Joel- The Day of The Lord

Are we ready for Christ's imminent return?

 

 

In America, the phrase “9/11,” does not refer to an ordinary, September date, but a cataclysmic event.  On that day, running errands for my husband, I dashed into an auto parts store to find staff and customers clustered by a television, silently watching an unimaginable scene.  We stared in silent horror at footage of airplanes flying into the Twin Tower buildings of New York City. The people who perished inside received no warning that September 11, 2001 would be the last day of their lives. American history permanently changed that day along with people’s attitudes about the future safety and stability of our country.

The prophet, Joel, describes another civilization-altering day which he and other Biblical authors call, “The Day of the Lord.”  This term refers to a day of God’s judgement, terrifying and calamitous.

The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” Joel 2:31

Until I did a serious study of Joel, I presumed that “The Day of the Lord,” occurred one time and referred to the end of days when sinners are judged. That is an incorrect understanding of the phrase. Joel describes a literal locust plague, which is one day that decimated the promised land during his day. He also previews another day which involves the coming Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem.

Worse yet, I discovered that the warnings in this chapter are aimed squarely at the people of God, not unbelievers. People who said they knew God stood in danger of losing everything. I think that’s why Joel spent so many words describing this destruction and why God wants us to pay attention to the prophet’s dire predictions today.

The phrase “Day of the Lord,” is used many times in scripture and refers to several different events. According to Baker’s Bible Dictionary of Theology, this term is used to refer to the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon in 587 B.C. by Jeremiah, (Lam. 2:21) while Isaiah uses the same term to refer to the fall of Babylon herself. (Isaiah 13:13) Other references point to a future event that will be a decisive moment of judgement and salvation none will escape.  For today’s believer, the former days with this ominous title, serve as a warning that another is most surely coming, and we must be prepared.

I am reminded of Jesus’ parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25. Five stayed in a state of preparation, keeping their lamps filled with oil (a symbol of the Holy Spirit) and enjoyed welcome into the feast of the bridegroom. Five fell asleep, and the bridegroom’s arrival surprised them.  After rushing around to find oil for their lamps, they pounded on the door of the banquet hall asking to be let in.  The answer?  “I don’t know you,” and the doors remained closed.

There are many millions of people on the earth today who are devoted followers of Jesus Christ. They recognize his soon and coming return and live accordingly, in right standing with God.  Many other folks identify as “Christian,” but their spiritual life is not an intimate one with the Father, merely an outward show of rituals and good works.  Chances are, if you are reading this post, you fall in the first category, but I’d be willing to bet you know people who fall in the second.

My experience sharing Christ with those who think they are Christians, but do not know Christ personally, is tricky. Clearly, the people of Joel’s day blew his prophecies off and continued life contrary to God’s laws.  Your conversations and interactions with these sorts of folks must be handled with the grace and tact of the Holy Spirit.

I cringe when I hear well-meaning believers get into stupid “my church beats yours,” conversations. In America, there are thousands of churches filled with sheep who desire true spirituality in their lives and are tricked into settling for a counterfeit by wicked pastors. Our job is not to rant to them about the darkness but to live and walk in The Light. Jesus said the lost will recognize we belong to him, by the quality of our love. (John 13:35) Helping pseudo-Christians become true seekers and followers of Christ is a love process.

People want to know you care about them as people, not projects.  The Day of the Lord is coming soon, where God will quickly separate the wheat from the tares. The Bible warns repeatedly that the day will come suddenly, and that judgement will be decisive.  Our challenge as believers is asking God to grant us opportunity and wisdom to let people within our sphere discover that they might be on the wrong side of that equation.

We must choose to invest our lives not just with people who are bold and outspoken about their lost-ness but with those who don’t realize they are. At the same time, our lives should reflect the five virgins ready to meet the bridegroom. Believers walking rightly with God need not fear the coming Day of the Lord.  We do need to be certain, though, that we take the great commission personally.  God places us in specific neighborhoods, jobs, schools, and such because he knows we will encounter the lost there. He expects us to remember that for them, the Day of the Lord will be worse than 9/11, the attack on Pearl Harbor and D-Day combined.

Remembering those tragic days can help us imagine what awaits those who are not right with God.  The same feelings of horror and compassion we feel for the victims of past tragedies should be even stronger towards those who are approaching the end of days, unprepared to meet their Creator. Let those righteous emotions challenge our apathy and give us that push of courage we might need to speak to someone about their eternal soul.

 

Lamp and Sword

****Resources for study and reflection****

“Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path.” Psalm 119:105

“For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword.” Hebrew 4:12

 

Articles and Resources

  • A former atheist explains how the lives of believers led him to Christ.

https://www.charismanews.com/opinion/57122-ex-atheist-shares-3-ways-to-win-unbelievers-to-christ

 

  • Interesting information about “The Day of the Lord” from Baker’s Theological Dictionary

https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionaries/bakers-evangelical-dictionary/the-day-of-the-lord-god-christ.html

 

Verses for Self-Examination

The Bible is the believer’s gold standard for assessing where we stand in our spiritual growth.  Use these verses to allow the Holy Spirit to speak to about areas where God might like to do some work in you.

  • But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Galatians 5:22
  • The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. Titus 3:8
  • Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. 1 Corinthians 10:24
  • Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So, I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. 1 Corinthians 9:25
  • Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

       

Joel- The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Eden has fallen......

Within hours, sometimes minutes, life can change from order to chaos.  Natural disasters, accidents, violent acts and crimes of the heart leave a path of destruction behind them much like Joel describes in his book.  “Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, behind them a desert waste…” (Joel 2:3 NIV). Many things we think of as foundational, can be swept away with no advance warning.

For me, an iconic visual of grandeur to ruin are movie scenes when the White House (home to American presidents) is overwhelmed by an invading power.  When bombs explode the white, exterior pillars into a thousand directions, and the American flag is left smoldering in pieces, I feel something visceral while telling myself, “It’s just a movie.” Part of me knows that but for God’s protecting hand, cinema could become reality.

The book of Joel, is a warning to Israel that sin will push away God’s mighty hand and leave them vulnerable to destruction. Not only those caught up in sin would be hurt, but the lives of faithful followers of Jehovah would also be turned upside down.  A stark contrast existed between Israel’s present state in the promised land, and their former lives as Egyptian slaves. Before, the bounty of the land belonged to their masters. Now they owned the most productive acreage in the middle east.  The miles of fields and vineyards became significant symbols of God’s blessing and their national freedom, much like the American flag and White House.

God planted his chosen people in a new Eden reminiscent of the first garden. When the original Eden fell, the world flipped for humans. Perfection became a memory and God rolled out his plan of redemption, to restore us to our intended homeland. Gifting Israel with their own country “flowing with milk and honey,” demonstrated to the existing world, life as God’s special people, beautiful, abundant, like the original garden.  For believers now, the Promised Land serves as a type for Christ’s earthly invisible kingdom, with all its wonders, and our eternal homeland in heaven’s paradise.

Joel’s first chapter is brutal in its descriptions of a land stripped bare and that’s exactly how some of you feel in this moment. At some point, most people experience something that creates that sensation in their lives, where people and things are ripped away. What remains looks like a barren landscape. Just like those images of the White House, and the prophet’s descriptions of locust damage, our dreams, relationships, homes, churches, jobs etc. can be decimated by circumstances, sometimes beyond repair.  Often, we don’t realize we lived in abundance until suddenly, we don’t.

Compare these two descriptions from Genesis and Joel.  God wanted Israel to understand that the bounty he re-created for them in the Promised Land could be taken in the same way humans lost access to Eden.

 

“Then God said, ‘Let the land produce vegetation; seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds. And it was so. The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds.”  Genesis 1:11-12

 

“Has not the food been cut off before our very eyes- joy and gladness from the house of our God?  The seeds are shriveled beneath the clods.  The storehouses are in ruins, the granaries have been broken down, for the grain has dried up.  How the cattle moan! The herds mill about because they have no pasture; even the flocks of sheep are suffering.”  Joel 1: 16-18

You might feel like you’ve moved from lush to barren, bounty to lack. You can’t see any way that what you’ve lost can ever be restored because there isn’t even a seed of hope left in your situation. Take encouragement from Joel 2:25-26. “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten…you will have plenty to eat, until you are full.”  The end of your story is not yet written, the Author is still at work.

Some theologians believe Joel described an actual locust invasion.  Others say these verses symbolize the coming Babylonian invasion of Israel in the 5th century, which will leave the land wasted, as described.  Like some theologians, I believe both things are true. History records a massive locust infestation during the 9th century, when Joel lived and prophesied.  I think God used this natural event to speak to Israel about the long-term consequences of their disobedience and as a warning to future generations of believers.

Portions of your life may be in ruins due to your sin or the sin of others.  You may be an unintended casualty of another’s rebellion against God’s Word and his ways.  If your own disobedience resulted in a terrible loss, this is a hard thing to bear.  During a financial desert season in our lives, Ken and I counseled with an older pastor, intimate with great loss.  Once the pastor of a large, successful church, a married man with a wonderful wife and spacious, well appointed home, he lost everything, except his wife, due to adultery.

He shared details of his fall, like the eye damage his wife suffered from intense crying, and the shabbiness of the house they could afford, once he lost his ministry.  I’ll never forget what he said to us that day.  “Ken and Sharon,” he stated very solemnly, “what you are experiencing is painful, yet I am certain it is not a chastising, but a trial God is allowing for his greater purposes.  Now, try to imagine all you are experiencing occurrs because you sinned against God. Let me tell you that the agony of that nearly did me in, but God is faithful.”

Just as God eventually restored that pastor back to ministry, he can bring new life and opportunities to any believer who will acknowledge and confess sin.  There will most likely be a time of humbling and setbacks, but God is always eager to return his children to Eden.

What if  you are experiencing a locust swarm created by someone else’s sin, like our pastor friend’s wife? Your first job is forgiving.  When the behavior of others results in our loss, Satan is ready to pounce and build a stronghold of anger and self—pity inside of us.  Not everyone in Israel sinned against God. Some remained faithful and certainly young children were innocent of the charges God brought against his people. Yet, due to sin, the entire nation went into captivity in Babylon a couple centuries after Joel’s warnings. The promised land lay ruined by the invading conquerors, just as Joel prophesied.

Consider the prophet Daniel and his friends, carried away to Babylon.   Instead of allowing themselves to fill with bitterness at the injustice of it all, they rose to positions of power and influence because of their godly response to horrific circumstances.

 

Painful trials come to everyone at some point. Seasons will come when we feel lost and empty.  How we respond, be it repentance, forgiveness or bitterness, will determine what happens next.  

 

Lamp and Sword

****Resources for study and reflection****

“Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path.” Psalm 119:105

“For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword.” Hebrew 4:12

 

  • ADDITIONAL VERSES about God’s ability to redeem and restore. Make a copy of these to keep with you, put in your Bible or place around your home. (NIV) Personalize these verses and then speak and declare them out loud over your circumstances of loss and brokeness. God’s Word is alive, unlike any other book.  Speaking it out loud will change the atmosphere around you and your soul within you.

 

 Instead of your shame you will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace you will rejoice in your inheritance. And so, you will inherit a double portion in your land, and everlasting joy will be yours.  Isaiah 61:7

 

Heal me O Lord, and I will be healed, save me and I will be saved, for you are the one I praise.  Jeremiah 17:14

 

“But I will restore you to health and heal your wounds,” declares the Lord.  Jeremiah 30:17

 

After Job had prayed for his friends, the LORD restored his fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before.  Job 42:10 (Don’t discount this verse, thinking somehow Job was more deserving of special treatment than you are.)

 

And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. I Peter 5:10

 

 Return to your fortress, you prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you. Zechariah 9:12 (“Double for your trouble,” as Joyce Meyer likes to say it, is a reoccurring theme in the Word.)

 

You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again. You will increase my greatness and comfort me again. Psalm 71:21-22

 

He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Psalm 23:3

 

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. … Ezekiel 37:1-10 (Read this entire passage and then be bold enough to start speaking the Word out loud to the dead, dry areas of your life.)

 

  • Stand on verses specific to your situation.  Wherever your place of loss and barrenness lies, God’s Word can speak to it.  Ask him to help you seek and find his promises that are more specific to your situation.  Remember, a lack of faith grieves God.  Choose NOT to spend your life grieving what once was.  Grief is a  necessary season, but not a lifestyle.  Stand fast on the Word and expect God to do new things in your environment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • For a fascinating video about locust swarms, check out this link. Imagine this on your property, leaving it stripped of anything green. Makes God’s promise to restore everything the locusts eat more meaningful when you understand the devastation they can create.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6bx5JUGVahk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Repentance: Spiritual Adultery’s Cure

We can bow in humility before God or he can cut our knees out from under us. Either way we will kneel.

Over twenty years ago I experienced firsthand the waters of revival in my home church.  God moved in  in a unique way for years, with miracles, deliverances, salvations and restorations. Although I witnessed incredible works of God, my strongest memories are of our altar, flooded with our own church members, weeping in repentance.  I spent much time there.

Numerous times, many of us in choir poured out of our loft to join our brothers and sisters crying out to God on the steps of the platform. The humbling experience of publicly moving from worship leaders to penitent seekers cost us our fleshy pride. We knew people speculated about what sins we might be involved in. At first, when I sensed the Holy Spirit putting his thumb on me, I prayed silently from my spot in the loft.  Eventually, I realized that fear for my reputation kept me seated instead of kneeling with my church family and I wanted no more of it.

As time passed, thousands of us came to the same conclusion; we wanted to be right with God in every single way, more than we wanted the approval of others.  We also came to understand that God’s heart is moved when his people repent sincerely. Blockages that previously hindered his ability to move in our lives and in our services, began to be removed.  Free to do what He wanted, God showed up in large ways.

Today, as I conclude our study of Hosea, I want you to consider this question: What if your personal repentance is the key to unlocking revival, renewal and restoration in your family, your workplace and your church?  You might be that lead bowling ball at the front of the other nine. Once you humble yourself before God, others might fall right down with you once the power of the Holy Spirit comes rolling through your life.  At our church, it started with a few people who didn’t care how they appeared to others but simply responded to the conviction of the Holy Spirit.  Their courage and obedience paved the way for the rest of us.

In Hosea 14:1-2, the prophet says,

“Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for your sins have brought you down. Bring your confessions and return to the Lord.  Say to him, ‘Forgive all our sins and graciously receive us, so that we may offer you our praises.’”

When a culture becomes as fallen from God as America is now, it becomes easy for the church to trumpet the transgressions around us while ignoring our own spiritual adultery. The irony in this, is that we’ve forgotten that as the church goes, so does the culture around it.  Jesus called us, the city on the hill and the salt of the earth.  Fellow believers, we must take some ownership of the darkness and rottenness that are now the norm of our society.  Yes, Satan will always garner followers and create havoc until the Lord returns, but we are the army of God, armed with better weapons and resources.  The problem is, sin saps our strength, lack of faith cripples our courage, and apathy keeps us from noticing.  This is what happened to the Israelites.

God’s chosen nation experienced many miracles and demonstrations of his power in their flight from Egypt and journeys in the wilderness.  In their battles to possess their new homeland, God showed up faithfully, giving them victories over their enemies.  Despite all that, once they became settled for a few generations, they gradually adopted the gods and evil religious practices of their lost neighbors while still attempting to observe all the Jewish sacraments and holy days.  Voices like Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah and others warned Israel repeatedly that God’s intolerance of spiritual adultery would end in judgement and destruction, but Israel persisted in sin. Eventually, God allowed heathen nations to drive them away from their promise.

Sisters and brothers, we must open our hearts to God for a thorough examination by the Holy Spirit. Once we let God know that nothing is off the table or held back from him, we will be surprised what he will reveal to us.  When we maintain that attitude, junk doesn’t collect in dark corners of our souls anymore.  When we welcome the Holy Spirit and daily relinquish our desire for control to him, we become more sensitive to things that grieve him.

For me, it’s a squirmy feeling in my gut, and I know immediately that my words, thoughts or behavior are akimbo.  Most of us recognize when we hurt someone with whom we are close because of the way they respond to us.  The Holy Spirit is no different and we will smell the stink of sin much more quickly when we develop a deeper relationship with him.

In response to Israel’s hoped-for repentance, the Lord says in 14:4-5

Then I will heal you of your faithlessness; my love will know no bounds, for my anger will be gone forever. I will be to Israel like a refreshing dew from heaven.”

Only God can heal of us of spiritual adultery.  He will shoulder the lion’s share of work to transform us, when we come to him with repentant hearts.

 

Lamp and Sword

****Resources for study and reflection****

“Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path.” Psalm 119:105

“For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword.” Hebrew 4:12

 

  • Some thoughtful articles concerning revival:

https://www.charismamag.com/blogs/a-voice-calling-out/36235-the-next-revival-can-t-happen-unless-you-do-this

 

https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/march/praying-too-casually-travailing-prayer.html

 

https://billygraham.org/story/praying-for-revival-80-years-ago/

 

https://www.charismanews.com/opinion/70114-history-proves-that-praying-for-revival-matters

 

  • Psalms to Use for prayers of repentance: 51 and 32
  • Other verses about repentance:

1 John 1:9, Acts 3:19, James 4:8, Joel 2:13, Revelation 3:19

  • A prayer of repentance (from Rick Renner’s “Sparkling Gems,” March 18 devotional)

Father, I am deeply convicted by Your Spirit about areas of my life that need to change. I admit that I’ve been tolerating things that are unacceptable for a child of God. I have been living far below what You expect of me. I see areas where I have fallen short of Your glory in my thoughts and attitudes, and it has negatively affected my life, my relationships, and my conduct. But starting today, I am choosing to repent. I make up my mind that my life is going to change. I’ve been wrong to think the way I have thought, and I’ve been wrong in the way I’ve behaved. I am no longer ignorant because You have spoken to my heart about these things. Since I am accountable for my attitudes and my actions, I am making the choice to repent and to change –– and it starts today!

 

 

 

 

 

The Ruins of Spiritual Adultery

The consequences of rebellion are so painful.

Did you ever attend a wedding that turned out memorable for all the wrong reasons? Like any pastor, there are a few that live in infamy in our minds, like the one where the ushers showed up so intoxicated, they slammed people into the side walls of the sanctuary while attempting to seat them in the pews.  (And that was AFTER the pastor, my husband, Ken, privately poured coffee into them before the ceremony.)  He’s accumulated a few funny/sad anecdotes like that one over the years but there are others that are simply heartbreaking.

One involved a wedding party in which both the bride and groom’s parents experienced contentious divorces due to adultery.  The four parents, all with new significant others, nearly came to blows during the wedding rehearsal arguing over what order who should come down the aisle and where they should be seated.  In some minds, adulterous behavior cancelled out normal wedding protocol and procedures.

That’s my nice way of summarizing the ugly words that darkened the atmosphere in our sanctuary that night.  Instead of the usual joy and sweet nervousness we usually see at a wedding rehearsal, bitterness threatened to destroy not just the rehearsal but the wedding itself. Ken is fearless about wading into muck. He verbally took command of the scene and brought everyone into line with a solid “come to Jesus talk,” received surprisingly well.  Nevertheless, I’m sure that the horrific opening of that rehearsal is not forgotten by those who experienced it, certainly not by Ken and me. The ugliness cast a pall over the rest of the evening and made jittery wrecks of the bride and groom as they wondered if it would all erupt again somewhere during the wedding and reception. In many ways, it ruined the day for the young couple.

In the book of Hosea, God lists things that will come to ruin due to the spiritual adultery of Israel, his chosen people. The destruction described is far beyond a wedding gone sideways.  In the last post, I discussed the reversals that can occur in your life due to unfaithfulness, but there is much worse to come for those who don’t heed the warnings of god-appointed setbacks.  Here’s a few samples from the book.  Notice the dramatic, dire language, God inspires Hosea to use.

  • 5:14 “For I will be like a lion to Ephraim (one of the tribes of Israel), like a great lion to Judah (another tribe). I will tear them to pieces and go away with no one to rescue them.”

 

  • 7:12- “When they go (to seek help from others, instead of God) I will throw my net over them. I will pull them down like the birds of the air”

 

 

  • 9:2- “Threshing floors and winepresses will not feed the people; the new wine will fail them. They will not remain in the Lord’s land.

 

  • 10:6-8 “Ephraim will be disgraced; Israel will be ashamed of its wooden idols. Samaria and its king will float away like a twig on the surface of the waters. The high places of wickedness will be destroyed, it is the sin of Israel. Thorns and thistles will grow up and cover their altars.  Then they will say to the mountains, ‘Cover us!’  and to the hills, ‘Fall on us.’”

Think of every movie scene you’ve watched or any book you’ve ever read about ferocious, ancient empires attacking neighboring nations and know that is what happened to Israel at the hands of the Assyrians.  The ruination of the beautiful promised land and the Israelites carted off into captivity is described here by Hosea as a preview of coming events which did come to pass. The horrors of being conquered and carried away as slaves, will be so horrific, that many will long to die, as described in chapter 10.

God will allow ruin to come to his children when they remain persistent in idolatry and unfaithfulness. His first priority is our inner growth more than our outer circumstances. Justice and love are always balanced with our heavenly father. When he permits calamity as a result of sin, it comes from his unconditional love.  He will never sit idly by while we accelerate our slide down the slopes of sin.

We are currently in a season where God is exposing sin in his bride, dragging it into the light.  Those who continue to try and live the dual life, created by secret sin and idolatry, will not do well without repentance. Ministries and positions will be forfeited, while thousands of followers will be left, bewildered and broken. We are already aware of prominent figures in the body being exposed for long-standing sinful behavior, covered up for years.  Sadly, my sense is that there are more to come. God will purify his bride.

Part of the reason we are not seeing our churches flooded with new converts, as we should (there’s certainly no lack of lost folk) is because many worldly people don’t see the “otherness,” in us that should be obvious in every true believer’s life.  Too many Christians are so friendly with the ways of the world that they are not recognizable as people of the way, the truth and the light.  In our quest to be relevant, relatable and such, we can lose our status of being in the world but not of the world. Spiritual adultery is at the root of much of this.

God’s grace and forgiveness are always available for the repentant heart, just as they were for ancient Israel.  “I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them.” (Hos. 14:4) When we acknowledge sin and turn from it, God’s hand of discipline gives way to his arms of love.

 

Lamp and Sword

****Resources for study and reflection****

“Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path.” Psalm 119:105

“For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword.” Hebrew 4:12

 

  • Samson is a classic Old Testament account of glory gone to ruin. You can read his story in Judges 13-16.  We wonder what might have been if not for Samson’s alliances with the sinful world of his day.

 

  • There are other dire descriptions of the ruin that is coming to Israel in Hosea. Can you find them?  Are they difficult for you to read and imagine?  I hope so.

 

 

  • I recommend a book about a modern-day Samson’s rise and fall. It’s entitled “I Was Wrong,” by Pastor Jim Bakker.  This restored pastor once presided over an enormous Christian ministry and operated under a powerful anointing, Due to sin, he lost everything, including his marriage, and wound up in prison, just like Samson.  A remarkable story of the ruins of pride and spiritual adultery and God’s redemptive power and grace.

 

 

 

 

 

The Reversals of Spiritual Adultery

God may pull the rug out from under a wayward child.

I don’t know many people whose family and friendship circles remain untouched by adultery and divorce. Today, as I write about the reversals that occur from marital unfaithfulness, scenes from my own life sphere roll through my mind, some still fresh enough to cause a heart-sick feeling inside me.  I see the faces of confused, broken children, shuttled between two warring parents, their life rhythms running in a backwards cycle, undoing the bonds that once bound their mom and dad together.

Floating through my mind are the weeping faces of friends trying to cope with their new reality: the person who pledged “til death do us part,” to them is engaged in an adulterous relationship they don’t want to end.  A complete reversal of marriage vows is taking place, and my friends feel powerless to stop it.

Many of you could share personal stories from your life and others you know, about the unraveling effects of adultery and divorce. People once bound together by cords of love and faithfulness are watching those same cords be utterly untied and loosed.  God wants his children to understand that this is exactly what happened between him and Israel and can also occur in our relationship with our Heavenly Father still today. Therefore, he devoted the entire book of Hosea to the subject of spiritual adultery.  God is deeply grieved when his children start to wiggle out of his protective twines of love.

As he did with Israel, God will allow setbacks in our lives to draw us back into his arms.  Sometimes it will feel like a rug is pulled out from under us.  People, jobs, institutions and such, which we thought we could depend on, perhaps instead of God, are revealed as unreliable, unstable.  God is clear about the reversals he intends to execute on Israel so that he may recapture their full devotion.

  • “Call him Lo-Ammi for you are not my people and I am not your God.” (Hosea 1:9) God temporarily rescinds his unique relationship to his people. He’s also stating the obvious, Israel chose false gods over the One God, so this is how it stands between them at this point.

 

  • “I will make her like a desert, turn her into a parched land.” (Hos.2:3) Remember the descriptions of the Promised Land, flowing with sumptuous crops due to fertile, rich land? “…. they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes so large that it took two of them to carry it on a pole….” (Numbers 13:23) God is Lord over creation and declares he’s going to turn the fertile dial backwards so that Israel land becomes a desert.

 

 

  • In Hosea 2:8 God laments, through his prophet Hosea, that the people no longer acknowledging God as their provider. He plans to pull back the provisions he’s been sending.

 

  • “Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests.” (Hos. 4:6) God delivers this terrible blow because the priests of the time led the way in idol worship. Only through the priests, could Israelites approach God.  With this awful declaration, God literally pushes his people away, denying them access to him.  As people living in the new covenant achieved by the perfect high priest, Jesus, try to imagine God removing your 24/7 access pass to him, unwilling to listen to your prayers any longer.

 

  • In Hosea 10:11, God states that the Israelite’s labor will no longer be enjoyable and rewarding, as God intended in the Promised Land. Instead, they will be conquered and forced into cruel slave labor, or he will simply alter the natural conditions of the land to make it unproductive and difficult to work.  For us a comparison might be to lose a successful, joy-filled business we built and run ourselves to become low-paid laborers in brutal conditions, like many folks in third-world countries.  God’s intention for his children’s work always included joy and satisfaction.  This pronouncement indicates he will scroll that all back for Israel.

 

There are several other reversals that can be found throughout Hosea, but I think this is enough to make the point.  God’s love for his people could not allow them to continue to enjoy his blessings without repentance. He will stop up the flow of provisions and benefits we enjoy, as his children, until he sees hearts softened with penitent sorrow.

Not every setback in your life is a direct result of sin or unfaithfulness.  God does make it shockingly clear, however, that it is a discipline method he will use to draw wayward hearts home.  When something that rolled forward in my life starts to turn the opposite direction, I need to hear from God.  I ask him, straight out, “Is this reversal a consequence of sin, or are you doing a greater work for the kingdom?” Remember the times in the gospels when Jesus indicated that certain situations of sickness and death had no connection to sin, but God allowed them, so he could demonstrate his power and glory? I meditate on scriptures, sit quietly with him and wait for his answer. Knowing which way God is dealing with you is critical.

Many believers are living in the Promised Land without its benefits, due to spiritual adultery.  God cannot laugh off our flirtations with anything that turns our hearts from him, even to the smallest degree.  He is a jealous god (Exodus 20:5) and refuses to share his bride with another.

If you’ve never connected the dots between spiritual infidelity and reversals you’ve experienced, now’s the time.  Don’t force God to make the scroll backs severe before you pay attention.  Ask the Holy Spirit to search your heart for any waywardness and idolatry.  As the darkness grows greater before Christ’s return, Christians who are not completely in love with Jesus will struggle to stand firm against the onslaught of worldly temptations like Paul describes in his second book to Timothy, in the third chapter.  Only those who remain tightly bound to Jesus, the bridegroom, will be able to discern good from evil and live purely, righteously.

Lamp and Sword

****Resources for study and reflection****

“Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path.” Psalm 119:105

“For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword.” Hebrew 4:12

  • Another interesting overview of Hosea by William Barclay, noted professor of theology, author of numerous books. He makes some fresh points about the unique call on Hosea’s life and marriage.

 

https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/hosea.html

 

  • Another cautionary Old Testament tale about spiritual adultery’s slippery slope, is the story of King Saul, which starts in 1 Samuel:6. His bio is a fascinating read about the journey from anointed by God to rejected king.  I believe it’s important for every believer to gain familiarity with this story as this same, tragic scenario continues to occur in the lives of nationally known Christian figures.  The wise believer will recognize when the life of an anointed leader begins to drift off the rails of the narrow way.  The fact that we continue to discover that many of our disgraced national leaders dabbled in sin for years, before their public unmasking, is a marker of the lack of discernment of the body of Christ.

 

  • I believe the Holy Spirit is crying out to the church, trying to warn us about coming consequences from spiritual adultery and unfaithfulness.  Here is a short, powerful devotional on the topic, from Pastor Rick Renner, author of “Sparkling Gems from the Greek Daily Devotional.”

 

Spiritual Adultery!

 

 

 

 

 

Spiritual Adultery

God's passion is to draw the wayward back to himself

Years ago, Ken and I witnessed the break-up of ten marriages in our church family due to adultery.  Elders, deacons and Sunday school teachers plunked themselves down in Ken’s office and shared the same sorry tale.  They sought approval and blessing for their decision to split from their spouse and start a new life with the “other.”

While Ken attempted to discuss reconciliation, counseling and such, every one of them said the same sentence. “Doesn’t God want me to be happy?” We wondered if they’d formed some secret club and chanted this motto during meetings.

Everyone entered Ken’s office with made-up minds, seeking absolution, without repentance.  All of them ended their marriages and created numerous seas of wreckage that rippled through our entire church.  After the eighth conversation and all their eerie similarities, Mount Ken erupted.  The following Sunday morning, from the pulpit, he made this announcement.  “If you are sitting here today and are already determined to end your marriage, I want to help you and your spouse, if you truly want help. However, if you make an appointment with me simply to persuade me that “God wants you to be happy,” and has directed you to destroy your home and make a new one with a person with whom you’ve been engaging in adultery, I will throw you out of my office!   

Ken’s exasperation ranks junior league compared to the intense anger God felts towards Israel in the days of the prophet, Hosea.  The loving Father decided that heinous sins needed dramatic responses to affect repentance. So, he directed Hosea to marry a woman named Gomer, who God knew to be unfaithful.  He wanted a living illustration of Israel’s spiritual adultery.  There are four key points I’d like to hinge the next blogs around as we take the time to consider whether we’ve been unfaithful. God includes stories of failure and sin in His Word as cautionary tales for us.  Those that choose not to heed them put themselves in peril of the same kind of anger expressed in this book.  Our four points will be:

  1. The recognition of adultery.
  2. The reversals of adultery.
  3. The ruins of adultery
  4. The repentance from adultery.

Today we will consider what God did to bring Israel to a place of recognition of their sin of idol worship and all its disgusting practices.  First, let me share a little background on Hosea and his story.

Hosea’s prophecy occurs in the eighth century while Assyria is bearing down on Israel, with threats of invasion (picture Russia and the Ukraine.)  God’s anger burned towards Israel because he gave them their way, with a demand for an earthly king, and still they turned away from him to false gods.  God is threatening to allow Assyria to conquer them as their judgement.

God first uses the theater of Hosea and Gomer’s marriage to represent himself as the wronged husband and Israel as the unfaithful wife. Instead of sending judgement on the nation immediately, God uses this tumultuous marriage to try and turn the hearts of Israel back to himself.  He instructs the prophet to bring his wandering wife home and forgive her, after she leaves him for numerous lovers. Following God’s orders, their children are given strange names that represent different forms of judgement which will fall on Israel if they do not repent.   Strong language and word pictures are used liberally.  Here are some examples:

  • In 2:5 Israel has “played the harlot” (NASB) This word is repeated numerous times.
  • In 5:7 “They have dealt treacherously against the Lord,” (NASB)
  • In 7:14-16 “They do not cry out to me with sincere hearts. Instead, they sit on their couches and wail…. they look everywhere except to the “Most High” (NLT)
  • 1:4- “Call him Jezreel, because I will soon punish the house of Jehu…”
  • 1:6 “Call her Lo Ruhamah, for I will no longer show love to the house of Israel…”
  • 3:1 “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites…”

Oh, the pain and heartbreak this family endured due to Gomer’s sin, yet I marvel at God’s ability to redeem this mess and use it to try and romance his wayward people back to himself.  Never underestimate God’s desire and ability to create redemption during the most devastating circumstances.  

Once we give way to sin, and repeat it, as Gomer and Israel did, we are prey to dark forces.  Every individual that tried to plead their case for marital happiness, to Ken, showed a complete lack of self-awareness and true compassion for the damage they were prepared to inflict when they revealed their adulterous relationships to their families along with their plans for a wonderful new life, apart from all of them.  Sometimes, we behave no differently with the feckless way we treat God.

The plumb line for faithfulness is whether there is anyone or anything competing with God for first place in your heart, mind, actions and resources.  Here in the States, for example, we can quickly make idols of our “stuff,” spending too much time working to get it, playing with it and taking care of it all. I’ve also noticed that people will place being together as a family in higher priority than say, church attendance or faithfulness in serving in a ministry. These things are examples of the first level of spiritual adultery, kind of like flirty texting with a co-worker without physical intimacy.

In the next level of spiritual adultery, we embrace false teachings which try to twist the Bible to accommodate a sinful culture.  We engage in the ways of the world while still showing up in church semi-regularly.   In the final stages of spiritual adultery, we become like Gomer, unrecognizable as wife to Hosea.  We are distorted as the picture of the holy, chaste bride of Christ, to the rest of the world, because sin is now a way of life. We are in a full-blown, adulterous affair with the world.  Many people don’t recognize us as a child of God at all.  This is where Israel landed, but the process is gradual.  Ken calls it “the slippery slope of sin.”

God is waiting for us in 2019, with open doors, opportunities, new mercies and provisions.  How much of that are you willing to risk for the sake of pet sins?  This week ask God to reveal to you any areas where you’ve been unfaithful to him, where you’ve unintentionally allowed an idol into your life.  He will pour his grace on you at the same time he puts you under his thumb.

 

Lamp and Sword

If you are interested in a powerful teaching series on the topic of modern idolatry in the body of Christ, I strongly recommend “Killing Kryptonite,” by John Bevere.  It’s available in book form and as a video series.  Our small group traveled through it recently, and we found ourselves amazed at how subtly idolatry can establish a stronghold in a believer’s life.

For a closer look at the book of Hosea, here’s some resources and questions for you to use and ponder:

  • Read chapter 1-3 to learn the tragic story of Hosea and Gomer. Try reading it a few times in different translations, which all bring a little different color to a text.

 

  • Questions for reflection and personal application:
  1. Try to imagine living in Hosea and Gomer’s hometown. What do you think their neighbors thought about their strange situation?
  2. Do you think Hosea struggled to obey God and marry an unfaithful woman, knowing the pain to which he’d be subjected?
  3. What names did God instruct Hosea to give his children and why?
  4. Is there any mention in the text of Gomer asking for forgiveness or repenting?
  5. Consider the specific actions Hosea took to show love to Gomer. How did his actions illustrate God’s love for Israel then and us now?
  6. Can you recall a time when you wandered from God? Reflect on how you found your way back to him.  What or whom did he use to accomplish this?

 

  • If you want to dive into Hosea on your own, here’s an excellent Bible study method anyone can use for any passage.

 

  1. Read the passage at least three times, preferably in different translations.
  2. Make a list or write a paragraph that answers the question, “What does this passage say?” This is restating, in your own words, what the author says, what people did, events that happened, etc.  It’s like a newspaper article on the passage using “Who, what, when, where and why,” just like a journalist.
  3. Now in your own words, answer the question, “What does this passage mean?” Why did God put this in the Bible?  What is he saying to believers about this topic?  Try to decipher as much as you can, by yourself, before consulting other resources.
  4. Finally, answer the question, “What does it mean for me?” What impact does God want this passage to affect on your behavior and thinking?  How will the knowledge and understanding you’ve gained from this passage change ­you?

 

  • Background information on Hosea from Pastor Chuck Swindoll

https://www.insight.org/resources/bible/the-minor-prophets/hosea

  • One of my favorite commentaries, written by Matthew Henry, if you’d like to take a deeper look at Hosea through his eyes. He’s one of the guys I turn to when I’m truly stuck on understanding a passage.

https://www.christianity.com/bible/commentary.php?com=mhc&b=28&c=1

 

 

 

 

 

New Year, New Format!

Happy New Year, everyone!  I wanted to let you all know of some upcoming changes and additions to “Pastor’s Feisty Wife,” that I believe you will find helpful and enjoyable. God put some surprising things on my heart for this year, so it should be rather an interesting ride.

  1. In addition to the usual encouragement, exhortation, advice and personal stories, which I typically share, at the bottom of each post, will be a new feature entitled, “Lamp and Sword,” based on Psalm 119:105 and Hebrews 4:12.   For those interested in further  study of the topic I raise in the post, I’ll provide some questions, scripture and resources to help you in your quest to allow the Word to light your path and carve out truth in your life.
  2. Within a few months, my blog will also be available on Pinterest, for those of you who enjoy cruising the boards.  It will look a bit different but the content will be the same.
  3. I am pledging to be more faithful to respond to comments on various posts and hopefully to open dialogue with some of you.  If you are struggling with something and would like another prayer partner, let me know via comments or PM on Facebook, or through comments you make on this site itself.
  4. The themes God impressed upon me for 2019 will all come from the books of the Bible we call the Minor Prophets. My husband calls these books the “white pages” of the Bible as people rarely read them.   These books are a treasure troves of wisdom and truth and are some of my favorite books in the entire Bible.   It’s my heart desire to introduce you to and help you develop relationships with these twelve fascinating guys whose ancient words still ring with clarity and power.   In January we will consider Hosea’s insights, the man who God directed to choose an unfaithful woman to be his wife as a living illustration of Israels feckless and spiritually adulterous behavior.  His story is dramatic and filled with intriguing word pictures that illustrate God’s frightening anger towards Israel at that time.   The first post will arrive tomorrow.  See you then!

Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room

A fourth true Christmas tale

In a church where we served, Ken and I endured a steady stream of criticism from a small group of members, concerning worship music.  They believed older hymns and choruses to be far superior to anything written after 1960. We disagreed. So did much of the congregation. Some Sunday mornings, one or both of us might be verbally assaulted/lectured after a service about the spiritual viability of some of our choices.  Loudly. In the narthex. With guests and other members nearby.

Planning our first Christmas Eve service in that church caused no small amount of anxiety for the two of us.  We pictured a scene erupting after one of the best attended services of the year (so we were told), with a narthex full of out of town guests and visiting community members.  We knew we needed to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, but we questioned our ability to hear him.  Our music list and worship order went through several overhauls before we felt locked down.

The week of Christmas I felt rounds of nervous nausea.  Always, before, I eagerly looked forward to Christmas Eve services as wondrous, candlelit events, gathered with family, worshipping together with joy.  This year, joy went missing, and I prepared for a holy war.  I couldn’t imagine our critics going quietly, if we “messed up,” Christmas as one of them predicted we would.

The service itself went off flawlessly. Trios, duets, congregational singing and solos all wound their way around the sanctuary, like a large Christmas ribbon, tying us all together into this special moment.  Even our antique sound system, for once, didn’t scream feedback at us. From my limited sight line behind the piano, all the faces I could see wore expressions of peace and appreciation.  I couldn’t see any of our negative commentators.  Were they sitting as they usually did, arms folded across their chest, scowling at everyone on the platform?  My stomach clenched at the thought.

After the service, dozens of people spoke to Ken and I, and the other participants, expressing love and appreciation.  Maybe the judging team didn’t come?  Oh wait. Trapped in a throng of folks all jostling to wish each other “Merry Christmas,” while finding their coats, I spied a man pushing his way through the crowd towards me.  A loud, large man.  A man who usually only spoke to me or Ken to lodge complaints.

Helpless to move out of his range, I imagined the beautiful atmosphere of love and fellowship torn apart like a toddler with a Christmas package. I braced for impact and asked God to help me respond rightly. He wedged himself in between several people to plant himself right in front of me.  Whatever wind blew, by now my mouth felt desert dry and my throat so tight, I felt no confidence in my ability to say anything back.  I’m pretty sure my jaw dropped when he looked me in the eye and said, “Nice service,” then just as abruptly, turned his back on me and pushed his way back through the crowd.

I’d love to tell you we developed a marvelous relationship with this man, but we didn’t.  He criticized until the day we left, but that’s not the point of this story.  Here’s what I think happened that night.   I’ve seen this phenomenon occur since then with lost people, skeptics, critics and the like.  Sometimes folks come into Christmas with skewed expectations and unbelief, determined to remain aloof or critical of certain environments.

Location doesn’t matter whether it’s your home, church or any other place believers gather to celebrate the birth of Christ. Something supernatural happens when the Christ child is worshipped and people love freely. Even the hardest heart can be softened in that moment as perhaps God reminds them of Christmases long ago before their hearts formed into concrete. Or maybe he shows them a glimpse of what life could be like without all the negative emotions they carry daily.  I think that’s the theme of Charles Dicken’s Christmas Carol. Thanks to the three spirits, Scrooge is given the gift of new sight and clearly understands the choice that every human must still make, whether to walk in The Light or live in eternal darkness.  Sadly, some will forever choose the shadows. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pray, expectantly with faith, that your Scrooge will choose to see the radiance of Christ and want to live within his glory and wonder.

As you gather together, Christmas week, you may be expecting critics, skeptics, and such to squirrel up your events also.  Some of you might be estranged from family members so they won’t be showing up for Christmas dinner, but instead leave a huge ache in your heart.  Some families are divided along the line of those who believe in Christ and those who don’t.  All of this can make this time of year tough if you are not armed and ready.

Remember, the whole Christmas story is one miraculous heart-change after another.  Sometimes our familiarity with the various details causes us to brush over the deep, inner work God performed in the hearts of key players in this drama using highly abnormal circumstances.   Joseph’s logic and human reason must be overridden to believe his little fiancée carried God in her stomach.  Mary, a young obscure girl, must accept God’s message that, here now, SHE is the prophesied, chosen one.  Shepherds, the outcasts of society, must believe they didn’t hallucinate and then act on what the angels instructed, to go find this baby inside a town that certainly didn’t welcome them.

God is performing heart surgeries every day, and Christmas is still a season of miracles.    He chooses to partner with our prayers of faith to move over the most unlikely specimens one can possibly imagine.  Ask him relentlessly, to prepare and make room in the hearts of those in your world who are lost or backslidden far from his love. Trust that the same love that compelled Jesus to set aside perfection to enter our dysfunctional, damaged world, is still in play today.

 

 

O Christmas Tree

A Third True Tale of Christmas

My mother elevated Christmas tree decorating to an art form long before it became cool to do that.  Each year, her process began when my father brought home a Douglas fir, purchased from a lot near his job in downtown Philadelphia.  Dad took his role in our Christmas tree traditions seriously. He measured, pondered then measured again before buying.  After he arrived home, he’d saw off a portion of the trunk to ensure that the tree could take in fresh water. Once he secured the tree in its stand, the yearly battle of the lights began.  In those days, most homes didn’t boast several outlets on every living room wall.  Therefore, a complex system of extension cords snaked in and out of our tree to accommodate all the multicolored strings of lights.

Now the time for my mother to perform her decorating magic began. First, she hung our collection of mercury glass ornaments, spacing them perfectly all over the tree by color and size.  My brothers and I were not allowed to handle these fragile keepsakes until we reached late elementary school. As the oldest, I became my mother’s first ornament assistant when I turned ten, a great honor.

After the glass balls, she and I positioned all the paper creations we made at school, careful to keep colors from clashing.  We finished our decorating with tinsel.  This final touch took the longest as my mother insisted that it be put on strand by strand, evenly, precisely. When the last piece of tinsel hung in properly, my Dad ceremoniously plugged in the lights, and Christmas filled our living room. The lights and ornaments, shimmering through the silver tinsel, added a sense of wonder and the anticipation of gifts soon to appear under bottom branches.

When I turned thirteen, we moved to Michigan, next door to my father’s parents and the family business. We made some mild alterations to our tree routine.  Since my Dad now worked next door at our family’s florist and greenhouse business, we all piled into the business’s delivery van to cut down a Christmas tree together, at a nearby farm.  After that, all routines remained the same, old traditions carried into a new home.  By now, I knew all strategies for designing a beautiful Christmas tree.

One evening, close to Christmas, I wandered over to my grandparents’ home, as I frequently did, and came upon an appalling sight, my grandmother, perched on a couch arm, chucking handfuls of tinsel onto her Christmas tree.  Handfuls.  Throwing them.  She heard me come in and laughed at the shocked expression on my face.  “Not quite like your mother does it, eh Sharon?”  she cackled.

I couldn’t make sense of this scene.  I spent most Saturdays, the previous summer and fall, working side by side with this woman, well-known in our community as a premiere floral designer.  Her creativity and attention to detail for every design from bridal bouquets to funeral arrangements, made her much in demand. Many times, I needed to rework a corsage or remake a bow to fit her high standards.  Who in the world was this crazy, tinsel-tossing woman before me now?

“Sharon, maybe you could reach the top of the tree for me and finish this up?  I’ve got some baking to do.”

“Suuuuuure……” I said hesitantly.  Not only the tinsel needed a rescue.  Ornaments didn’t seem to be arranged by size or color or any discernible plan at all.  Many remained in the boxes. Overall the tree looked as if someone upended a box of decorations onto it.  “Who puts on tinsel before they even get all the ornaments on?” I wondered to myself.

She read my expression and said, “You’re welcome to rearrange the ornaments too and put some more on if you want.” And with that, she climbed off the couch, handed me a clump of tinsel and disappeared into the kitchen.

I stared at the tree, momentarily overwhelmed. Then, every bit of training I’d learned in my mother’s Christmas boot camp kicked in.  Every ornament and clump of tinsel came off, and I started from scratch.  Two hours later, I felt pleased with my results and my grandmother praised my efforts. It became a tradition for me to decorate my grandparent’s tree every year until I married and moved away.  I beamed when our entire extended family gathered at their home and folks oohed and aahed over the tree while she and I shared knowing glances.

As a teenager, I never understood why all my grandmother’s design expertise and passion didn’t extend to her Christmas tree.  As an adult at the age now that she was back then, I get it.  My grandmother worked anywhere from 8-12 hours a day in the shop, doing all the design work herself, except for weekends when I helped.   I easily understand now, with adult perspective, her exhaustion.  I’ve worked in other floral shops since then and I know what it’s like to stand for hours at a time, designing and arranging.  As far as your legs are concerned, it’s not unlike factory work.

As a teen, I could only see the haphazard Christmas tree. I completely missed the weary person next to it.  I don’t know which end of the spectrum you are on today, so I’m offering encouragement in two different directions.  First, if you’re in tinsel-chucking mode, give yourself some grace.  Preparing for and celebrating Christmas with friends and family is like a part-time job.  If you’re already working at another job, Christmas is a lot.  Ask God to help you prioritize and let go of expectations that are too high.  People don’t need six different kinds of Christmas cookies nor does your house need to look like a Martha Stewart photo shoot.

Those of you whose schedules are more flexible, is there someone who needs your time and energy resources? Is there a young, working mom whose children you could watch for a few hours while she Christmas shops? How about sharing coffee and a Christmas cookie with someone newly widowed struggling to celebrate their first Christmas alone?  Take a restaurant gift card to a family with a loved one who will be hospitalized over the holidays or just recovering from a surgery or traumatic event.  Accidents, illness and injuries are no respecters of Christmas.

All around us are people barely getting through their ordinary days, let alone Christmas, if we will but open our eyes to truly see them, the way Jesus does.

 

 

 

 

A Thrill of Hope

Another Christmas doggie story

The first Christmas after my mother’s death felt dreamlike, specifically the kind where you’re drowning or trying to run from something awful, but your feet won’t move. We lit our Advent wreath, decorated trees, baked cookies, shopped on Black Friday and carried out our other Christmas season traditions, but it all felt empty.

I first noticed the knifing pains of her absence on Black Friday, a shopping tradition she relished every year until the last few of her life.  The only significant memory I carry from that day is the large ball of choked back tears in my throat.  At one point I almost bawled in the endless check-out line in Kohl’s Department Store, reminiscing about the times I’d stood in that line for her, (sometimes with a snarky attitude) with a heaped cart of her carefully selected gifts.  Her back, deformed from childhood polio and a car accident, couldn’t tolerate long periods of standing, so she’d move on to the next store with other family members while Ken and I waited to check out.

I remember one year she spent in the hospital over the Thanksgiving holiday.  She still poured over all our family Christmas lists and made detailed notes for Ken and me about what to purchase, from which stores and what coupons to use.  I brought all our purchases to the hospital.  We laid everything out on top of the hospital bedding, for her to examine and be certain it met her standards.

While Mom spent her first glorious Christmas in heaven, we struggled to plan our extended family Christmas at “my Dad’s house.”  I felt sick simply saying that phrase, instead of, “Mom and Dad’s house.”  My sweet brother and sister-in-law, and their children, put up a tree and some of the decorations my mother collected and loved so dearly, around the too- quiet house, for my Dad. I believe that they chose wisely when they did this, but for me, seeing all her decorations without her, felt ghastly.  Some that she’d owned since my childhood sent me to the back bedroom to compose myself and not add to my Dad’s grief.

That whole year turned out to be a season of loss for me.  In April, my principal informed me that due to a very low student enrollment, my teaching job needed to be eliminated.  Two weeks after that blow, in May, my mother entered the arms of Jesus, somewhat unexpectedly.  The staff at her rehab center had scheduled her to return home within a few days but pneumonia struck suddenly, swiftly, lifting her to glory within 48 hours.

In the beginning of December, our dog, Kobi, left our lives, after fourteen years.  The accumulated sorrows of the year made this third good-bye so poignant.  I contracted bronchitis shortly afterwards and deeply missed the sweet presence of furry friendship during those long, quiet hours of recovery.  The pain of our parting set me in the same frame of mind I’d been in many years prior, when our last Labrador, Edwards, entered his well-deserved rest.  “No more dogs,” I declared again.  It’s ridiculous that I still didn’t understand my own nature.

At least this time, I caved, with no outside pressure. Now that I no longer worked outside the home, the quiet there felt unnatural, lacking.  Ken and I began a new search, wishing someone figured out how to breed a miniature Labrador.  We found the next- best thing in a little rescue dog named Bella.  Part beagle, part yellow lab, she fit the bill perfectly, weighing in at only 32 pounds with a lab shaped body topped by expressive beagle-eyes.

Two weeks before Christmas, we brought her home and began the painstaking process of re-training and re-orienting her.  Removed from animal hoarders, she was at first, high strung, suspicious of everyone, particularly men, and not at all housebroken, even though she was a year and a half old.  We couldn’t attempt to leave her home alone or at a boarding facility so soon after coming to our home and determined that she’d make the two-hour drive with us to “Dad’s house,” for our Christmas celebration.

Everyone did their best to share love and laughter that day. We tried to make it a good day for my Dad, but understandably, he remained quiet and withdrawn.  Inwardly, I decided we simply needed to get through this Christmas as best we could and hope next year dawned more brightly for my Dad.

We alternated between putting Bella in her crate and taking her for walks, concerned that she not cause any “accidents,” or stress for Dad.  Late in the afternoon we decided to tote her into the living room with us for a while, making her always sit next to one of us. Everyone fussed over her, except for my Dad who simply said, “Cute pup.”  Then, a remarkable thing happened.

Seated near my Dad, she walked away from me, to him, and rested her chin on his lap, gazing up at him with those soulful eyes. Before he could say anything, in one nimble leap, she jumped up and coiled herself up on his legs, heaved a sigh and laid her head down as if he was a comfy dog bed. Shocked, I started to get up to lift her off him, but he waved me away and bent his head towards her while he stroked her ears, saying things like, “Well, aren’t you just something.”  A genuine smile creased his face and he looked like himself again.  Everyone’s eyes looked a bit soupy in that moment.

Bella’s never done anything like that with him, or anyone else, since that day. Why did she approach this unknown man so peaceably? I believe it’s because God knew that he could restore some joy back to my Dad by nudging a little dog onto his lap.  He directed her to do that and assured her my Dad meant her no harm. (Six years later, she still cowers a bit around any strange man.)

Maybe you’ve got some empty spaces in your Christmas get togethers this year.  Death, broken relationships, geography and such can separate us from those we long for the most.  Some of you probably struggled to put up decorations or make holiday plans at all.   Expect God to do some “dog-in-the-lap moments for you too.  He is a master of creating unexpected joys in the least likely circumstances, if we keep our hope fixed on him.  He is the answer to every cry of the heart, our Emmanuel, our God with us.

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks, a new a glorious day…” (excerpt from “O Holy Night”)