use the word “hero,” a word we typically reserve for giants like Mandela who are known by the whole world. But I believe the visible work of heroes like Mandela often gets lived out quietly in the everyday life of people we know. One such hero in my life is none other than the author of today’s post and my big sister, Laura Brown. Laura lives in Ohio with her husband, John, and their three children. She works for a global company called Glatfelter, and when she’s not busy traveling all over North America for work  and all over Chillicothe, Ohio taking her kids to karate, tennis and more, she can be found running the Upward Basketball league in her community, volunteering with the Junior League or out training with her team, “Paper Girls Wear Pink,’ for the next Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. And if that’s not enough (and it is!), she’s also the big sister who flies down at a moment’s notice when her little sister is overwhelmed and gets her house cleaned, fills her freezer with crockpot meals and does her laundry! Hero barely scratches the surface here, friends.

Laura shares today from a place of wisdom and experience about managing the pressure-cooker of life without closing ourselves off from each other and from the God who wants to give us good gifts. Enjoy!

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The ugly sweater contest is a mystery to me. We place so much pressure on ourselves during this time of year:  Did I get the perfect gift for Joe’s uncle’s best friend whom I’ve never actually met? Is that present hidden where the kids will not see it during their latest game of “Spy Kids: Let’s Ruin Christmas for Mom and Dad”? Have I properly constructed the best wreath in the neighborhood per the shoddy directions given by that weird link on Pinterest?

So now, to add to the contents of our Christmas pressure cooker, we compete to see who can be the best at being the ugliest. Really? And I will not even mention that e-mail I got asking me to join the “No Weight Gain During the Holidays” challenge. Cris Carter needs to just add that one to the “C’Mon Man” lineup next Monday night.

Here’s the thing about that pressure cooker we’ve placed ourselves in: the lid is on, tightly sealed. That is not what God has intended for us in this season or any other.  God has called us to take the lid off. He has called us to open our hearts to receive his gifts of grace, mercy and healing. He has called us to share our light with the world so that others may see his glory.

On this day of advent, preparing for the coming of Christ, spend some time considering those gifts that God wants to give you this season. Are you hurting from a relationship gone awry? Jesus comes to heal the brokenhearted. Do you have financial hardship in your life? God will provide. Do you have family members living in the darkness? Jesus came to save.

Preparing to receive these things is not easy. But here is a great idea to start: get on your knees and pray. Hold your hands open as you pray signaling a willingness and ability to receive. Ask God to prepare your heart to receive that which he has for you in this season. And when you are done with that prayer, find a friend or a blog (hey, maybe this one?) to help you keep your hands open, outstretched to the Savior, ready to receive the gifts that only he can give.

“Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.” Isaiah 64:4

Is the lid off your pressure cooker, ready to receive?

Getting Ready to Receive, Day 5

“There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.” ~John 1:6-9

Last night before bed, we were singing “The First Noel” with our 4-year old who proceeded to ask, “What does ‘Noel’ mean?”

Uhhh……….do you know? We sure didn’t.

Thank goodness for google. My search uncovered some discrepancy, but the basic gist is this: Noel comes from a combination of the Latin word natalis which means birthday, referring specifically to Jesus’ birthday, and the French word nouvelles which means news, referring to the good news of Jesus’ birth. And so, in “The First Noel” it’s basically defined as the first proclamation of the good news about Jesus.

You now have a fun fact to share at your next Christmas party between commenting on everyone’s ugly sweaters and discussing which unknown gift from the pile you’re going to choose to open. You’re welcome.

But seriously, while the angels got to sing the first noel, and John got to say the most noels, we still have work to do passing it along. It’s possible that the noel you share might be the first time someone else truly hears about Jesus as good news for them too. And chances are, it won’t be because you sing better than the angels or you speak more eloquently than John. It will be because you have a relationship with someone who trusts you, who knows you well enough to hear not only what you say, but to observe how you live and the difference Jesus has made in your life.

Just like John, we need to help other people get ready for Jesus, not just ourselves.

So, the next time someone cuts you off in the parking lot during this busy season or someone gets impatient in a long check-out line, try to swallow your own frustration and instead reply with some variation of noel. We have good news of great joy, just as the angels did at the first Christmas.

How will you share the noel?

Getting Ready to Receive, Day 4

“But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God.” ~Luke 1:30

“An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” ~Matthew 1:20

It’s obvious why Mary and Joseph were afraid. The whole seemingly illegitimate baby deal aside, they had angels showing up while they were awake and sleeping!

I remember being little and my grandmother talking to me about seeing angels. All I could think was, “I sure hope I never see one!” In fact, before I would go to bed at night, I would pray and ask God not to show up in my room while the lights were out. True story.

Now that I’m an adult, I don’t find myself praying that prayer out loud and I don’t think I would be quite as afraid if an angel did show up (who am I kidding? of course I would be!), but I know I’m still afraid of God showing up. What if God shows up and asks me to do something I’m not ready to do? What if God asks me to give something I’m not ready to give? What if God wants more of me than I’m willing to release?

Anyone else share those fears? Welcome to control-freaks anonymous where none of us are anonymous because that just seems a little too out-of-control. But all joking aside, I think we are all a little afraid. Mary and Joseph were afraid, or else the angel wouldn’t have told them to stop. We want to go deeper in our faith, but we’re not sure what that might mean for the life we’re currently living. We want to live big, meaningful lives, but only if we can stay in the driver’s seat.

What if right now, God is inviting you to move to the back seat and buckle up because He is ready to take you on a journey beyond your wildest imagination? What if God is whispering into your life, “Don’t be afraid. I love you. I created you. I’ve got this (whatever the ‘this’ of your life may be).”

Maybe it’s time to stop letting our fears be in charge. After all, Jesus is breaking into our lives whether we’re ready or not. And as scary as it may be, I wouldn’t want to miss it. Would you?

Getting Ready to Receive, Day 3

Today I’m thrilled to share with you some words from my good friend, Mark Williams. Mark graduated from Davidson College before going on to seminary at Duke (Duke football right now – what?!?!), which is where we met. I remember well the night he called me after serving at a soup kitchen in downtown Durham and told me that he had met the woman he was going to marry as they dished green beans onto plates. A few years later, he and Emily were indeed married and have continued their life together just as it began by serving everyone they encounter. Their son, Nolan, celebrated his first birthday in October. 

Joseph and the Change Order

Many often refer to Joseph as the forgotten man of Christmas. Joseph is mentioned in the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke, but material about him is scant. In scripture, Joseph is never quoted directly. In fact, Joseph all but disappears from the gospel story following the holy family’s return from Egypt. But the Bible does tell us of Joseph’s occupation: Joseph was a carpenter. Later in Jesus’ adult life, Jesus was performing miracles in an around the synagogue at Capernaum, and the people in the synagogue asked: “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary?” (Matthew 13:55). Perhaps Joseph’s occupation as a carpenter might be important to understanding who he was. I’ve always wondered why God, in looking for an earthly father for Jesus, didn’t choose a powerful governor, or a wealthy merchant, or a teacher of the Law, or some other respected Jewish leader. Why a carpenter?

As I write this devotion, I look out my office window and watch a crew of carpenters building a new sanctuary where my church will soon worship. To be honest, I know nothing about carpentry. (As my wife will surely attest, I am the least handy person in the world!) But here’s what I’ve learned about carpentry from watching the professionals: Carpenters make things fit. They have a plan. They square off the edges. They follow the plumb line. They measure twice before they cut once. Not only do carpenters like to have a plan, they like to see the plan before they begin. Surprises are not the friend of a carpenter.

I imagine Joseph’s personality as that of a carpenter. He had a plan. Joseph had a plan for his life. What carpenter doesn’t have a plan? Joseph was engaged to young woman named Mary. He was in love. The plan was to get married. The plan was to have a family. The plan was to grow old together. The plan was to be an active, faithful member of the local synagogue. Matthew tells us that Joseph was a “righteous man.” The Hebrew word for a righteous man was a sadeek, which means that Joseph was known by his religious community for his uncompromising obedience to the scripture, to the book of Torah (the book of law). This means Joseph didn’t eat unclean food. He didn’t mix with the wrong kinds of people. He didn’t keep the carpentry shop open on the Sabbath. He was a righteous man. That was his identity. Joseph was who people wanted to be—admired and respected. To be a sadeek in Jewish culture was to be looked up to. That was Joseph. He was a young man with promising plans for the future. Joseph’s life was headed in all the right directions. The carpenter had a plan.

One day, Mary, Joseph’s young fiancée, had a conversation with Joseph that would forever change his plan. “I’m pregnant. And you’re not the Father.” Translated into building/construction terms: CHANGE ORDER FOR THE CARPENTER! The girl Joseph had promised to marry was going to have a baby, and whoever the Father was, Joseph knew it was not him. Nazareth was a small town, and as a general rule, word gets around in a small town. Joseph was now a carpenter without a plan. Thanks to Mary’s revelation, Joseph’s life no longer made sense.

Have you ever stood in Joseph’s shoes? Have you ever had plans for the future, but because of some event or circumstance life stopped making sense. God, I had plans to sit around a full dinner table this Christmas, but this year I’ve lost someone I love. And life no longer makes sense. God, I had plans for the future, but after going to the doctor or taking someone I love to the doctor, life no longer makes sense. God, I had plans for this child or grandchild, but thanks to some event that has happened, those plans are no more and life no longer makes sense. God, I had plans for the future of my career, but it’s not working out quite like I thought it would and now life no longer makes sense. Have you ever stood in Joseph’s shoes? Perhaps you had plans for the future, but recently life handed you change order. What now?

Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn at Christmastime from Joseph is this: Joseph trusted in God, even when his life did not make sense. Joseph’s immediate response to Mary’s pregnancy was what you might expect. Without a plan, Joseph was ready to throw in the towel. He wanted to give up. Scripture says that Joseph had in mind that he would divorce Mary quietly. That’s when an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said: “Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)

In waking up from that dream, Joseph made a big choice. Joseph swapped his religious reputation for a pregnant fiancé and in so doing made the big choice of discipleship. It’s as if Joseph, the carpenter, says: This time, God, I’m not the builder, am I? This time God, I’m a tool. I’m a hammer in your grip, God. A nail between your fingers. A chisel in your hands. This whole project, is yours, God, not mine. And even though I don’t understand it all yet, I’m going to see it through to the end—because I have been called to be obedient and trust in you even when my life does not make sense.

You may be asking: Why did God make Joseph struggle with all this stuff? Why couldn’t an angel have come to Joseph ahead of time to lay out the plans, explain everything—removing all the anxiety? To be sure, these are tough questions. But I wonder if God had a reason for this odd, painful, lonely, way to start a family. I wonder if God wanted Joseph to be an encouragement for each one of us, who, in the days before Christmas, share a lot in common with Joseph. For there are areas of our lives this Christmas that do not make sense. What will we do in response to life’s sudden change orders? Give up? Or will we follow in Joseph’s footsteps, continuing to be obedient and trusting in God?

Obedience to God is easy when it neatly fits into the plans we have constructed for our lives. But obedience to God is much more difficult when certain areas of our lives are not going as we planned. At Christmastime, Joseph, the obedient carpenter, whispers to us words of encouragement: Keep persevering. Obey. Keep trusting God even when your life does not make sense. It will all be worth it eventually. I promise.

Getting Ready to Receive, Day 2

“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.”  ~Romans 13:8-14

I don’t know about your house, but in ours there is a constant battle between the feelings of “No time, there’s NO TIME!” and “Eh, there’s plenty of time to do that later.” For some reason, we always drift to the extremes instead of meeting in the middle. Sound familiar? The good news is that perhaps it’s not the middle we need, but a good dose of both extremes.

You see, I think we need both. We need the urgency to remind us that our days are numbered and we need to make the most of them, i.e. not living in dissension and jealousy, but rather clothing ourselves with Christ. We also need the wisdom and patience to recognize that so many of the things eating our time are not the necessary things, and they indeed can wait until later while we spend ourselves (all the way into debt) loving each other.

It’s true what they say that our kids will not remember the gifts they got at each Christmas, but they will remember the love and the laughter. Sure, they don’t realize it when they’re young so of course they’re going to count the days wishing they would go by faster and making their lists of want, want, wants. But while they wish the hours away and we feel the hours slipping from our grasp, we can make them all count.

Here’s an idea: Choose one thing today that you can put off for another day and before that time gets eaten by all of the other starving items on your list, do something today that has no value outside of the love it shares with someone else. It can be as simple as the text message you send to your spouse that says, “You matter to me and I love you so much,” or it can be the plate of store-bought cookies (because who has time to bake?) that you drop off at your neighbor’s house (you know, the one whose name you can’t remember) on your way home.

Give love today. You’ll always miss the time you waste, but you’ll never miss the love you give!

How’s your love debt? What did you give today?

Getting Ready to Receive, Day 1

In an effort to Worship Fully this Christmas season, I’ve decided to turn my blog into a devotional between now and Christmas Day. I’ll be writing most of the entries, but I have a few special guests who will also be contributing along the way. I hope you enjoy!

Getting Ready to Receive, Day 1

“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” ~Luke 2:1, KJV

No one has to issue a decree these days for everyone to be taxed. We’re stretched, overburdened, overloaded and encumbered. And even if that wasn’t the kind of tax Caesar was referring to, I find it funny that the Christmas story begins with a taxed world. We can relate, can’t we?

This may be getting a little ahead in the story, but funnier still is the fact that when Jesus shows up in the Christmas story he decrees a “stop tax” of sorts (without saying a word, of course, babies can’t talk). When Jesus arrives, the shepherds walk off the job for a night, the wise men start ignoring orders from their leader, and it seems as though the whole world collectively takes a deep breath while the angels sing. Jesus shows up and says, “I got this. Cast your cares on me.”

What if instead of waiting for Christmas Day to take a deep breath, we decided to issue our own “stop tax” in order to get ready for more Jesus in our lives? We could do less instead of more. We could make better choices about the things and people we tell “yes,” and make better choices about the things and people we tell “no.” It’s like the story of the two sisters, Mary and Martha, in Luke 10:38-42. Jesus shows up at their door and one sister, Martha, gets so busy preparing for Jesus that she misses spending any time with him. Meanwhile, Mary skips all of the preparation (much to her sister’s annoyance) and spends all of her time with Jesus. Who do you think made the better choice?

Here’s an idea: sit down with your family or friends and make a list of all the things you don’t want to miss this Christmas season. Then, make another list of all the things you want to not do this Christmas season so you don’t feel quite so taxed. You can call it your “Christmas To-Don’t List.”

What’s on your Christmas list(s)?

Christmas Cave

So, typically, I’m the “must wait until Santa appears at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade until we listen to Christmas music/talk about Christmas/decorate for Christmas” type of person. That’s a type, right? I’m not alone?

But this year, I have a confession to make. I have been listening to Christmas music for the last week (don’t hate fellow-types). I can’t wait! It’s possible I’m even out-pacing my 4-year old in level of excitement for the Christmas season. (Okay, that’s an exaggeration.) And so, I’ve decided that if I’m giving in, I’m totally giving in. I’m “buying the limited edition candy cane oreos this week” giving in.

Before you write me off as a sell-out, you should know the real reason I’m caving is because we are 5 days away from the launch of our #5000gifts campaign at Ashley Ridge Church and I’m about to bust something! We are re-imagining Christmas and preparing to celebrate the season like we’ve never celebrated before and I WANT EVERYONE TO KNOW ABOUT IT!

But not yet.

5 more days.

Just 5 more days.

I can wait just 5 more days…I think.

What about you? If you were to let yourself think about Christmas for just a minute, what would you be anticipating most this Christmas? Anyone else want to cave with me, just this once?