I am so blessed to have some wonderful Christian sisters who mean the world to me. A couple, in particular, are close both in distance and in heart. We often celebrate holidays, birthdays, and other occasions together, which is a tremendous blessing when most of our family live so far away. One of my dear sisters, Cindy, has a birthday in mid-November. Over the years we have observed her special day in different ways – sometimes I’ve traveled to her house; this year she came to mine. Last year we decided to spend the day together at Colorado’s largest mall. As is typical during the holiday season, among the over 180 shops was one dedicated to all things Christmas. Interestingly, so much of what this place featured was white décor. I’m rather partial to the old red and green traditional colors myself, but there were many decorative and pretty ornaments and other adornments filling the shelves and spaces. One item in particular caught Cindy’s eye. It was a very simple ceramic nativity that featured Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus in the stable. It was all white, all one piece, and was about eight inches tall and maybe ten inches wide – perfect as a table top creche. Cindy said she had been looking for a manger scene, and though she was quite taken with it and it was on sale, she just couldn’t purchase it at that time. For the rest of our mall visit, I tried to think of a way I could sneak back to the store and pick it up as her Christmas gift, but I never found the opportunity to do so. Since my husband and I would be traveling past this mall again in just a few days, I decided to stop back by then to make the purchase.
Though there were several on display for that first visit, by the time I returned, there were no white manger scenes to be found. Highly disappointed, I made it my mission to find this nativity somewhere. I tried home stores and big-box stores, department stores and boutiques. I even looked in larger grocery stores that had a dedicated holiday section, all to no avail. Then I hit the Internet. Nothing resembled that precious Holy Family display! Being that Christmas and our gift exchange were fast approaching, I decided to put aside the nativity gift thought until this year and get something else instead. I resumed my search this November. This is the stable design that is often seen on cards, ornaments, and wall hangings, but this particular piece was nowhere to be found! I decided it was either a specially-created limited edition sculpture, or it was selling at that Christmas store at the end of its run. I began to think how nice it would be if a great big star would either appear over a particular merchandise establishment or pop up on my computer so I could find this special little manger. Realizing that the décor that Cindy admired was not available, I found another creche that I believed she would like just as well and gave it to her for her birthday a few weeks ago.
Within the last few weeks, I have read through the passage found in Matthew chapter two regarding the visit of the Magi, or wise men, that occurred as much as two years after Jesus was born. These men were from the east, and so they were pagans, which makes it truly interesting that they were looking for the “King of the Jews” so they could worship him. They saw the star that God set in the sky, and on the way, they came to Jerusalem where they inquired as to where they could find the child. They had a meeting with King Herod who, along with all of Jerusalem including the religious leaders, was troubled by the news. Herod did send them on to Bethlehem, as he had been advised by those leaders where the Christ would be born according to the Scriptures. He told them to bring back word regarding the place where they found Jesus under the pretense that he too wanted to worship him but with the intent to get rid of this threat to his rule. Something grabbed my attention in the next part of the passage. “After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way” (Matthew 2:9-12, ESV). We see that the Magi did listen to King Herod, but when there was a conflict between Herod’s directives and God’s instruction, these men truly displayed wisdom by following the command of God over the dictates of man.
And that is wisdom that we too can display in our lives. As we go through the holiday season, we can bring the treasure of our own appreciation, obedience, and love of God to our precious Lord and Savior. No matter what might be attempting to dictate the use of our time, our talents, and our devotion, we can follow God’s word that reminds us to “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8, ESV). And, along with the psalmist, David, we can “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness” (Psalm 29:2, ESV). It is only in so doing that we can find ourselves in the company of the Magi who came from afar to pay homage to the One and Only King who reigns forever and ever. Though I had a hard time finding a specific simple representation of the Christ child, you will never have trouble finding Jesus when you truly seek him. Make the time, take the time to come to Jesus!
Way back when – 1980, Worms, Germany, to be exact – my husband, young son, and I were once again at the beginning of an overseas assignment. We had become settled into government-leased housing in the small town of Horchheim on the outskirts of Worms. The commute to the military post where my husband worked and where all of the American facilities were located was not within walking distance. Also, we were expecting our second child, and my doctor and appointments were in Heidelberg, a forty-five-minute drive from us. Image by WikimediaImages from Pixabay.
We decided a second vehicle was needed, and we opted to look for a pop top camping van so we could also use it for leisure travel while in Europe. Just like in the US, we had newspapers with a classified section advertising items for sale from various parts of the country and even beyond. My husband searched for a suitable van and eventually located a good deal in a place that was a couple hours away. We were fortunate to have neighbors that had quickly become good friends, and they watched our son Kris so we could both drive in the car we already owned, pick up the new-to-us VW, and each drive a vehicle home.
We headed out after my husband’s work day in the late afternoon. Our route included quite a distance on Germany’s equivalent to the US interstate system, the Autobahn. If you are not familiar, in terms of speed, just about anything goes on this superhighway. I’m not sure what infractions might incur a stop from the polizei, but if anything, it’s driving too slowly. At any rate, we made it to our destination in the Stuttgart area just fine. We picked up the new vehicle without incident and were actually quite happy with our van purchase. My husband had me drive the car since I was familiar with it, he drove the van to assess its performance, and the plan was for me to follow him home. It was getting dusky due to night approaching, but I was not concerned, certain I could keep up following an orange van; that is until the Autobahn. With the fast flow of traffic, we fairly much stayed in the right-hand lane, and we were making good time. There happened to be a slow-moving truck traveling in that lane (probably going 55 mph). My husband signaled to the left, and I followed him into the left lane. No problem, until my husband crossed back into the right lane and headed directly off an exit with no time for me to do the same. My stomach immediately turned upside down on top of my five-month tummy bundle. I got off of the next exit, which was quite far down the road. As I continued, the surroundings became more suburban, and I finally stopped in a residential neighborhood. By now it was dark; I felt stranded! I was fretting, sobbing, and wondering out loud how my husband could do that to me, and if I did call out to the Lord, it was to ask why this had happened. I was in a pickle – a dilemma, a predicament, a quandary. It is important to note that this was pre-cellphone, pre-GPS – even a good old paper map did not have this area marked out, and it was for me also, pre-relationship with Jesus. I had no resources to help me and no idea how I would get home or how anyone would find me.
Contrast that with the story in the New Testament featuring the apostle Paul and his relatively new traveling companion, Silas. Paul and Silas had been spreading the good news in the city of Philippi in Macedonia, and they were being followed by a slave girl who was practicing fortune telling through the power of a demonic spirit, and therefore she was a great source of income to her owners. She kept loudly announcing, “‘These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation'” (Acts 16:17b, ESV). Though this was absolutely true, Paul was annoyed by her continual declarations and he commanded the spirit to come out of her, which it did. Her owners were angered that now this form of income ceased, and they brought Paul and Silas to Roman leaders who beat them and threw them into prison. Paul and Silas were in a major pickle! Locked away in the inner part of the prison, feet chained in stocks and under heavy guard, these men could easily have been angry, fretful, crying, and questioning God as to why they were in such a dire situation when they were being his faithful servants. But here is how the story continues, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them,” (Acts 16:25, ESV). They were praising God in the midst of their troubles! They believed God would never leave them stranded, and God did not disappoint. Our amazing God, the faithful One, showed them his grace and power, “And suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s bonds were unfastened” (Acts 16:26, ESV). Paul and Silas were freed from their shackles, had the care and hospitality of their former jailer, and they were able to go back to their friends, but not before they had the glorious opportunity to witness to the jailer and his household to see them all come to Christ. As incredible as this story is, we have the same opportunity to see God work in our lives as we pray to him, trust him, and praise him just for who he is! Likely the rewards will be great and the circumstances will convert into a platform for glory and honor to our benevolent God.
I can share that I eventually did find my way home by traveling quite out of the way to a place with which I was acquainted and from which I knew the roads to bring me back to Horchheim. I believe that now as a Christian, if I find myself in another pickle, I will pray to and praise my great God who is my resource for everything, who will never leave me stranded, and who has all the answers for the dilemmas that can be a part of life. On that note, I’ll gratefully enjoy a cup of tea and a small dessert, because I just had my dinner, pickle included.
Traveling and spending time with family and friends along the way is a big part of our lives in this present age and stage. It can be a challenge to be consistent with optimal habits and lifestyle choices as we do so, particularly in regard to diet and exercise. We have a 12-volt cooler, and we try to take along wholesome food options, which saves us money, time, and the unwanted pounds that can easily accumulate from the fast-food choices that beckon in most localities. So, the desire and the attempt to consume what is nutritious is high on our priority list, at least most of the time. Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay.
In line with my nutrition efforts, most of the family calls me the Salad Queen (though my granddaughter, Josie would claim that the title belongs to her). My breakfast choices are also well-known as my regular routine is to eat half a grapefruit and some almonds every morning. Because they are usually not available at hotels and they are not among the most affordable fare for those people with whom we will be staying, I like to just bring them along. One morning on my recent visit to my daughter’s, my six-year-old granddaughter, Hannah, engaged me in conversation about these eating habits. Hannah: “Nonnie, why do you eat grapefruit and almonds every day?” Me: “Well, Hannah, because they are healthy.” Hannah touches my face and further asks, “Then why are your cheeks so squishy?” Taken a bit aback by this and trying to give a somewhat humorous reply, I quickly said, “Because I’m old,” to which Hannah just as quickly and knowingly responded, “Oh yeah!” Well, I certainly opened the door for the honest, yet likely unintentional jab.
As cute and innocent as Hannah’s conversation with me was, truly, life can be filled with some real quips, zingers, and judgments that leave us feeling inadequate, less-than, and not up to the standards we believe are in place, most particularly those we impose on ourselves. Sometimes, such as in my example of the stark reality of growing older, the impressions others may have of us are not something over which we have much control. But there may be times when we make a mistake or somehow contribute to an inadvertently bad result. In either case, we are more likely than not our own worst critics, and our self-assessment is unforgiving. But it is even more upsetting when we believe, for whatever reason, that others hold a negative opinion of us or our actions. Such thoughts and feelings can quickly spiral into something that is difficult to overcome and can leave us in a helpless and hopeless state.
As many are already in the beginning of another school year or on the verge of classes starting again, it might be a really good time to check where we are emotionally, physically, and spiritually so that we can take all our concerns and inadequacies to the Lord, put our best foot forward, and make a fresh start. It is especially good to heed the words found in 2 Corinthians 12:9, something that I contemplate often and consider to be my life verse: “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (from the ESV Bible). The writer of that verse, the apostle Paul, was so confident in the Lord’s willingness and ability to cover our shortcomings, real or imagined, that he further wrote, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9b-10, ESV). This is also a good time to talk with your children about the hurtful things people may say or do and the way they might judge themselves in a harsh manner. It will, of course, need to be an age-appropriate discussion. Be their greatest encourager, but also help them to realize that God sees them with gracious eyes, loves them for who and where they are, and cares deeply about all their concerns. Pray for them, pray with them, and teach them to pray when they feel overwhelmed, inadequate, or misunderstood. Lead them to the One to whom they can turn in any circumstance and for any need.
As for me, I am aware that there is no way I can put the brakes on in regard to aging save for God calling me to my heavenly home. I can share with Hannah the Bible verse that says, “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life” (Proverbs 16:31, ESV). This can help both of us rest in the beautiful fact that growing old is actually a great blessing from the Lord, “squishy cheeks” and all!
As happens sometimes, I woke up well before the sun would make its appearance, and I couldn’t go back to sleep. When that occurs, I would rather make better use of my time than to toss and turn and lament the fact that I’m losing shut-eye, so I will use my phone app and read the day’s devotion along with an Old Testament and a New Testament passage. There is really no better way to spend one’s time, and along with prayer, this regimen redeems those wakeful hours. I had just finished my reading and I believe I was spending some time in prayer when all of a sudden, I heard what sounded like a door opening and closing. I immediately elbowed my husband out of his sound sleep and whispered, “I just heard a door open and close.” He was instantly propped up on his elbows listening intently. After a few moments, he laid his head back on his pillow, and we both stared at the ceiling waiting to see if we heard any more signs of what might be an intruder. It only took another couple minutes, and there it was again, the sound of a door opening and closing, only louder this time. My husband was up immediately – he grabbed a small pistol and proceeded to investigate the origin of our middle-of-the night disturbance.
As I stayed lying in bed, I had quite the urge to get up and use the commode, but I squelched that inclination knowing that any noise I would make could alert a prowler or cause my husband to mistake me for one who did not belong. So, I prayed and I quoted as many Scripture passages in my head that I could to quell the worry and concern in my mind and heart: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7, ESV). “Thank you, Lord, that you are in control, and please keep my husband safe.” “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1, ESV). “Lord, please put your hedge of protection around us and help us.” “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” (Psalm 139:7-8, ESV). “Thank you, Jesus, that you are here with us!” As the time passed for what seemed like an eternity, I texted my daughter (in a different time zone) for prayer and my son to make sure he hadn’t shown up unexpectedly from his traveling occupation. At that point, I wished that my husband had taken his phone so I could know what was happening and he could call for help if needed. My daughter gently reminded me later that if my husband had a phone and used it, any prowler would have a heads-up as to his where-abouts. After about fifteen minutes, my husband returned. Thankfully, there was no unwelcome person inside our home! He shared that on the ground at the north side of our house were two huge owls. Apparently, they had each used our roof as a landing site. As I thought about that and we actually began to laugh over our misinterpretation of the event, I wondered what caused both owls to make a two-part noise. Practicing a gymnastics’ move and a perfect landing for the Owl Olympics?
Notwithstanding the benign intentions of our feathered guests, this was obviously a situation that precipitated fear. Fear can be irrational, or it can be a natural response to a particular circumstance. Certainly, it can be a deterrent to participating in harmful or unwise behavior. Clearly God recognizes that fear is a part of our emotional makeup as he has much to say about it in his Word. He emphatically declares that there is only one fear that we need to manifest in our lives, and that is the fear of the Lord. This fear is a deep reverence of him and a tremendous awe of him. According to the Book of Proverbs, the “fear of the LORD” – “is the beginning of knowledge” (1:7), “is the beginning of wisdom” (9:10), “prolongs life” (10:27), brings “strong confidence (14:26), “is a fountain of life” (14:27), by it “one turns away from evil” (16:6), “leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied” (19:23), and it brings a reward of “riches and honor and life” (22:4 [all references from the ESV]). In answer to all other types of fear, God reminds us that he is the one to whom we can turn, whether our fears are irrational or warranted. We can take comfort and put our fears in his capable hands as we remember he says, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10, ESV).
The next time I’m faced with a questionable situation, I can’t guarantee I will not respond with fear. But I do believe I will again turn to God in faith, pray, and meditate on his Word, which can bring his peace and answers for all our troubles. There is nothing that is out of his control, even death, “‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:54c-57, ESV). I can say with King David, “In God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Psalm 56:11, ESV).
Image by danny moore from Pixabay.
As to the owls, how about some notification the next time you schedule gymnastics practice on our roof?
“All that glitters is not gold.” – William Shakespeare
Spring into summer is the busiest travel time for our business/ministry as we participate in various homeschool conferences. As a promotion for multiple purchases, we have a little incentive for our customers. Essentially, people who buy two or more products pick one of several like items that will indicate what prize they will take home along with their purchased products. The items from which they choose are associated with the concurrent season or holiday. For instance, around patriotic days we put flags in a container with numbers on them that are affiliated with our different gifts. There are artificial flowers for springtime. If we are doing an event for Christmas, we have some red and green lollipops for the game. We even have a set of plastic baby bottles for the times when we are featuring a brand-new product.
And then, there are the incredible, non-edible plastic eggs that we put on display in a pretty basket as we are nearing Easter. Each egg holds a slip of paper that reveals what the customer will receive. We use iridescent eggs that are different pastel colors. It became apparent a few years ago that not only are these an attractive decoration on our table for the Easter season, they are fascinating enough to little eyes to be a prize themselves. Recognizing their appeal, I purchased extras so that I can give a few out to those who ask, letting the recipient know that the shell is all they are getting. At this most recent conference we placed the egg basket at the front of the table. When we left for the evening, everything but the cashbox stayed in place. Upon returning the next morning, to our slight dismay, almost all of the eggs were gone! Fortunately, because of the extras I had, along with a few additional prize slips, we were able to replenish the basket and continue the game. Later in the day while we were busy with some customers, low and behold, another egg disappeared. We had to keep an especially vigilant eye on the basket from then on and hide it overnight to be able to continue our little game for multiple purchases.
As pretty as these eggs are, I wonder how many of our pilferers were aware that the prize inside was a mere piece of paper with the promise of a gift on it. Certainly, kids are accustomed to finding treats and treasures inside a plastic egg. Could it be there was some disappointment when these little ovals were opened? The truth is that we all can be lured by shiny, pretty wrappings around what might be very insignificant contents. We go for the gleaming, the glamorous, the beautiful, the striking only to find out that there is nothing worthwhile in the acquisition, and we are disappointed not only by what is inside but by our original fascination with it and the assumption regarding the treasure it might hold.
But then, we have a God who seems to always turn our idea of the world upside-down. He sent us Jesus, his only Son. Jesus, the unassuming, humble, even perhaps unattractive Son of Man. Jesus, the one about whom was written hundreds of years before his earthly arrival, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:2b-5, ESV). Jesus, the one who told us that the last will be first and the first will be last, that one who desired to be great should become a servant, the one who said, “‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it'” (Matthew 16:24-25, ESV).
No shiny covering, no glad appearance, nothing glamorous or striking to behold. But, oh the beauty within! What a wonderful truth to ponder – this Jesus the one and only came to suffer and die in our place, and those who have come to believe in him have the gift of eternal life that holds no comparison here on earth. The first glance at the outward appearance may not draw us in, but a peek inside of just who Jesus is will never disappoint and will be the most worthwhile prize we will ever acquire.
Lily is spotted and speckled with the long torso of a typical wiener dog but also with an extraordinarily lengthy and pointed nose that looks out of proportion from the rest of her body. She easily illustrates the expression “She has a face that only a mother could love.” Lily definitely has some bad habits including using any turf inside or out as a place to potty. She is the third of three dogs, adopted into the family because the elderly woman who was her prior owner just couldn’t manage her anymore and my daughter and her husband felt sorry for her. Because of Lily, all three dogs spent much of their day either outdoors or in the inside kennel so that not only would she not add her own special decorations to the carpeting, but that she would also be able to have the companionship of her doggie brother and sister. We believed that they were likely not always fond of the arrangement since their household manners were in check. Besides, those disparaging glances and sarcastic little snarls were telltale signs of two very annoyed little pups.
All kidding aside, with a growing family of small children, my daughter knew that she did not have the time or ability to train Lily to be a better-behaved girl. She and her husband were beginning to assess their options regarding a new home for Lily with someone who could give her the attention she needed. There were the neighbors who expressed an interest in taking her. But, during a holiday visit to our home with the three human kids and the three furry babies along for the ride, a perfect answer came into being. Our oldest grandson, Anthony, met Lily and heard about the family dilemma. The bond was instantaneous! The moment Anthony looked at Lily and knew her plight, his heartstrings were struck, and he immediately asked to take her home. According to his mom, Anthony is “head-over-heals in love with this girl.” He has taken her on a hike and to Starbucks for a Puppucino – I’ve never heard of such a thing, but apparently it is a treat that is the rave of every sophisticated pooch. The point is that in spite of any negative traits she may have and nothing that warrants his love, Anthony is a doting dad with an incredible amount of affection, care, and joyful delight toward this needy little creature. He sees her as beautiful. The fondness does go both ways, but Anthony initiated the relationship and Lily is the blissful beneficiary of Anthony’s compassion, mercy, and kindness.
Anthony’s overtures toward Lily remind me of Someone Else who is even more loving, kind, and caring toward the recipients of his affection. God looks at us, speckled, spotted, unmannerly us, with eyes that take the shape of Valentine hearts that genuinely see us as beautiful and the object of his affection and delight. We do nothing to merit his grace and favor, but he is our doting Dad who initiates the relationship and lavishes his love on us. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us” (1 John 4:10a, ESV). This love he has for us brings abundant life and blessing. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-7, ESV). He patiently waits for us to return his love, and he is always available when we come to him. “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23, ESV). Needy creatures that we are, we are most definitely the blissful beneficiaries of his relationship with us.
Sitting on Dad’s lap; feeling his caring and protective arms in a loving embrace; enjoying his attention and affection. Yes, this describes Lily in her loving new home, but for God’s children, this is our certain and distinctive reality. There is nothing like the awesome love of the Father!