Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Another Advent Devotional

            We’re all a bunch of fakers.
            Yes, you read that correctly. We are phonies.
            Christmas time holds a different kind of wonder in the air. CS Lewis would call it enchantedness. JM Barrie would call it make believe. Rowling would call it magic.
            I call it we all do unordinary things that, on a normal day, we might call ridiculous, frivolous, or over-the-top.
            And I love it.
            Christmas is my favorite holiday for many reasons, one of the primary being that I get to surrender my doubts and cynicism for the sake of the holiday.
            Here’s an example. I live in Atlanta, always have. Every couple of February’s we get a ¾” of snow, but never, never, do we get snow on Christmas. Does that dampen my hopes? No! Every year I pray for snow and hope for that beautiful white offering of peace and purity. What a waste of time – praying and hoping for something that will never happen. For some reason, however, Christmas makes it ok.
            Now, what about presents. Let’s spend a copious amount of money to buy gifts for people we care about and love. Seems a little frivolous. But it’s Christmas and love is overflowing in our hearts.
            I’ve heard it said that you become like what you pretend to be. Maybe there’s something to this season of pretending.
            The songs we sing at Christmas reflect a deep reverence and love for Jesus Christ. “Oh come! Let us adore Him!” Adore? That’s a strong word. “Let every heart prepare Him room.” Every heart? Give Him room? “His law is love”? You’ve got to be kidding me!
            Let’s be honest here. At Christmas, we pretend to have much more awe for Jesus than we do the rest of the year. The concept of Emmanuel – God with us – is fine at Christmas, but do we really want to be dwelling on the idea of Jesus being at our side on New Years Eve? Or Spring Break? Or Prom? We sing about the virgin-born King around the Christmas tree without a second thought, caught up in the joy of the holiday; but we would be so uncomfortable to tell our friends that we actually and truly believe that the Holy Spirit got the Virgin Mary pregnant and then she bore a baby who is actually King of all the universe.  That seems like an awfully tall order.
            In Deuteronomy 6, Moses is giving the law of the Lord to the Israelites. He implores them to commit these rules to memory. “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”
            When you repeat something over and over again, it becomes a habit and it becomes a part of who you are.
            Christmas traditions are like this – repetition of things we love, things that are important to us. We remember them and pass them along and share them. Maybe it’s getting new pajamas every year on Christmas Eve. Perhaps it’s a certain food or drink. Maybe it’s a movie. Maybe you go somewhere or someone comes to you. Maybe it’s pretending to believe in something or someone…like a baby-king born of a virgin who holds a tight but loving grip on your heart.
            When a child puts on their parents’ shoes and attempts to walk around in the clunky things, does it not delight the parent? When a baby repeats words after their parents, it brings a smile to the parents face.
            I think maybe God is ok with our Christmas-time pretending. If we can take twenty-five-ish days and dedicate them to celebrating the coming of Christ, maybe at some point it will catch. Maybe if we repeat our traditions long enough, they’ll last a little longer than a month.
            In the movie Elf, we learn one of the rules for the Christmas elves: treat everyday like Christmas day. I have an inkling that our Heavenly Father might feel similarly.
            It’s going to take time, of course, but if we keep singing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and we keep thinking about our Savior and King, perhaps our disbelief, our cynicism, will wash away with all that snow we’re getting.
            We’re all in need of restoration.
            At Christmas, we get to pretend that we’re at least a little bit more restored than we were the rest of the year. We pretend to believe – or maybe for a little while we really do. We pretend to love people enough to spend money on them – or maybe we really do. We pretend to be fascinated by something quite small and simple like lights twinkling in a tree – or maybe we really are. We pretend to have found peace and joy in the stillness of Christmas Eve – or maybe we really have. We pretend to adore Jesus – or maybe, just maybe, we really do.
            We’re all a bunch of fakers and phonies.

            And I do hope those things we pretend to believe at Christmas time stick with us and instead of making us liars at Christmas, make us honest all year. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

An Advent Devotional

Falling in Love On The Way To Bethlehem

Luke 1:26-38 In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be?” Mary asked the angel, “Since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God…For nothing is impossible with God.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.

Matthew 1:18-25 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” – which means “God with us.” When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.”

            We don’t know much about the marriage of Jesus’ parents. We know their union was arranged. We know that, when Joseph found out Mary was pregnant before they’d gotten married, he planned to break off their engagement. We know that they did end up married and they had several children. We know Joseph claimed Jesus as his son and taught him his trade. Lastly, we know that by the time Jesus was crucified, Mary was a widow.
            First of all, what changed Joseph’s mind? Well, an angel showed up and very much scared the fidelity into him.
            There are all sorts of reasons to marry someone: feelings of love and security; feelings of adventure and excitement; money; good looks; politics; pier pressure; a solution to loneliness…I could go on.
            The tricky thing about these reasons is that all of those things are changeable. Feelings change. Money is fickle. Good looks will leave you. People’s minds and opinions will constantly shift. And loneliness is much more an internal condition than an external one.
            Joseph married Mary for exactly one reason: because God told him to. And that, dear friends, is one thing that will never change.
            “Your word, O LORD, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens.” Psalm 119:89.
            “The word of the LORD stands forever.” Isaiah 40:8.
            “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor is He a son of man, that He should change His mind. Does He speak and then not act? Does He promise and not fulfill?” Numbers 23:19.
            Wouldn’t it be awesome if someone married you with the one reason that would never ever change? Wouldn’t it be the most secure feeling in the world to know that there would never be divorce because your marriage was one based on something that would never shift or change – the word of God?
            And wouldn’t it be frustrating to have to wait on that word from God and then have to TRUST God to help that person be faithful? Wouldn’t it be so tempting to think, “If only I were beautiful enough, rich enough, successful enough, popular enough, so that way they’d hurry up and love me”?
            I wonder if Mary felt that way. She was pregnant and traveling across the country to a town she didn’t know with a man who she could only hope would keep her safe. Every mile she had to trust that God would work in Joseph’s life to draw him to her and equally that God would work in her life to help her be the way God wanted her to be. God was with Mary as she traveled on that long journey. She had to surrender her life to the will of God – same as Joseph. They obeyed the words God spoke to them and as they walked along that path with God, He gave them each other.
            Mary couldn’t make Joseph love her. She had to trust God to work in him and she had to be the woman God was calling her to be. She could not abandon God’s plan for her in order to please Joseph. I mean, I suppose she could have told Gabriel, “No, I’d rather just marry the carpenter.” And I’m sure she would have been a lovely bride and they would have had beautiful children. There’s nothing wrong with that. But that’s not what Mary did. She said yes to God’s plan for her – God’s crazy, ridiculous, seemingly impossible plan! In saying yes to this plan, Mary gambled with Joseph and that dream of a wedding and children. She could have lost them. She nearly did. If Joseph had proceeded in divorcing her, she would have been stoned to death. But God didn’t let that happen. Mary trusted God with her dream of marrying this man and God intervened and told Joseph to marry her.
            Mary had to trust God with her life and also with Joseph’s life. She couldn’t control him. God gave Joseph a heart that was obedient to Him – imagine that! – and then asked Joseph to do something that was incredibly difficult. God chose the right people to be the parents of His Son. He chose the right man to risk marrying a virgin who would be miraculously pregnant with the Son of God. God chose the right girl who would risk her whole life – her physical life and her imagined life, (which is harder to risk, I’m not sure) – to serve the Him.
            Mary and Joseph trusted God enough to do the crazy things He asked them to do. To me, the coolest part is that while they were obeying orders that looked like the end of their lives, God blessed them with everything: love, children, family, togetherness.
            God asks you to do things that look absolutely insane. It’s scary and difficult. As you follow, however, there you find fullness of life because – like Mary and Joseph – when you follow God, you are quite literally traveling with Jesus.
            I wonder what Mary thought when she heard her son, her Jesus, preaching. I wonder if she ever transposed memories. I wonder if, when she heard God the Son promise things as He stood in dusty sandals surrounded by hungry people, she remembered times in her life when doubt and fear had shaken her.
            In the darkness of her bedroom, before she was a mother, before she was a wife, a tremendous light appeared and an angel spoke to her.
Gabriel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus…”
            She replied to the angel, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”
            Then the angel was gone and Mary was left alone.
            I wonder if Mary began to think, “God, what are You doing? This will destroy my life. This will kill my dreams.”
            And I wonder if the strong and tender hands of Jesus ever caressed her wrinkled face, full of simple love, and whispered,
            “No, Momma…I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.”


Friday, June 7, 2013

Nothing to Give

            Have you ever been struck by that crushing defeat when your heart crumples inside and you realize that you have nothing to offer God? Physically, emotionally, spiritually, monetarily? It happens to me all the time. I’ll be exhausted from a string of long days and say, “I’ve got nothing left, God. I’m empty.” I’ve come to believe that God’s loving, tender response is, “Of course you have nothing left. Of course you’re empty. You always have been.”
            The incomparable C.S. Lewis tells a story of a father who gives his son some money in order that the son may buy his father a gift. The dad just bought himself a present – which I do frequently in the form of shoes and frappucinos. Maybe the child picked out the present and handed the money to the cashier, but still, the money was the father’s all along the way. The dad didn’t get any richer.
            Few things brighten up my day more than seeing the children I have tended since their infancy. Ever since they were born, I’ve cuddled them, fed them, sung to them, changed their dirty diapers, and told them over and over and over again, “I love you. Katie loves you.”
            Babies generally don’t start saying intelligible words – let alone intelligible sentences – until they get to be about two years old. And yet, whenever they start babbling away in their younger months, I begin to coach them. “Say, ‘I love you, Katie.’” Why? They can’t talk. They can’t string together sentences. And even if they could, they would just be repeating the words I told them to say.
            But, oh my goodness, words cannot express the joy that erupted in my heart the first time, “I love you, Katie,” came out of those little mouths I love so much. Several years after diapers and bottles, the little princess climbs in the car when I pick her up from school. She giggles and gives me that impish grin and says, “Katie! I didn’t know you were picking me up today. I missed you. I love you, Katie.”
            Needless to say it always makes my day. It didn’t particularly surprise me – I’ve been training this child to string those words together since she popped out of her mom. Still, it gave me the greatest joy.
            Now, do I think this wonderful four-(almost five, as she constantly reminds me)-year-old understands the depths of the meaning of love? I think she knows that I will take care of her and probably give her ice cream. She knows I’ll play with her, protect her from harm, and discipline her. Oh yeah, she’ll tell you that I put her in time out when she misbehaves. I used to worry that the day after I put her in time out, she wouldn’t be excited when I walked in the door. Even on the toughest days when it seemed like she spent more time sitting in time out than playing with me, she never ceased to believe me when I told her that I loved her. I know that because she would always tell me that she loved me too, and she would throw her arms around my neck and we would bounce back to playing. 
            Children learn to repeat words because they hear them. Children learn to repeat actions because they see them. Children learn to adopt attitudes because they are exposed to them. When you tie together words, actions, and attitudes, you get a lifestyle. I have no problem saying that I prompted these children to love me because that’s exactly what God did to me. God created me, (Psalm 139:13). He put His own spirit inside of me, (2 Corinthians 1:22). He gave me a heart that longs to know Him, (Jeremiah 24:7). And then He did the craziest thing ever: He loved me. (There are far too many verses to cite but a personal favorite is Jeremiah 31:3).
            As the moon reflects the sun’s light and the sun is honored in its shining, so I love God because He loved me and He is honored by my love, even though it is but a reflection.
            Another child I watch was just over two the first time I successfully coaxed him into telling me that he loved me. It came out a bit choppy and with a touch of impediment, but it brought a smile to my face and joy to my heart. “Yes,” I smiled and planted ample kisses on his cheeks as he laughed. “You do love your Katie.”
            I don’t think my love for God is any different and I don’t think that upsets him. I believe God takes the greatest delight in loving a person who is incapable of loving Him back. He doesn’t mind waking up (except that He never went to sleep) to come get me in the middle of the night when I cry. He loves it when I stand wobbly at His feet and reach my arms up to Him, fussing because I am completely unsatisfied with life until my Father is holding me.
            Why is it important to me that the kids I take care of love me? What does it matter? I won’t lie: a huge part of it is because it makes me feel good. Who doesn’t love being adored? But the holier reason is this: it would be best for that child to love me. Why? Because I provide the food, care, protection, and love. It makes my job a lot easier when kids run towards me, not away from me. Children are deceptively fast. Don’t get me wrong, I am fully capable of catching that child. My legs are longer than his entire body. It slows down the process when they run away from me and some times it’s dangerous. Some times there are things going on that could hurt them and I need them to come to me as quickly as possible. Anyone who has ever taken a small child to a public place will understand this. Restaurants, grocery stores, or those death traps known as parking lots are all places where you want your children right next to you or at least disciplined enough to come when you call them. I want these children whom I love so dearly to love me because I want them to eat the food I give them, submit to the shampoo I put in their hair, heed my voice when I call them, and delight in the love I shower upon them with all my heart and soul.
            Why is it so important to God that we love Him? It’s the greatest command if you believe what Jesus said in Matthew 22:36-40. God knows the truth. He’s the one who loves me. He’s the one who feeds me. He’s the one who cares for me. He’s the one who protects me. He’s the one who saves me.
            When we perceive that we are loved by someone or something, we get attached to that one or that thing. I doubt you need examples to believe me but I’ll give them to you anyway. You rarely get coffee at a coffee shop. It’s ridiculous to pay four dollars for a cup of coffee when you can make one for free at home. So you walk in for a rare treat of a purchased cup of coffee and the person behind the counter smiles, asks you how your day’s going, and chats with you while your drink is being made. It sure is nice for someone to look you in the eye like that and smile at you, which in return makes you smile. Suddenly four dollars for a cup of coffee doesn’t seem so ridiculous because it comes with a steaming side of attention. Going to the gym really is about getting in shape – but the stares and compliments certainly don’t hurt – and then you’re working out with two motives instead of one…then it switches back to one, only it’s a different one than the original. Maybe fictional characters move you to tears and make your breath catch in your chest. Maybe those fictional characters become personal friends. And speaking of friends, has anyone else noticed how difficult it is to have a friendship with someone of the opposite sex and not consider what it would be like to have a romantic relationship with said person? Why is that? It’s so annoying! Well, it’s because you’re going to want to spend more and more time with people who make you feel good.
            I am not saying that it is easy to perceive that God Almighty loves you personally and intimately, because my dear friends, it is not. The enemy and the world will do everything in their power to keep you from realizing that God even thinks about you, let alone loves you radically. Bad things happen and it makes you feel like you can’t trust God. Scary things happen and it makes you feel like you have to fend for yourself. Lonely things happen and it makes you feel abandoned. Then a barista chats and smiles with you, your hard work is praised, your confidence is boosted, your emotions are stirred, and not so suddenly, God’s love is not something you crave or even think twice about because you are getting a lesser, but good enough love from somewhere else.
            If your lesser loves are being stripped away, maybe it’s because there’s a Greater Love who refuses to let you settle for “good enough” when “more than you could possibly ask or imagine” is readily available.
            You bet your butt God trains us and prompts us to love Him. He designed us to love, to admire. He knows that if we do not love and admire Him, we will love and admire something else and that something else cannot love us as well as He can.
            You bet your butt I trained and prompted those children to love me. I wanted to be their favorite babysitter! I wanted them to want to spend time with me. Maybe this is verging on pathetic, but I wanted them to miss me when I left because I certainly missed them. I miss my children. I long for them to fall asleep in my arms. That’s one of my all time favorite things. I love pushing them on swing sets and holding their hands as they learn to walk. I love seeing what crazy, ridiculous thing they’re going to do in the new day. I used to come home and tell my mom what the baby had done that day and just gush about how cute it was and how adorable the child was and how I just melted inside from all the wonderfulness.
            Could you possibly conceive that this is how God Almighty feels about you? God desires an intimate, personal relationship with you. He loves going through your day with you. He loves hearing about all the horrible and wonderful things that happened during your day. Can you imagine God in Heaven beaming with excitement, pointing at you, and saying to the angels, “Look! Look! She’s walking away from that guy who just wanted to use her! I’m so proud of her! No, I’m not surprised, I taught her to walk but just, look! She’s doing what I taught her to do!”
            “Look! Look! He’s fighting injustice! I’m so proud of him! Look at how strong he is! Of course, I gave him his strength and I taught him to fight, but look! He’s doing it! He’s so strong!”
            You think God doesn’t delight when His kids do what He’s taught them? When we love Him? Sure, He loved us first but that doesn’t seem to matter to God.
            You think my mom doesn’t love it when I make her chocolate chip cookies? Sure, she spent years teaching me how. I wouldn’t be able to do that if she hadn’t shown me. But that doesn’t matter. When I pull the cookies out of the oven and the house fills up with the smell of Heaven, there’s nothing but delight in my mom’s nostrils! I mean: heart.
            God will spend years – my whole life time, in fact – loving me so that I will love Him back. Not with love of my own creation, of course, for everything I have was given to me by Him. I suppose you could say that I’m loving Him with His own love.

He loves those who are empty. Everyone’s empty. He loves us. His love naturally draws us closer to Him. Coming in contact with this Loving Being radically alters your heart so that there is nothing for you but to be near Him and love Him as much as your feeble heart can. He is none the richer for loving us. He gains nothing by it. Who gains? We do. Therein lies true love.  

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Today's Devotional

I've begun collecting journal entries to put together and make a devotional. It started as just emails to my closest friends, telling them what God was up to in my life. Then it grew into a desire to encourage. Here is today's entry because I think everyone in the world needs to hear it. 

February 28, 2013

My Dear O’Malley Sisters,

As y’all know, me and the “L” word have been at war the past two months. My boyfriend never told me he loved me but when he broke up with me, he very clearly enunciated, “I do not love you.” Those damning words are like a heavy hammer hitting my heart every time I remember them. I weep for brokenness every time I say it, but I thank God that I will never hear those awful words from Him. The past few days, I’ve felt prompted to figure out exactly what it means when God says to me, “I love you.” Because, honestly, those words have lost their impact. We throw I love you’s around quicker than we throw pennies in wishing fountains.  I hear the words but they don’t mean anything to me. “I love you” has become like a tiny bug hitting my windshield: I hardly notice, it doesn’t slow me down one bit, and it barely makes an impression.
            So yesterday I sat down and started this, what Jesus would say to me if we were standing at the altar together, what God means when He says, “I love you.” It is in no way a complete list! And the writer in me freaks out at the thought of sending y’all something to read that isn’t finished but the Holy Spirit is prompting me to send it on, to send it out.
            Hear these words, beloved. Hear the words your God swears to you. See Him sacrificing Himself on the altar in order to ensure that these words will always be true.

            “I chose you.
I will never leave you. I will stay with you forever. I will never give up on you. I will never stop working for you, for you to be better and for you to have better.
            I will never compare you to another. I will never ask you to be anyone but you. I will never rush you. I will challenge you to grow. I will help you grow. I will always do things for your best interests so that you can better glorify Me.
            I won’t be a jerk.
            I will always desire you – all of you. I will always want all of you, every piece.
            I will give you a bountiful harvest.
            I will never hold a grudge against you. I will never be prejudice against you. I will never belittle or demean you. I will honor you. I will hold you up. I will not count your sins, mistakes, or strikes against you. I will bury your sins in the deepest ocean and never dig them up.
            I will not indulge at your expense. And likewise, I will not let you indulge at My expense. I will be strong enough for the both of us. I will hold the demons at bay, always. I will not take from you. I will not be selfish. I will protect you from everything, including Myself, including yourself. I will not cross or blur lines that are set for your good.
            I will always tell the truth. I will always act in such a way that reflects truth. I will always uphold, never tear down, and never smear the truth.
            I will always empower you and equip you to do great things. I will always blow wind into your sails. I will always believe in you. I will never doubt you. I will never be suspicious of you doing evil. I will always protect you from evil. I will always keep you away from eternal death and a life void of Me. I will always draw you nearer to Me. I will always romance you. I will never stop wooing you. I will never stop doing things and being the Someone who makes you fall deeper and deeper in love.
            I will always present you with better. I will always want more for you, for us. I will always put hope in front of you. I will always inspire you to love and live and dream and hope. I will never cause you to despair. I will always give you hope.
            I will never fail you. I will never call you a failure. I will never let you be a failure.
            I will never pass away. I will never let our love burn out or die. I will do everything it takes to keep our love burning. I will never let you fall out of love with Me.
            I will consume your imperfections and make you perfect. I will always look at you face to face.
            I will always give you the faith you need. I will do whatever it takes to help you have faith in Me. I will always renew you and restore you. I will always give you hope. I will be your source of hope. I will be your source of faith. I will always inspire these in you.
            I will never leave you. I will always be with you. I will always guide you and wherever we go, I will always be with you.
            I will always hold your hand.
            I will always kiss you; not just once, but over and over and over and over again. I will always pursue you. I will always walk in front of you and I will always walk behind you.
I will do what you cannot. I will go ahead of you and prepare the way. I will come behind you and put brokenness back together.
I will run with you when you can run. I will walk with you when you can walk. I will carry you when you cannot.
I will never look after another and desire someone more than you. You will always be enough for Me. You will always be enough for Me. You will never disappoint Me. You will never not be good enough for me. You will always satisfy Me. You will never not be enough for Me. I will always be jealous for you.
I will always hear you when you cry. I will always wipe away your tears. I will never abandon you. I will never leave you in your weaknesses.
I will bring you to beautiful places. I will bring you rest and healing.
I will be with you in the ugly places. I will not leave you alone in the hard times.
I will never abandon you.
I will never take My love away from you. I will always love you. I will always cherish you. You will always be My prized possession, My greatest good. I will never look at you with disgust. You will always be breaktakingly beautiful in My eyes.
I will always call you by name.
I will never steer you wrong. I will always lead you in the perfect way. I will always bring things to be at exactly the right time. I will never be too late.
I will always provide for you. I will always give you what you need. There will never be a shortage.
I will always draw you back into My arms. I will never let you escape Me. I will never forget about you. No distance is too great because I will bridge the gap.
You will always be My priority. You are always in the forefront of My mind. You will always be most important to Me.
Not only will I die for you, but I will also live for you. I will lay down My life for you every moment of every day. I will always sacrifice for you…
THIS, all of this, is what I mean when I say, “I love you.” Three short words carry the weight of this heavy oath. This is My unbreakable vow, My everlasting covenant, My sure and steady promise to you, My beloved. It is not possible for Me to break this promise to you. I am committed to you for all of eternity. I have already paid the price and now there is nothing for Me but to love you. It is My greatest delight to love you, to show you love. I will never get tired of it. Yes, My beloved, this is what I mean when I say these beautiful, life-giving, never ending words…
I love you.”