The Lesser Obvious Miracles of Christmas

Image result for manger image            The story of Jesus entering our world is filled with miracles:  the Virgin Mary conceiving and giving birth to God’s son; the prophecies foretelling that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, that a messenger would go before him (John the Baptist), and that he would come from the line of David (to name a few); and the wise men following the star that leads them to the holy child.  We’ve read the story dozens of times and seen it portrayed dozens of ways.  I have a nativity set in nearly every room in our house.  We are familiar with this miracle-filled, epic story of how God chose to redeem us.

            But as I read the gospel accounts in Matthew and Luke again this Christmas season, I noticed a few less obvious miracles woven throughout the story:

·         A sign for Zachariah:  Zachariah the priest is chosen by lot to serve in the temple (an opportunity that most likely only happened once in a priest’s lifetime.) The angel Gabriel appears to him and tells him that his prayer has been heard.  His wife Elizabeth will have a son in her old age, and they are to name him John.  Zachariah asks Gabriel how he can be sure of this, since he and his wife are old.  In what seems like a punishment, Gabriel tells Zachariah that he will be unable to speak until the baby (John the Baptist) is born.  It does seem to be partly a rebuke, but I also see that it was a sign – even a gift – to Zachariah and Elizabeth.  He asked for a sign and he got one!  Each time he tried to speak and couldn’t he was reminded that this miracle was really happening.  The angel had really appeared to him, and Elizabeth was in fact carrying a child who would go before the Messiah, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

·         Mary and Elizabeth:  After telling Mary that she had been chosen to give birth to God’s Son, the angel Gabriel added that even her relative Elizabeth was expecting a baby in her old age, because what is impossible with man is possible with God!  So what does Mary do?  She goes to visit the one person that might just believe her.  The one person who was also growing a miracle in her womb, and when Mary arrives, the baby in Elizabeth’s belly does somersaults at the sound of Mary’s voice.  And Elizabeth exclaims, “Why am I so honored that the mother of my Lord would come to me?”  What a gift!  These women gave each other the gifts of friendship and faith, of walking with someone on an unexpected journey, of being accepted and loved.  I’m convinced that Mary needed that, because we all need that.  We need someone in our corner, cheering us on.  We need someone to believe in us, and we need to know that we are not alone.  

·         Joseph’s response to Mary:  After Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant, he decided not to subject her to public disgrace but to divorce her quietly.  Keep in mind that the only explanation Joseph would have had as to how Mary conceived was that she had been with another man.  He must have felt betrayed and hurt.  I am struck by how gracious Joseph was.  Scripture tells us that Joseph responded this way because he was a righteous man.  He wasn’t self-righteous, like when we think we are better than someone or condemn them for what they have done.  He didn’t want to retaliate or hurt Mary in response.  Because he was righteous, he was concerned with doing what was right in God’s eyes, not in his own.  God is gracious.  With God all things are possible, and Joseph would come to realize that God had done something no one could ever have imagined – something so impossible and amazing, it would take more signs and angels and dreams to convince him.  But instead of his heart being hard with self-righteousness, it was tender and gracious. Tender, gracious hearts are ready to do what’s right in God’s eyes.

Image result for manger image·         The manger was a sign: 

Luke 2:8-12  And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, 
and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause 
great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

The manger was not only a make-shift crib for baby Jesus since there was no room for the little family in the guest house – it was a sign for the shepherds.  It was how they would recognize the baby when they found him.

   16-20 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

And the manger became a sign to all who heard about the child, and to Mary, who listened and treasured up all these things in her heart.  The shepherds found Jesus just as they had been told.  And every sign and wonder compelled them to believe.

·         Jesus was born into a troubled world like ours:  Our world seems to be coming unhinged.  I’m almost afraid to turn the news on in the morning because too often the headlines are filled with mass shootings, racial violence and terrorist attacks.  We long for safety and peace, but in so many parts of our world there is poverty and war, violence and evil.  Jesus was born into a hostile, troubled world.  When he was just a baby, his parents fled with him to Egypt because Herod was killing all the baby boys less than two years old.  Can you even imagine?  They lived as refugees until Herod died and then moved to Nazareth.  This was a tumultuous beginning for a new, young family.  And as an adult, Jesus began his ministry amid oppression and corruption.  His own cousin, John the Baptist, was beheaded in prison, his head presented on a platter to Herod Jr.’s wife (who had requested the brutal murder.)  
      The people were looking for a King, for someone to deliver them from oppression and make things right.  Jesus introduced a kingdom not of this world, He gave up His life to make us right with God, and He promises a day when everything will be made right. 

The Christmas story – and the Easter story – are filled with signs and wonders, fulfilled prophesies and rich symbolism, and it’s all for us.  Every detail is given for us, so that we will be amazed and filled with wonder, and so that, most importantly, we will believe in the One who came to rescue us from darkness and bring us back to God.

Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you;

He is the Messiah, the Lord.  Luke 2:11


be busy and hurry not

            I am having a hard time keeping up.  I’m not talking about keeping up with the Joneses or the Kardashians or current events.  I am talking about keeping up with work, with the house, with the grocery shopping and laundry.  (We are out of napkins and Band-Aids, and I went to the store yesterday.  And two days before that.) I’m talking about keeping up with my kids’ activities and let me be honest – I don’t even know most of what they are doing at school and on their iPads.  But I should be checking their iPads and phones because I recently heard a story on the news about a type of “ghost” app that looks like a calculator, but when you click on it and enter a password it opens up a program that is very dark and destructive.  But, again, let me be honest – I don’t know how to use their iPads and phones.

            I am pretty diligent about not over-committing; I regularly say no to people and activities because I’ve learned that over-extending myself is a big mistake.  But all of this stuff I’m talking about is just normal life – things that you can’t really eliminate.   Throw in a power outage here and there, a broken dishwasher, a couple of upper respiratory viruses, an overflowing toilet, a strained back or an injury of some kind, and you’ve got…everyday life for most people.

Image result for slow sign
            Enter December.  The Holiday Season.  The Most Wonderful Time of the Year when our lists get longer and everyone around us seems to be in a continual state of frenzy.  The busyness of ordinary life is magnified and multiplied along with our emotions, our joys, and our sorrows.  If we are wise we will slow down and give attention to what matters.
            On a good morning, when I make time for it, I sit in my mom’s blue winged-back chair with my coffee and journal.  I prayerfully assess where I’m at.  What’s on my agenda for today?  What am I grateful for?  Who/what is on my mind?  How’s my heart?  One morning not long ago, as I looked over my list of all that I had to do and prayed for God to give me strength and direct my path, these thoughts came to mind:  You may be busy, but you don’t have to hurry.  You may be busy, but you don’t have to be frazzled.  Don’t rush.  Take one thing at a time, and choose not to hurry. Practice this today.

            I headed to work wondering how this would translate into my job.  I work as a prep-chef in a kitchen, and this is our busiest time of the year.  We have lots of orders to fill.  But I was mindful about not hurrying.   I worked at a pace that was productive but not frazzled.  I reminded myself not to rush.  When customers came in, I tried to enjoy my interactions with them instead of feeling irritated because my work had been interrupted.  When I came home from work (a few minutes late), I told myself that if dinner was a little late, it was OK.  I refused to rush throughout the evening, and as I folded the last of the laundry while watching Jimmy Fallon before heading to bed, I realized that I had enjoyed my day a lot.  I had enjoyed my work and the people I encountered throughout my day.

            John Ortberg, author of Soul Keeping, writes, “Hurry is the great enemy of souls in our day. Being busy is a condition of our outer world (having many things to do). Being hurried is a problem of the soul. It’s being so preoccupied with myself and what myself has to do that I am no longer able to be fully present with God and fully present with people. There is no way a soul can thrive when it is hurried.

            As I have been intentional about not hurrying, I’ve found that I have to make different choices.  I can’t squeeze in one more errand before picking up my daughter from school.  I need to leave five minutes earlier for work so that I get there on time without speeding.  I’ve told my kids that they may need to wait for me for a few minutes if I’m not exactly on time, because I am not going to hurry.  And this has been very good for my soul.  Don’t you love it when someone says, “Take your time – no rush?”  Well, I’ve been telling myself, take your time, Becky.  Slow down.  Be busy, but don’t hurry.

            Not rushing and taking my time will be especially challenging over the next month because everyone around me will be in a hurry.   Slowing my pace is going to feel a lot like driving 55 mph on a highway where everyone else is going 75.  People will honk at me, walk in front of me to get in line first, and maybe even be irritated with me.  But that’s OK, because no other time of the year offers so many opportunities to connect with God as at Christmas.
            While waiting in traffic I can take a few moments to pray for loved ones that are miles away this year. While waiting in line at Kohl’s or TJ Maxx I can reflect on the lyrics of Christmas songs like O Holy Night

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new glorious morn
Fall on your knees
O hear the angels' voices
O night divine
O night when Christ was born
O night divine, O night
O night divine

Image result for snow covered branches            I can breathe in the beauty of freshly fallen snow and pay attention to the way the bare trees extend their arms up to heaven.  When sadness and feelings of loss bubble up with memories of loved ones who are no longer here, I can invite Emmanuel into those moments, into those tender places in my heart, and receive comfort and joy.  And when I hear about the turmoil and suffering in our broken world I can pray for peace on earth.

            This Christmas season, may we be busy and hurry not.  May we have eyes that see the Light of the world. May we have ears that hear all heaven and nature sing.  And may we have hearts that daily prepare Him room.   



when it's time to give up your dreams

                           I think I may be ready to give up on a dream.  This is a dream that I have intensely wanted for a long time. I have worked very hard to achieve it and have nearly exhausted all of my “next steps.”  So in an effort to reckon with reality, I’m giving up.  I think it may be time.

                When I told my husband this the other day, he said, “No – don’t give up!  We’ll pray about it!” (Because sometimes when you want something long enough, you stop really praying about it when you stop believing it’s going to happen.)  I understand why he responded the way he did.  He knows how much I want this.  He knows how hard I’ve worked.  And he probably has an idea of what comes next.  When you give up on a dream you enter into a process of loss.
                About a year ago one of the women in our community group from church (we call ourselves “The Tribe”) announced that she was giving up on her dream of becoming a school administrator.  After working as an interim assistant principal and loving it, Laurie had worked very hard to get into a district program to become an administrator.  She had even gone back to school and earned a doctorate degree in educational leadership.  She did everything she could to prepare herself for what she felt passionately about doing, and she felt confident about her qualifications.

                She didn’t make it into the program.  When she told us she was giving up on her dream, several of us protested, “No!  You’ve worked too hard on this!”  But she had already begun the unavoidable grieving process involved in the death of a dream.  She talked to us that night about surrendering and finding peace.

               We are supposed to tell our 
children to never give up on their dreams and that they can accomplish anything they set their minds to.  And yet I’m wondering if that will set them up well for real life?  My child may want to be a contestant on The Voice, but it may not happen.  My daughter may have her heart set on a particular college, but it may not pan out.  I have friends who have had to give up careers because of illness and homes because of financial hardship.  Maybe the more important thing we need to teach our children (and learn for ourselves) is how to hold up our dreams with open hands and live in a posture of surrender.  This dream of mine may be something I’ve wanted more than anything I’ve ever wanted, but if I am truly surrendering it to God, there is a flexibility instead of a rigidity.  There is an attitude, from the very beginning, that says, “I know what I want.  But more than that, I trust that God knows what is best for me, and that may look slightly or vastly different than my dream.”

                Our family enjoys watching American Ninja Warrior, and I love hearing the athletes’ stories just as much as I love watching them navigate the incredibly challenging obstacle courses.  Some of these competitors have given up jobs to pursue their dream of becoming the next American Ninja Warrior.  Some of them admit that they are so desperate to win, they don’t know what they’ll do if they don’t make it.  It’s painful to see these competitors fall off the salmon ladder or lose their grip off of the swinging spikes, because you get a sense of just how devastated they feel when they hit the water below.  And often they are asked the same questions afterward.  “Will you be back?  Will we see you here next year?”  In other words, are you ready to give up on your dream?

                I think the truly victorious ones are those who, in the face of dashed dreams, find a way to live out their passion doing what is possible and within reach in the here and now.  In their reckoning with reality, they find the courage to let go of a specific dream while holding on to a bigger vision.
                The producer of American Ninja Warrior calls Brent Steffensen and Kacy Catanzaro “the royal couple of ‘Ninja Warrior’”.  They both have broken records on the show and their mutual passion for ANW led them into a dating relationship.  Along with competing several times on ANW, they are currently working to open a training facility in San Antonio, TX.  As Kacy stated, “As long as “American Ninja Warrior” is not holding us back from other things we want to accomplish, we want to keep doing it.”  And despite this season’s disappointment (of not making it through the ANW course), Steffensen said he has his dream job.  He may come back and compete again, and if he does he will either fail again or break a record, but either way he is living a bigger dream.  He’s living a dream that taps into the core of who he is.
                Back to my friend Laurie.  She is as passionate as ever about teaching and educating children, and about leading other educators.  And she says this past year has been surprisingly peace-filled.  “I’ve learned a lot about myself, how much I was striving to make things happen, and how I pressured myself to make my dream come true.  I was carrying my dream like the way you carry a grudge.  It became heavy and I just kept lugging it around with me.  When your dream becomes a burden, it’s time to lay it down.”

                Laurie teaches fifth grade.  She is a department head and has exceptional leadership skills.  She chose not to reapply for the district program, and she has taught me a lot about what it looks like to surrender a dream that has become a burden.

                My dream is to publish a book.  Not just a book, but a specific story.  I have a polished proposal that I’ve spent hours writing and revising.  I have attended writers’ conferences and have had my work professionally critiqued.  I have followed up on nearly every lead, and the feedback has been consistent.  “Your writing is good.  You tell your story in a compelling way.  Your platform is not big enough.  We wish you great success and hope you find a home for your manuscript.”

                We hope you find a home for your manuscript.  My manuscript is homeless.  But I am not hopeless.  I may decide it’s time to let this dream go.  I may try a little bit longer.  I may decide to take a different route to get my book published.  But either way, I am living a bigger dream.  Either way, I can still tell my story.  Along with writing, I speak regularly at local women’s groups on topics I am passionate about, and I love it.  I am a communicator, and I am living a life consistent with who I am – with who God made me to be.
                As a parent, I will always be my kids’ biggest cheerleader, and I will encourage them to go boldly in the direction of their dreams.  But I also want to teach them – and model for them – how to hold their dreams loosely, with open hands and a surrendered heart.  I want to teach them how to know when it’s time to give up on a dream that has become a burden, and how to figure out what is underneath that dream that taps into the core of who they are. 
                From the very beginning of our journey, we can entrust our greatest dreams to the God who knows what is best – to the God who knows us best.   


A Ten-year-old's Guide to Being Happy

I found this card on my daughter’s desk:

            I asked her where she got it, and she said she wrote it.  I read it again.  She is almost ten years old. “Really?  You made this up?”
            “Yep. I typed it on my typewriter.”

            Recently on the Today show, I saw a segment about the pursuit of happiness.  Experts weighed in and “ordinary” people were asked to participate in an experiment.  For three days they were told to live as if their time was short – as if those were their last three days on this earth.  One woman went crab hunting, something she had never done before.  Another woman went boating – an activity she enjoyed but had little time for.  And one of the men traveled to visit his extended family.  All of them reported feeling somewhat happier after their three-day mini-vacations, and the conclusion was that if we want to attain happiness, we should look closely at our short term choices and make time for things we enjoy, for adventure, and for quality time with those we love.

            That’s it?  That’s the secret?  I get the part about choosing to use our time well and making sure we do things that fill our buckets and bring us enjoyment, but surely this is only one aspect of living well and being happy.  While the idea of living each day as if it’s our last sounds really inspiring, most of us can’t do that because it’s just not practical.  Because “ordinary” people have to do things like go to work, go to school, get our teeth cleaned and run errands.  We have commitments, chores, activities and demands that we must attend to.  And I don’t think that true happiness is found by escaping our everyday lives.  I think it’s available and attainable in the mundane, ordinary, less-than-perfect places.

            I think it’s found by loving God and loving others.

            We all want to be happy.  And we want the people we love to be happy.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard parents say of their children, “We just want them to be happy.  That’s the most important thing.”
            The theology of our culture is that happiness comes by doing what makes us feel good–at least in the moment.  We are told to look inside ourselves, be true to ourselves, and to pursue the things that make us feel happy: pleasure, possessions, positions, and personal gain. But all that acquiring and achieving can leave us feeling unsatisfied.  The happiness is often short-lived.
            Jesus taught a different, counter-cultural approach to happiness.  In Matthew 5 (Living Bible), here’s what he told his disciples and the crowd that had gathered to listen to him teach:

   “Humble men are very fortunate!” he told them, 
“for the Kingdom of Heaven is given to them. Those who mourn are fortunate, 
for they shall be comforted. The meek and lowly are fortunate, 
for the whole wide world belongs to them.

“Happy are those who long to be just and good, 
for they shall be completely satisfied.Happy are the kind and merciful, 
for they shall be shown mercy. Happy are those whose hearts are pure, 
for they shall see God. Happy are those who strive for peace—they shall be called 
the sons of God. 10 Happy are those who are persecuted because they are good, 
for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

11 “When you are reviled and persecuted and lied about because you are my followers—wonderful! 12 Be happy about it! Be very glad! 
For a tremendous reward awaits you up in heaven. 
And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted too.

13 “You are the world’s seasoning, to make it tolerable. 
If you lose your flavor, what will happen to the world? 
And you yourselves will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless. 
14 You are the world’s light—a city on a hill, glowing in the night for all to see.
15-16 Don’t hide your light! Let it shine for all; let your good deeds glow for all to see, 
so that they will praise your heavenly Father.

            The happiness Jesus is talking about is not self-seeking.  It is not dependent on circumstances.  It stays with us even in hardship, in grief and loss, in persecution and poverty.  It is rooted in love and goodness, and Jesus said it is like seasoning in a tasteless world, and a light in the darkness.  It’s not a fake, “put-on-your-happy-face” kind of sentiment.  Sometimes it’s joy and peace shining through tears and sadness,  confident hope and trust in God’s love and goodness even in the midst of life’s darkest trials.
            I was with my mom during the last few days of her life.  She knew they were her last.  Yet she wasn’t thinking about herself and everything she wanted to have before she died.  She was seeking to glorify God and give Him honor.  She didn't want to leave us, but she had a deep, abiding peace and trust in God's will.  She showed kindness to everyone who entered her hospital room.  She spoke blessings over everyone she talked to.  She brought peace and reconciliation in our family.  She poured love out on all of us, and she was absolutely radiant.  And dare I even say it?  I believe she was happy.  Deeply, authentically happy.  Just a few hours before she died she said, “What a beautiful day the Lord has made.”
             Only God could make that day beautiful.  And only a truly happy soul could have eyes to see it.
            I think my daughter is on the right track.  Maybe she needed to remind herself that true happiness is found by following God, loving others, doing what is right, and being the person God created her to be.  Maybe we all need to be reminded from time to time.


Stubborn for God

            I love Little House on the Prairie.  Always have, always will. (I tried really hard to get my 9-year-old daughter to dress up like Laura for Halloween this year, but she refused.)   I remember the location in my elementary school library where the Little House books were lined up in a beautiful, long row.  Little House in the Big Woods, On the Banks of Plum Creek, The Long Winter…week after week I happily followed the same routine: I would return one Laura Ingalls Wilder masterpiece and check out another. I loved the adventure, the hardships, the love and the simplicity of prairie life.
            When I got a little older, I regularly watched the television series after school.  The show, I thought, was even better than the books.  The characters were perfectly depicted by the actors, so much so that I didn't even think about them being actors at all.  They just seemed like the real people -- Pa, Ma, Laura, Mary, Carrie, and Grace -- living out their adventures right before my eyes.  Pa was so strong and loving.  Ma was so gentle and kind.  And the girls were so innocent and relatable.  The show tugged on all my heartstrings, and I learned good values about family and faith.  There were always obstacles to overcome, like a drought destroying the year’s crops, or Pa struggling to find work.  There were wagon accidents and barn fires, and if you saw the episode where Mary goes blind, you will never, ever forget it.  The biggest hardship of all, it seemed, was dealing with the Olesons.  Nels Oleson was a good man, but his wife, Harriet, was dreadful. Nellie was a thorn in Laura’s side, and Willie was always causing trouble (although I thought he was cute.)  No matter how hard things got, the Ingalls family pulled through.  I loved when Pa and Ma would eat fire-popped corn in bed, Mary and Laura would conspire with one another when they should have been going to sleep, and sometimes after dinner, Pa would play his fiddle while the girls clapped and danced around.

            My third daughter was born in early August, and that summer during the last couple months of my pregnancy there were two things I consistently craved: Dairy Queen and Little House on the Prairie.  We borrowed the DVDs from the library, binge-watching most of the nine seasons.  We had to skip several episodes because some of the story lines were traumatic and scary.  We got to where we could tell during the first few seconds of the show, because of the music they would play, if it was going to be happy, sad, or scary.

            In one episode Pa was away, working for the railroad, and Ma was overwhelmed with taking care of everything at home.  One night, after it had grown dark, she heard the animals riled up outside, and when she went out to check to make sure everything was OK, Laura and Mary followed her.  They were by the fence when Ma told the girls in a hushed, urgent tone to go inside.  They looked startled, but they immediately obeyed, quietly making their way back to the house, and it was a good thing they did, because there was a black bear in their front yard!  

            I realized with stunning clarity that night as I cuddled on the couch with my two daughters, that if that had happened in our yard to our family, the story would have ended differently.  See, if I would have told my strong-willed daughters, who were 6 and 4 at the time, to quietly go inside, they would have questioned me, and argued with me, and said, “No, I want to stay here with you.” And, “Why do we have to go inside??”  And little did I know that the baby in my enormous belly would have the strongest will of all of my daughters.  That bear would have eaten us for dinner!

            Everyone in our family is strong-willed in varying degrees.  I remember telling my Mom about how stubborn my daughters were, and she graciously reminded me that I was also strong-willed – in fact, the strongest-willed of her five children and that she didn't view it as a bad thing.  It may have been challenging when I was little, but the upside was that as I got older, I was not easily swayed.  Sometimes that meant I stubbornly resisted new ideas and wasn't open to new things, like when the girls’ basketball coach tried to get me to play basketball in 7th and 8th grade (I was 5’8”), but I knew that I didn't want to do it.  I never even entertained the idea.  And sometimes it protected me from making bad choices, like in high school when someone close to me tried repeatedly to get me to smoke cigarettes - I had decided I wasn't going to ever try it and I stubbornly persisted in my refusal.

            For several years when my children were younger, I met once a week with a friend to pray for our kids.  One week, my friend prayed an unusual prayer - one that I had never heard before.  She prayed that her kids would be stubborn for God, and that they would follow after Him in a determined, persistent way.

            I've been thinking about what it means to be stubborn for God. There are plenty of  times that I am stubborn for myself, because I want my way, I want my point of view to be understood, and I want to be right.   To be stubborn for God would mean laying down my own agenda, my own desires, and being determined to do what He wants in any situation.  

Image result for weathered wooden cross

           Jesus was stubborn for His Father in the way He lived, 
the way He loved others, the way He forgave, 
and the way He chose to do His Father’s will.  
He spoke out against injustice and meaningless religiosity. 
He loved the unlovable. 
He was determined to persistently go after those who were lost and hurting.  
He was stubborn all the way to the Cross, not stubborn for his human desires, 
but stubborn for God and His plan.  He was stubborn for us.  
And death could not overcome Him.  
The grave could not hold Him.  
Jesus Christ - stubborn to save, stubborn to love and forgive, 
stubborn to live again and give us life eternal.