First things first, “Merry Christmas!” What a precious, beautiful, wonderful time of year this is. A time when the whole world takes a breath to pause and remember the Prince of Peace who came and who is coming again one day. We fall on our knees and hear the angel voices from the night divine when deity became flesh and moved in among us.
And amidst all of the holiness and beauty…there is also real life. Real life with four kids under the Christmas tree. Real life wrapping presents until 2am on Christmas Eve, something you promise yourself you will not do again but find yourself doing again every year, running last minute errands to buy gifts for people who bring you a gift and you don’t have a gift for (worst feeling ever), taking sick kids to the doctor who have styes in their eye (who has time for styes or anything other sick thing on planet earth for that matter the week before Christmas), hauling your six year old to her first basketball practice at 8am three days before Christmas (what in the actual heck), trying to get things done but getting nothing done when you have a two-year-old underfoot who sneaks nail polish from her sister’s stash and paints it all over your desk chair in your kitchen, and, of course, icing sugar cookies in your kitchen and destroying your kitchen when you need it to stay clean for the rest of the year.
My six-year-old, Caroline, made this beauty of a cookie:
I was puzzled when I first saw the cookie and asked, “Caroline, that looks like a cross, but what is that on the cross?”
“Jesus. That’s Jesus, mom.”
Right. Not totally sure if I should laugh or cry, I chose the former option and had to wipe away tears I was laughing so hard. Jesus with a mustache on the cross on a sugar cookie. We’re keepin’ it real around here.
And that’s what I love about Christmas. It’s the mix of beautiful moments of mystery when I am caught off guard by the glory and holiness of Immanuel made flesh in all of the sweet fragrance and vulnerability of a newborn and the moments of reality of Jesus with a mustache on a sugar cookie cross made by a kid with a sty in her eye you have to wake up early to get to basketball practice.
This Christmas, more than ever, I have seen that somehow I live in the intertwining of those two moments, and the trick is to learn how to stop when the mystery overtakes me and let it in, let it into my ordinary tasks, routines, problems, short comings, failures, messes, and joys whenever it has the notion to come knocking on my door.
The Sunday before Christmas I was doing the very ordinary task of addressing Christmas cards while keeping one eye on the 60 Minutes show in front of me. The show was highlighting a group of Syrians in Aleppo known as The White Helmets. They are a group of very ordinary men who perform extraordinary feats of courage.
Aleppo is in the center of the Syrian rebellion against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad and has undergone intense siege and starvation for the past five years. According to 60 Minutes, the past few weeks, the Assad dictatorship has increased their air strikes over Aleppo’s dense neighborhoods. Many times, military targets are not targeted; in fact, the terrifying thing is that nothing is targeted. Barrels of shrapnel and TNT are dropped indiscriminately over any neighborhood the Assad forces do not control. Concrete homes collapse with full families inside, and people’s greatest fear is that they will be buried alive, trapped under the rubble without any hope of digging themselves out. Their fate will be to die by suffocating or bleeding to death under the rubble of their own homes as so many have done before them.
Civilians’ only hope is the Syrian civil defense known as the White Helmets, a self-appointed, all-Syrian volunteer force of rescue workers whose sole purpose is to bring people out of the rubble…alive.
My task of addressing Christmas cards was abandoned as I glued my eyes to the screen in front of me to learn about these extraordinary men. Every time a bomb goes off and a home or building collapses, these men rush to the rescue in their white helmets, taking their very lives into their hands. They have a 50/50 chance of survival, for many times, a second bomb is dropped within minutes after the first, targeting and terrorizing the rescue workers who have come to dig people out of their concrete graves.
Two young rescue workers were interviewed, and I watched as they talked about digging for six to seven hours at a time and then having the indescribable joy of pulling someone thought to be dead out into a second chance at life. They said, “We feel as if we brought that person back to life. The joy is indescribable.”
Over the past five years, it is estimated that the White Helmets have saved close to 70,000 lives, and every time a survivor is pulled out from the rubble, the workers shout their gratitude to their God. Don’t miss this opportunity to watch as a ten-day-old baby is pulled from the rubble after sixteen hours of labor from The White Helmets and given back to a mother who lost her husband and only other child in the destruction of the bomb. Contrary to what the commentator in the clip says, the baby was a boy, not a girl, and the child did survive and is a healthy two-year-old today:
At one point in the 60 Minutes segment, the rescue of a sixteen-year-old boy was highlighted who was completed buried under the weight of his concrete roof except for his shoulder and one part of his arm. Rescue workers dug for hours in order to pull him out, and once they had uncovered his face, you can hear one of the White Helmets asking him, “Brother, can you see our light?”
The purpose of Christmas was redefined for me as I learned about the White Helmets. The coming of Christ to earth showed less like a Hallmark Channel Christmas special and more like a 60 Minutes segment on a White Helmet rescue operation. The baby who was born was born to die under the weight of our sin so that we would have a second chance at life, life resurrected from a shallow grave. And as followers of Christ, every day for us should bear the mark of the intensity and self-abandon with which the White Helmets work. Bombs go off around us continually in the hearts and families of people we love. We, too, are to respond and to dig with little thought for ourselves, all the while asking those who are buried in the dark around us, “Brother, can you see our Light?” The Light of the One who came to die so that we might live.
When asked at the end of the interview if he was afraid of dying or losing his life in the work of rescuing others, one of the young White Helmets replied, “The goal is to save the most people in the least amount of time…But in the end, I’ve left my mark. I’ve left children who are going to live and complete our future.”
What about you, and what about me? Are we living giving great attention to leaving our mark by working as hard as we can and as fast as we can to pull people from death into everlasting life? Are we living in the dark with our light on, asking those around us, “Can you see our light?” Are we experiencing that same joy and victorious celebration every time someone else is pulled out from the rubble, dead in their own sin and circumstances, and given a rebirth because of the One who laid His life down?
The mystery of the rescue mission of the Gospel entered my reality, and I was given a new lens through which to see. Can you?
So how are you and I to receive the gift of Christmas? The White Helmets and my friend Ellery helped me answer this question this year. Watch this video clip of Ellery receiving her Christmas present, and if you are anything like me, you can’t help but watch it…and cry:
When Ellery received her gift, she received it with overwhelming gratitude. She received it with shouts of victory and celebration and great joy. She received it with humble thanks given to parents she knows love her, sacrifice for her, and have overwhelming love in mind for her in the gifts they give.
So like Ellery, let the mystery enter your mundane this Christmas season and draw you into the greatest gift, the greatest joy, and the greatest rescue mission this earth has even seen. No matter your reality, put on the lens of wonder, the lens that lets you see that we are rubble survivors, pulled from a narrow grave when we had no ability to save ourselves. Let receiving that gift be your greatest joy this Christmas season, and again and again throughout the year.
Brothers and sisters, can you see His Light? He has come to dig you out and to give you…great joy.
To watch the full 60 Minutes episode on The White Helmets, click here.
And for more encouragement this week, don’t forget to connect with me on Facebook.
A couple of weeks ago, I went for a run in my neighborhood. It was a beautiful day, the sky was blue and the air crisp. I had just finished a long day of homeschool and went to pound the pavement, push Mia Grace in the jog stroller, and clear my brain from the fog of a long day of homeschool. And that’s when I saw it. A circle. In a neighbor’s front yard. Three women with their children in a circle. And I wasn’t a part of it.
Immediately my thoughts began to race, “Why wasn’t I included in the circle?” “Had they forgotten to text me?” “Was it a purposeful circle of leaving out or an accidental circle of everyone converging?” I didn’t stop, didn’t say hello, barely waved, and ran on…with an ache in my heart and tears in my eyes.
But as I ran off, I knew that I knew that I knew all three of those loved women loved me. I knew that not one of them would ever hurt or purposefully exclude me. But I still saw that circle as closed. I still saw their being “in” as my automatically being “out,” and I spent the rest of my run having it out with God.
And by the end of my run, here is what I came to: something has got to change in the way I see circles. I’m not ten anymore, or thirteen, or sixteen, or eighteen, or twenty-one or even thirty-one. My goodness. I’m forty. 40. And it’s time to see circles as an invitation to step in instead of a barricade designed to keep me out.
Can any other woman relate to me here? Because I hear it all around me regularly. We all carry these wounds and aches inside of us that cause us to see circumstances and circles through the lens of the little girls we once were instead of the healed, whole, beloved women of God He has made us to be.
I’ve done a lot of praying over the past year about turning 40 – about freedom and joy and what the journey looks like from here. And I can tell you this: I decided on my run I want to do whatever it takes, whatever healing it requires, however many counseling sessions are needed, to spend this year of 40 seeing circles as open invitations in instead of daggers made to wound and keep me out.
Now I know not everyone wants me in their circle. That’s just called life. That’s called women and the result of the fall. But that’s ok. Because if I’m honest with myself, I don’t always want me in every circle either. But part of growing up and growing 40 is learning to stand securely in the places and in the circles where I know I am loved. Part of turning 40 is ceasing to put everyone’s love around me to the test and simply resting in the fact that I know it’s there.
And it’s impossible to do that in any human circle unless I know I stand securely in the circle of the love of the Lord. Standing in His circle, sitting at His table, putting on His nature, taking up and taking on His identity is the key to walking confidently into any other circle He places me. And when I am confident, securely confident of His love, I know I will be confident to walk up on or into any circle, closed or open, where He sends me.
Last week was sweet. I was able to go to each and every neighbor and confess my defensive, introspective, incorrect lens with which I viewed their circle. Their forgiveness was sweet and receiving redemption was even sweeter. I learned that confessing the places where I felt “out”, knowing it was wrong, was just a humbling opportunity to receive even greater measures of my neighbors’ love.
So I encourage you to do the very same thing this last week we have of Advent. This last week we have of preparation for the One who came and the One who is coming again. Put on a different lens this week. Put on the lens that lets you see life through the love of the One who came to invite you into His circle to give you a perpetual seat at His table. And look beside you at the others who are sitting there. For those who love King Jesus, we are all a part of the same circle. It’s a circle of grace. It’s a place in a circle we did nothing to earn, and therefore can do nothing to lose. It’s a place is secured by the love of Another, Another whose love never fails. So…you and I have nothing to lose by walking confidently into the circles God places us. We have nothing to lose by humbling ourselves, asking for forgiveness from those we have wronged. We have nothing to lose by inviting all those God sends on the path beside us to join the circle we are in and the path we are on. But what we stand to gain is firm footing in the House of God, with the family of God and the people of God, with those He chosen to call in.
“Why is it that so often I return
From social converse with a spirit worn,
A lack, a disappointment – even a sting
Of shame, as for some low, unworthy thing?
Because I have not, careful, first of all,
Set me door wide open, back to the wall,
Ere I at others’ doors did knock and call.”
George MacDonald, Diary of an Old Soul, “September: Eighteen”
This time of year, I love turning in the pages of my Bible to read the story of the birth of Christ in Luke. Each time, I wonder if the words will sound trite or boring, and each time I am captivated anew.
I was reading in Luke 1 about Zacharias’ response to the angel and it dawned on me afresh, anew, about the way God broke into the world, about how this whole Christmas story began and begins.
Zacharias and his wife, Elizabeth, are barren. The Bible doesn’t give us the specifics, but I can imagine this couple who loved God and loved His people spent years in prayer, asking Yahweh to open Elizabeth’s womb. But her womb remained barren and heaven remained silent.
In fact, heaven had been silent for longer than the totality of Zacharias and Elizabeth’s prayers. Heaven had been silent for 400 years. After God spoke through the prophet Malachi in Malachi 4:5-6, saying, “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. And he will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse,” the Word of the Lord was sealed for 400 years. It was sealed through Greece’s triumph over Israel; it was sealed through a pagan pig’s slaughter in the temple’s most holy place; and it was sealed through Roman occupation. God’s people had groaned, and while we know God heard, we also know God was silent. No prophets. No Davidic kings on the throne. No recorded miracles. No answers. Only questions filling the silent spaces.
But God broke the silence by filling the barren space in a womb.
His first response to deliverance was to overcome barrenness.
And don’t you wish you could have seen the look on Elizabeth’s face, one who was “advanced in years,” (Luke 1:7) one who must have had wrinkles in her skin and grey at her temples, when she first discovered that she was pregnant?
The one in her womb was “Elijah the prophet” of whom Malachi spoke before heaven was sealed. John the Baptist came in the spirit of Elijah to make a people ready for the coming of the Lord. John’s arrival was the first word spoken to prepare God’s people for the final Word spoken. “There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John. He came for a witness, that he might bear witness of the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came that he might bear witness of the light….And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten fro m the father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:6-8, 14).
And John’s arrival from a barren womb made a fruitful womb is the precedent for how Christ still comes – He comes into the barren places. He comes into the places where you and I are least expecting it. He comes where the branch has long been withered; He comes where the ground is cracked and dry; He comes where the heart is broken and the desire forgotten; He comes where dreams are forsaken and the soul is aching. He comes.
So if you are looking for a Word this Christmas, look first to the barren place, the place God often comes when He wants to speak. Sometimes He gives a child, sometimes He gives an answer, but He always gives Himself. For the barren place is sacred space God makes for Himself to come.
To prepare the way in your heart this Christmas for the Child who came and the King who is coming, consider praying through the barren places and hurting places in your heart using this prayer guide: Advent Prayers – Prepare the Way 2016
And be expectant. Expectant that because God came, He will come again to all the places in our hearts that are aching and longing for life and fruitfulness to grow.
Just ask Elizabeth, the fruitful one.
For more on asking God to fill the barren places, walk through Waiting on the Lord in the new year, and watch and wait expectantly for Christ to come to the places you least expect.
This past Saturday, Jason and I retreated for the day and did what we always do this time of year – set goals for the upcoming year. Now I know for some of you, the very thought of setting goals sends a grimace to your face and forms a pit in your stomach. You would rather pour lemon juice on the worst paper cut imaginable than set aside an entire day to set goals. For others of you, the very thought of setting goals sends a flood of joy to your heart and puts a lift in your step – new goals, new year, new start.
If you’re not a goal setter, don’t worry. Today isn’t a push to try to get you to set goals, stick them in a drawer, and then never look at them again until you are cleaning out that same drawer a year later. Some of the most productive people I know hate to set goals. I think most people are either wired to set goals or they’re not.
Unfortunately for our children, both Jason and I are wired-to-the-core goal setters. Often times, I am pretty sure they are looking at both of us thinking, “Good grief, people. Live a little. Lighten up.” But like it or not, their year and our year ends and begins with setting goals.
After 15 consecutive years of talking through our past and future year together, Jason and I have learned we can only sit still for so long. Breaks are frequent, so on one of my breaks, I got up to heat up a bowl of turkey chili. I went into our mud room, opened the fridge, and pulled out the huge tupperware container containing a doubled recipe of turkey chili I had made the day before to make sure we would have enough to eat on throughout the weekend. As I pulled out the container, I quickly discovered I was pulling the lid but not the container, and two pounds of turkey, corn, tomatoes, tomato juice, black beans, and kidney beans dumped all over the bottom of the fridge, into all the drawers, ran under the fridge, and all over our fairly new rug in front of the fridge.
I kept looking around wishing one of my four children was there to blame for the ginormous mess in front of me. But it was me. Just me. Standing in my barefeet in front of the fridge holding a now empty container.
It took me a moment to come out of shock and actually begin to move, but once I did, it took Jason and I a solid hour to clean up that turkey chili mess. Jason was a champ and cleaned right beside me the entire time without a word of complaint. Not exactly the way you want to spend an hour of your day sans kids in the quiet peacefulness of your home.
During that hour, we pulled out every refrigerator door and cleaned every crack and crevice of that fridge. We pulled the fridge out from the wall and cleaned the floor underneath the fridge, floor that hadn’t seen the light of day in probably a decade. We pulled up the rug and cleaned not only the rug but underneath the rug, trying to wipe down every spot that had been stained by turkey chili. And while on my hands and knees wiping out the fridge, I realized I wasn’t just wiping out stains from the mess I had made just moments before, I was wiping out stains from messes made years before…stains that I had never bothered or taken the time to clean.
And here’s what hit me while I was on my hands and knees: some of our lives are one big gigantic turkey chili mess right now. We have stains all over the floors and rugs of our lives, spilling out and over into all the drawers, and we are dreading the clean up we know is ahead of us. Cleaning up this mess isn’t how we were planning on spending our time, our lives, or our energy, and the whole process feels like such a waste.
But I firmly believe this: sometimes God allows the big, messy explosions in our lives because He knows we would never get down to the business of cleaning out some pretty old, stained, dark, and dirty places unless there was an oozing mound of turkey chili running into every crevice and cranny demanding our attention.
Goal setting is messy business. Pulling up the rug and pulling out the drawers of the past year isn’t always fun. Every single time we sit down to set goals, I cry at some point in the process. I become frustrated with myself, with the year, with my marriage, with my kids, with my life, because setting new goals always requires looking at how the old ones have failed. How I have failed. At becoming who I want to be and who I know I should be. And sometimes it’s only when I have the size of a turkey chili mess in my life do I slow down for long enough to clean up all the other messes besides.
So here is my encouragement to us at the end of this year peering into the face of another: don’t be afraid of the mess. Don’t be afraid of the size of the task in front of you. Don’t be afraid of the size of the hole of grief a missing spouse or child has left or the damage a wrecked friendship has done or the failure of an empty bank account to provide. We all have turkey-chili-size messes on the rugs of our year and our lives. Because we are all human. No one’s life is exactly where they thought it would be or what they thought it would be, and if it is, like Tim Keller says, no one can keep it that way.
Just get down on your hands and knees, and start to clean up the mess. And here’s the thing: as you clean, you will look up, like I did, and see your spouse cleaning right there beside you, without a word of complaint. I’m not talking about an earthly spouse. I am talking about your heavenly spouse who cared enough about cleaning up your mess to enter into it. To take on human flesh, think human thoughts and walk a very human life so that He could get down beside you, right in the midst of the messiness, and clean those hard to reach places no one can touch but Him.
F.B Meyer says it this way in his book, Love to the Uttermost: “Again He stoops from the throne, and girds Himself with a towel, and in all lowliness, endeavors to remove from thee and me the stain which His love dare not pass over. He never loses the print of the nail; He never forgets Calvary and the blood; He never spends one hour without stooping to do the most menial work of cleansing filthy souls. And it is because of this humility He sits on the Throne and wields the scepter over hearts and worlds.”
Whatever mess is on the floor or year of your life doesn’t surprise Jesus. It doesn’t phase Him or overly concern Him. And cleaning up your mess doesn’t feel like a waste of His time. It feels like time spent close to you, next to you, scrub brush in hand, cleaning out all the drawers and washing out all the stains. It feels like relationship. It feels like Calvary. It feels like humility. And it feels like perfect love.
So don’t avoid the mess of your year, embrace it, knowing there is One who can clean it as you do the most menial task of getting low and picking up the scrub brush beside Him. And there, in the midst of the mess, you will know no matter what your year or your rug looks like, you are held in the perfect grip of Love who works all messes for good.