Strength of Soul

I read a verse a few weeks ago that has stuck with me. Psalm 138:3 says, “On the day I called, you answered me; my strength of soul you increased.”

I don’t think I’ve ever really noticed that little phrase “strength of soul” before, but God’s timing is good because 2020 is putting our strength of soul to the test.

Americans need strength of soul to love our neighbors as ourselves in the face of disagreements on every front.

White people need strength of soul to dismantle centuries of racism one relationship at a time, one conversation at a time, one action at a time, even after the protests die down and the fires have burned out.

Black people need strength of soul to endure day after day when their lives can be at risk just because they aren’t white.

(To be clear: it is horrifying that George Floyd’s life could be snuffed out because one police officer decided to kill him while others watched. Black lives are valuable because they are made in the image of God, and it is despicable to treat them unjustly because their skin is dark.)

Pastors need strength of soul to shepherd their congregations through a pandemic and all the complicated needs and emotions and logistics it brings.

Police officers need strength of soul to protect and serve with courage and wisdom when events escalate rapidly.

Politicians need strength of soul to govern wisely even as they know half the people they lead will completely disagree with them.

Anxious people need strength of soul to get through the panic attacks that bring them bolt upright in the middle of the night.

Kids need strength of soul when so much of what they know is ripped away and important life milestones go by the wayside.

Healthcare workers need strength of soul to care for patients who may very well infect them with a life-threatening disease.

Business owners need strength of soul to maintain their livelihoods – and those of their employees – when government policies and out-of-control looters destroy in an instant what they have worked a lifetime to build.

Parents need strength of soul to explain so many different issues to our kids in an honest way that lets them know they are safe and loved.

School officials need strength of soul to manage the education of all those entrusted to their responsibility.

Family members need strength of soul when their loved ones are slipping away in a lonely hospital bed and all they can do is say goodbye through a cold screen.

Those loved ones need strength of soul as the end of their life approaches and they can’t even hug anyone before they leave this realm for the next.

We all need strength of soul these days because we are weary, confused, hurt, uncertain, angry and overwhelmed.

We aren’t the only ones, though.

Jesus needed strength of soul when he faced a death he knew was coming at the hands of a violent, protesting mob. He needed it so much he sweat blood as he stayed awake all night begging for help from his Father.

And so, here is our hope:

When we think we can’t go another minute, when we are completely wrung out, when it seems we are broken beyond repair by sin and death and trouble and heartache, Jesus understands. He knows what we are asking because he did the same thing.

And because he loves us, this king, this writer of history, this one who promises to make all things new – he will indeed increase our strength of soul.

Press on.

Disappointed

Disappointed? Yep, me too. Frustrated, upset, angry, scared, sad? It’s going around.
 
I should be watching late night basketball right now, rooting for a buzzer beater on this, the best sports day of the year.
 
Instead, my tv screen is dark.
 
And that’s just basketball.
 
Thousands are sick and dying, a pandemic sweeping the globe. Hospitals are overwhelmed. Health care workers are brave but stressed. Officials must make hard decisions that will change the course of people’s lives.
 
Kids are out of school, missing weeks of educational and social time they were counting on, even if they didn’t realize it. They miss their friends and their teachers. Long-awaited field trips are cancelled. Parents are scrambling to fit in the full weight of their kids’ education, half of which seems to be figuring out who needs to log into which device at what time and oh yeah, what was my password?
 
Sports teams sit idle, practices and games never to be made up. Spring break trips are gone with the wind – the beaches are closed and even the sun doesn’t want to shine. Arenas where pro teams play are empty, hotels are empty, restaurants are empty, toilet paper shelves are empty, bank accounts of thousands of service workers are suddenly, unexpectedly – empty.
 
Jobs disappear overnight. Entrepreneurs scramble to keep their dreams afloat. Industries are decimated. Parents wonder how they’re going to make rent, feed their kids, survive.
 
Churches are empty too, pastors preaching to a single camera on Sunday.
 
Kids and parents alike have had their identities ripped away. For many, their security is gone as much of their money has followed the markets down the drain.
 
And you know what? It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to be disappointed, to grieve, to question, to not know which end is up. It’s okay to be scared and long for the ordinary boringness of a normal day when it’s no big deal to grab a loaf of bread on the way home from work.
 
We can’t stay there forever, can’t let our sadness turn to bitterness, but we’re made to love and because of that, to be sad when hard things happen. Feel the brokenness all around you, feel the hopelessness, feel the pain and the panic, feel the dread, feel the tears. Don’t act like they’re not real or you shouldn’t feel them – they’re real and they hurt.
 
Let those feelings drive you to long for your home, the home you’ve never known, where wrongs will be made right, where all the bad becomes undone, where we will abide forever in the shelter of the Most High.
 
Disease and death and sorrow – our constant companions these days – will be no more.
 
That perspective is hard to see right now, in this first quarter of 2020 that feels like it’s drop-kicking us to the curb. Look for small signs, like delicate blooms springing into beauty as trees wake from winter’s rest. All around them is grey and brown and sad, and yet, there, the new green and the brilliant white appear, quietly, tenderly, defiantly, bringing with them that elusive spark we long for: hope.

Everyday Christmas #25: Hope

There’s a line from O Holy Night that has been running through my mind this month:

A thrill of hope …

Hope, after all, is what makes this whole thing go.

Hope gave Abraham the vision to leave his home for a promised land, descendants who would outnumber the stars, and a God who would be his.

Hope helped Joseph survive when he was sold into slavery in Egypt, and it gave him the courage to rise to second in command in the country so he could save his people when famine came.

Hope let Moses lead the Israelites out of Egypt, blood still dripping from their doorways, to walk a path through a dry ocean bed, walls of water towering above them.

Hope made Rahab harbor Israelite spies, and hope knocked down the walls of Jericho.

Hope gave Ruth the tenacity to choose her people and her God, and it gave Boaz the love to become her kinsman redeemer.

Hope pushed David to confront Goliath, lead his people, and recover from the worst thing he would ever do.

Hope spoke to Isaiah the words to prophesy of a coming Messiah, a Prince of Peace would be called Immanuel.

Hope gave Esther the courage to risk her life obtaining an audience with the king so she could save her people from being wiped out.

Hope asked Mary and Joseph to embrace their fears and end up in a cold, dirty stable where they would give birth to a son who would change the world.

Hope brought shepherds and wise men to worship.

Hope let Simeon and Anna see with their physical eyes the fulfillment of the thousands of prayers they had offered with eyes of faith.

Hope helped Jesus hang on the cross to die, and that hope was fulfilled three days later when the stone rolled away.

If a human heart has no hope to hold onto, the darkness can become overwhelming. But if we have hope, even just one flickering ray, that pinprick of light can fight the darkness, pushing back and pushing forward until it explodes into the full light of day.

Jesus is that pinprick of light.

His life, death and resurrection mean that we always have hope, that even death will not have the last word because we wait with expectation for his second coming that will make all things new.

We celebrate his birth today because without it, we would have no hope. So open your presents, enjoy your family and gather around the table to feast together, declaring your hope in the everlasting God, the maker of heaven and earth.

And if you have no presents to open, if your family is gone, if there is no feast on the table – don’t lose heart:

But this I call to mind,
  and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
  his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
  great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
  “therefore I will hope in him.”

We were ruined sinners, and now we’re redeemed saints. A thrill of hope, indeed.

Everyday Christmas #24: The Night Before

Because we are traveling for Christmas this year, we had our Christmas Eve with the kids last night (Dec. 23). We traditionally give them a book and pajamas, and it’s fun to watch them get excited about opening a couple of presents ahead of time. (Okay, maybe the older ones are not suuuuper excited about pjs, but hey, it makes their mother happy.)

Ellie, our 3-year old, was especially cute as she opened her presents. She was happy and grateful and so much fun to watch. There were a few moments after the presents and before bed when they were all wearing their pjs, reading, hanging out by the fire, playing with the dog. Things were calm, and we could take a few minutes to just be and play and enjoy.

And then, after vibrating with excitement for the rest of the evening, they went to bed. You remember that feeling – you’re tired, but you don’t want to go to sleep, you just want Christmas morning to be here. You go to sleep full of excitement and you wake up early, ready to see your hopes fulfilled.

What was it like for Mary the night before she gave birth to Jesus?

She probably didn’t sleep much either, but she wasn’t waiting for presents. She was waiting for the Son of God to make his appearance.

No pressure or anything.

Even in the most modern of facilities with the best health care available today, women are nervous about giving birth. Imagine a 13-year old on her own, a few animals to keep her company, no parents, no doctor, no friends waiting to hear the news.

She was more likely to be vibrating with fear than excitement.

And yet – she knew the angel of the Lord had told her not to fear. She had said she was rejoicing in God her Savior, who had done great things for her. She knew generations to come would call her blessed, and she knew her actions were fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham and his people – the long-expected Savior was almost here.

On a purely human level, she was a mother about to meet her son for the very first time, a moment she would remember for the rest of her life. 

Christmas Eve for Mary was a complicated mix of emotions – fear, joy, expectation, hope, love. Maybe she slept the night before she gave birth, and maybe she didn’t, but either way, she could rest secure in the knowledge that the baby she was about to have was the one who made possible the faith by which she had him.

Her baby would be her Savior, and she would remember this Christmas Eve the rest of her life.

Everyday Christmas #23: Emmanuel

One of our deepest fears is to be alone. It’s scary to be by yourself, whether that means going through life or standing up in a crowd that’s sitting down or walking down the street at night. Even for introverts who would rather stay in with a good book than go to a party, we like to know that there’s someone there to back us up, someone we can rely on.

God could have left us alone. Once he created us and gave us companionship, and we thanked him by eating of the tree he said we shouldn’t eat from, he could have left us on our own to navigate life and death as best we could.

That would not have gone well.

And so, for no other reason other than that it gave him pleasure, God decided not to leave us alone.

He decided to send a redeemer, and not just any redeemer, but his own son. He chose a people from whom his son would come, and he sent prophets over the centuries who foretold the coming Christ. They even told the people what the redeemer’s name would be: Immanuel, which means “God with us.”

It’s right there in the name – he wasn’t going to leave us alone.

But then, for 400 years, he went dark. The people waited and wondered and cried out:

O come, o come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the son of God appear …

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadow put to flight

They were afraid, and they were alone, facing the shadow of a death they couldn’t avoid.

But then, after endless days and sleepless nights, a few angels appeared to some lowly shepherds on a hillside and everything changed.

The prophecies were now reality, and God was not just another false prophet. He had kept his promises. His people were no longer alone on the Earth – he was with them in a real, tangible way.

He was with them in human form for 33 years before he was called home, but he when he left, he sent the Holy Spirit as our helper because he knew it was not good for us to be alone.

God is with us. It’s as true today as it was when Mary held him in her arms on a cold night in a stable. All around you may seem dark, and you may think you’re alone, but God has come, and he is with you.

If you think you’re failing as a parent, he is with you.  If the details of life threaten to overwhelm you, he is with you. If the suffering doesn’t stop, he is with you. If your family is gone, he is with you. If the news is bad, he is with you.

And if the news is good and the sun is shining and all seems right with the world, he is with you then, too. You’re not alone, in good times or bad.

God is with us. This incredible truth should lead to one response:

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee O Israel

Emmanuel came, and now we wait for him to come again and reign as the Prince of Peace – but we don’t wait alone.

Everyday Christmas #22: 365

I walked the dog this morning (again) right after I rolled out of bed. I hadn’t taken the time to put my contacts in, so I was wearing my glasses.

At one point, I slid them off for some reason and everything immediately became blurry. My eyesight is pretty bad, so I can’t see a thing without corrective lenses. As soon as I put the glasses back on, everything came right back into focus.

The lenses made all the difference in how I saw the exact same landscape.

So, do we see Christmas through the lens of the world or do we see the world through the lens of Christmas?

Your lenses make all the difference.

If you’re looking at Christmas as the world does, your focus will be the presents and shopping and parties and the giving that comes from your own goodwill. December can easily exhaust all of those things, so when Christmas is over, it’s over until next year, when the machine cranks back up again.

But if you are looking at Christmas as a time when the presents and celebrations are merely an overflow of the joy and peace that have invaded your soul because Jesus’ birth means you could be right with God, well, then your perspective is different.

Christmas is not just for December because it’s not the day itself that’s important. What matters is what Christmas represents: a sovereign God setting into motion his rescue plan for sinners who were headed straight for death.

That’s something worth celebrating 365 days a year.

Everyday Christmas #21: Women in the Line

Back to Matthew’s list of begats for a day:

There are four women in Matthew’s genealogy in addition to Mary, and in a culture and time that traced lineage through men, you might wonder why they are there, especially when you realize who they are:

Tamar was Judah’s daughter-in-law. She disguised herself as a prostitute and slept with him, becoming pregnant with twins. One of them, Perez, is part of the genealogy as well – he was in the line of Christ.

Rahab was a Canaanite prostitute in Jericho who helped the Israelite spies evade capture. After the walls fell down, she married into the nation of Israel and became the mother of Boaz, who married the next woman in Matthew’s genealogy.

Ruth was a Moabite woman who married into a Jewish family and then stayed when her husband died. She eventually met and married Boaz and became David’s great-grandmother.

Bathsheba became the object of David’s desire; out of their union came their son Solomon. David’s actions in this whole affair were tragically sinful.

Mary was a virgin teenager who became pregnant before she was married. That was scandalous, and must have set tongues to wagging. The Messiah being born out of wedlock?

Your first thought when hearing all this might be: wait, what? Why are these sinners, outsiders and unlikely women in the line of Christ? This genealogy establishes Jesus’ legal identity and his credentials as the heir of David. Are we sure we want people like this in the official record?

And then you realize the truth: we are all sinners, and the presence of sinners and outsiders in the official genealogy of Christ gives us hope that we too can be saved. Jesus’ ancestors weren’t all perfect heroes. They were messy, flawed, sinful humans just like us.

God valued these women when the rest of the world would have looked the other way, both because of their gender and their actions. But God is not like us. In case you haven’t figured it out by now, he specializes in the unlikely. He does what no one expects, and in the process turns the worst scandals of someone’s life into moments of grace and glory.

Everyday Christmas #20: Your Name

Matthew 1 is basically just a list of names, some of which are … different. Not sure what Amminadab and Zerubbabel’s parents were thinking, but hey, they do kind of roll off the tongue.

The genealogy lists every generation from Abraham to Christ – 42 in all – showing exactly how God’s promise to Abraham came true, that from his line all the families of the world would be blessed by the coming of Jesus. Many of the names you have heard of, while many don’t make much of an appearance anywhere else. Zadok and Matthan and Eliud, anyone?

Your name will be in a genealogy list one day. Your great-great-great grandkids will be doing a school project and they’ll list your parents and you and your kids and then move on. They may comment on you – why your parents chose that name and what they might know you for – or they may not.

The point is not to urge you to do big things with your life. Some on this list did in fact do big things, but many also just lived their quiet, ordinary lives of faithfulness. No matter their role, they were all part of something much bigger than their own stories. They were pieces of the story of redemption, a story God had written before the beginning of time, and they played their roles and passed on their family name and traditions and covenant with their God, whether their name was David or Azor.

Your everyday faithfulness may not be seen by millions, but it’s seen by your family and your community, and it’s seen by God, who has numbered each one of our days and holds each one of us in the palm of his hand.

More on genealogies tomorrow.

Everyday Christmas #19: Andromeda

I’ve already written about stars in this little series, but let’s go back to them for a minute. I saw an image online today that the Hubble telescope took of the Andromeda Galaxy. Here’s the image:

Andromeda

This is, to put it mildly, incredible. All those tiny little dots are stars, so many that you can’t even count them. If you click here and go to the site, you can just keep zooming in and zooming in, and it gets even more incredible.

And this is just part of the image. It would take 600 HD television screens to show the entire thing. And that’s just one galaxy out of at least 100 billion galaxies.

There’s nothing like a little astronomy to blow your mind.

Now consider this:

Psalm 147:4
He determines the number of the stars;
he gives to all of them their names.

The God who created, numbered and named those stars is the same God who gave Herod’s wise men a star to bring them to Jesus. They saw the star when it rose, and they followed it until it came to rest over the house where Jesus was located.

When they saw the star, Matthew says they “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” Their joy was not in the star itself, as amazing as it was on its own – their joy was because they knew what the star represented, who it was guiding them to, what they had been waiting centuries to find: the promised Messiah who would deliver his people.

In the same way, our wonder when we see the Andromeda Galaxy is not just because stars are awesome to look at. Our wonder is born from the knowledge that we have an intimate relationship with the God who created, numbered and named those stars, and that is only possible because of the child signified by that one bright star so long ago.

Let us wonder and adore.

Everyday Christmas #18: Home

I get to come home from work every night to a warm, comfortable house. The kids are playing nicely or doing homework, dinner is cooking and the dog’s tail is wagging.

Okay, that may be a touch idealistic, but the house is definitely warm and comfortable, and the kids and dog are definitely there.

Even if things are hairy when I walk in the door after taking a deep breath, our home is a safe place, a haven where we can feel like everything is okay even when outside, the wind is blowing, circumstances are difficult and a storm is brewing.

When Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph didn’t have that haven. They had to travel for the birth, they were stuck in a stable and later, to make matters worse, an angel warned them in a dream that they were being hunted, so they had to flee by night to Egypt.

It’s tough to take an infant or a toddler just to the grocery store – imagine fleeing for your life to a foreign country, far from anything you’ve ever known, far from home.

Once the danger had passed and they returned, the family settled in Nazareth, where they built a life and a home, complete with other brothers and sisters, hard work and all the elements of a normal Jewish childhood.

Jesus must have been grateful for the warmth and familiarity of his home with Mary and Joseph, yet once he began his public ministry, he was essentially homeless. This earth was always a temporary dwelling place for him anyway, until he could return to his rightful home in the heavens above.

Our homes are wonderful, but like Jesus’ sojourn here, they are also temporary and they point to our eternal home with the One who came to give us that home.