Winter’s Promise

In the midst of Autumn I was on my knees for hours. Several bags were strewn haphazardly atop the fading mulch as I dug hole after hole. One hundred fifty tulips, daffodils and hyacinths were all nestled carefully, spaced just-so and put to bed for the winter in the hopes that they would reward my efforts with colorful bouquets dotting my gardens come spring.

As winter progressed I would study the ground with a frown. It just hasn’t been that cold. Winter began with frost but quickly warmed and, well, I just haven’t needed my heavy coat that often. It’s been cold and dreary, but not freezing. Don’t bulbs need six weeks or so of below-freezing temperatures in order to be triggered to grow and bloom?

January came and went and I still didn’t see evidence of life. I feared all my planning and digging had been for nothing but mole-food. The flower beds, hosting spent seed pods and straggly bare rose branches that didn’t quite take hold last year, stared back at me with forlorn emptiness. The gray days trudged on, one after the other.

In the words my favorite singer/songwriter:

“..and the sky in Nashville, it can bend you low ’cause the winter here is gray, without a trace of snow.”

“You Came So Close” by Andrew Peterson

Sigh.

As February arrived I began to peer more closely, daring even to move the mulch around a bit with my foot in hopes of uncovering a green shoot. Sure enough, in the back yard near the fence, I finally spotted a bit of green sticking up about an inch above the mulch. Once I laid eyes on it I picked up more dotting the bed around the base of the dormant redbud. I smiled and clapped my hands like a little girl. Spring is coming! It’s really coming! And if I can keep those dumb rabbits from eating them all (because the battle is ON now) I might just have tulips blooming along the front sidewalk! (Any advice on rabbit-proofing my front flower beds is welcome.)

I never get over the significance of the changing seasons: The dying of winter, the dormancy of cold months and the waiting, longing for warmer days, the fear that the promise will not be fulfilled until the moment the first shoot pushes through hard, dry winter ground and fresh green spears of daffodils stand in bold rebellion against the monochrome gray of winter’s landscape. Spring is light pushing back the darkness, hope’s refusal to be silenced, life conquering death.

Spring embodies everything that is the gospel. I, for one, do not believe that is a coincidence. God has planted his message in the very fabric of creation. During the most dreary and dark days of winter life is awakened and emerges triumphant, heralding the lush beauty that is soon to follow. Even when the sun is setting at 4:30 in the afternoon, there is movement and intention underground as the earth prepares, once again, to declare the glory of God with vibrant spring color and summer blooms .

Spring reminds us that what we are living now is only temporary. We have cause to hope because, in all of history, there has not been a time where winter did not turn into spring. Not one. Even the Ice Age eventually gave in to the greening. On the darkest of days God is faithfully preparing the fulfillment of his promises, out of sight but ever near. Spring is His reminder that we can trust Him.

And don’t we need that reminder now, more than ever? As the world spirals deeper into darkness and the headlines read worse by the minute, are you tempted to lose hope? Take a look around. Move the grayed mulch aside and peer closely. There it is, my friend.

When Doubts Assail

There is incredible grace in the story of Thomas.

I’m sure you have heard of him, the doubter.

In John, chapter 20, Thomas stood stubbornly before the rest of the disciples in the aftermath of the crucifixion and declared that he wasn’t buying it…this story they told. Jesus, alive?

Bah.

He had watched Him suffer and die. No one had ever survived a cross.

For eight more days Thomas stumbled forward in grief. Hope was gone. Then Jesus showed up, walking straight through a locked door. Is it any wonder that the first words the Lord spoke to those gathered in that room were, “Peace, be with you?” I imagine the disciples were undone at best, freaking out at the very least. And Jesus was there with a mission…He was there for Thomas.

He looked at Thomas with mercy and grace, seeing through the fear and doubt into the depths of his broken heart and spoke. He knew Thomas’ weakness. Jesus knew Thomas’ wounds. Thomas was hurting and needed more proof in order to break apart the protective shell he had constructed when Jesus (and everything he thought he knew) died. I’m sure Jesus would have preferred that Thomas have the faith to believe without seeing but he did not criticize or condemn him. He told Thomas that if he needed to touch the gash in his side then go ahead and do it. Jesus’ desire was for Thomas to believe and He was willing to do whatever it took to help him do so.

Oh the mercy and grace of God, who understands our need, our weakness, and meets us with great compassion. So often, when we doubt God, we want to gloss it over. It is embarrassing to admit that you just aren’t sure anymore. You have prayed and believed but He seems so far away…silent.

Often, when we doubt, we deal with it by busily ignoring Him. We stop reading Scripture and certainly give up on praying. Why waste our time when it isn’t doing any good?

But then something happens that drives us to our knees, making us long to crawl up into his lap and tell us everything is going to work out. How, though, do we approach a God who we have ignored, doubted, and begun to believe might not even exist? When we realize he is real and that we do, in fact, need him deeply and desperately we might be tempted to hold back because, well, we are afraid. Surely He is angry with us for doubting him after all He has done. He isn’t going to just brush our fist-shaking, angry tirades aside…is He?

That, my friends, is the reason His throne is called “The Throne of Grace” in Hebrews 4:16. We do not have to have everything “figured out” to approach God. He asks us to put our trust in Him, demands our surrender, but faith does not mean we fully understand Him or His ways. There are so many mysteries in the Trinity that will never be clear this side of eternity, but God has given us enough upon which to base our lives. He is who He says He is and He will do what He says He will do. He is King of kings, Lord of lords, and our loving, merciful Abba. He knows we are dust, looking upon us with eyes of compassion and beckons us to come to Him in the darkest night of the soul. Our weakness does not offend Him or push Him away for He fully realizes our faults, having formed every hair on our heads.

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throneofgrace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Hebrews 4:16in

How great is His love, that He would sacrifice everything, watch us stumble and fall yet again, and still lean in, offering up the very wounds that killed Him for our inspection, to satisfy our human doubts.

We are a people deeply loved, chosen by the King of kings and there is nothing He will not do to bring us to Himself.

And Thomas? After Jesus’ patient, merciful response to his doubts, after his skepticism had been answered with absolute Truth, he would never be the same. Dear, doubting Thomas would go on to become one of the first martyrs in Christ. He would stand his ground in now-unshakeable surrender and lift his face to Heaven where the Son of God, his friend and Savior, would stand at the right hand of the Father in his honor.

When we realize who we are and whose we are, we will finally live in true freedom as daughters of our kind and loving King. It will impact every decision we make, every interaction with the world around us, and how we handle every thought that races through our mind. Wrestling through doubts and allowing God to answer them will strengthen us and reassure us that we can, truly, come before the throne of grace and find mercy.

It will reassure us that our mustard-seed faith can, in fact, move mountains.

When You are Overwhelmed by the Mess.

I cleaned out a child’s room last week. “Clean” being the understatement of the century. I purged. Extreme, thorough and complete. I washed every article of clothing, not knowing what had been worn or simply tossed in the piles. I scrubbed, sanitized, and sang.

Yes, you read that correctly. I sang.

It was glorious, the transformation. What had been a source of both my frustration and theirs became a haven of peace and light. The sun seemed to stream more brightly through the tall windows. Worship music poured from the little speaker on the nightstand and I gently screwed a bulb into a new lamp because the old one no longer worked. I sang praises for this messy child, prayed for angels to perch in every window and light in every dark corner. I threw away every shred of trash and replaced what was broken, worn-out, or missing. I put every single item this child owned in it’s proper place.

And then that child came home.

The shock was palpable, as was the relief.

You see, the task had become overwhelming. This sweet one didn’t know where to start. Pushing things under the bed or into the closet got things out of sight, but not out of mind. Hopelessness had set in and asking for help felt humiliating.

No one likes to admit defeat.

But the hard work was done without them even knowing what was happening while they were away. Now, there is nothing hidden. With my arms around their shoulders and my face in their hair I reminded them that asking for help in the small messes will prevent big ones from piling up and becoming overwhelming again.

Has the cleanup of your life ever felt like an impossible task?

Dear one, do you see what God has done? You trashed your life. You made decisions you regret, did things you swore you would never do. Then, in shame, you attempted to hide them under the bed or in the closet. But they cried out for your blood from the darkness, threatened your very sanity from the hidden places. You believed the lie that said you needed to clean things up yourself. You refused to seek help because it meant facing the piles head-on and sorting through the trash one piece at a time and you certainly didn’t want anyone else seeing what you had stuffed away.

But God…

(Two of my favorite words are, “But God.“)

But God intervened before you even knew He was there. He saw the piles that you thought were well-hidden, and He was not deterred by them in the least! He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to sweep every inch of your life clean. The trash has been discarded, what was broken has been replaced and shame has been washed away by the blood of the Lamb. You, Beloved, stand pure before the Lover of your soul. Oh, how He loves you.

He no longer sees the clutter, He sees His daughter. He is not deterred by the mess you created. He has dealt with it all before you even realized He was there. He has cleaned out all your messes and, now, He invites you in…

to LIVE.

Will you do it? Will you walk through the door into the spotless, beautiful space He has created for you? Will you surrender and allow Him to make YOU new as well? For that is what He does best…He transforms.

Redeems.

Purifies.

And the maintenance? I certainly won’t say it is easy because even maintenance is not possible in my own strength. I too easily let sin pile up in my life. I must remember the daily task of coming before the Father with my messes, allowing Him to take them and replace them with purpose and vision for my life. It is a constant choosing of Jesus above all others, fixing my eyes on Him and walking in the calm amidst the storms around me. It is a determination, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to flee from sin and push back against the darkness one song, one prayer, one act of obedience at a time.

Jesus makes all things new. Your heart is just the beginning. The work is finished. Now walk through that open door and live.

But you are the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people, God’s instruments to do his work and speak out for him, to tell others of the night-and-day difference he made for you—from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted.

1 Peter 2:9 (The Message)

The Word for 2019

Every year, as December draws to a close, I ask God to give me a word for the coming year. It’s a little leap of faith, an exercise in expectation as I press in to hear His voice and fight to suppress my own.

I look for it everywhere, in songs, books and conversations. I listen for a consistent word bubbling to the surface through the swirling buzz of the world around me. I intentionally seek quiet and try to patiently trust Him to grant me this small thing.

But is it ever really a small thing when the Creator of the entire universe speaks to one of his children?

Last week it came softly. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, or if I was even really hearing God, so I sat on it an waited for more confirmation. There was another word running through my thoughts, as well, so I wanted to be certain before sitting down here to type them out. Over and over the word came, with the second one whispering just behind it, until today.

It hit me like a freight train as one of our pastors gave a much-needed but ouch-you-are-meddling-in-my-life sermon. As he spoke, the words I had been pondering came together as one thought, making sense as to what God is calling me to do and how He wants me to approach this next year.

As I reflect on 2018 I am so grateful. God asked me to seek Him, which I did. (You can read that post here) He blessed me with moments of clarity and joy in the midst of some of the hardest days of my life. He brought me to the end of myself and held me tight as I wept. He also gave me laughter and celebration and a reason to believe He is at work as much as ever, that I can trust Him even when I don’t understand what He is doing and that I can rest assured the ones I love the most on earth are safe in the palm of His hand, regardless of their choices in this world. I sought Him and He allowed me to find Him. That is a good, good year.

My writing has continued each week, as you know, with my focus always being on finding joy in the simple things and living forward into who we will be (because who we are in Christ is who we really ARE). That will not change, but I pray there will be more to it.

You see, I have read too many books and blogs that left me empty and wanting this year, and I do not want to be just another writer encouraging women. (You’ve got encouragement coming out your ears these days, friends.) I want to be a writer who challenges you to think deeply, to love Jesus when everyone else around you has turned their backs, and to pursue the heart of God because, sisters, THAT is where joy will only, truly, be found.

All of nature points to Jesus.  Every creature’s unique and often hilarious design points to Jesus.  The warmth of a child’s embrace points to Jesus. Doubt and suffering also point to Jesus.

As has been spoken to me in three different settings of late, “It is time to pursue the deep things of God.” If what I write makes you feel good but your SELF is still on the throne of your life then I have failed.  

If you walk away from the computer feeling happy and saying, “Jeanine is a really good writer,” well, that is nice but that is not why I am writing.

If what I write does not drive you to seek a more intimate relationship with the Lover of your Soul and turn away from anything that hinders that process, I am just another voice among many feel-good voices telling you to seek self-care when you feel stressed.

To put it bluntly, we don’t need self-care as much as we need an encounter with the Holy Spirit. We need to be fully given to the power of God. Treating the symptoms without getting to the root of the issue will not result in lasting joy. But seeking the deep things of Christ? Really committing to learn the ways of God and live a life of holiness? Training our spirit in the disciplines that will carry us when the storms of life threaten to tear apart everything we have worked so hard to build? THAT is deep and lasting satisfaction. THAT is joy. THAT is what I want to help you do.

So, here we go, 2019. The word for this year is LIGHT, accompanied by the word deep. The Scripture is Matthew 10:27 where Jesus prepares the apostles for the task He has set before them.

And you should proclaim in the bright light of day everything that I have whispered to you in the dark. Whatever whispers you hear—shout them from the rooftops of houses.  

Matthew 10:27 (The Voice Translation)

In the verses leading up to this one, Jesus lets them know, up front, that they will be persecuted for speaking the truth. They are surely going to face the darkest days of their lives. They are going to be driven to their knees in desperation for the strength of God to carry them through the darkness. But, as I have learned this year, God speaks to us in those dark days. We are forced to listen for His voice when we are left with nothing else. In the dark night of the soul, when we cry out for mercy and hope, our faithful Father draws near to us and teaches us the deep things of God. THIS is what He is calling me to this year…to proclaim in the light what I have heard in the darkness. And, friends, I can’t say it any better than what I heard Pastor Mike ask us to say out loud on Sunday morning:

“It’s not about me.”

Friends, it’s about Jesus. All of it. Every experience of my life is meant to bring me closer to the heart of God. He has me here on this earth for one reason and one reason alone…to proclaim to this world that there is only one way to the Father, and that is through His Son, Jesus Christ who lived the life we could not live and died the death we should have died, then rose FROM THE DEAD in victory so that you and I can live forever with Him. Jesus is the LIGHT of the world, sweet friends. Not your favorite blogger or podcaster, not your mama, and not even your pastor. You will never find eternal joy and purpose apart from knowing Jesus. No massage, pedicure or “encouraging” Christian book will ever fulfill you or bring true and lasting satisfaction. Anything that encourages you to put your “self” first is a lie. We are to seek Jesus first. Period.

We have been too easily deceived in our culture as wave after wave of fluffy Christian writing has retrained our thinking and the result is a bunch of women who are all about themselves with a Jesus t-shirt on to make self-love look holy. We use God’s extravagant love for us, his daughters, as an excuse for escaping from the realities of the needs around us because we need “me time” or to recharge. But a spa day cannot fill me with unconditional love for my husband. A girls’ weekend away, pretending that we are single with no kids, will never make me a better and more courageous mother. I can only give out of the overflow of what God does in me. It’s the heart behind what we do that matters. It’s the reason “why” I need to escape that is the issue. What am I escaping from, my calling? My responsibilities? My God?

Taking care of ourselves physically is important, yes. Do not think I am against spa days!  That could not be further from the truth!  (I enjoy them! Really!) In fact, a spa day may not even be your thing. Maybe it’s exercise or reading that is your escape go-to. Maybe it’s a sport or Netflix or a hobby. I’m not against any of those things, but I am against anything that puts a shade over the light that Jesus is trying to shine in and through us. YES he blesses us. YES he wants us to rest. YES we all need a break sometimes.  But I am seeing post after post, book after book, pointing not to Christ as our source of blessing and rest but to self-care and self-love and, well, that is just a pretty, nail-polished form of idolatry with highlights.

We must let Christ shine his light into our hearts. We must choose to pursue the deep things of God first. Lean into Him, pray for Him to expose sin and rip it out of our lives. Be willing to do whatever it takes to walk in the Spirit and share Jesus with a lost and desperate world.

Because, my dear friends and sisters, that is why you and I exist.

I am learning with you on this journey.  It is not easy to keep Jesus the main thing, but I believe, with all that is within me, that it will certainly be worth it. We will stumble and fall, we will inadvertently (maybe even purposefully) dim His light at times, but remember this…

“All things were made through him, and without him was not anything that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  

John 1:3-5 (English Standard Version)

Jesus is the light.  In him is life!  And never forget…the light (Jesus) shines in the darkness and, no matter how much you or I struggle and fail, the darkness has not, nor will it ever, overcome it!

Speak in the light what you have learned in the darkness.  Shout it loud and clear and remember who you are and WHOSE you are!

Happy New Year, dear ones.  May His light shine bright through us as we pursue the deep things of God in 2019.  He is worthy!

The Peace of Advent

Mary’s relationship with her cousin, Elizabeth has been a source of fascination for me as Christmas nears. God provided much-needed community for the mother of Christ in Elizabeth, someone…the only one…who could begin to relate to what Mary had been chosen to walk though. As I tried to imagine their conversations, whispered by firelight after Zechariah was long-asleep, this poem was fashioned:

PEACE.

Who, besides you, would understand?

This holy secret, silent, yet unknown outside of my womb.

The angel spoke your name, Elizabeth.

He told me of your wonder

and of the babe.

Just look at you.

He kicks and your belly writhes and the smile

oh, the smile on your aged face.

Your wrinkles deepen as laugh-light sparks

from your faded eyes.

Renewed, you are.

Made new, fruitful, forever a part of the grand story,

His story,

of redemption.

Hold my hand.

Tell me what I already know

but need to hear afresh.

How God supplies the strength we both will need.

I am not afraid,

yet I am.

The war in my spirit rages

as the flesh across my belly tightens and bulges.

But here you stand before me,

evidence of our God weaving the promise

of atonement within me.

Within us.

These infant sons we bear,

destined for pain.

We walk the first steps with them on a path

rocky with hate and rejection.

Yet I see in you an acceptance

the peace of God that flows through your fingers to mine.

I feel His presence, overshadowed by Him since that night

the Spirit made me His mother.

Who, besides you, would understand?

I find it not a coincidence that you, my cousin, are the bearer

of the messenger.

Two women, forever connected by destiny.

Your companionship eases my heart.

Your trust increases my own.

Your embrace enfolds me in peace

that I may walk with my eyes fixed on this sacred privilege.

A Simple Advent

We began today, though it doesn’t “officially” start until December first.  But I know me, and I know us.  Life happens, schedules get tight, and we struggle to finish what we start whether it be a devotional, project, or “school” book.

I’ve purchased many advent devotionals over the years, bought every “memorable” ornament, tree, and wreath there is to make this season count.  This year, though, I’m going back to basics.  Like so many things in my too-busy life I’m paring us down, starting at the beginning and revisiting an old favorite that brings back beautiful memories of the days when all five of my babies gathered ’round the warmth of a winter fire and listened with wonder to the stories that just happen to be true.

We read the first few pages of “The Jesus Storybook Bible” by Sally Lloyd-Jones this morning over hot coffee and before a crackling fire.  I’m down to three kids in our morning time, the oldest two having grown and moved on to other things, so I savor these hours and pray they will last longer with these three.  I opened the book, now worn and with binding beginning to fray, to “The Story and the Song” and read the words slowly, carefully, wishing I had the author’s lovely British accent and determing to make the reading beautiful for my children.  The familiar words felt like home on my tongue and I slowed down as I came to page 17…

It takes the whole Bible to tell this Story.  And at the center of the Story, there is a baby. Every Story in the Bible whispers his name.  He is like the missing piece in a puzzle-the piece that makes all the other pieces fit together, and suddenly you can see a beautiful picture.

My voice broke over these words, tears spilling from my eyes and my heart bursting with gratitude for fresh understanding…revelation, even…of the Christ.  That Jesus would become a baby.  That He would give countless clues all through History that we had not been left to wallow in our sin, but were so very loved that the Son of God had already planned to descend here before we even knew we needed Him…I could barely speak.

“Are you ok, Mom?”  My son’s soft voice broke my concentration.

How do I even answer that question?  I am more than ok, I am free.  I am saved, gloriously and forever seated with Christ in the heavenly places!  I am forgiven and beloved and, oh my sweet ones, how I long for you to realize this is true about you as well!

He came.  Jesus came and lived the life I could not live, died the death I deserved to die. He is the center of my story, and of yours.

“…So in Heaven and earth and below, every knee would bow in worship and every tongue would proclaim that Jesus, He reigns with the angels. Son of God, Son of man.

Hallelujah!”

From the song, Gather ‘Round, Ye Children, Come by Andrew Peterson

We too easily complicate things in an effort to make Christmas beautiful. We too often forget the simplicity of the Gospel of Christ.  But, today, I was reminded of why I am who I am and why I do what I do.

For the sake of Christ and the Glory of God.

Keep it simple, my friends.  Remember and celebrate the Advent of Christ with all of your heart, and without all of the fluff.

The stories are true.

Gather ‘Round, Ye Children, Come.  Listen to the old, old story…

 

Preparing for War

I took my life into my hands and waltzed into Publix on Saturday with the goal of buying a smallish turkey and spiral cut ham (with all the trimmings, of course!) Wandering the aisles in no hurry, for once, I browsed the choices and compared prices.  Too many leftovers would only sabotage all the hard work I have done this year to get into shape.  I determined to refrain from making a huge pan of dressing because, first of all, I don’t need the carbs and, second, my kids won’t touch the stuff despite all the years I have set it before them.

I’m sure it’s a texture issue.

We have dear friends joining us on Thanksgiving day, along with my beloved mama and daddy.  I could not be happier that I will have a table bursting with food and laughter and ten kids running all over my house.  It is going to be delightful.

Delight-full!

I chose a smallish turkey (about ten pounds) and placed it carefully in my basket, moving on to the next aisle.  It should be enough and I can make bone broth from the leftover bones.  That is always a good thing as winter approaches.  As I turned the corner, though, there was a case of huge turkeys awaiting my eyes.  My mouth dropped open and I stood there, momentarily stunned and unsure of how to proceed.  I looked at the little bird in my basket, then up at the huge ones piled up in the freezer case.  I lifted one up and felt it’s weight, more than double the one in my basket.  My mind immediately imagined our table with this as the centerpiece, golden and seasoned and surrounded by sweet potatoes, cranberries, macaroni and cheese, green bean casserole and all the pies we have planned.  I looked at this turkey and realized what I held in my hand.

A weapon.

I heard a quote by C.S. Lewis this year at Hutchmoot, on the first night as John Cal invited us to partake in the feast he had spent all day preparing.

“Feasting is an act of war.”

I returned the smallish turkey to it’s former home and replaced it with the huge one.  It is way too big.  (Remember, I also bought a spiral cut ham!) We will be tired of leftovers before it is all consumed.  I will have made soups and sandwiches ad nauseum and, still, it will take up half of my refrigerator before I throw it in a big pot and boil it down to smithereens.

But it will stand, glorius and golden after many hours brined, basted and baked.  It will bless eyes and bellies and surely put us all into a food coma.

And we will fight together, friends and family, against the darkness, pushing back once again as we rehearse for the Great Feast that is to come, the Wedding Supper of the Lamb.

Happy Thanksgiving, my friends.  Fight hard and fight well!