Archive | December 2015

A Messy Christmas

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Christmas songs can be misleading. Like this one:

Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright.

Or this one:

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay.
The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.

They’re beautiful songs, but they can also give the wrong impression of Jesus’ birth. That it was calm, bright, that the sky illuminated a perfectly content baby Jesus while some nearby cows mooed melodically.

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I’m not saying mother and child didn’t have a tender moment, but I doubt it was this peaceful.

I have a small nativity scene near the fireplace at home that paints the same kind of picture: a brightly clothed Mary and Joseph, with Mary looking lovingly at her sweet new baby, while an angel behind them smiles down on the beautiful, serene stable. Oh, and the star. There has to be a big, bright star.

But the first Christmas wasn’t like that.

After a rough journey through the desert on a donkey, a very pregnant (and very young) Mary was undoubtedly tired, uncomfortable and in a lot of pain, with no expert to deliver her first child. The stable, likely a dark cave full of animals, rodents and insects, surely could have used a good sweep and some Glade PlugIns. It wasn’t calm, it wasn’t bright, and baby Jesus probably wasn’t polished clean.

And yet, year after year, we see Christmas cards with the same perfect scene printed on the front.

Why is that?

Maybe we try to depict Christ’s birth as picturesque because that’s what we want our lives with Him to be like: happy and wonderful. We might want Him in our lives, but we don’t want things to get too messy.

But that’s what Jesus does; He shakes things up.

Sometimes He takes our neat, tidy lives and stretches us beyond our comfort zone. Sometimes He gives us things we didn’t ask for, or leads us somewhere we never thought of going before.

Just think about the disciples, all leading their own quiet lives when Jesus came along and, BAM!, their lives were changed forever. They went from no-name cowards who bickered with each other, denied knowing Christ and fled in fear when He was arrested, to dedicating their entire lives to Him and turning the world upside down with a life-saving message of God’s grace.

The night Jesus was born, I doubt Mary huddled in a dark corner of a smelly cave, thinking, Wow, what perfect timing!

If it were me, I’d probably have it out with God right then and there: Are you serious? I’m still not over that trek-through-the-desert-on-a-donkey thing.

But even though Mary had no clue what an incredible impact this moment would have, God did. There, in a dark stable, Christ came into the world—God in human flesh—a turning point in history and a Savior for millions around the world.

God’s timing might not look perfect from the outside, but we can be assured He sees the big picture and knows exactly what He’s doing. Even in our darkest, messiest moments, He’s there in our midst.

Tokens from Tokyo

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It’s been a month now since I was in Tokyo for work. I’m behind on writing about it, but I still want to share some of the highlights from that incredible trip. Here they are, in no particular order.

  • Everyone there dresses nicely. Everyone. Like every single one. Most of the men wear black suits to work, and the working women almost always wear hose, even when they’re wearing pants.
  • It was common to see stores with English names. We also passed several American shops and restaurants, like Kinko’s and Denny’s.One guy was walking down the street in an Iowa State sweatshirt.
  • A lot of Tokyo reminded me of my trip to Sapporo a year and a half ago. Sapporo was big enough, but as the largest city in the world, Tokyo was even more mind-boggling. People were everywhere, day and night. One area we walked around was like the Times Square of Japan, with busy sidewalks and crosswalks going every which way.
  • Both times I’ve been to Japan, I was struck by how focused and hard-working the people are there. Many of them work long hours, and some students go to school half a day on Saturday. (Ick.) Yet, with so much emphasis on self-reliance and so much pressure from society to be successful, the country also has a high suicide rate. People don’t want to show their weaknesses.
  • With more career-minded women in Japan, many of them are putting off marriage and having fewer kids. During our stay, we had an interpreter named Lui who was born in Japan but actually lives in North Carolina now. Of all of Lui’s friends in Japan (in their early 30s), none of them are married. The day we visited a big national park, we saw several kids running around and Lui said that was a big deal. It’s not something you see that often in everyday life. And of course with fewer and fewer kids, it’ll be hard to continue supporting the economy.
  • Only about 1% of Japan is Christian, but everywhere we went, we saw Christmas trees and heard Christmas songs. Not “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” kind of songs, either. Songs like “Away in a Manger” and “O Holy Night.”
  • People are still allowed to smoke in restaurants there. And many do. That was one of my least favorite things.
  • Just like last time, I noticed that there was hardly a speck of trash anywhere. And yet, a trash can could not be found. I finally spotted 5 in a row at the national park, so I guess that’s where they all went.
  • The weirdest food I ate was a fried baby octopus. I will not be eating that again.
  • Even though different religions are accepted there, some see Christianity as a crutch, as something people need because they can’t get through daily obstacles on their own. That, as well as the small number of Christians, can make it hard for new Christians to get established and grow in their faith.
  • … Yet, there was also an openness to the Gospel there. Hundreds of churches came together to organize the 3-day event we had in Tokyo. More than 38,000 people came and about 1,500 of them decided to commit their lives to Christ, including lots of kids and teens. That, of course, was the best part of the trip.

Patience is (Unfortunately) a Virtue

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“BOIL!” I commanded, watching an uncooperative pot of water.

It was dinner time, and with one hand on my hip, the other holding a bag of frozen peas and carrots, impatience seemed to be getting the best of me.

I once had a book about virtues, and patience was one of them, along with charity, humility, temperance (or self-restraint), diligence, chastity and kindness. To this day, I find patience the most difficult.

Why is that?

Merriam-Webster defines virtue as “morally good behavior or character.” We all know patience is good, and impatience is bad, but it’s just so hard. Patience means waiting. It means tolerating difficult things without getting grumpy. It means not getting easily annoyed or upset.

All things that don’t come naturally, at least for me.

I recently searched online for all the Bible verses on patience, and I got way too many results.

Romans 12:12 urges us to “be patient in tribulation.”

“Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for Him,” Psalm 37:7 tells us.

And from one of my favorite verses comes this gem: “Do not be anxious about anything” (Philippians 4:6). An-y-thing. If that isn’t a blunt command, I don’t know what is.

I think there are 2 things that make patience so hard.

One, we live in a global, technology-saturated world. We can find answers to any question we can think of, all at the speed of light on a glowing, hand-held screen. As our world picks up the pace, demands on our time increase. We expect things quicker and nearly bust at the seams when something slows us down. (Have you yelled at a slow Internet connection lately? Me, too.)

Two, we compare ourselves to others. He has a great job; why can’t I find one? She has a husband; when is it my turn? They just bought a bigger house; when can we get one?

There are a few things I’ve been waiting on for quite some time now. Years, actually. I feel like I’m in this never-ending waiting room, stuck between this desire to trust God’s timing and frustration over the standstill.

In those moments, I think about the Psalmist who wrote this:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
—Psalm 13:1

In my search for verses on patience, I came across another well-known goody from Romans that explains one of the positive effects of patience: “Endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:4).

The first part of that reminds me of something my mom used to say when I had to do something I didn’t want to do, like wash dishes.

“It builds character,” she’d tell me.

And she’s right. Often the things we don’t want to do or think we’re incapable of doing, (like waiting), are the very things that make us stronger people. More compassionate, hard-working and patient people who learn to trust God and have confidence in the future.

Earlier this week as I sat in traffic, I came to a red light and stopped, watching the people ahead of me continue on down the road.

Patience can be that way, too—watching others get ahead while we’re asked to stay put. But a lot of times, it’s for our own good. If we tried to catch up by running the red light, we’d probably get hit.

So, despite the frustration and occasional yelling during dinner preparation, maybe there’s a good reason we’re on hold after all. Maybe, just maybe, that pot isn’t ready to boil yet.

What are you waiting on? How can you ease the waiting period?

The Best Laid Plans

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Over the weekend, Pete and I made plans to meet my family in Asheville for a Christmas dinner and concert. The trip was several weeks in the making and was supposed to be a Christmas gift for my grandparents.

Just moments after we started the 2 1/2 hour drive to the mountains on Saturday, Mom called to let me know my grandparents might not make it; my grandmother didn’t feel well. And Dad, who was stuck fixing a problem for work, was iffy, too.

I sent a quick text to my prayer group of six, then tacked on a few others for good measure. I asked them to pray that everyone would be able to make it because I knew how much they would all enjoy it, and because my grandparents were the whole purpose for the trip. I didn’t see them at Thanksgiving and won’t see them at Christmas, so this was my chance to spend time with them around the holidays.

Within minutes, I got a bunch of messages back, confirming my friends’ heartfelt prayers. Between texts, I sent up a few silent prayers of my own and tried to stay confident that everything would work out as planned.

But it didn’t.

My grandparents apologetically backed out, and Dad couldn’t get away. Thankfully, my mom and sister made it, but I was still incredibly disappointed. With my grandmother’s declining health, I’m not sure we’ll be able to plan another trip like that, and I was mad that this thing I had been excited about for weeks was falling apart moment by moment.

We attempted to find a few people to go in their places (we already had the tickets), but because it was so last minute, that didn’t work, either. And as great as the dinner and concert ended up being, it was also bittersweet; I kept thinking how much the three people missing would have loved it.

DSCN0730As I sat in the passenger’s seat on the way to Asheville that afternoon, ticked that things weren’t working out, I tried to remind myself that everything happens for a reason, even if we don’t understand it. And sometimes God’s will is super frustrating.

Don’t you want my family to get away for a night and experience this uplifting music, this great food and awesome atmosphere? I asked God.

In other words, What the heck?

One verse came to mind, Isaiah 55:8:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.

Ugh. Sometimes I love that one; sometimes I hate it.

Because Pete is pretty much the most thoughtful person in the world, he suggested we go visit my grandparents the next day. At that point I didn’t want to, for a few reasons, but we ended up going and I’m glad we did. We visited for a few hours, even got to see the rest of my family (including my dad) and had a great afternoon. It wasn’t exactly the weekend I had in mind, but it was spent with family, so that was worth it.

Sometimes our plans don’t work out. Or, as the saying goes, “the best laid plans … often go awry.” Why? Who knows? For people like me who like things to go our way, though, it’s a good reminder to be flexible and trust that God sees the big picture.

What are some plans you made that didn’t quite pan out? What was the outcome?