When I was in college, I had the amazing opportunity to live in Brazil for three months. Even now (ahem!) many years later, I can still easily conjure up memories of smiling faces, soft breezes, and laughter over a steaming hot bowl of feijoada (Brazilian stew). The Brazilian people have one of the warmest, most relationship-driven cultures on earth. So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me that they have a much more nuanced way of communicating love and affection for each other. But it took a while for my very American mind to grasp that Brazilians don’t casually throw around the word love like we do.
For example, they reserve the phrase, “I love you,” almost exclusively for romantic love. Here in America, we move easily and non-distinctly between saying “I love In-N-Out burgers,” to “I love my spouse.” A Brazilian would shake her head and try to coax us into being more careful and tender with that phrase. Even within the realm of romantic love, Brazilians have at least a dozen common, but distinct phrases to express the type and stage of romantic love.
The ancient Greeks also had multiple word variations for love, all of which would come in handy to have in the English language today. Some languages have up to 96 words to describe different facets of love. When I read about them, I almost become ashamed of how generic the notion of love is in our everyday vernacular. Like the Brazilians, the ancient Greeks believed that it was important to uniquely recognize the other kinds of love, each of which are distinctly valuable for everyday life. In fact, in Greek myth, the concept of romantic love – eros – comes from a form of “madness” brought about by one of Cupid’s arrows. I think this is particularly insightful, since eros is something that can drive us mad at different points in life. When we have it, we feel exhilarated and driven, sometimes at the expense of logic. And when we don’t have it, we seem to be willing to sacrifice all other kinds of love to get it. It can drive us mad to obtain it, stir crazy if we lose it, and unrealistic about keeping it alive.
The other Greek words for love include philia (friendship love), storge (familial love), agape (highest, altruistically-driven or divine love), ludus (flirtatious love), pragma (practical love), and philautia (self-love). Of course, each of these have healthy (pure) and dangerous (sinful) versions, but almost all of them have a role in every life at some point in time.
In 1 Corinthians 13, the famous “love chapter” of the Bible, the apostle Paul gives a list of amazing acts of faith, and he concludes with, “but the greatest of these is love.” And you guessed it, he used the Greek word agape to indicate the kind of love he was championing as the best. I find it ironic that this chapter in the Bible is commonly used at weddings (it was in mine!), but that most of us don’t have any idea what Paul is really saying by using the word agape instead of eros, philia, storge or even pragma. Yes, of course, he means that God loves us far more than we can imagine and that we should show that kind of self-less love to others. But there’s even more to his meaning, and it will revolutionize your perspective on all the other types of love. Getting a hold of Paul’s deeper meaning, believing it, and putting into practice, can literally transform every act of love you do from this point forward. Whether faded, lifeless, old, boring, frustrating, or twisted, agape love has the power to make any other type of love new again.
To communicate Paul’s deeper meaning, I’m going to quote a movie. I know that may seem irreverent, but sometimes the best way to grasp Biblical principles is through culturally-relevant analogies and stories. That’s why Jesus told so many parables. So here goes. In the movie Dan In Real Life, one of the characters is a teen boy who longs to spend time with his new girlfriend, despite the miles and difficulties between them. When confronted by her father who tells the boy that what he feels is only infatuation, he calmly states with conviction, “love is not a feeling. It is an ability.”
This is what Paul is talking about here. Despite anything we face in life… the trials, the joys, seemingly insurmountable odds, stubborn obstacles, the highs of great success … true love is not a feeling, but the ability to love in any circumstance and through any storm. It is a deeply-rooted belief that God’s sacrifice for us makes it possible to love Him back, despite our incredibly flawed humanness. It’s an unwavering faith that when we seek to love Him completely without ambition or agenda, He will, in turn, pour that love back into us. God’s love for us is so pure, so perfect and so enabling, that through Him we have the ability to extend love, grace and selfless behavior to anyone. His love is life-giving, purifying and restoring to all the other types of love. Through Him, we can do all things by His strength according to Philippians 4:13. Outside of His kind of love, our acts of love may have temporary impact, but they will always fall short in one way or another.
To bring this all home for Valentines Day, let’s go back to romantic love – eros. No matter where you are today – madly in love, wishing you could find love, desperately wanting to rekindle a faded love, or grieving over love lost – a deeply rooted and applied love for God can transform, purify, enhance, or redeem any of those situations. Like the roses in the picture above, He specializes in making us new (and everything we do) over and over again. In Him you will find abilities you never had. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” 2 Corinthians 5:17
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Don’t worry, if you’re not a football fan, this blog post will still be relevant. Trust me and keep reading!
So here we are in the post-football seasonal slump. Super Bowl 52 is history and if you’re a football fan like I am, you might be experiencing symptoms similar to seasonal affective disorder right about now. Sure, I am a little bummed because my team lost, but the real downer will come this Sunday afternoon when I go through literal withdrawals. Sigh… there will be no football to watch on TV. Thank goodness the Winter Olympics start this week to help fill the void. But regardless of the amazing athleticism on display in PyeongChang, I will still be mourning the end of football season until warm weather entices me outside on Sunday afternoons.
For people who don’t love football, the fact that I experience something akin to the doldrums when the season ends might sound ridiculous. After all, football (or any other sport really) is not as important as spending time with those you love, volunteering to help those less fortunate, or many other much more valuable and worthwhile things to do. On that fact, I completely agree with you. And if I was forced to choose between watching a football game or spending time in those ways, I would (and I have) give up watching a game.
However, there are things about football or any other “non-essential” activity that do truly matter. In fact, they may even have an eternal outcome, not just the final score on the billboard. Because the spiritual impact doesn’t seem as obvious, we often tend to get squirmy and uncomfortable even thinking that God would care about something so seemingly temporary or superficial. For example, as things came down to the wire during Sunday night’s game, a friend of mine turned to me and asked, “do you think it’s okay to say a prayer right now for the Pats?” She was serious. And every now and then, I hear someone say, “God doesn’t care who wins or loses a game… or gets a medal, etc.”
I contend that he does care. He cares a great deal, but just not for the reason we might wish he did. Of course, he doesn’t care about who wins or the score just for the sake of triumph, rankings, or to make the fans happy. But because God is big enough, encompassing enough, and pervasively omnipresent, he absolutely does care about what I’ll call the ripple effect of every single little detail in our lives. In Proverbs 16:9, it says, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.”
For example, at the surface level, it may not have mattered whether or not the Eagles won the Super Bowl. But because God is omniscient and knows the future of every player, he can see the impact of that win on Nick Foles, the quarterback. He knows the cause and effect of that win in Nick’s life next year, in five years, and so on. If some ripple effect of that win could change Nick’s ability to turn even one person’s heart to Christ, then God might have allowed the win for that single reason. I’m not saying that’s why the Eagles won, of course, but God is capable of simultaneously orchestrating every step for every human being, and he takes a keen interest and involvement in our lives. (Yes, this level of thinking about God makes my brain hurt too!) Even more mind blowing, is that God is powerful enough to assess the ripple effects around every decision by every person to know exactly how we will impact each other now and forever in the future.
We should take both comfort and caution from these amazing characteristics about God. The comfort comes in knowing that everything that happens to you is within his view. He will use every situation and every detail in your life for his glory if you surrender your need for control and trust him to guide you. That’s why the Bible says in Romans 8:28 that, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” This can be a hard verse to swallow when the thing that happens is terrible. But just like the score of the game, it isn’t the bad thing itself that is most important, it is the ripple effect of it and how God can use it to change your life or someone else’s life for his glory now or maybe even years from now.
The caution comes when we realize that every little thing we do should be honoring and glorifying to him. John Piper wrote a blog post entitled, “How to Drink Orange Juice to the Glory of God,” and he warns us that “Sin is not just a list of harmful things (killing, stealing, etc.). Sin is leaving God out of account in the ordinary affairs of your life. Sin is anything you do that you don't do for the glory of God.” Colossians 3:23 says “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” Truly, the word “whatever” really does mean anything and everything.
So am I happy about the Eagles’ win? No way. But I know my God has a reason for it and I trust him to use this Patriots’ loss to bring about something for his glory at some point. The principle is true for everything from drinking orange juice to going to work every day. There can be glory for God in the details if we invite him into them. The right perspective changes everything and the right heart glorifies God in anything.
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Last week, two music icons of the last century stepped off the stage. Each for different reasons, but both willingly. For Neil Diamond, it was his decision to battle a ferocious disease in private. Elton John simply said he wants to be around his kids more. Regardless of the reasons, they both decided it was time to move on to a new phase of life. Of course, if history is a teacher, then like many other celebs before him, Elton will probably come out of retirement just when we think he’s forever disappeared down the Yellow Brick Road. On the other hand, for Neil, nature has given him less of a choice.
Decisions like these should not just happen at the end of an illustrious career or when we hit a certain age. There are times throughout our lives when we all should be pondering the idea of stepping back from something. Walking away from a dream that has run its course and moving on to the next big adventure. The second calling… or the third… or even the fourth. Life is not static, but many of us live like it is. We live like the thing we are really good at is the only thing we can do… or the only thing we are made of and made for. And yet, if we are living life to the fullest, we should constantly be curious about new adventures and following new dreams.
But rather than living with open hands, willing to let go of our hard-earned niches of comfort for the next calling, we often succumb to fear, which is driven by that nasty, sneaky little thing called pride. Pride drives fear? Yep. Pride is the slickest, most alluring, most disguised stumbling block known to humankind. Why? Because the majority of the time, we are simply not aware of it. And if we do see it in our lives, it often masquerades as something else. Something positive, acceptable… even highly valued or respected like a strong work ethic or enduring commitment. On the flip side, pride is a master at casting blame elsewhere, so it can become a cozy robe of empathy and self-protection so that others will not see the real you. Instead, they might see someone lacking in self-confidence or pummeled by life’s hardships, thereby showering you with encouragement and attention. Pride, self-centeredness, selfishness, mistrust, a need for control, worry, stubbornness, they are all one in the same… and are roots of fear.
So just in case you're thinking that this is only a spiritual phenomenon, stop and think about your workplace. Think about that executive you’ve seen who feels he has earned his high position and has his fists so tightly wound with control that he doesn’t share the limelight or the appreciation. He’s afraid of the next young buck coming along who will make him look old, washed up and behind the times. What about your family life? Perhaps it’s a relation who always tries to control the family’s holiday gatherings. Maybe it’s a sibling or cousin who always has to be the one with a sob story so bad that it sucks all the air out of the room every time you get together. In all these situations, fear has them by the throat because they are ultimately worried about themselves. For the person in a position of leadership, what value will he have if he shares his cherished position and accolades? Who will notice and praise the family member if someone else does it better than her? What if she never does something meaningful again? And for the one who always seems to be the center of attention with a crisis, how will she ever make anyone like her and connect with her for who she really is? Hiding behind our fears may feel comfortable, but it is the most dangerous place to be.
Life was not meant to be lived with our fists clenched around the thing that we love the most or gives us self-worth. We are made for more than a career, more than a regarded role in our community, family or church, more than being a parent or even a great spouse. When we let go of the pride, suddenly our fears don’t seem quite so big, and we’re able to loosen our grip, lessen our control, and open lives and hearts up to live with more trust, more hope, and a vastly wider vision of what’s possible. We can begin to see our identity for who God really created us to be, not by what we do, say or generate ourselves. Galatians 4:7 encourages us that we were not created to be slaves to worldly pursuits, but rather heirs of God. And Ephesians 2:10 reminds us that God will always give us something meaningful to do for His glory. No matter what stage of life, we are created for purposeful, exciting kingdom work.
Now please don’t think for a minute that this is something I have down pat. But when I see people who have the courage to move forward in life with grace and integrity, it inspires me and reminds me to take a look at my own hands and my grip on life. White-knuckling whatever “stage" God has given you will eventually choke out the spotlight all together. Instead, the abundant life waits for those who willingly share, joyfully receive and sometimes let go completely, trusting that He always has another gift just waiting for them to unwrap when the time is right. That being said, He sometimes allows our hands to be empty for a while on purpose. It is in the empty times, that He better prepares us to become a vessel capable of learning what it’s like to find fulfillment in nothing but the greatest gift of all – His presence. Psalm 16:11 says, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
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Not getting what you’ve rightfully earned through hard work creates a difficult situation for even the most emotionally mature among us. From the small things in life (like investing hours to pick out the perfect gift for a recipient who doesn’t fully appreciate it) to the big things in life (such as spending six months on a project in order to earn a promotion that someone else receives instead of you, ouch!), we have all felt the crushing blow of being completely unrewarded, unfulfilled, and unappreciated for our precious time, labors and conscientious efforts.
The disappointment of experiencing a miserable outcome despite a lot of hard work is fresh on my mind today, so trust me when I tell you that I’m preaching to myself. As I type this, my wrists and back are killing me. Why? Because I spent 90 minutes last night (in the dark) and another 90 minutes this morning (at the crack of dawn) trying to prevent my driveway from becoming an ice skating rink. For those of you reading this in warmer climates, just know that shoveling a combination of snow, sleet and freezing rain means lifting what seems like a ton each time. And yet, for all that hard work and the subsequent pain, I still have a driveway that is not even walkable with safety spikes added to my shoes. As Lucy would say in Peanuts cartoons, “AAAAARRRRRGGGHHHH!”
Of course, this disappointment is minor and temporary compared to being overlooked for a promotion, losing an important relationship, or the many other more serious and hurtful failures and rejections that life throws at us. My driveway fiasco will be a problem for several weeks, but you may be facing a disappointment that has made you never want to work hard for anything or anyone again. And I know how that feels too, but the remedy for dealing with either situation is the same regardless of its scale, longevity or damage level. That’s because we all go through the same emotional stages following a letdown, and our reaction during each stage then determines two things: (1) how quickly we will feel better, and (2) how much our character and maturity will be refined to become better equipped for next time. If our reactions are not healthy, then we get cranky and distracted in the short term. If we hang on to those grievances for the long term, then bitterness eventually settles in and poison seeps into our hearts and eventually our relationships.
While your reactions to certain situations come from a host of complicated factors (too much for this post!), they are significantly influenced by your beliefs, perspectives, and willingness to let go of things you can’t control. And this is where the remedy lies. Let’s look at the ingredients for this prescription:
When your belief is rooted in the truth that “if God is for us, who can be against us,” and your perspective is that “all things work together for the good of those who love Him” (even if it doesn’t look like it), it helps you more easily muster the willingness to let go of control and be more forgiving.
So here’s where I get to tell you some fantastic news. Whatever hard work you put into learning how to deal with disappointments, it will never return void. The better you get at it, the more you’ll be set free to enjoy the precious time you have and not spend any more of it stewing, fretting, pouting, trying to exert control, or overanalyzing. You’ll be happier. You’ll have more time for others, and they’ll want to spend more time with you.
When you do everything as for the Lord, it will always bear fruit. It may not look like what you expected or show up when you thought it would. That promotion you didn’t get might have been the best thing in the end because you spent more time with your kids before they grew up. Whether big or small, any effort you make can be entrusted to God for the best outcome. Case in point, almost a decade ago, I devoted countless volunteer hours to helping a friend launch a non-profit. I’d come home after a long day at the office, only to stay up well into the night to work on presentations, strategy documents, and participate in conference calls. Then after about six months, they didn’t need my expertise any more. I had done all I could do. At first, I was devastated. All that hard work to not be a part of a new organization I helped launch. Thank goodness, I released it to God and trusted that He would put my efforts to good use, even if I never saw the results. If I had become bitter, I also would’ve lost those relationships. Now, all these years later, I work part-time for that very organization. And the timing couldn’t have been more perfect – certainly not according to my plans, but clearly according to God’s. Jeremiah 29:11 says, “I know the plans I have for you … to give you a hope and a future.” That means even when nothing goes according to my plans, I surrender to His plans. Better yet, I seek His plans before I come up with my own. I choose to trust Him that my efforts will be used wisely. His promises then color my perspective for the better. And because I know that someone else works in my favor – the Bible even says He fights for me – I can let go of control. That’s how the remedy works.
As for my driveway, well, that situation just stinks. But God keeps reminding me that my attitude and my perspective don’t have to do the same. In this case, I can’t imagine how my hard work is going to benefit me in any manner, but I don’t have to let it ruin my day or spoil the quality time I can have with my husband this evening. When we get sick, we can choose to take the prescription or not. It’s the same with God’s remedy. We have to choose it. And while it doesn’t come naturally, it will definitely make us feel better a lot faster.
Have you ever dreamed about something really big for a long time – maybe even a lifetime – and then it finally comes true? I’m not talking about an amazing vacation or a new car, but more like one of those life altering dreams. If so, you might have noticed that when it finally happens, it also comes with a few things you didn’t anticipate. Like an addendum of stipulations included with a contract, dreams often have long strings attached, making them even harder to achieve and surprisingly complicated to manage once they come to fruition.
Most people significantly underestimate their readiness to pursue a dream or receive a blessing. It’s fairly easy to imagine the incredible, but when we do, a couple of things usually happen. Either we are blinded to the things that need to change in our lives to make the dream possible, or we give up entirely on the thought because we lack the courage to believe it could really happen. For some, the disappointments of life have made them feel so downtrodden that they gave up the notion of dreaming big a long time ago.
The reality is that all really big, audacious, life-shaking dreams always have strings attached. One of the strings is obvious: most dreams require extremely hard work and take a long time. Other strings are less pronounced. We start with just a tiny tug on one of them, and then suddenly realize we’ll be pulling on it for many years to come. Take for example, my dream to write a novel. For more than 20 years I have been dreaming of having the time to make it happen. That may seem like a long wait, but now that I’m living the dream, I’ve realized that if I had been able to do this any earlier in life, I would’ve failed miserably. In fact, there are days where I still feel like I am woefully unprepared and incapable of doing this. Not because the words for the book won’t come, but because of what I’ll call the longest string in my life. We all have one… our longest strings. It’s the thing that never seems to go away… the bad habit, the weakness, the constant frustration, the limitation of some sort. It’s the string that always seems to wrap itself around your positive thoughts and experiences and pulls tight enough to leave scars. The apostle Paul called it “the thorn” in his side. And while scholars have never figured out what his thorn was, Paul made it clear that God’s dreams for his life would come true despite his uncomfortable and clearly frustrating limitation.
My longest string is anxiety. I’ve battled it since my early 20s, and while I am much freer of it today by the grace and healing power of God’s work in my life, it will probably never go away entirely. The experience of moving from a rigorous corporate structure driven by others’ requirements and goals to a flexible and wide-open work schedule driven only by my own discipline and ideas was much more anxiety-inducing than I would have ever imagined. Until now, I had never realized how much comfort and trust I placed in rules, boundaries and goals. I spent my whole life maximizing success within someone’s else’s parameters for my job, and now my job was to pursue something without anyone telling me what to do, set my expectations, or give me some idea of what the future might hold if I succeed. Now, I live in a new world where I might achieve my goal, but fail entirely to be successful. This is a difficult concept for a performance-driven, strategy-loving over-achiever like me.
It would be enough to freeze my creativity and send me back to corporate life faster than you can say “key performance indicators”… if it wasn’t for one, incredible factor. I have the Dream Maker. No, I’m not talking about Santa or some fantastical notion of God where we can just put in our order and expect to get our hearts’ desires. The Dream Maker doesn’t give me the desires of my heart, He gives me His. In the garden of my heart, He plants, nurtures, and sustains His dreams for me as long as I give Him my full permission and submission to do so. And while it is true that my passion for writing a novel came from Him, it took more than two decades of refinement in my heart to prepare me for this journey.
Like me, if you’re waiting on a big dream, you’re in good company. Noah waited 120 years before the rains came. Abraham waited 25 years between the time God planted the dream of an heir and when Isaac was born. Joseph waited 14 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit and more than 20 years from the time he first received God’s vision for him in a dream. The Dream Maker fulfills His dreams for us in His time.
John Maxwell said that God prepares us in a slow-cooker. I love that. He goes on to say, “More important than the awaited goal is the work that God does in us while we wait. Waiting deepens and matures us, levels our perspective, and broadens our understanding.” And for me, the waiting prepared me to pursue God’s dream despite my biggest weakness. God had to prepare me to operate in freedom. Prior to now, my longest string would have not only tied me up, but it would have choked the very life out of the dream God gave me.
If you’ve stopped dreaming, start up again by delighting in the Lord in prayer. It’s His courage you’ll need, not your own. If you’re waiting, take heart and know that He will finish the work He’s started in you, as long as you continue to get out of His way. Philippians 1:6 says, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” If you’re asking Him to do something big, change your prayers and ask Him to plant only His dreams in your heart. I promise you that prayer will surely produce something big! Psalm 37:4 says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.”
I’ve often heard it said that “growing old isn’t for sissies.” And as my dear Dad’s health has declined over the last decade, I definitely agree with the expression. The only trouble with the phrase is that we don’t really get to choose whether we grow old or not. Yes, there are things we can do to dramatically impact our odds of living a long time, but ultimately it’s not up to us. For many people, this is a very unnerving thought and they don’t want to contemplate it. Especially if they take the next step in the thought process and ponder spending their final years like my Dad is, completely reliant on others for his daily existence.
As humans, we crave to be in control of our own destinies, and most of us would say we want to live a long time. But in most cases, to use another famous expression, we “can’t have our cake and eat it too.” That’s because when anyone of us gets to the point where my father is, we won’t have any control over anything. And when control is taken away, we humans don’t react well. After all, we spend our whole lives trying to find it… display it … exert it. Sometimes control brings us great things and rewards. Sometimes control destroys what we love. It’s a double-edged sword that none of us realizes the addicting power of… until we are totally robbed of it.
As I’ve observed my Dad on his journey, I have witnessed some of the most profound moments of quiet courage in the face of what appears to be complete powerlessness. What these moments have taught me most is the value of a well-built life over time. On the day my father checked into the veterans home, suddenly none of his material possessions mattered anymore. What continues to matter, more every day, is his unique hard-earned and carefully nurtured collection of relationships, beliefs, and character traits. These, no one and no illness can ever take from my Dad. Yes, my Dad is a veteran, but these are the things that make him my hero. When I see my Dad in his wheelchair, I don’t see an old soldier. I don’t see a worsening invalid. I don’t even see him as a shadow of his former self. I see a man of quiet courage, who was never a big talker, and now can say hardly anything at all. But he doesn’t need to be able to speak to communicate volumes. A life well-lived and well-built says it all for him. And it’s what makes him stand tall in my eyes, even now. He stands resolutely on a lifetime of building genuine friendships, raising his children to love and respect others, honoring his marriage in good times and bad, offering a kind word and a helping hand to neighbors and strangers alike, and most importantly, living every day humbly walking in trust of God. My Dad is the kind of man willing to recognize that God is in control, and while that knowledge has made him nervous from time to time, he has rarely complained and has always been quick to smile.
Today, my Dad can’t smile like most people do. But his faded eyes still gleam with his unquenchable spirit. He still loves Christmas. His eyes literally grin when he sees his infant grandson. He still craves to hear God’s Word read to him. He sinks into peaceful moments when music plays. My Dad is in his last battle, but he is valiantly waging it with integrity and selflessness, not wanting those he loves to suffer even one moment because of his suffering. In this, my Dad is showing his family the love described in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. This act of courage will forever speak volumes to my heart: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
I was out running errands on Tuesday this week when I heard a DJ on the radio say that January 2nd is the crankiest day of the year. This made me feel great -- even validated -- simply because someone acknowledged out loud what I had been experiencing all day and didn’t want to admit. When I got home, one quick search on Google and social media churned up hundreds of stories and posts with the #backtowork and #backtoreality hashtags. On top of that, people everywhere are moaning about the extreme cold and the #bombcyclone ravaging the East coast (who came up with that term???). All of these factors have collided in a single week to create the perfect storm of crankiness for most of us (sorry for the pun, I couldn’t resist).
So if you research the cure for the post-holiday blues or the winter “blahs,” you will get all kinds of great tips from psychologists, self-help authors and life coaches. Many of them are definitely healthy suggestions, like spending time with friends you haven’t seen in a while, booking a special date with your spouse or child, or planning your next vacation so that you have something to look forward to even if it’s months away. All of these suggestions can create a spark of hope for those of us mired in the doldrums of the daily grind, endless snow shoveling, and the general emptiness of our homes without Christmas decorations. Let’s face it, most of us are drawn like little kids to the magic of holiday lights, no matter what our age!
But what if the cause of our crankiness right now isn’t the daily grind or the chilly effects of the bomb cyclone? The holidays are filled -- no, that’s not a strong enough word – they are packed to the gills, with constant stimulation, demands and pleasure. During the holidays, we have the best and the worst experiences all the same time. For example, we enjoy the richest of foods (repeatedly!) with the most time-consuming preparation. We see loved ones we’ve missed all year long, but then we have arguments about some long-standing family issue. We shower people with gifts they’ve always wanted, but then we feel disappointed when the same thoughtfulness isn’t returned. You get the idea. The holidays, unlike any other time of year, evoke just about every human emotion at the same time. And then, when they come to a sudden stop, we sit in the eerie stillness with the reverberating ache of life back to normal. Somehow life seems empty now. Emotionless. Boring. In the solitude of our own thoughts, we might even acknowledge that we feel six years old again as the newness of the Christmas toys fades and we have to go back to school… and homework … and the bad lunchroom food.
What dawned on me this morning as I read a quote from CS Lewis is that my foul mood is a direct result of my perspective. Lewis said in his book The Weight of Glory, “We are halfhearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Ouch. Leave it to Lewis to cut to the heart of the matter. Sure, the daily grind can get old, arduous, stressful, etc. Yes, the snow drifts dumped by the bomb cyclone will cause a lot of back aches. Life can stink. You’ll get no argument from me there. But even in moments of dread or frustration, a perspective fixed not on the situation at hand, but on the bigger picture can mean the difference between a really bad day and just a long one. The true cure for this seasonal crankiness is not found in planning your next vacation, but finding a deep, abiding hope and sense of purpose in the everyday stuff of life. Being on a holiday high is fun, but discovering soul-level joy is eternal. Instead of a reverberating ache in the solitude, this joy pulses with peace, contentment and gratitude. It’s the kind of joy that the Psalmist writes about over and over. “The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life.” (Ps. 63:3) “In your presence is fullness of joy, in your right hand there are pleasures forever.” (Ps. 16:11) As John Piper says, “nearness to God himself is the only all-satisfying experience of the universe.”
Come tomorrow morning, I will likely be shoveling more than a foot of snow off my deck. And in the next few days, I will eat the last Christmas cookie in the tin (if my husband doesn’t get it first). But instead of focusing on my momentary dismay, like I so often do, I’m going to invite the Source of Infinite Joy to remind my fickle heart over and over that the light at the end of the tunnel is real and much bigger than I could ever imagined.
Four Christmases is unlike most holiday movies. No display of schmaltzy, warm holiday traditions or magical Christmas eve snowfall. No tender Hallmark moment of familial bonding or even reconciliation of some kind at the end. Sure, it’s a funny movie – my husband and I watch it almost every year – but unlike most of our cinematic Christmas favorites, it completely bucks the long-held belief that despite dysfunctional relationships and fractured nerves, most people still long to go home for the holidays. (Spoiler alert, sorry!) And while I think anyone who has been impacted by divorce in families will find the movie to be both hilarious and sadly relevant, I am willing to bet most of us in similar circumstances would still have ultimately chosen to see our families at Christmas – especially if we had just welcomed our first child into the world.
As I flew across the country this week to experience my own multiple Christmases and familiar traditions, I kept seeing evidence of the persistent longing that we have as humans for returning to our roots. Whether the return home happens only in our minds or in reality, we all crave a connection for where we came from and to those with whom our bonds have nothing to do with career achievements, friend counts on Facebook, or the kind of clothes we can afford to wear.
Over the years, however, the place we call home changes. For the first 30 years of my life, the home I longed for at Christmas more than any other place on earth was my grandmother’s house. But the last one was the last one. And I will never be able to go there again. Since everyone longs to go home for Christmas, then eventually, each one of us has to be the one to sacrifice at some point. For married couples, there's always the discussion of which family home will be chosen for Christmas. And when do we reach the age where our own homes become everyone else’s desired destination?
As you think about this Christmas, your biological family may not look like what you imagined a few years or decades ago. In fact, your family may not be at all what you dreamed of when you were a kid. Through the years, families morph and change, expand and contract. But no matter what your “blood” family is like, I’ve come to believe that your truest sense of “home” comes not necessarily with those whom you share some genetic connections, but with those you share the most unconditional love.
That’s why I like to say that I didn't just get married, I was adopted too. I’ve been married for 13 years, and during that time I’ve spent every Christmas with my husband’s family. At one time in my life I could’ve never imagined spending Christmas anywhere but my grandmother’s and now I can’t imagine spending it anywhere other than with my husband’s family.
My adoption by my husband’s family and my willingness to let God settle my heart into it, is the very picture of what Christmas is all about. This is what Jesus came to earth to do – provide a way for our adoption. Jesus himself was "adopted" by Joseph and Mary. He wasn't their son by natural means, but by divine intervention. He made his home with them. And at the appointed time, he gave his life so that we might also be adopted as God’s sons and daughters.
The nostalgia most of us feel when we think about going home at Christmas, is really about going to a place of acceptance, love and safety, without the pressures of performance and the other burdens of being a responsible adult. For most people, that’s a return to the warmth of our parents, familiar surroundings and comfortable traditions. And that’s because human beings are literally wired to long for the protection and safety of eternal and unconditional love. We long for these feelings because God created us to long for them. Skeptics often ask, “what evidence is there for God?” The universal longing in human hearts for a heavenly home is the greatest evidence of all. We are all longing for divine adoption and the eternal inheritance waiting for us in our true home with God.
This Christmas, when your nostalgic longings begin stirring, perhaps take a moment to ponder why they pull at your heart in the first place. They are beautiful and deeply spiritual reminders welling up from your soul, intentionally placed there by a Father who would give his all to turn your heart toward his. Like the star over the manger in Bethlehem, let the longings of your heart point toward their true home. During the holidays, it is so easy to cover up the longing with mounds of stuff and to-do lists. The more we pile everything up, the louder we make the music, and the brighter we make the lights, the less we see and hear the truth. Instead, take your longing to the throne room of the One who made you in his image and let him satisfy your deepest need. You may approach the throne as an orphan – disheveled, hurt and disowned – but you will leave a daughter or son of the King of Kings.
We’ve all been there. Decision time. Whether it’s a big “life decision” like which house to buy or a seemingly small choice like whether to be honest with your friend about her new hairstyle, wouldn’t we all just love it if God’s direction came through loud and clear every time?
The leading of God was simply vivid for the Israelites when they were wandering in the desert. They had a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. At other times, God lead them directly through Israel’s kings or prophets. However, as soon as the visible, tangible signs from God were obscured … as soon as the obvious miracles ceased… the Israelites lost sight of God’s light and continually exhibited very short memories. They strayed from God’s path every single time.
When I am reminded of how clearly God communicated to the Israelites, I admit that I am bit jealous. Aren’t you? Really, just imagine a pillar of fire appearing in your backyard every time you struggled with a choice. You might have some explaining to do to the neighbors, but think of how much easier daily living would be. Of course, that’s assuming that you will heed the direction. In our modern society, we tend to believe that we’ve evolved as a human race to the point that we wouldn’t behave like the Israelites. We confidently assure ourselves that if God literally appeared in fire, wind, clouds, or even sent an angel, that we would do exactly what he tells us to do, versus the Israelites who made so many mistakes they got stuck on 40-year sand safari.
But we couldn’t be more wrong. That’s because there’s only one difference between us and them. And it has nothing to do with technology, culture or education.
God manifested Himself in very physical ways in Old Testament times because the Israelites didn’t have the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit to provide the light from within (and also the conviction to follow through on the direction).
It’s the time of year where we celebrate the coming of the light for all mankind – not just the Israelites. God literally appeared in the form of a baby who grew up and walked with the human race for more than three decades. His ultimate sacrifice paved the way for the light you and I have today as believers. John 1:1,3 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” And, yes, there are times that the light may seem as dim as a candle on a blustery night. But the beautiful reality is that even a candle is capable illuminating the next small step in front of you.
The bigger question here, though, isn’t how you hear or see God’s direction, but what do you do with it when you receive it. For example, what would you do in the case of your friend with the new hairstyle when she asks you what you think and it truly looks bad? Telling her the truth in a loving way seems like a small decision compared to buying a house … but is it? Isn’t more revealed about us and our character in the smaller, but clearly stickier, daily decisions of life? The reality is we often build our character little by little over time, especially in the moments that require us to be uncomfortably honest or to squint in the darkness with only a small candle to guide our steps. It is in these times that the character of Christ has the chance to shine the brightest in our lives and God is training our vision to become more focused on His light and not the distractions lurking in the darkness.
“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” 2 Corinthians 12:9
Random musings, heartfelt confessions, and occasionally inspirational thoughts from a hungry soul in pursuit of the One who set the stars in place yet calls me by name.
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