Encouragement for When All is Not Calm and All is Not Bright

Sometimes lyrics to Christmas carols get stuck in my throat. They can’t climb over the lump triggered by certain phrases.  “And ye beneath life’s crushing load,” from “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” has messed me up when my life felt precisely that way. The phrase that’s torn at my heart the most though, is from “Silent Night.” I recall times when that peaceful melody carrying, “All is calm, all is bright,” was painfully opposite to my soul’s condition. Instead of harmony flying up, tears coursed down.

The first Christmas without my mother, a passionate lover of Christ and his birthday season.

The year my husband, Ken, and I left our ministry positions to follow God into the unknown financially and career-wise.

I think of friends and acquaintances who’ve experienced sorrows during the Christmas season.

How coffins lie amidst poinsettias.

How divorce papers and Christmas cards clutter the same counter.

How hospitals swirl the sounds of hissing, clicking machines with the sounds of Christmas carols.

How children’s Christmas lists are buried under stacks of bills with “Past Due,” stamped on them.

Life’s trials don’t respect Christmas. Accidents, illness, setbacks and cutbacks don’t take holiday vacation time. I want to encourage you though, not to just write the season off and call it all a loss if you’re going through a tough time. As believers, we can always find comfort and hope in our God. He uses all that stuff intended to destroy us, to purify us. The prophet Malachi calls it the refiner’s fire.

“For he will be like a blazing fire that refines metal, or like a strong soap that bleaches clothes. He will sit like a refiner of silver, burning away the dross,” Malachi 3:2-3(NLT).

Studying this reminded me again of how differently God and I view problems and pain. When I’m tossing around in a washing machine of troubles, I’m more concerned about getting out than giving in to what God is doing in all of it. When fiery challenges heat up, my first reaction is to try to find a way out of the furnace instead of communing with the fourth man in the fire (Daniel 3).

Charles Spurgeon said this about this passage:

“If any of you, my hearers, are seeking the Lord at this time, I want you to understand what it means: you are seeking a fire which will test you, and consume much which has been dear to you. We are not to expect Christ to come and save us in our sins, he will come and save us from our sins; therefore, if you are enabled by faith to take Christ as a Savior, remember that you take him as the purger and the purifier, for it is from sin that he saves us.”

Christ came as a baby because it was the only way. The only way to profoundly connect with humans facing the consequences of a world tumbling down in sin. The only way to bridge an impossible gap between us and God. The only way to access the loving arms that grab us triumphantly out of sin’s grasp. The arms that carry us through our trials.  The arms that will carry us to heaven.

The child in Mary’s arms became the perfect man whose bloodied arms stretched across a cross for me, for you. I cannot approach his agony and sacrifice in an ala carte manner saying, “I accept you as Savior, but not as my refining sanctifier.” I hate pain, it terrifies me. I love my Father more. He promises his presence and power as I grapple with the realities of sin’s frantic last moves against me on earth. Satan knows time is short before my perfected glory begins.

As I drifted from my Bible study into my current devotional, the same theme about God and our trials arose. In her book, “The Greatest Gift,” Ann Voskamp discusses God’s view of our sorrows and disappointments, using Joseph’s life. She highlights the verses, at the end of Genesis, when Joseph’s brothers fear he will turn on them after the death of their father, Jacob. Instead of justifiably punishing his brothers for their evil deeds Joseph says this:

“Don’t be afraid of me. Am I God, that I can punish you? You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people,” Genesis: 50:20 (NLT).

Ann assures us that God will do for us what he did for Joseph.

“What was intended to harm, God intended all of it for good, and no matter what intends to harm you, God’s arms have you. You can never be undone. No matter what intends to harm you, God is never absent, never impotent, never distant. You can never be undone.”

Some of us are going through Joseph trials of family betrayals and dramas. Others are in Job trials facing sickness, death or financial setbacks and ruin. God will use it all, bending evil to accomplish his good.

So, let your Christmas worship be mixed with tears, but let it come forth. Sing from your heart, even if it’s only a choked whisper. God draws near. Emmanuel, God with us, no matter what.

 

 

 

Creating Your Best Life By Honoring Others

Do you want to live longer and better? There’s a secret God hides in plain sight in the Bible, the concept of honoring him and others.

My darling Grandma, Charlotte Skinkle, lingered between heaven and earth for several weeks while cancer slowly shut down her body.  Every evening, my parents, aunts, uncles and cousins gathered with my grandfather around her hospital bed to sing her favorite hymns in four-part harmonies. Schedules were altered, sitters found, and other things set aside to honor her in a way meaningful to her.

Grandma didn’t respond much of the time. My family might have stopped their evening gatherings rationalizing, “She can’t hear us anyway.” They didn’t. They kept coming. They kept singing. This is honor.

When I brushed off Malachi, for my series on the book this month, I discovered sermon notes from twenty years ago. They come from my former pastor, Wayne Benson, an extraordinary Word teacher. Reading them again, I know his ideas are even more relevant now as our culture continues to sink to lower and lower levels of dishonor. So, here they are, with my own comments and applications.

Honor is a foundational concept in God’s kingdom. Ancient Israelites knew this yet chose to ignore it. In Malachi 1:6-14 you can read a feisty butt-kicking Malachi delivers to Judah from God. His anger is inflamed because they are careless with holy things. They sacrificed blemished, sickly animals to him, instead of perfect ones. They became flippant about temple worship. He is so fed up, he tells Malachi to send someone to nail the temple doors shut. Ancient Israel forgot how important honor is.

  • Honor elevates everything around it.

When my husband Ken and I observed increasing levels of disrespect shown to police officers and first responders, we wanted to do something pro-active. Through a partnership with our adult and servant evangelism ministries at our church, we began to drop off snacks and thank-you notes at our local public safety stations. The first few times I brought in the snack baskets, the duty officers greeted me suspiciously and insisted I hand baskets through guarded windows.

 

After a few months, smiles and welcomes greeted my monthly drop offs. When we started catering in a quarterly lunch to all the stations, many barriers dropped and Ken and I, along with our volunteers, are now invited back into the secure areas of station houses to engage with officers and fire personnel. Hugs, laughs and conversation flow easily. Honoring these men and women lifted us all into a higher level of relationship and encouragement.

 

Honor changes an environment, whether it’s a house of worship, a classroom or a fire station. What environments are you changing through honor?

 

  • Honor draws attention to greatness.

Israel failed to acknowledge God’s awesomeness. He made them a nation, gifted them with land, protected them, and yet they couldn’t be bothered to worship him correctly. They kept the best produce and livestock for themselves and gave God leftovers. They knew better. I wish Americans knew better.

 

We elevate Hollywood stars with minimal talent and maximum egos to dizzying heights of cultural greatness while our military veterans struggle to find jobs and afford homes. This speaks so poorly of my country’s attitudes about honor. Yes, many of us go out of our way to honor and care for veterans. (See note at end of post for a fresh idea on that) Nevertheless, a country with godly priorities and right concepts of honor would never treat our veterans, or our elderly, the way many are shamefully treated in veteran and nursing homes.

 

People who understand honor will always draw attention to those who live sacrificially, whether they are military, missionaries or the elderly neighbor next door who knits blankets for children entering foster care. Who are you honoring who is worthy of honor? How?

 

  • Honor wars against familiarity.

Where was it Jesus couldn’t do miracles? Oh right, in his hometown, with his family. What lives might have been changed forever if only they had honored Christ in their midst instead of dissing Jesus, James weird older brother.

 

I am cautious in how I treat familiar folk when they are elevated. Maybe I did change that youth pastor’s diaper in nursery or teach that worship leader during their squirrely middle school years. Now, I speak to them and treat them with the respect that position deserves. Too many times I’ve overheard people trash talking their friends and family who achieved status, position or honor. Dishonoring people God chooses to elevate, whether they are believers or not, is not a nice look. Our role in that person’s previous history, does not grant us license to diminish their current position. Even when people are observably not deserving of honor bestowed, I leave that with God. He lifted them up and he will bring them down if they don’t embrace humility. Remember Pharaoh, King Saul and Nebuchadnezzar. I will also point at God’s harvest principle,;sow dishonor and you will reap it.

 

  • God promises long life to those who honor their parents.

In Exodus 20:27 God issues a command with a promise; honor your parents and live long. What that looks like is for you and the Holy Spirit to decide. Your family may be highly dysfunctional.  Don’t trash talk them. Ask God for ways to honor parents who may be very challenging to respect.

 

Ken and I enjoyed loving relationships with our parents and worked hard to honor them and do things that mattered to them. We still do with the one parent we’ve got left, my Dad. I love hosting Thanksgiving, but it’s become increasingly harder for him to travel so we will celebrate at he and my stepmother’s home instead.

Ken and I also did our best to meet many needs of his parents in their last years on earth. Sometimes that involved cleaning up horrific messes and giving up vacation time to care for them. We are left with no regrets and no thoughts of “I wish we had….”  Many I know are doing far more than that to care for aging parents.

 

However weird you might think your parents are, remember, God chose them for you. The command didn’t come with clauses or conditions but it does come with a promise.

Honoring God starts with foundation stones like faithful, frequent church attendance, volunteer ministry, tithing and consistency in quality Bible study and prayer. After that, we build our houses of honor brick by brick with each act of love and respect we show to others. Inside those walls, life is better.

Veteran’s Note:  If you are a Twitter of Facebook user, I recommend following and supporting Gretchen Smith founder of Code of Vets. Her Twitter handle is @Codeofvets.   Every single day this godly woman  processes needs requests from veterans then uses social media to mobilize folks to meet those needs whether it’s prayer for a despondent, suicidal vet or one with a hole in the roof.  Check her out if you’d like to be more pro-active in honoring those who sacrificed the best years of their lives for our safety and security.