towel & bowlWe are now eight days into January 2019, and the freshness of the new year is already wearing off for some who are struggling to keep their newly minted resolutions untarnished by neglect . If you’re already there, take heart! I’m just getting started hashing out my resolutions and goals for 2019, so you’re way ahead of me! Hashing out seems like an unusual way to describe the setting of admirable new goals. It’s a messy, hard-work word, nothing like the shiny, idealistic goal-setting I’ve done in the past. Honestly, for the last few years, I’ve just carried over my resolution from year to year and set new small-step goals to achieve my ultimate goal: balance. Year after year I go at it from a different angle, with a new plan and fresh energy. Year after year I never get there. And year after year I feel defeated. A quote attributed to Albert Einstein comes to mind, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” That’s an uncomfortably accurate description of my past resolutions. It’s time to reconsider my goal. Why do I want balance in my life?  What is it about the idea of balance that is so appealing? Is it the culture’s call for balance? After all, magazines, blogs, self-help books, and podcasts tout balance in all things. Is it my pride calling for the display of something admirable in my life? The answers to those questions remain elusive, though in some measure I should probably answer “yes” to the last two. But there is another question I cannot answer with a confident “yes.”

I have begun to wonder whether true balance is even the ideal in a Christian’s life. Does God command balance in the lives of Jesus’ followers? I have yet to find any such reference in the Bible. A quick internet search turns up numerous articles from Christian authors and publications recommending balance. But after reading them, they really seem to be encouraging a life sold-out to God, cultivating a sound mind by knowing Scripture, and taking care of our God-given responsibilities. Maybe it’s just semantics, but that sounds to me more like surrender and obedience than balance.

Balance would feel like a wonderfully secure spot for me: ordered, predictable, stress-free, and manageable. I think I would be pretty happy with myself if I ever achieved it because it’s an illusion of control. And boy, do I like control. However, to maintain said “balance” would require some rigidity and diligence. I am certainly capable of rigidity – it goes hand-in-hand with control. But how can I say, “Yes, Lord,” to God’s interruptions in my life if my focus is on maintaining the static state of balance?

A number of years ago, I heard a pastor say, in reference to the prompting of the Holy Spirit (John 3:5-7), “You haven’t lived until you have lived at the mercy of the Wind.” That stuck with me. I am learning, slowly, to be intentional with my time and energy yet alert and ready to respond to the wind of the Spirit of God. I can’t do that and maintain “balance.” I’d rather be moved by the Spirit, available to be led and used for the purposes of God. Not flighty or drifting, but responsive to His leading, praying for discernment to recognize His call, and a willing heart to say, “Yes, Lord,” when He interrupts my plans.

As I pray and plan for this new year, the idea of balance won’t be my target. I will not retool and make another run at achieving the dubious trophy of balance. The resolutions that come to mind are not achievements but character qualities: humble, obedient, intentional, mindful, available, and servant. I want to be obedient to God’s commands with a humble heart, seeking His glory, not my own. Such a goal will require intentional and sometimes hard choices about how I spend my time, my energy, and my influence. Regular evaluation and accountability are good ways to stay mindful about my goals and make needed course-corrections. And then there is that ‘available’ word. The one that puts self to death. The one that says, “Not my plans, Lord, but Yours.” The word that upsets balance for sold-out. That word needs to go on my bathroom mirror, I think. Because available is a serving word. Available implies being prepared for action at any time. Available means being ready to put my plans and desires aside when the Spirit of God calls. Available will be costly. But I am, after all, His servant. So with Mary, I say, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to Your Word.”


When Christmas Gets Squeezed

Christmas 2016 was looking like one of those years. I’ve had them more times than I care to remember, and I really thought I was beyond them. Beyond the stress of insufficient time to accomplish the mile-long task list in the run-up to Christmas Day. Beyond last-minute shopping in picked-over stores. Beyond eleventh-hour dithering about what to feed our family when they all gathered to celebrate Christmas in our home. Beyond late night gift wrapping sessions that left me with aching shoulders and promises to myself that next year would be different. Next year, I would have preparations finished before Thanksgiving so I could relax and enjoy a meaningful, unhurried Christmas season.

But I was wrong. I wasn’t beyond any of that, and the circumstances were completely out of my control. It was November 29, 2016, not one preparation had been made, and all our adult kids and grandkids would be in our home on December 3rd to celebrate Christmas, exchange gifts with each other, and enjoy just being together (a rare treat since one has been living in south Florida). I was so far behind, there wasn’t anything I could do to get everything done and have a relaxed, peaceful, Christ-focused Christmas season. After all, there was the tree to put up and decorate, the wreath for the front door, and little Christmasy touches to arrange in the rest of the house. Meals and snacks to plan, and gifts to purchase and wrap. Oh, and did I mention that we moved two months ago? And downsized? And still have half our belongings in boxes in the garage? And had to find sheets and blankets for guest beds? And one bedroom still needed a bed frame and bedding in a size I didn’t have? And the house hadn’t been cleaned in a month because we were focused on unpacking from our own move and helping our daughter and son-in-law move from Miami to the Midwest on a three week notice? And all this with the constant pain of an ankle that needs yet another surgery.

There’s more, but I’ll spare you the details. You get the picture. This was shaping up to be the least prepared, most stressful Christmas in thirty-five years of marriage. It was overwhelming, and I was near melt-down. Slipping through my fingers was the time I craved to sit at the feet of my Lord and marvel at His coming. To savor the wonder of God Himself, wrapped in human form, humbly housed in a stable, helpless and poor, coming to earth to become one of us. And all because He loves us. What an incredible God we have, and we have the whole month of December set aside to ponder His inconceivable gift of love, His Son, Jesus Christ.

Unless, of course, your world has been turned topsy-turvy and you’re a disorganized mess. Once again, I was going to miss Christmas. Oh, not the actual day, but the season of quiet, honed-in reflection that wakens hearts to the reason for the celebration. With all the preparations to be made, there wouldn’t be enough time for that. Christmas would come and go in the midst of frenetic activity and leave me feeling empty. Christmas was getting squeezed. Again. Something had to give, but what? What could I delete from my to-do list in order to make room for time with Christ this Christmas season? Not gifts for family. Maybe a tree? Decorations? Special baked treats? What would Christmas be without those? If I had to choose only one thing to have at Christmas what would it be? The answer seemed easy, Jesus, of course! But I had never thought about actually celebrating Christmas without anything but Jesus. Could I do it? Could I truly enjoy a Christmas without a tree and decorations, food and festivities? It seemed so forlorn, but then again, peaceful. Lacking, but full. Different, but right. When the thought first came, I felt a little sorry for myself. What a sad, bleak Christmas that would be. But what is the lack of a tree and shiny ornaments compared to the gift of a Savior and time to spend with Him? Would I really rather have the trappings of the celebration than the Christ we celebrate? Could I joyfully choose to spend my widow’s mite of discretionary time all on my Lord? Is there anything or anyone more worthy? My mind turned the corner. An unadorned Christmas might be a really good opportunity to put into practice what I say I believe, that Christmas is nothing without Jesus. That we need to choose carefully what we allow in our Christmas celebration, lest we find ourselves swept along in the torrent of Christ-less festivities that threatens to drown out the true meaning of Christmas. That Christ alone is enough in any circumstance, including a Christmas devoid of decorations and culinary delights. The mere possibility of a season of quiet contemplation flooded in like warm sunshine, bringing immediate relief. Yes, I was willing to forego decorations for fellowship with my Savior. If I had to choose, I would choose Jesus. And peace.

And it was a good weekend. There were no decorations, no special foods. We ate sandwiches for lunch and ordered pizza for dinner. The kids exchanged gifts and played with the little ones and enjoyed each other. Armed with coats, gloves, and umbrellas, we braved a light rain to watch the Civil War reenactment on the battlefield across the road from our home. We warmed up with hot chocolate, coffee, and laughter. And not once during the weekend did I notice the lack of Christmas décor. What I did notice was the lack of stress. Instead of empty, I was content.

Have I given up all hope of a decorated home and a warm batch of molasses cookies this year? Not on your life. But if homemade cookies and a bedecked tree happen, it will be because the Lord made provision, not because I prioritized a pretty home over a season of worshiping Him. I will seek first the kingdom of God, and let Him decorate the season as He sees fit. After all, the most beautiful adornments of Christmas are hearts contented with the peace, joy, and love of our Savior.


But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.(Matthew 6:33)

The Election Diversion

With less than 24 hours left until our nation elects a new president, there is much talk of election weariness. And no wonder, not only are we media-saturated, but our media is saturated with partisan bickering, accusations, and unthinkable rudeness. Statesmanship seems to have disappeared from the planet in the nastiest campaign season anyone can remember. More disturbing than the focus of American politics, however, is the focus of the American church, because the church is focused on politics. We seem to think our fate hangs in the balance of the presidential election of 2016, and our righteousness will be determined by how we cast our vote. Based on the number of diatribes on all forms of media, expounding why Christians must or mustn’t vote for a particular candidate, we seem to think we can determine our future by preserving our rights and controlling our circumstances. The church seems to have forgotten that God alone is the sovereign ruler of our times and circumstances, that we have surrendered our rights to Him, and now our responsibility is to trust and glorify Him in whatever circumstance He chooses for us. We are so bent on avoiding persecution and suffering that our hand-wringing rhetoric belies our declarations of faith in a loving, trustworthy, Almighty God.

Sadly, there is more to lose from a wrong perspective of suffering than our witness to the watching world. While we are working feverishly to protect our rights and reputations, influence our friends’ votes, get the “right” candidates in office, and control our uncertain future, we are failing to prepare for the one thing we know our future holds: suffering. Jesus was very clear in John 15 when He told His disciples, “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” And again in the next chapter, Jesus warns of the need for patient endurance in suffering, “I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Please do not interpret that to mean we shouldn’t discuss the issues, pray earnestly for God’s hand to be at work in our nation, and vote. Those aren’t just rights they are privileges, given by God, and should be stewarded with the utmost care. What I am saying is that elections and issues should not distract us from being prepared to suffer, and to suffer well. What does it mean to suffer well? Let’s look at some inspiring heroes of the Scriptures.

Jesus told the apostles that they would have opportunities to share the gospel with governors and kings, and their entrance into the halls of government would be by arrest and flogging. He reassured them that when they were arrested, they had no cause to worry about what they would say because they would be given the words to say when the time came, it would not be the apostles speaking, but the Holy Spirit speaking through them. Stop right there. Worry about what to say? Really? My ears would not have heard anything Jesus said after the word ‘flogged’. What I was going to say would be the furthest thing from my mind if I had just been informed that I was going to be flogged. But Jesus completely bypassed the issue of flogging and how much pain they would have to endure, because the main point was the opportunity to preach the gospel. Persecution and suffering don’t even get a mention. They’re just useful tools to get an audience.

Paul’s request for prayer from the believers in Ephesus never mentions relief from suffering. Instead, Paul asks for fearlessness and words from God that he may make known the gospel (Eph. 6:19-20). In his letter to the Philippian church Paul seeks to reassure his friends that though he is under house arrest in Rome, he is rejoicing because his imprisonment has served to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ. The entire palace guard has heard of Paul’s faith, and in spite of the obvious dangers of preaching Christ, other believers have become emboldened to fearlessly speak the Word of God. Paul seems to have no concern about his fate, only that he not fail to preach Christ with courage. Paul is also concerned for the well-being of the church. He does not once express hope that they will not suffer, rather his primary concern is how his beloved friends conduct themselves when suffering comes. He encourages them not to fear those who oppose them, but keep their focus on God’s saving hand. Paul wants them to imitate the humility of Christ in suffering while complaining about nothing, putting no confidence in human ability but looking forward to the resurrection of those who belong to Jesus Christ. He tells them they will find peace by fixing their thoughts on the truth of God, and sets the example of contentment in any and every situation.

That message is as shockingly counter-cultural, and contrary to human nature today as it was in Paul’s day. But by now, it shouldn’t be. At least not in the Church. We have had two thousand years to read, study, and digest the riches of God’s Word, and its inspiring accounts of those who were gladly willing to suffer for the advancement of the gospel and the glory of the God they so dearly loved. We have access to the biographies of countless saints who have gone before us, declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ while being tortured and martyred. The American Church should, by now, have a solid understanding of suffering to the glory of God, but we don’t.

What kind of response do you think you might receive from your Christian friends if you responded to their difficult circumstances with a promise that you would pray for them to suffer well? That’s not how we pray in America! We want suffering to end now, and that is the outcome for which we ask our friends to pray. The Church in America has such a reputation for praying to escape persecution, that our persecuted brothers and sisters in other countries sometimes fear asking Americans to pray for them. If they do ask, it is with the request that we please not pray that God would stop the persecution, but instead ask that He would give them faith, boldness, and courage to be His witnesses in the persecution. Their perspective is that the persecution is working perfectly to display the joy and peace and grace of Christ’s followers, to the glory of God. They just want to display Christ more clearly, pray for that.

The persecuted church today is gracefully following in the footsteps of the Apostles, who “went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame [and flogging!] for His name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:41-42). No fear, just trust in their Lord. Are you, am I ready to gracefully join them when the opportunity comes? Let’s back up several paces from the large-looming spectacle of our national elections, and consider our lives in the canvass of the even larger picture of redemption and restoration that God is now creating through His bride, the Church. I have been convicted to do less fretting and more preparing, both for myself and those to whom I have the responsibility of guiding, teaching, and shepherding. I have some work to do, and I pray you will do the same, because the opportunity to suffer for our Lord is coming sooner than we think.