When We Feel Like Something’s Missing from Christmas

Christmas is almost here and it’s causing my heart to palpitate. I’m not even close to being ready! How did it get to be December 10 already?

Our tree is still in its box, huddled in the corner of the basement with all the decorations. It’s going to stay there a few more days because there’s work, basketball games and Christmas music concerts.  

Did I want to write a few cards for friends in far flung places? Maybe.

Baking? Haha – don’t make me laugh. My arm has to be twisted at the best of times to pull out the mixing bowls and cookie sheets. With little time left and lots to do? Not happening.

I did get the advent calendars filled with chocolate in time for December 1- so there’s that. 

Life has been busy, as it always is this time of year. Launching a book added a bit more to my To Do list but it was fun stuff. Okay the weather hassle wasn’t fun (we had to cancel it due to freezing rain and rescheduled it the following week) but everything else was exciting.

Watching something you created come to life is a thrill. It’s also scary and vulnerable. People will love it, like it or hate it. Or have no opinion at all. It’s just the way it is. Free choice. I can’t make you read it or like it. I can only put it out there.

Exit Stage Right is a loose retelling of the prodigal. The father in the parable Jesus told, loved his son but he couldn’t make his son love him back. He couldn’t force his son to stay home. He could only put his love out there. It’s a story every parent can identify with. 

It’s also the story we live out every day. The more I learn about the parable of the prodigal the more I see how it intertwines with the Christmas story. God, the father, sent his son, Jesus, as a gift. He gave him to us but he doesn’t force us to love him or follow him. It’s our choice, just like the prodigal had the choice to stay with his father or leave. Free will. We may love Jesus, we may not, but either way God waits for us to decide. 

The one thing I don’t want to do is have no opinion at all. It’s easy to cruise through the holidays and really not engage Jesus. Too much to do, too many distractions. Jesus gets shoved to the end of the line, multiple times a day. I’ve already done it this season. By the end of Christmas, I’m left with the feeling that something slipped through my fingers. I think to myself, “There’s got to be more.” As a follower of Jesus, I know the answer to that question but I’m still left feeling like I missed something. 

My only answer is this – stop and make room for Jesus. The inn was too full but that didn’t stop Jesus from coming to earth. He came to a lowly stable amidst the lowing and snuffling of animals that were housed there. The shepherd that came to the stable that night, made room in their busy lives – they left their flocks (their work) to find him and spend time with him. Are we willing to leave our work, whatever that may be, to search him out and spend time with him? 

Stop. Be still. In doing so, I make room for Jesus in my hectic life. A space where I invite him in. Where I can listen and talk. Where my soul is filled up. Maybe it’s in that quiet space that Christmas comes alive because I have to time to unwrap and get to know the greatest gift of all. 

You can read the Christmas story in Luke 2 and the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-31.

The Prodigal

The mood is festive, people laughing and singing. The table is laden down with the best meats, cheeses and side dishes. There’s a chocolate fountain in the corner with fruit to dip. A family celebration – not a wedding but a prodigal returned home. 

img_2574

The term prodigal has many connotations, some are negative but not all. In the case of a prodigal returned home, there’s positive mixed in with the negative, creating a bittersweetness about the word. 

We’ve retold Jesus’ parable many times over in many different mediums. It’s a powerful story that we all can relate to in some way or another. We are the parent waiting for our son or daughter to come home. We are the elder son, angry at the grace our father has extended and is, in our opinion, totally unfair. Or we are the prodigal. 

I think prodigals come in all forms because we are all separated from God due to sin. We often think of prodigals as unbelievers or kids who are on a journey of self-discovery. They may be children raised in church but turn away as they become adults. They are all prodigals but they’re not the only ones Jesus is referencing. In the parable, we read that the boy is a beloved son. He is a full-fledge member of the clan but he leaves his Father and family by choice. For me, this is a story of a believer stepping away from their faith. 

Why would someone do that? There are many reasons and seasons in our lives where we get lost; our circumstances are not ideal, busyness keeps us distracted and exhausted or a diagnosis turns our world off-kilter. God seems far off. We feel abandoned. Is He trustworthy? We may believe the grass is greener on the other side of the fence with that job or that person. We willingly step away from our Father because life outside our Father’s household looks so inviting. It’s shinier and prettier and it beckons us with lies. We chase it, leaving behind what’s really important with barely a backward glance.

And God in his grace and mercy let’s us go – free will and all that. Some of us need to learn lessons the hard way to get it through our thick skulls. Sometimes it’s a journey we need to go on in order to discover who God is, what our wounds are and why they matter. We need to figure out who we are in relation to God, the Father.

The Father in the parable, lets the son go but he doesn’t give up on him and neither does God. Others get impatient with us and want us to hurry up and figure it out already. Or they write us off. But God is patient, letting us find the way Home, experiencing the construction and pot holes along the way. He gives us travelling companions who help guide us and He walks along beside us, waiting patiently for us to acknowledge Him. To come Home. This has been my experience.

Whatever kind of prodigal we are, it’s never too late to go Home, no matter what we’ve done. God is there waiting for us, at the end of the driveway.

I’ve written about the prodigal in my book, Exit Stage Right. As I said this story has fascinated me for a long time and I thought it would be interesting to loosely retell it in a modern setting. It’s my hope that the message of hope and love in the prodigal’s story will find a new audience and maybe some that need the reminder that it’s never to late to return Home. 

 

Finding Our Way

As a child, getting lost in Woolco (not a typo, and yes it dates me horribly) or Sears was my worst nightmare. As a mom, the thought of a child lost, could keep me awake most of the night. Feeling lost is scary. The unfamiliar feels threatening and the cold fingers clenched around our hearts makes it hard to breathe. Being lost isn’t just a physical condition; we can be lost but in the line of vision of a loved one, a friend, a family member. How many of us feel lost on a daily basis but we are within reach of someone we know?

Our world no longer looks like it did. We haven’t got a clue what the next step is let alone a five year plan. 

Or every day is the exact same as the one before it and we feel invisible in the mundane chores of making meals, cleaning up after kids, soothing hurt feelings or scraped knees. We are lost in the ordinary.

Perhaps, decades after walking down the aisle, the bright shiny newness of a marriage is long gone and we have retreated to our own lives and worlds. Is there a way out of invisibleness?

Hitting mid-life but feeling like we haven’t even begun to make our mark. But we’re “old” now and doesn’t the world belong to the young? Where do we go from here?

We just want someone to notice us. To invoke sense in this crazy place, called earth. So we turn to social media and post, hoping to get a bite. We try new mediations, new diets, new anything, just as long as it changes up the old. We look for direction everywhere but come up empty.  

In this quest of being found, are there answers? Or a map? A map would be really good right about now. The answer is yes.

The first part involves a belief. I found this quote one day reading. I see myself in Susan May Warren’s words. Do you see yourself?

“Because she’d refused to believe she was important to Him. She’d been trying to get his attention, but already-always-had it…She had it whether she had logged miles for the gospel and saved hundred of lives, or if she simply wiped toddlers’ noses and did mounds of laundry. She had God’s attention because she was His child.”  (P. 300, The Perfect Match, by Susan May Warren.) 

Believing we are his child and that he pays attention to us, is perhaps the first step to finding our way. For some of us, this may be the hardest step because it means dealing with a lot of lies we have believed up to now. It’s going to take some work but it’s crucial if we really want to find our way.

Jeremiah gives us the next step. 

This is what the Lord says: 

“Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”  Jeremiah 6:16

We stand at a crossroads trying to figure out which way to take. We ask everyone who passes by or maybe we keep quiet, trying to figure it out on our own. The thing is, there is only one person who knows the way, who has the map but too often, he is the last one we seek. Sometimes it’s because we haven’t trusted we’re his child to begin with. Perhaps  we’re mad at him or we want control of our lives. There are so many reasons and distractions that steer us away from him but He is our Way.

Ask for the ancient paths, which according to my NIV study bible, means the “tried and true ways of Judah’s godly ancestors.” This has worked before.

Ask where the good way is. Then walk in it. Ask, ask, walk; to find our way out of the dark, the confusion, the bitterness, or whatever else is making us feel lost or invisible. The result? Peace for our souls. And a map Home.

When You’re Relegated to Riding the Bench

I spent my youth at the ball diamond. The sharp crack of a bat, the clang of the chainlink fence, and the smell of the softball diamond dust floating in the air, remind me of many good times. With the exception of the year I warmed the bench. It was my first year playing softball and I was about nine years old. After try-outs, I was told I could be on the team but I wouldn’t be playing much. This was partly because my twin had successfully procured her position and I don’t think the coaches wanted to say yes to her and no to me. In my enthusiasm. I agreed to the deal. 

To say it was my most challenging sporting year would be an understatement. Riding the bench is hard. With the exception of a couple of innings of play, I sat, the dust from the diamond, coating my skin and lips. I tried to be upbeat, cheering on my friends but all I really wanted was to be put in the game. I knew I could do it if I was just given the chance. 

Isn’t that what we all want? The chance to prove we can do it.

It’s why riding the bench is the pits. We sit around waiting; in our jobs, in relationships, in our dreams, maybe our health, when all we really want to do is show everyone what we’ve got. No one wants to ride the bench in sports or in life.

But it’s on the bench where some valuable lessons are learned if you can get beyond the longing and resentment.

Sitting on the bench teaches you:

Humility. Your ego and pride have got to go, as you sit there on that hard bench, your very clean jersey announcing to everyone around, that you haven’t played. At. All.

Your job as a benchwarmer is to encourage your teammates, even though you really want to be the one out there, making plays. You’re learning that it isn’t all about you.

Patience. You have to wait your turn. It may be a really long wait. My father-in-law pointed out that as a “bench player” you still have to be prepared, in case you’re called into the game. You have to pay attention to what’s going on. The reward of actually getting into the game may be a long way off.

Perseverance. Any of us who have warmed a bench, knows it takes a lot of grit to stay with it. You want to quit. You want to have a hissy fit. But you still show up to every practice and give it your 100%. You work hard to be ready. Quitting is not an option. It tests you. Is this what you really want? Is it worth all the pain and waiting? Because if it is, you’re not going to give up. You’re going to keep going and keep training. You are going to endure the wait and be ready when your name comes up.

Riding the bench forges character in a way other circumstances can’t. I’m not going to lie, it’s not pleasant. It’s a season that will challenge you like no other. 

If you’re in a place right now where you’re riding the bench, I feel your pain. It hurts and it’s frustrating but if you stick with it, you’ll come out the other side, refined. And eventually you’ll get the nod from the coach. I did.

I tried out the next season and made the team. As a full fledged member. I played competitive softball for the next decade. I did some bench warming but never like that first year. I never took for granted that I would play either. But the patience and perseverance paid off and I enjoyed many summers with my friends playing some great softball.

Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.  Romans 5: 3-5 NLV

IMG_3621

The Definition of Great

“You’re going to do great things for God.”

Words, spoken as encouragement to many young leaders and Christians, seem harmless but in my experience, are better left unsaid.

IMG_4265
Graduation from Tyndale with a Masters of Divinity

My husband and I have heard these words from well-meaning people. However, they’ve haunted me over the years. I’ve spent hours trying to figure out where we went wrong. What we did wrong.

After examining our lives, our decisions, our hearts, there’s no one thing or decision to point to and say, “Aha, that’s the exact point, where things started to tank.” We prayed and followed where we felt God was leading. 

That’s the part that gets me. Maybe you can relate. Do you ever feel like you’ve said yes to God only to have him say no to you? 

You’ve loved God, tried to live out his Word, yet you wonder what happened to the great things you were supposed to do. Looking around, you’re surrounded by toys, dirty diapers, and a stack of dishes in the sink, waiting patiently to be washed. Or your church attendance isn’t near what you’d hoped this far in, even though you serve God and his flock faithfully. Your blog has never gone viral. You didn’t get that promotion which would help you give more. Halfway through life, why bother, seems like an appropriate question.  

We get to this point because, in part, we have bought into the lie of this little “encouraging” phrase. When someone says, “You’re going to do great things for God,” what we actually hear are the words you’re and great. Maybe it’s just me and my own narcissism, but as I watch churches topple, I think not. 

We have a problem because we make our lives and our ministries about us. The truth is God is the great I AM, he doesn’t need any help from us, but we like to convince ourselves that he does. The sun comes up every day without my help. It sets every night without you saying one word. Read Job 38 to get some perspective. And in all that glory and awesomeness, He chooses to include us in his plans. It’s a privilege not an inherent right. 

 

What does “great” mean? We need to define it because our definition of great and God’s, are vastly different. My mind goes immediately to David and Goliath great. Great equals success, fame, applause.

That’s not God’s definition. Jesus explains it in Mathew 20:25-28. He’s talking with his disciples. He reminds them how the leaders lord their authority over the people. Then he says, “Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave– just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (emphasis mine)

In God’s economy, greatness isn’t about church attendance, membership or budget numbers.  How many people are attending the conference you’re speaking at or the ministry you’re running isn’t what he’s counting on. It has nothing to do with fame or money. Greatness is not as the world speaks it. As I define it.

Greatness is serving others. Feeding them, sheltering them, loving them even when it costs you. It’s standing up for God’s truth and being willing to follow Him until the end, even if it involves a shipwreck or two. (Read about Paul.) Or worse. (Read about any of the apostles, Stephen, to name a few.)

The world may declare your stack of dirty dishes and diapers, unimportant. The small church who faithfully serves God and others may not get noticed because well, it’s small. Finishing strong in unpleasant circumstances may still be considered failing to most. The world calls us losers because we don’t live up to their standards but it’s a lie. 

Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. 1 Cor 1:27 NLT

Next time you want to encourage a young pastor, ministry leader or new believer, forego the “You’re going to do great things for God” speech. Instead, find a personal way to encourage them and then start praying for them.

 

Related posts Successful Failures about the prophet Jeremiah.

In the Spacious Place

After the decadence of December, I like the simpleness of January and February. The white snow, and blank calendar spaces soothe my soul because those blank spaces signal the arrival of Hope. Hope you’ll change. Hope circumstances will change. Hope that the coming year will be different. The new year is still bright and shiny.

Wide open spaces provide room to move, think and breathe deeply. Busy schedules, phone calls, texts, appointments, to-do lists eventually crowd us, we lose focus. We run like hamsters on a wheel, getting nowhere. There’s no space in our heads, hearts or days to think, reflect or pray. When we don’t make room for those things, it becomes challenging to implement change, and to grow. Hope shrinks.

But in these early days of the new year, hope abounds. Our calendars, our ability to say no, are still in our grasp. Change can happen, right? It’s not too late. 

David writes about wide open spaces in Psalm 18, after God delivered him from the hands King Saul, whom David had served faithfully. I can only imagine the sting of that betrayal. David pens these words:

He brought me out to a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me. Psalm 18:19 CSB

In the New Living Translation (NLT), it reads: He led me to a place of safety; he rescued me because he delights in me.

God delivers David to a spacious place or safe place. I don’t know about you but I loathe crowds. Open spaces equal safety. Sometimes God does deliver us to a spacious place. He removes the obstacle, the relationship or sickness. 

Sometimes he does not. That’s when we feel like the world is closing in, don’t we? Breathing becomes hard. But God did not abandon David to his trials. His presence filled those caves David hid in. He ran beside David as he fled Saul’s insanity and wrath.

God doesn’t always remove the circumstances or the people, but God still delivers us. It doesn’t always show up in the form of physical change but rather in a shift in our minds and hearts when we make room for God to live there. 

He rescued David because he delighted in him. He feels the same about you and me. His love for us came in the form of his one and only Son, he’s our proof of how God feels about us. He rescued us for all eternity but he’s still in the business of delivering us to a spacious, safe place, today. Right now. Even if our blank spaces and hope seemed to have fizzled already, he’s still there, in caves, the hospitals, the boardrooms and living rooms, waiting to rescue us. Will we make room for him to deliver us to a spacious place? 

The Christmas Miracle of a Softened Heart

How’s your heart this Christmas? It’s the question that echoes through the “fields by night,” the draughty stable and living rooms filled with lights and decorations this year. I hear it in Christmas readings and songs. What does my heart have to do with Christmas?

IMG_2666

Everything.

Our hearts beat out the rhythm of our lives. Proverbs tells us that we are to guard our heart because it’s from there that all else flows. (Proverbs 4:23) All else. Love, hate, obedience, disobedience, worship, decisions we make and what or who we treasure, all of it stems from our hearts. So what’s the prognosis? 

Maybe over the last year we’ve inched farther away from God. We’ve stopped our quiet time. We only go to church when we feel like it, which isn’t often. We’re distracted by family, our jobs, relationships that all take priority. It’s been a subtle separation. 

Or maybe we ran from God because he disappointed us. We’re not sure he can be trusted. 

Our schedules are full and the days busy. Who has time to meet with God?

The consequence is an unresponsive heart that no longer hears or listens to the whispers of God.  

We’re lured instead, by the lies of the enemy, who knows our weak spots and hits us there repeatedly. We doubt, we question and we believe God has abandoned us. Our hearts turn stone cold. We guard ourselves from the one who has the cure.

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be this way. Now is a great time to make changes.

Christmas gives us both time and permission to turn our heart around. We get a pass to love more, give more and become a better person. To embrace our Christian heritage. Why not take advantage of that? Christmas is part one of a love story followed by part two at Easter. A narration of a God who loved us so much he gave up his only son so he could have relationship with you and me. It’s a hopeful story of redemption, as well a promise of eternal life. Why not take the time to explore it more? Get to know God more intimately? Let the good news of Christ’s birth be a balm to our wounded, hard hearts.

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. Ezekiel 36:26 (NIV)

IMG_0710

It’s one of my favourite verses. I need this but I can’t do it on my own. Neither can you. Only God can work miracles and turn our hearts around. This is my Christmas wish this year. I want a new heart.  

In asking, I have to be willing to deal with what caused my heart to harden. Like sin, poor attitudes and false beliefs about myself or Him. Whatever he reveals, we have to deal with it or we end back where we started. Again he walks alongside us as we do. 

IMG_1416

I don’t think we ever experience the full measure of Christmas and its life saving message until our hearts beat warm because we know how great our need is of that baby in a manger. He miraculously changes us. Perhaps it’s the Christmas miracle we’re looking for this Christmas season. 

 

This blog is a result of many readings, sermons and a general sacred echo over the last few months and weeks. One book that has been exceptionally good is Paul David Tripp’s New Morning Mercies, A Daily Gospel Devotional. Check it out.  Also the Christmas sermons at Country Hills Church have been wonderful. You can listen to them here

If you liked this, check out my blog about Heart Shaped Perfectionism here.