Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Mind-Boggling Riddle of Biblical Love

I heard Ravi Zacharias on the radio a couple of days ago making a statement that reminded me of the challenges of Christianity.  He said something like, “it is not by what we do that we are saved or redeemed, but it is by what we do that we reveal who we are to the world.” 

For a while now, I have been struggling with the concept of Biblical love and how we are called, commanded rather, to love (John 13:34-35).  Who are we supposed to love?  What is this love all about?  How do we show it?  I know it is not based on emotions or feelings.  I know the love Jesus is talking about is not merely intellectual, but based on actions and doing.  Dr. Zacharias’ teaching gave me a glimpse into what this love may be all about.
It is a love that others can actually see, and by which the world recognizes the hand of God in our actions. 

As Ephesians 2:8 instructs us:  for it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.  So nothing we do in this world, no amount of good deeds will ever have the power to gain us eternity with Christ.  It is a gift of the Most High, thanks to His Holy Grace and the faith that the Holy Spirit plants and cultivates in us.  So we don’t love because we are looking for redemption.  We love because we are redeemed.  Because we belong to Him, who loved us first, we are able to love, and are commanded to love, to show the world who we belong to.  Puzzling, indeed!

And we don’t love only those who love us…where is the reward in that?  We love as an act of obedience, as we pray that the Holy Spirit grows His most important fruit in our soul so we can love as an act of our redemption and our sanctification. 

As the year comes to a close, I think about how love represents such a huge challenge for me.  Unforgiveness, selfishness and a misguided sense of pride prevent me from fully embracing love as a priority in my life.  However, it is not by my own power that I would be able to love the way Jesus commands me to.  I have to relay on Him to grow His love for others in my heart.  I surrender my unloving nature to Him, so He can allow me to see His love for His children with my own eyes, and then let the Holy Spirit produce His fruits in me so I can love them as well. 

Everything I do has to be guided by love for God and love for my brothers and sisters because of the love God has for them.  I pray, therefore, that my Lord will give me the eyes to see His love for His beloved so I can offer my love to them also for that is the only reason He moves me to do whatever I do.  Not just for my own benefit and fulfillment, but for the benefit and fulfillment of the ones He loves.

Love, therefore is a riddle…a mind-boggling riddle that only the Divine can clarify.  May the love of God be evident in our lives in 2012 and always!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Truthful Reminders

My very wise niece Nicole, after reading and pondering on my last post about childhood Christmas memories in Panama, sent me a note full of Holy Spirit-inspired-truth.  As a new year quickly approaches, I think it would be good to review and meditate on some of those truths that she so eloquently presented to me.
She opened her message with truth #1, saying,  “You focused so hard on those that ignored you that you missed to notice people who loved you, and were all over you.”  Needless to say, this was kind of a slap on the face across time and space.  So many times I become so “focused” on seeking the approval and attention of others to whom I admire in the worldly sphere, that I neglect my God-ordained command to “seek first His Kingdom and His Righteousness,” while patiently waiting for all those other things to be given to me as add-ons.  So often my mind gets cluttered with worry about those who don’t “like” me, that I have no space left to fit those who do and rejoice in them for the Lord has placed them in my path to offer me encouragement, support and company in my walk. 
From there, she took me to truth #2:  “Seriously, looking back, do you envy anything about any of those people who “ignored” you?   Is there anything they have in their lives now that you would like to copy or emulate?”  And after “looking back” at all who surrounded me back then, the answer comes again and again as a resounding NO.  I used to “envy” their fashionable clothes, their lifestyles and their gravitas.  As an adolescent who felt left out, always wishing there was something like the Island of Misfit Teens for me to hide, I didn’t really let the words of Jesus dwell in my heart so much so as to change my attitude.  I never allowed the transforming power of the Word to free me as I read or heard Jesus saying, “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.  Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.  If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:28-30 NIV) 
So little faith do I exhibit that I fail to see truth #3 without such gentle reminder:  “Maybe, just maybe, God puts people in our lives to ignore us so we are forced to start looking in a different direction, notice other things, and notice other people.”  This thought on my lack of awareness brings me to my ‘word’ for 2012.  I heard on the radio the idea of having a “word” not a resolution for the New Year, and today I decided on mine.  My word for 2012 is ‘tuned-in.’  Yes, I know, technically it is two words put together by a hyphen; but technically two words put together by a hyphen become one word  (I love English grammar! : ). 
I want to be ‘tuned-in’ to my God.  I want to be ‘tuned-in’ to the whisperings of the Holy Spirit so I hear Him.  I want to be ‘tuned-in’ to Jesus’ hand holding mine so I always know when He leads me. I want to be ‘tuned-in’ to the will of the Most High for I know His Will is perfect.  I want to be ‘tuned-in’ to the needs of others over my own.  I want to be ‘tuned-in’ to the Body of Christ that is the Church.  I just want to be ‘tuned-in.’  I pray the Lord allows me to stay tuned-in throughout the year and always so I don’t miss what He is trying to accomplish in my life.
I want to remain in His Will and for that I must remained ‘tuned-in’ to His plan, for after all, like Nicole reminded me:  “You tell me all the time Gisel,...God’s plan is perfect.”  And perfect it is, indeed.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

If Only in My Dreams...

In the vast collection of Christmas carols, there is one in particular that makes me think of my childhood, not because I used to sing it or even heard it back then, but because it makes me miss those long-gone years.

Christmas Eve is a very special night in countries like Panama for pretty much everyone.  But for a child, it is the absolute most thrilling night of all, around which, the entire year revolves. 

Even though life turned out to be rather lonely and complex for me as soon as adolescence kicked in and all throughout my years in Panama; I can honestly say that my childhood was undoubtedly delightful. 

Some of my fondest memories of those years full of wonder and imagination are of our Christmas Eve celebrations.  This was the one night of the year when I was allowed to stay up until late (contrary to the tradition in the United States, where children are ushered into bed as early as possible in anticipation of Santa Claus).  In Panama, Christmas doesn’t come until the morning of the 25th, so the night before is game for children to stay awake and enjoy the Christmas Eve feast and huge family get together. 

I remember watching “canned” Christmas specials all day long on December 24th.  I loved those that showed Santa Claus flying away in a reindeer powered sleigh across the face of a full moon.  I absolutely loved those Christmas shows (still do), and then, at midnight, I remember sneaking a peak out the window into the dark tropical skies, hoping that would be the year I’d see the mythical sleigh.  It never happened, because, as all little children back then knew, presents are brought by Baby Jesus, not by the jolly guy in the red suit with the round belly that shakes like a bowl full of jelly. 

At any rate, as I grew up, the memories of those magical Christmas Eves remained in a very special place in my mind.  Time went by, and even though the magic dissipated as many years became tainted by the pains, hurts, disillusionments and disappointments of growing up, I still can see, if I look really hard, that little girl who used to keep the flame of fantasy alive through faith and innocence. 

Life has had it so I am not “home” for Christmas much at all anymore.  I have a new home now populated by two boys who have, somehow inherited their mother’s knack for the magical, so my place is here with them and my husband rather than at my childhood home.  But every time I hear the song “I’ll be home for Christmas,” I can’t help but feeling the old sting of bittersweet memories rushing to my mind almost as if in an old silent movie. 

I close my eyes as I sing the melancholic tunes to myself and picture the little girl I used to be.  The little girl that still lives in my memory, dressed up modestly in her Christmas best, shyly moving around the big Christmas Eve crowd that mostly ignored her, quietly dreaming of the magic of the night, and wondering about Santa Claus and his flying reindeer.  In her innocence, that little girl loved every minute of it, and she would have never missed it for the world.  In her honor I sing today that, “Christmas Eve will find me, where the love light gleams.  I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams…”

Monday, December 26, 2011

That's what Christmas is all about...

Well, another Christmas has come and gone.  My goal for a stress-free season was not met 100% but looking back, I can proudly say that I only had one meltdown.  It was this morning.  I woke up on the 26th and reality started to sink in.  Maybe it was the clutter in the kitchen or the mess in the living room.  Perhaps it was realizing that I have a million things to do for work before the semester starts again.  Or it could’ve been the cookies I didn’t get to bake or the Christmas cards I didn’t get to send…I don’t know what it was, but as soon as my poor husband entered the kitchen, there I was, like a ticking bomb, waiting for something to trigger me so I could explode.

After a long nap, however, I feel much better.  Now that all is well again with my soul, I sit at my computer and begin to type.  From here, I can see my two boys enjoying the wii they have been longing for and finally received this year.  I also see my husband enjoying some much needed “chilling-time” as he watches them play.  I think back and smile as I remember our Christmas gathering with the Dieters.  Every Dieter-gathering is always a sure source of noise, food and laughter that provides children and adults with opportunities to make fun of one another, catch up and create new and unforgettable memories in our hearts. 

I also remember the excitement and anticipation that kept my sons sleepless on Christmas Eve.  On the night of the 24th, after Church, we came home, ate some treats, and opened our Christmas PJs.  Grant announced that it was time to go to bed, so we escorted them to their room, and as they laid all comfy and snug in their beds, Dan read the Christmas story as narrated by the Gospel of Luke.  It was a silent night inside and out of our house as we listened to the story of how the Word became flesh.  Just as Dan was finishing the lines that describe the angel telling the shepherds about the good news, the rhythmical cadence of the reading was broken by Dylan’s sweet voice exclaiming,  “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

Needless to say, we had a good laugh.  Light has indeed entered into this dark world and the Spirit of the Lord does descend to indwell in us.  This truth becomes evident in our midst in the most simplest of ways.  Dylan has been pressing the button on the hand of a little Linu’s plush doll I got last year in an After-Christmas Sale at Hallmark.  I pulled it out this year when we decorated the house after Thanksgiving, and since then, Dylan has been fascinated by it.  The words have now a very familiar ring to him, so much so that he is able to recognize them whenever he hears them.  What he doesn’t realize is that his statement speaks volumes of truth to all who’d hear him.

That is, indeed, what Christmas is all about.  In the end, the cookies, the cards, the presents, the decorations, the stress, it all fades away as we face the Light of the World who came to us when the time was full.

I pray that you are able to sit back and contemplate the moments that make your Christmas special and real.  I pray that Christ has been re-born in your hearts this year.  I pray that the simplicity and humility of the conditions upon which our Savior was born 2000 years ago speak to you today and show you the way of what our lives should become.  I pray that we let the Light enter into our heart tonight so darkness dissipates and it turns bright again, just like the noon day. 

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. Luke 2: 10-14 KJ

Click on the link below to watch Dylan saying his now famous lines.  I hope it brings a smile to your heart.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Why are you so downcast, o my soul?

Today, I hear the words of Psalm 42:11 whispering in my soul, Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. 

I’m not sure why my soul is downcast.  I’m not sure why it is so disturbed within me.  Perhaps it is the advent of Christmas and the exhaustion caused by the preparations.  Perhaps it is the thought of all my loved ones for whom this Christmas will bring the spear of loss that pierces their souls.  Perhaps it is the knowledge of impending tragedy waiting in the near future.  Yet, it could very well be the open box that sits on my kitchen counter.  This “care package” has been weeks in the making, but still remains open because I’m unable to finish it with the right card to go with it. 

The small box contains a couple of books I thought would provide some comfort to a grieving soul.  I’ve had, however, the hardest time picking a card to write a note on and put in the packet.  How in the world am I to know what to say?  How am I to know what words to use which may reveal the love of our Father in Heaven?  How am I to know how to express that hope lives, because He lives? 

I am downcast because I can’t help but thinking about the recipient of this small box, a person who has lost it all this year.  I am downcast because, even though I’d like to mend the wounds and provide a breath of fresh air to the weary, I don’t know how.  I am downcast because I know that right at this moment there are those near and dear who are shedding tears and feeling the sting of bitter pain in their inner most being; and there is absolutely nothing I can do to make the hurt go away.
However, as I read in my devotional, “to know how best to bind up the broken heart…Christ chose to experience it Himself so He can minister to us by His example.”  I can’t do anything, but as surely as God lives, Jesus knows what to do, and He tells us.  He says to us:  "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30
Our Lord Jesus says to go to Him for He will give us rest.  What a wonderful promise.  How full of hope.  The truth is that we could not find the comfort and rest we so desperately seek outside the road that takes us to Jesus.  He is the One and Only who can provide exactly what we need to heal and be whole again.  Without Him, we would always be lacking and in want.  Without Him there is no true hope.  Without Him there is no rest.  Without Him there is no peace.  Without Him there is no mending of broken hearts.  Without Him there is no victory. Whatever the reasons are for my downcast soul; I know that it is only through my trust in the delivering power of my Lord and Savior that true hope will be rebuilt and reborn in me. 
I look downstairs and I still see the small box sitting open on my countertop.  I don’t know if I’ll find the right card to put in it.  I hope I do.  I don’t know if the hands that’ll open it would uncover words that would bring comfort to her battered life.  The only thing I know is that my heart aches for those who suffer and that I lift up a prayer to the Healer of the broken for Him to touch and lessen the hurt of the hearts of the wounded.  He is the One who makes all things new.  May He make hope come in the morning for those who cry at night.  May He bring rejoicing to the empty hearts.  May He reveal Himself for His presence is the soothing balm that makes all things bearable.  May all the tears be collected in the bottle that He holds in His hand to be forever put away so the healing can finally start.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

My Little "Chocolate" Boy

So God created mankind in his own image,
   in the image of God he created them;
   male and female he created them.
Genesis 1:27

“Mama, I don’t want to be chocolate.  I want to be white like everybody else,” Dylan somberly pronounced a couple of weeks ago with a frown in his face.  I have feared this moment ever since we decided to become an adoptive family, - the moment Dylan would begin to realize the differences-.  This moment seemed to be closer this day. 

I have always been concerned about not being able to provide the reassurance necessary to make him be never doubtful of his belonging to our family.  I have always worried that I wouldn’t know how to provide what he needs in order for him to realize that he is our son regardless of biology.  My concerns were put to the test that day.
Before this particular comment, Dylan has been mentioning here and there how his skin is “chocolate.”  Dan and I had been jokingly saying that he is chocolate because he is made of chocolate milk.  (Dylan’s passion for chocolate milk is matchless!)  But now, he was serious.  I could read a burden in his face and hear real concern in his voice.  I prayed.

To my surprise, Grant, who was “distracted” doing who knows what somewhere else, was the first one to speak, “you are different because you are special.  We are all special.  God made everyone special.”  I was stunned at how the Holy Spirit used Grant to show me the way.  No wonder Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are like children. 

Truth transpired very clearly out of Grant’s mouth, for everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.  (1 Timothy 4: 4-5)  He made it all, and everything He made is good, and because we are the handiwork of the Most High, we are infinitly special. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. (Colossians 1:16)  By His hand and by His Word we were made.  If this fact alone doesn’t make us special, I don’t know what would?

Dylan’s inquisitive stare was still on me, so I quickly reinforced Grant’s words by saying, “yes, Dylan, you are God’s child.  He made you special.  You are special and so are all of us who belong to Him.  Besides, why would you want to be the same as everyone else?  That’s boring!”  To this, Dylan’s look of concern began to soften.  Grant agreed with me wholeheartedly, “yeah, Dylan, why would you want to be the same?  That’s terrible.  It’s better to be different.”  And different we are, indeed, I thought to myself.  I added how we are all different in our own family.  How we were all born in different places (I know, New Castle and Ashtabula don’t really sound as exotic as Panama and Guatemala, but they are different : ).  We also talked about the students at NCCA and how there are many children from China, and Korea and how there are African-Americans and how everyone looks different if you really pay attention. 

Toward the end of our conversation, I wasn’t sure how Dylan really felt about the whole thing, but he let it go.  I know that we will have many moments in which we will have to deal with Dylan’s questioning of the reasons why many things are the way they are.  I pray that the Holy Spirit comes quickly to our aide when we are to respond to him and that the words out of our mouths bring a truth that offers him comfort and reassurance.

A few days later, as we were driving down to do some errands, Dylan said again, “why do I have to be chocolate?”  However, at that time, I perceived a hint of mischievousness in the tone of his voice, so I looked at him on the rear view mirror.  His eyes met mine, and his look had sparks flashing back at me, with a smile that I know all too well by now.  His face was glowing with the thrill of tricking “old Mama.”  I smiled right back at him and said, “it’s because you’re made of chocolate milk…”  He rewarded me with a belly laugh filled with satisfaction and contentment which in turn filled my heart with warmth and love for my little “chocolate boy.”

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. (Psalm 139:13)

Dylan, being "different"... being himself.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Let's Make a Line to See HIM

Tonight we had the privilege and the blessing to watch our boys perform in the Christmas musical at their school.  Among the secularization of the season, it was truly a joy to see Grant and Dylan surrounded by all their school-mates loudly, proudly, boldly and unapologetically praising the King of Kings in celebration of His first advent as a humble baby.  The entire program was great.  Grant sang a short solo and also played one of the Wise Men.  Dylan overcame his stage fright and displayed his dexterity and hand-eye coordination with the motions that he performed perfectly.  

We were so proud.  I think the whole audience could hear my laughter throughout.  The last song, however, was my absolute favorite.  It was so touching it moved me to tears.  It was masterfully sung by NCCA’s very own super star to be.  She is a seventh grader that is destined for greatness.  So much so that Grant made the following comment on our ride home:  “when I’m older, and I’m sitting home watching TV with my kids and Maxine comes on the screen singing or acting, I’m going to tell my children, ‘hey kids, I went to school with her! And they won’t believe me!’”  Spoken like a true ‘wise man,’ indeed.

At any rate, I don’t know if it was the way she sang it or if it was the emotion of the evening or if it was the simplicity of the words or if it was the very Hand of God reaching down to touch my soul; but the lyrics of the closing song really spoke to me tonight.  We recorded it with our hand-held little camera; however, some woman next to us kept on coughing the whole way through, which doesn’t make for good video!  So, as soon as I came home, I went to the good ole reliable YouTube and found it, performed by Becky Kelley.  I have to tell you, though…if after you hear it, you think Becky Kelley is good, Maxine from NCCA is even better!  At any rate, rather than me telling you about it; how about if I let you be blessed by it.  I pray it does speak to you too.  It is not one of those spectacular-goosebumps-all-over-standing-ovation-grandious kind of song.  But I hope it says something important to you as you listen to it.  I hope that as it points to Him, it helps you turn your eyes upon Jesus this Christmas season.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Thoughtful Gift that Points to Christ

“I’d like to give you some figurines for your Nativity; but I don’t know where to buy them.  If I give you some money, would you buy them for you and the kids?”  This was my friend Judy’s Christmas present idea for us this year, to which I outwardly responded with a rather sedated, “O Judy, you don’t have to do that…” when inwardly I was more like, “YES!!!! THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!!!!” 

My heart filled with joy when she made the suggestion.  I have an expanding Nativity Set at home which is a tradition that I imported from Panama when I moved to the U.S.  Every year I buy at least one new piece to add to the Nativity.  That is what my Mother used to do at home as I was growing up.  Every year, she’d go to the store and purchase something.  It is very easy to find pieces for the Nativity in Panama.  Down there, Nativity sets are not just restricted to the main characters of Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, the Wise Men and one lonely shepherd.  In Panama, people make the whole little town of Bethlehem!  They make “field and fountain, moor and mountains” with boxes and brown packing paper, all covered with moss and populated by villagers, shepherds, sheep, chickens, dogs, cats, ducks wading in ponds, water falls, caves, buildings and houses to complete the Bethlehem scene.  Nativity displays can be as big as a room in some instances.  Therefore, it is very easy to find all kinds of characters to add to your set every year. 

I remember how as soon as I was granted the badge of “responsible-enough- to handle the delicate figurines,” by my Mother, I became the official Nativity Display Setter at my childhood home.  I loved the role!  I waited with joyful anticipation the arrival of Advent so my Mom would finally get the new piece(s) for the year to begin arranging them on the privileged corner of our living room which had served as the location for the display since before I was born.  It was the best time of the year, indeed!  I remember the glee I felt carefully unwrapping each figurine, each building, each sheep, duck, chicken, camel, and designing in my head the ideal place for each one of them.  I remember having to wrestle with the old star year after year since it would just not stay put.  The wire hanger stand that my Dad had made for it originally, was not effectively holding it after a few decades.  I remember one of the Wise Men’s head had been glued and re-glued several times and I always had to handle it with extreme devotion.  So was the case of the main shepherd that used to stand by the manger.  These pieces, along with the Holy Family and the “Glory” angel were part of the original set my Mom had bought back in the 50s.  They were Italian hand-made intricate works of art.  Today, the beauty of the original pieces is recaptured by the Fontanini Family who still produce them.  And, though they lack the charm of the originals; they still dazzle with their details.

Those December afternoons setting the Nativity back in my childhood home have become a collection of my most precious memories.  Today, as I prepare for Christmas in my own adult home; I have had the blessing of being able to continue this lovely tradition with my children.  Finding new figurines to add to the collection every year, however, is quite more challenging in Western PA than it is in my hometown in Panama.  But, may the Lord bless the Internet, for sometimes, it does serve valuable purposes.  A few years ago, when Kraynak’s stopped bringing them, I was able to find Fontanini’s on-line!  And that’s exactly where we headed the day Judy offered us this precious idea for a present. 

That same afternoon, Grant (who has inherited my love for the Nativity Display) and I got to it.  I had to tell Grant to PLEASE narrow his choices  down to a top-three.  Later I had to give in and told him a top-five would be OK.  Even Dan got into it the “spirit” as he watched us wrestle with the limited funds and the endless variety of choices.  He pronounced the wonderful words, “How about if we throw in some more money so you guys can get more of what you want!?”  How about it!  So we did!  After Grant went to bed, I looked at his list.  He had made a price check between Amazon and E-Bay which resulted in a top-seven list from which I selected four. 

At any rate, Judy’s present has enabled me to talk to my sons extensively about my childhood and my Mother, whom they never got to meet on this side of Paradise.  The conversation has expanded throughout the days and continues even today, when we received the first two from our order.  Judy’s present has been a gift that points to Christ this Christmas and will continue to do so for as many Christmas as we spend together.  Every year, as we dig out the Christmas decoration boxes out of storage, and as we begin to plan the Nativity display, we’ll be able to remember where they came from, and the tradition will remain alive.  Memories will continue to be made around the manger scene year after year, as we try to bring Jesus’ birth to the forefront of Christmas the best way we can, and with a little help from dear friends!

A Son Is Given...And the Word Became Flesh!

Isaiah foretold of a Son that would be called Mighty God…a child upon whose shoulders the whole world would rest.  The One and Only.  A baby King!  A Lamb and a Lion…

For to us a child is born,
   to us a son is given,
   and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
   Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
   Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 9: 6 NIV

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.  John 1:14

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”
                                                                                             Luke 2: 8-14

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Breakfast in Bethlehem

“Where are we going, Mama?”  Dylan asked me this morning as I began to rush him, urging him to get ready.  “To Breakfast in Bethlehem!”  I replied with all the excitement that I could muster on an early Saturday morning.  “What’s in there?”  Dylan continued asking.  (He can’t remember what happened yesterday, so I have gotten used to having to explain familiar things to him over and over and over and over again.)  Since I didn’t have much time for long and extended explanations, I just said, “there are animals in there!”  To this, Dylan’s eyes opened wide as he asked, “real ones?”  “Yes, Dylan, real animals and you can…”  He didn’t let me finish for he left the room in mid-sentence, went downstairs and told Dan, - who had already repeatedly told him to get ready so he could come earlier with him, all to no avail, - “Daddy!  I’m coming with you!”

I sighed, chuckled and praised God for this day.  “Breakfast in Bethlehem” is a wonderful annual event that the Marshall Family puts together in the middle of the Advent season with the help of countless other volunteers at our New Bedford Church.  It is truly experiential.  Children from our community come in and have a chance to wander around the different stations as the church is turned into our version of the little town of Bethlehem.  Personally, I head to the food first of all; and then, due to my allergies, I try to stay away from the hay as much as possible so I can maintain my breathing capacity to the max.

This year my allergies were particularly bad, so I spent most of my time standing safely by the entrance.  From my vantage point, I had the opportunity to watch the hustle and bustle of “Main Street.”  It was the first time I had the privilege of just contemplating “Breakfast in Bethlehem,” and it was a great experience.  I saw children’s faces light up as they heard Glenda, at the registration table, inform them that they could head down the hallway to find costumes to wear.  Shyly, but with a twinkle of anticipation in the eyes, the children paraded toward the costume room where Diana waited for them, ready to help them turn the most eclectic collection of material and other “accessories” into fabulous outfits worthy of kings, angels, townspeople or shepherds. 

I saw our very own grown-up angel, Jackie, floating around the “strip” bringing cheer to all who saw her walking by.  I decided to venture through “downtown” to check it out, and saw Kim, faithfully helping children make their clay beads with Shirley next door, offering tasty treats.  And, of course, in the stable with the live sheep, donkeys, rabbits, calf, and alpacas laying gently in the manger was this year’s baby Jesus, little Grace Elmer in all her splendor, under the careful watch of Rachel who played Mary.  One of my favorite parts was seeing Dylan hammering away at nails on a cross guided by Gary as Joseph in his carpenter's workshop.  I didn’t last long there for the livestock stirred my allergies.  So as I walked back to my original spot, Grant made rolls with Gay Ann in Mary’s bakery across the “street” from the fellowship hall where the puppeteers were getting ready for their show under the leadership of Geniene.  That’s also where breakfast is served buffet-style, managed by a multitude of helpers who offer visitors all kinds of goodies with a smile on their faces and a pot of coffee or a jar of juice in their hands. 

I stood at the entrance again for a little while and saw Marti and Brad Marshall, the engineers of this event, walking back and forth, trouble-shooting here and there with their characteristic ease, and their hearts filled with joy as they saw yet another “Breakfast in Bethlehem” come true at our beloved church.

It was time for me to go.  I went and found the boys and told them that they were under Daddy’s rule now.  I waved goodbye to Dan and walked outside to my car.  I breathed in the crisp morning air and thought of the great morning the Lord had given us today.  I’m so glad and thankful that my boys have a church that offers them the opportunity to become actors in a life-size pretend Bethlehem, made just for children like them to whom the Kingdom of God belongs.  And the greatest thing, which I didn’t hear about until I was home later in the afternoon:  Grant even had the chance to tell the Story of Jesus’ Birth to other children at Jackie’s storytelling place! – (This is a black-lit cave-type-concoction where kids of all ages crawl in to marvel at a recount of the events of 2000 years ago.)

“Breakfast in Bethlehem” gives us, as parents, another opportunity to keep the meaning of Christmas in the forefront of the season for our children.  It helps us surround them with all things Christian and all things good.  It is an event so full of wonders divine that Grant told me at night that he wishes “Breakfast in Bethlehem would last all day.”  What a blessing!  And for that, I praise the Lord – (and the Marshall Family too : ) -.

It was wonderful to spend the morning in the little town of Bethlehem which received our Savior in its arms and kept Him safe in such a humble state.  Fully man and fully God at the same time; Jesus guide our path today with Your perfect light.

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel

The Branch of Jesse

Inspired mostly by portions of Isaiah’s chapters 7 and 11, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is a song traditionally associated with Christmas.  However, though it does eloquently speak of the Advent of the Christ, God with Us; it is not but the Advent of His second coming that the poignant and sobering verses proclaim. 

Isaiah announced that: 

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
   from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—
   the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
   the Spirit of counsel and of might,
   the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD—  (Isaiah 11: 1-2 NIV)

…In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.  In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the surviving remnant of his people… (Isaiah 11:10-11a - NIV)

He will raise a banner for the nations
   and gather the exiles of Israel;
he will assemble the scattered people of Judah
   from the four quarters of the earth.  (Isaiah 11: 12 NIV)

“For a second time” the Lord will “reach out his hand…to reclaim the surviving remnant of his people…”  What a glorious statement.  The shoot of Jesse will come again, and He will rescue His faithful remnant.  The little child who was born in Bethlehem, the Emmanuel, the Great I Am will lead the way. 

20 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. 21 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.”
 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).  (Matthew 1: 20-23 NIV)

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan's tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o'er the grave
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai's height,
In ancient times did'st give the Law,
In cloud, and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Old Testament Prophecies of the Birth of Christ II

Around 700 years before the birth of our Savior, the Prophet Isaiah had a revelation from God Himself that had profound implications for us today.  Isaiah had brought the Word to Ahaz, King of Judah, as he was facing imminent attacks that threatened to ruin him and depose him as King.  At this meeting, the LORD spoke to Ahaz directly too, and told him to ask Him for a sign of victory for Judah, but Ahaz did not want to ask God for a sign, to which Isaiah responded: 

“Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also?  Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.  Isaiah 7:14

"Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals." Revelation 5:5

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Pointing to Christ this Christmas

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  John 3:16

“I refuse to buy into the latest toy craze this Christmas.  I’m tired of it.  We buy those prized toys, only to see them on a table at next year’s yard sale.”  This was my very wise and dearest friend Indira expressing her frustration with Christmas shopping and the craziness that some parents go into when it comes to buying the ultimate toy for their kids every year.  I really admire Indira.  She has been able to stick to her “one-big-present-only-policy” year after year.  Her children get one big present and the rest are smaller things that the rest of the family and friends give them.  Not me.  I spend way too much.  And, although we don’t sale anything because my boys are pack-rats with attachment disorders; I can see last year’s toys from where I’m sitting, inside a plastic bin, covered with a deep layer of dust.  Nobody has played with those things since I don’t remember when.  What a waste.  I’ve dug myself into a Christmas hole without much hope for escape.

It pains me, but I am not going to endlessly rant about the over-commercialization of Christmas or the secularization of one of the holiest of celebrations.  I’m just not surprised by the reality of Christmas in our society.  After all, that’s exactly how people who belong to the world are to be expected to behave, guided by their prince of darkness who is still exercising the season of dominion that God has allowed him. 

The secular world has appropriated Christmas for itself; creating its own religious icons, for secularism is a religion in case you hadn’t thought of it that way.  Secularism is the religion that follows the dogma of anti-religion; where the worship of self and other fabrications is practiced daily.  Secularism has vacated any traced of Christianity out of holy days of profound significance in our faith.  Secularism has taken Christ out of the foundations of Christianity such as Christmas and Easter.  The two holy days without which there would be no Christian faith have been depleted of their meaning by erasing their protagonist.  This is our reality.  However, we don’t have to practice it or live as one of secularism’s many followers.  We are called to be different, - in the world but not of the world -.  We are in the middle of the Advent days.  Perhaps this is the precise moment to make a stand against secularism in our own personal way. 

That doesn’t mean, however, that I won’t buy presents for my boys this year.  But I can make each present meaningful.  I can make each present point to Christ. 

I can add Christianity into my Christmas tree by hanging ornaments that point to Christ. 

I can read the story of Christmas out of the primary source.  I can make the story speak for itself and point to Christ. 

I can insist that Grant reads the Bible verse that is on each of the links of the Christmas chain that he made at school.  It is such a blessing to hear him reading the Word of God out of his own Bible and in his very own sweet voice.  I can let my son point Christ to me that way. 

I can use the Nativity to make the story of Christmas come alive for Dylan.  I can let him play with the characters and create his own story in his imagination, where the Wise Kings become warriors and the shepherds turn into soldiers who guard the precious Holy family at the gates of Bethlehem.  I can let the Nativity point to Christ. 

Little things help us keep the story fresh and alive in our hearts.  Little things can help us point to Christ.  Little things remind us that Christmas is not a license to indulge in all things material just because we deserve it and we’ve been “good.”  Christmas is about our Savior’s birth and in all we do, like the star that the Wise Men followed, we must be intentional about pointing to Him for all to know and for all to see, even in the midst of our secularized society and world. 

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and[c] will call him Immanuel.  Isaiah 7:14

Old Testament Prophecies of the Birth of Jesus I

2 “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
   though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
   one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
   from ancient times.”
 Micah 5:2

Monday, December 5, 2011

Nicole's Notebook

Great are the works of the LORD; they are pondered by all who delight in them.  Psalm 111:2

“Wait, wait…what was that?  What book?  Who was that again?  Let me go get my notebook.”  These were my niece Nicole’s words pretty much every time we’d have a conversation, during her visit this past Thanksgiving Break.  Shortly after her questions, she’d disappear into the dark of night or the light of day, only to reappear a few seconds later holding her little notebook and pen in her hands.  She’d open up the notebook and begin to carefully take notes about whatever it was that had caught her attention in the middle of our conversation.  She travels a lot, and wherever she goes, she takes that little notebook with her.  She uses it to record things worth noting, things she doesn’t want to forget and things upon which she would like to meditate at a later date. 

Nicole is very precious to me; and more than my niece, she is my sister and my friend.  So, it gave me great joy to have her so intently taking down my words into her book.  However, my pride was misplaced, for it wasn’t the speaker who made the words profound or relevant.  The words that ended up on the pages of Nicole’s delicate notebook were those which she recognized to be words of wisdom and truth.  The Lord has given her a keen awareness of His presence, and He who is Truth, reveals Himself to her on a daily basis, and she just doesn’t want to miss Him.

Nicole’s thirst for truth and wisdom moves her to keep a record of them whenever she encounters them.  She keeps the records in her beautiful notebook, which I started calling “Nicole’s Arab Notebook” for the intricate arabesque designs on its leather cover; and mostly as an inside joke between Nicole, my sister and I regarding Nicole’s Persian heritage from her mother’s side of the family.  (It’s a very long story for another blog entry : )

At any rate, the last night of her visit, Nicole and I watched the movie The Nativity.  Even though we had to get up at 4:30 a.m. the next morning, we stayed up watching the film.  This picture obviously brought up many opportunities for the Word to come alive in my living room, and of course, there it was Nicole, little-Arab-notebook and pen in hand, taking down valuable information, including mistakes that I fed her.  I told her that Micah was the last book of the Old Testament and that as the last prophet, there were 400 years of silence between him and the birth of Jesus.  All true, except that the name of the prophet was not Micah, but Malachi.  I saw her taking her notes lit only by the bluish glow coming from my TV set.  I didn’t realize my mistake until I drop her off at the airport in the morning.  I sent her a text message right away to which she replied, “good thing you told me because I had written it in my Arab-notebook!”  I said to her, “I know!  That’s why I’m sending you this message so you fix.  I don’t what you to have errors in your book!”

Watching the endearing scene of Nicole taking dedicated notes in the middle of the night, in our dark living room during her visit made me realize that is exactly what we are called to do.  That is exactly what it means to hide His word in our hearts, so we would not sin against Him.  (Psalm 119:11)  James tells us in chapter 1:22 that we are not to just “listen to His word, but we are to do what it says.”  And what better way to aide us in the task of hiding His Word in our hearts, than to write them on a notebook that we carry with us all the time to then meditate on them so they can become engraved in our brains and souls.  What better way to not just “listen” to His voice, than to record His words so we don’t forget them and can actually begin to do what they say. 

I think I need to follow Nicole’s example and get myself a little notebook this Christmas.  I want to carry it with me all the time so I can write down my daily Scripture and any meditations that may come to me throughout the day regarding that particular piece of His Word.  I don’t know if I’d be able to keep it up as an every day exercise, but I will sure try to make it into a habit, even if it turns out to be not so regular and precise.  I do want to start this Christmas season.  It sounds like a good “to me; from me” kind of Christmas present.  I don’t think mine would have arabesque motifs on it; perhaps it’ll have something more like a beach scene or something tropical on it.  But I sure hope it becomes part of me; part of who I am.  Just like Nicole is no longer herself, without her little Arab Notebook.

Nicole and I on board of a cruise that she won and had the fabulous idea of inviting me to come with!

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Lord and EMPs

I faced many challenges this past week, but one in particular topped them all.  I found myself having to address the reality of Electro Magnetic Pulse weapons with my 9-year old son Grant. 

That afternoon, as soon as I saw him come in the door after school, I noticed something was bugging him.  I dutifully asked, “What’s wrong?”  His answer to my question went something like this:  “well, should I believe what a mean guy who always lies tells me?”  I’m like, “well… no!”  Then, he continued, “because this fifth grader, who loves to tell lies, told me that in 2013 there is going to be a solar storm that is going to destroy all the electronic chips in every computerized equipment on earth.”  (yes, the pause that proceeded this statement was very long…I had to take several minutes to process what he had said and then begin to formulate a reply that would satisfy Grant’s troubled mind…so I went ahead and hung up his and Dylan’s coats, put their backpacks away, gave them something to drink, as I frantically pleaded for some coherent thought to come to my rescue.) 

I saw real fear in Grant’s eyes; so what went on after his initial comment/question was a solid hour-long back-and-forth on the pertinent fact checking deliberation on how the sun has experienced, and will continue to experience various storms that give out exorbitant amounts of energy into space and that all that has happened, and Earth is still here, going round and round in its orbit.  I said that only God knows the future and when someone comes up stating that they know what is going to happen 2 years from now, that should be an immediate red flag that indicates a lie.  I mentioned that perhaps this boy was confusing solar storms with EMP weapons; which opened up another can of worms as I had to try to explain what EMPs were.  We talked about so many things I can’t even remember it all.  I finally said, “Grant, I haven’t seen any evidence in the Bible that indicates that God may allow the destruction of the planet by a solar storm or anything like that.” 

I could still see concern in his eyes, as if he was processing all the info I had bombarded him with; but the fear seemed to have subsided…momentarily that was. 

Shortly after I had made my final points, Dan walked in the door.  After the usual hugs and hellos, I had the brilliant idea of mentioning to him about our discussion on solar storms and EMPs.  I said how we had concluded that it was all an impossibility and mere lies by that mean boy at school.  To this, Dan replied with a resounding, “well, it could be possible!  A powerful solar storm could actually act as an EMP, because it could be almost like an atomic bomb exploding in the atmosphere…blah, blah, blah…” Needless to say, I stopped listening to anything Dan was saying as I brought my hands to my head and started pulling out my hair.

If my eyes could shoot darts, Dan would have been seriously hurt.  My efforts to communicate telepathically failed miserably.  Dan’s words had expelled more destructive power than an EMP itself.  Grant’s mainframe had shut down and he was in panic mode, - Grant style -, which means he turns into a statistician.  “So, what are the probabilities of something like that happening?”  Grant asked.  Dan said, “not big.”  “You mean, not big like 0.00000001%?” Grant pressed.  “Yeah, something like that.” (Weak)  “You mean like, if this were to happen, it would be like once in 300 years or so?”  Grant continued to press on.  “Yeah, I’m pretty sure.” (Weaker)  “You are 99.999999% sure?”  Grant pleaded.  By then I think Dan had realized he was standing on quick sand and that the probabilities for sinking were 100% no doubt.  So I came to the rescue and said, “well, remember, I said how God doesn’t say anything in the Bible about destructing Earth!”  But then, Dan said, “well, He does say it!  He says that He will create a new earth which implies that He will destroy the current one.”  I was done.  He was on his own.

After some extended deliberations and explanations, Dan managed to get the conversation turned around to what, I know, was the Holy Spirit’s intent all along:  reminding our young son about the importance of trusting Him.  “We don’t know what is going to happen, Grant; and we cannot be afraid.  We cannot live in fear.  We were not given a Spirit of timidity or fear.  We are called to trust God and know that He will take care of us no matter what happens,” Dan emphasized.  “So, even if there is an EMP explosion, we should trust that we will be OK?”  Grant asked hesitantly.  “Yes, no matter what, He will take care of us, and even if we don’t survive it, we will be with Him,” Dan said.  “But the probabilities of it really happening are very small?”  Grant pleaded.  “Yes, don’t worry, and trust the Lord!” I said, as I patted him on the head and kissed him, hinting that the conversation was done and over with.  (Fat chance)

Later that night, I played a song for Grant on the computer.  I told him to read the lyrics as he listened.  He did.  From the distance, I watched my boy sitting by the computer, intently reading the words on the screen.  I prayed that his soul would find comfort in what he read and that he could feel the power of the Hand of God resting on his shoulder, telling him, “do not be afraid.”  

In his nightly prayers, Grant asked God to help him not be afraid; and then whispered in my ears that even though he knew he shouldn’t be afraid, he’d like for me to make him company for 5 minutes.  I did.  (And after the boys were asleep, I had a talk with Dan : )

5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart
   and lean not on your own understanding;
6 in all your ways submit to him,
   and he will make your paths straight. 
Proverbs 3:5-6

This is the song I played for Grant, I hope it brings you hope: