PLOT TWIST!

When I am teaching my students about making predictions and inferences while reading, I remind them that they have to ‘update’ their thoughts as they gain new information. One of my favorite picture books to use in teaching this concept is Suddenly by Colin McNaughton  . This book is the opposite of predictable. When the

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reader tries to guess what’s going to happen next (the pig will walk out of the school house into the wolf’s clutches), something far less predictable happens (the pig returns to his school desk for money and leaves out the back door instead.) On every page, the reader is flummoxed when the plot takes a completely unexpected twist (the wolf crashed into a wall instead  of nabbing the pig at the supermarket!).

I love thinking about this in the realm of God’s work in our lives. And the Bible has so many examples of plot twists! We think we’re the only ones who get our hearts set on something and then feel disappointed when it doesn’t work out…but then get happy again when something better occurs. Well, that emotional roller coaster has been ridden for centuries!

Genesis 15-18, Matthew 1-God shows Abram the countless stars in the night sky and promises that Abram’s descendants will outnumber them. {Wow! Amazing! Thrilling!}  PLOT TWIST: Abram is nearly 100, and Sarai his wife isn’t too far behind. {Wait, what? That’s crazy! And darn near impossible!} PLOT TWIST: God did it anyway…and Jesus was born from that infinite number of Abram’s descendants.

Daniel 1-3–Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were  wholesome, Godly young men who prayed daily and didn’t defile themselves in Babylon, the land of his captivity. They were promoted in Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom. {Yay! Young Jewish men take a stand and are making positive influences! Hooray!} PLOT TWIST: King Neb threatened them with death via fiery furnace if they didn’t bow and worship the idol he made. And then he did it! He put them in a flaming furnace!!! {Whaaaaaa? That’s seriously messed up! } PLOT TWIST: God sent an angel to keep them company in the furnace…aaaaaaand when they came out, ‘the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men; the hair of their heads was not singed, their tunics[f] were not harmed, and not even the smell of fire came from them.’ (NRSV)  {Boom! Not even the smell of smoke on their clothes…and Neb had tried to extinguish their faith. } Not only that, the king made a decree guaranteeing the security of these guys.

Daniel 6-– As Daniel’s life continued, he remained honorable and trustworthy, so he continued in the service of the upcoming rulers of Babylon. In fact, he was about to be promoted into a place of great power. {So great! A Godly young man rising in the government…the world needs more of that! What an example!} PLOT TWIST: Daniel’s colleagues weren’t so fond of him, and they manipulated the king into decreeing Daniel’s daily prayers illegal. The punishment for praying to anyone except the king was being thrown to the lions. And the ignorant king went along with it.  {Whaaaaaaaaaa??? Seriously? Daniel’s the good guy…how can the king agree to such nonsense?} PLOT TWIST:  God closed the mouths of the lions…until the king’s advisors came along the next morning. The king realized the error of his ways and reinstated Daniel…and his scheming sidekicks were lion breakfast.

Acts 9–Saul was a dreaded Christian-killer. Daily, he sought worshipers of Christ to imprison and stone to death. {That’s terrible! What a ruthless, horrible man!} PLOT TWIST:  On his way to capture worshipers in Damascus, God spoke to him from heaven, questioned his motives, and blinded him for three days. {Yeah! There ya go! Get him, God!} PLOT TWIST: When Saul regained his sight, he gained a new identity…Paul, the apostle of Jesus Christ, that was largely responsible for the spread of the Gospel to Europe and Asia.  {Well, I did NOT see that coming! What a miracle! You sure did ‘get him’, God!}

And there are so many more! Reading through Joseph’s life is a tale of twisted truths and flat out lies until it’s relieving resolution.  The death of Lazarus was heartbreaking to his sisters, until they saw that Jesus could untwist Lazarus’s burial clothes and restore him to his life’s story. Zaccheus was a stinker of a little man, until Jesus untwisted those purse strings and heart strings and changed the plot of that tax collector’s story.  In the glowing stories of Ruth  and Esther , these brave women were writing their own versions of ‘herstory’, following the paths that they believed that God had planned for them, when their plots were severely twisted. Death, immigration, and conspiracy wound around the secure cords of their lives and snapped the comfort right off. But then, God restored the story. He gave them back their lives…in abundance.

How often we get caught up in the plot twists that are happening to us right now. We miss the bigger story that God has written for our lives. In each of the Bible stories above, the people were ‘minding their own business’, doing what was daily expected of them, when disaster struck. I’m sure that they questioned what was happening…especially Saul and Zaccheus who had yet to develop a connection to their Heavenly Father. But those other saints, they must have had their questions. ‘But Father, I was doing what I thought was right?’ ‘Abba, wasn’t I doing what you told me to do?’ ‘Forgive me, Father, if I misread your directions. I thought I understood.’

Just like us. We question ourselves. We question God. We question others. But what we need to realize is that it’s just a plot twist. It’s not curtain drop. We’re not at the end of our story until we die. The Author and Finisher of our faith is thoughtfully considering each event that occurs to us…and how it will ultimately accomplish our perfection and His glory. Others will ‘read’ our story and note our unfailing faith…or our faith struggles and restorations. God wants our tales to reach audiences beyond ourselves. That’s why our story goes on…after the plot is twisted.

Lamentations 3:19-26

19 The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
    is wormwood and gall!
20 My soul continually thinks of it
    and is bowed down within me.
21 But this I call to mind,
    and therefore I have hope:

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
    his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”

25 The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
    to the soul that seeks him.
26 It is good that one should wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord.

 

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photo credit: wildeyedesigns.com

This year, she wanted to be a shepherd

 

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We are celebrating Christmas at a new church this year, and that’s okay. After my kids and I found our place in the ministry here, I was asked to direct the children’s Christmas program.

My son was a narrator, reading the scriptural transitions from Mary to Gabriel to Joseph and on to Bethlehem, where the next narrator took over. My daughter, I assumed, would be an angel again. She’s not quite old enough to have a lengthy speaking part, and not quite veteran enough at this church to take on a primary role. She understood those criteria, but she didn’t want to be an angel.

“I’m tired of being an angel, Mom. I’ve been one every year. Can’t I be something else?”

 

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She had the valid yet unfortunate point that many children in the annual pageants make…I’ve been that role for ____ years. I’ve worn my bathrobe for 3 years. I’ve worn the itchy, glittery white costume with lop-sided wings for 4 years. I’ve had animal ears for 2 years. Can’t I be something else?

We examined the options, and she decided to be a shepherd. “I’ll be their costumes are more comfortable anyway,” my blond-haired, blue-eyed angelic tomboy smiled with relief.

And so, she took on the role of a shepherd. IMG_9017

The evening of our dress rehearsal, the night before the performance, I asked her, “Do you feel okay being a shepherd?”

“Sure,” she replied with utmost confidence. “I mean, they’re basically the same as angels.”

“Really?” I asked, wondering if her line of thinking had more to do with the play’s roles or something more theological.

“Well, yeah…they were both messengers. Angels were messengers in the sky, from heaven. And then after they did their job, the shepherds were messengers on earth.”

Well, yes, yes they were. And there it was, my 2017 Christmas revelation.

The angels had a job, a critical role…to tell the humans the heavenly  news. But then, the angels were done with their job. They went back to heaven. They didn’t come back night after night, year after year, reminding the shepherds of the good news of great joy.

Remember what Luke chapter 2 says…

An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,  and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”  15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.

The angels did their job and returned to heaven to their mysterious celestial tasks. But the shepherds’ work was just beginning. They talked to each other (“Did that really just happen?” “Did you see what I just saw?” “I’m pretty sure there’s a prophecy for that.” “I think I drank too much goat milk tonight.” “Well, this is what we’ve been waiting for…” “Come on, y’all…let’s go!”)Then, they ran to find the holy family and celebrated with them.

No doubt, their disturbance in the streets awakened visitors in those over-crowded inns…and they shared with them what had happened.

And then “they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” They kept walking and talking. They kept sharing the news….for the rest of their lives. In temple. At the market. At family gatherings. In the fields. On the dusty roads they traveled with other shepherds while they were doing their job. 

That’s it…they were just doing their job. But their job had a different appearance now.

Wander the hills with other shepherds. Share the Messiah.

Lead the sheep to water. Pour out the news of a promised fulfilled.

Head back into town. Greet travelers with the good news.

The shepherds continued their leg-work after the angels were gone. The angels were back in heaven, preparing and praising. But the shepherds stayed on earth, mingling, walking and talking,  passing on the Gospel for generations.

I love the idea that my daughter’s role changed this year. And I love her new role as a shepherd. I hope that Christmas’s good news will be the news she shares throughout her blessed life.

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For to us a child is born, to us a son is given…he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace… Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.

                                                                                                                               (Isaiah 9: 6,7)

 

 

This world is crazy

In light of recent world events, have you found yourself shaking your head, gasping, and saying to people, ‘People are crazy!’ ? The world is seeming to be more dangerous,  and wretched place than ever before. The media is not helping, by using choosing words that instigate rather than educate, stir up trouble rather than tell the truth.

Whew…come quickly, Lord Jesus.

So what are we to do until he comes? How are we to live? Where is peace to be found? I want to just have coffee with Jesus and ask for advice…or call him and cry…or text him to come over so I can just sit and learn from him.

Matthew chapter 4 and the beginning of chapter 5 tells us thatNews about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. 25 Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.’ Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

People went to Jesus with all kinds of problems they didn’t know how to solve…and he helped them. And when they went to him en masse, he purposefully went to an large area, intentionally sat down, and taught them. He desired their curiosity and questions. He waited for his disciples, his closest followers, to come…and then, he told them how to live.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Those who are worn, exhausted and weary from well-doing, you are blessed! Jesus himself is addressing you! All of heaven awaits you after this world! Keep going, hold on to hope, and believe that God is with you through every moment on earth…and forever in heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Hearts ache now, but comfort is coming. Grieving is a process, and we will work through it. Light awaits on the other side of this temporary darkness.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who live quietly, observing the goodness around them, praying for peace and seeking it. Hype and publicity are short-lived and shallow, but quietly recognizing the hand of God in everyday is a lifestyle.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
When we are hungry, we seek out a snack. If we want to live a righteous life, and we seek it, we will find it. Godly friendships, Bible studies, church services, worship songs, quiet moments with God…these fill seekers with righteousness when they crave it.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. This one is tough because it doesn’t always appear to be true in this present world.  If we show mercy and grace to those around us, God knows it. People around us may still be critical and hard to tolerate, but in the long run, God is glorified and people are brought to him when we live gracious, merciful lives.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  If we strive to be pure in heart, not manipulative or catty, sneaky or deceptive, then we will have an openness to see God at work. If we’re trying to make things happen for our purposes, we will miss the privilege of seeing God’s plan unfold. 

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. The term ‘Christian’ can be more of a jab than a compliment these days. Said with mockery or jest, it may not be exactly the label we want. But don’t we want to be known for being peaceful, not hateful? Don’t we want to be safety and security for those who are hurting? Regardless of how the world labels us, being a child of God is a wonderful thing.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven isn’t just waiting for us when we die. It is the joy of fellowship with God and believers here on earth. We will be teased, mocked, ostracized and ridiculed because we want to live a life that is different from a lot of cultural themes. But we have a circle of loving arms waiting to encourage us when we discouraged by the world.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Hold on to your faith! This world is only part of our existence. Our heavenly home and eternity with God await us after this crazy madness of life on earth is done.

So what do we do in this crazy world? We accept our poorness in spirit, and we mourn. Then we meekly seek righteousness, with a pure heart and endure persecution while we make peace. And know that God is blessing our efforts all the way.

This is only the beginning of Jesus’ words of life and wisdom to the listening crowd. Go sit at his feet and be encouraged and directed by his Sermon on the Mount. Peace be with you, as we children of God live to bring hope to the world.

 

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Anticipation

The weeks leading from Thanksgiving to Christmas are full of anticipation. Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 10.45.18 AM

Kids counting down until the magical morning arrives.

Parents checking online orders and hoping for timely deliveries.

Ministers preparing for each meaningful Advent service.

Teachers, police officers, postal workers, garbage men, retail clerks…all kinda wishing the best but enduring the worst of the holiday hype.

Anticipation. Waiting and hoping.

I snapped the picture below at the local garden store on November 25. The Christmas tree delivery was due the next day.

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I loved the depiction of eager expectation. Little metal posts extended like open arms, waiting to hug their trees. They know what’s coming, and they know it’s going to be good.

Likewise, the buds on this Christmas cactus are preparing for their days of glory.

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Once a year, they share their beauty with the world around them. Their tiny nub of a bud slowly swells with natural enthusiasm and explodes a bloom of brilliant cheer.

Christmas can lose its thrill for adults. We know all the gifts…few surprises there. We have to shop for the gifts, wrap the gifts, hide the gifts, assemble the gifts…and clean up after the gifts. This season can turn into a season of toil instead of joy.

But let us not lose our anticipation. With the disappointment of adulthood also comes the wisdom that it’s not all about Christmas morning. It’s about what happened that night. It’s about the journey, the baby, the news…none of that was very thrilling to the adults involved. They were burdened with the journey, labored with the baby, and confused by the news. But they knew there was a  deeper meaning of it all. It meant change was coming…for the future world.

Let us reflect on what is to come, not what is happening now. It’s not about the present(s), it’s about the future. We don’t know what that holds. That’s still a surprise…and God is going to take care of that! Let us lift up our arms and hearts to receive that good news. Let us allow our hearts to swell with natural enthusiasm…and explode with brilliant cheer.

Watchful waiting. Eager excitement. Anticipating Advent.

Oh for a Silent Night

My oldest friend, well, friend for the longest amount of time, gave me a frozen lasagna, a bag of frozen peas, and a package of ear plugs when my son was born. It was a blessed, but bizarre gift, but she promised, ‘You’ll need them.’ The food was eaten one evening when sleep and patience were both in short supply. The ear plugs, well… of course, she didn’t want me to ignore the cries of my newborn son. She wanted me to have some peace while he slept, so that I could sleep, too. She already had a son, and she knew what it was like to need rest but hear the sounds of duty calling…the laundry piles moaning for attention, the dirty dishes slipping in their filth in the sink, the vacuum sighing out of loneliness. The new woes of a new mom could be deafening. She knew that I would need, at times, to block it all out and rest.

Dear friends, we are in the midst of Advent…a time of preparation for Christ’s birth. And the noise is already deafening. The email dings reminders of Christmas plays and party invitations. The Christmas play parts are practiced loudly, ‘so my voice will project’.  Christmas songs and carols drone in the background of the swiping and clicking of commerce. Bags rattle, trunks slam, bills drop on the table, sighs whisper forth. Kids giggle at silly Christmas cartoons until their siblings want to change the channel and giggles turn to feuds. Phones ring, doorbells chime. ‘All the noise, noise, noise, noise!!’ to quote the Grinch.

But we don’t want to be Grinchy. We want to enjoy it all. Despite the rush and commitments, we want to love every minute. We want to deny that Christmas is stressful and overdone. We want to relish every moment…like I wanted to do with my new baby. But we can’t. The reality is that there is too much…and we need to pop in the earplugs and close our eyes and be quiet.

Did you know that ‘Silent Night’ is the most loved hymn? Maybe it’s the gentle, slow pace…maybe it’s the simple, straightforward lyrics. Or maybe it’s just the title. Silent Night.

After the kids go to bed, before the kids wake up, in the middle of the night when nature calls, in the car before leaving the driveway, at a stoplight, in a parking lot…put in the earplugs. Block out all the noise. Close your eyes and imagine that stable long ago. Just the quiet animal sounds.

Maybe the soft flickering of tails or ears.

Mary’s peaceful humming.

Joseph’s smile.

The Baby’s gentle murmurs.

God’s presence.

Be still and know that He is God. And that’s all that truly matters.

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Feasting for Advent

When the Lenten season rolls around,  there is deep consideration about what will be ‘given up’ in penitence for approximately 40 days. I’ve given up some unusual things for Lent…caffeine, sugar, worrying, cursing, men… and seen some pretty special life transformations afterward…

The Lenten season is a time of repentance and reflection on Christ’s death…and transformation of one’s self as a reflection of the resurrection and new life of Christ. So now I’m wondering…in preparation for Advent, could I ‘take up’ something instead? Rather than the Lenten fast, could I enrich my life with a celebratory feast? 

Could Advent be a season of joyous transformation in preparation for Jesus’ birth? Women prepare for their schedules to be altered when a new baby arrives. Families prepare for new responsibilities, new schedules, new memories with the arrival of a new family member. Isn’t Jesus more than just a new family member to us? Is it too much to ask that we prepare for our lives to be changed by his arrival?

Here are some Advent ‘feasting’ ideas:

Pray more

Pray more diligently

Read the Bible

Read the Bible more passionately

Sing praises 

Memorize Scripture

Be more intentional about helping others

Become more involved in church activities

We alter our lives when we have babies by reading to them, singing to them, learning new stories to tell them…it’s not too much to add to our lives these things when we consider Christ’s advent. What could you feast for Advent?

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image courtesy of the NALC (www.thenalc.org)

Holy water is antibacterial

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As Pastor Jason began washing the feet of the second grade Vacation Bible School kids, following the story of Jesus’ washing his disciples feet, he offered, ‘If you don’t want me to wash your feet, I can wash your hands.’

It was a kind gesture, cautious for those who may not want to remove their shoes out of personal preference. But, I (leader of these impressionable young children), in my snarky sarcastic, not quite spiritual enough temperament, said, ‘With the same water you’re washing their feet??’

Jason, knowing and loving me, gave me that ‘you’re ruining this moment’ glare, and said, ‘Yes…’

But it was Anne, a veteran teacher, mentor, and spiritual leader who replied, just as casually and sassily as I had begun, ‘Holy water is antibacterial’.

Touché, my friend, touché! I admired her quick wit, so well-matched with mine, and then, I went back to attending to the kids who were removing and then replacing their shoes after being holy washed.

It was later that I processed the depth of what Anne had said in her moment of quick repartee. We rely on antibacterial soaps and gels to remove the unwanted filth of the world around us…the germs from the gas pump handle, the residue from the public bathroom door, the grime of any surface at the Y. We want the yuckiness of the world to disappear…and be replaced with cleanliness.

Just as Jesus showed his followers to replace the bad with good, the sorrow with joy, the weary with comfort, so must we go about the work of wiping away the filthy residue of the world and leave behind the sparkling newness of God.

Let’s approach the world that way, and wash it with the antibacterial properties of holiness.

Want the rest of the story, try here John 13.

Holy water

The Bible verse for today’s Vacation Bible School lesson was ‘Do to others as you would like them to do to you.’ Most kids in the class knew it as ‘The Golden Rule’ because they’d heard it from their families or teachers as such. We discussed what it meant in daily life…sharing, showing kindness, using polite words…And then we went to hear Pastor Jason tell the Bible story for today, and the verse took on a new meaning.

Pastor Jason had a basin (plastic dishpan) and a pitcher of sink water (but it came from the church bathroom, so that made it ‘holy’ to the kids). As he prepared his object lesson, he told the story of what occurred in the upper room, the night Jesus was arrested. He poured the ‘holy water’ into the ‘basin’ and explained that Jesus had offered to wash the tired, weary, dirty feet of his disciples that last night that they were together. The disciples had followed him throughout his three year ministry, laboring through their doubts and waiting for the lingering ones to be resolved. They needed a respite in their travels, a moment of pampering before the real journey began.

As Pastor Jason told this story to the second graders, they were a bit grossed out…’He washed their feet! Gross!’ ‘They took their shoes off and showed him their feet! That’s disgusting!’ Then, his materials prepared, Jason offered to do the same for these children. These sweaty, rowdy, earth-covered children. And they obliged. Some reluctantly, some eagerly…this was quite a treat.

When he finished, he explained that the kindness he has showed them should be shared with others…perhaps, yes, through washing the tired feet of working parents or carrying out the dirty trash or cooperating with the nasty sibling. Doing to others…sharing Christ’s example. For who knows what is ahead in someone’s journey…and just how much they need a hand right now.