By the Hand of God

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This morning, the chilled breath of winter clung to every leaf, flower, and bud.  Contours once hidden from view were accentuated by the delicate tracery of tiny ice crystals.

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The last dahlia, the last of the black-eyed susans, and the last rose of summer competed for best of show, but I could not award the prize. All were strikingly beautiful, all were brave and bold as they tried to hold the line against the frosty sword of cold and the first scatterings of snow.

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Coated in a blanket of hoarfrost, the dull brown landscape glowed. And as the sun grew higher in the sky, the fairyland melted into droplets of dew until it evaporated into thin air, just as surely as it had come, even by the hand of God.

“He gives snow like wool;
He scatters the frost like ashes.”
Psalm 147:16

 

Overcoming the “Perfect Family” Syndrome

“Love suffers long, having patience with imperfect people.”*

When I was a young mom, I wanted to have the perfect family. As you can imagine, this put a lot of pressure on my husband and children to try and live up to my expectations. Mind you, I had it on good authority from all the books I read (before there were blogs), the tapes I listened to (before there were iPods), and the conventions I attended (before there were online conferences), what that perfect family looked like. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make my family measure up. Instead, we sort of looked like the Banks family in the movie Mary Poppins.

Remember when Mary Poppins pulls out her magical measuring tape and sums up the Banks’ young breed? Michael is found to be extremely stubborn and suspicious, and Jane is rather inclined to giggle and doesn’t put things away. The children are embarrassed by her frank observations. And then, Mary Poppins measures herself. Why, she’s practically perfect in every way! I’m not surprised, are you?

In those days, I exhibited many of Mary Poppin’s perfectionistic traits (but my family knew I was far from perfect). I’m sure they thought it unfair that I was the one doing the measuring! But then the Lord began to use them to show me just how “imperfect” I was.  Suddenly, I became a student in the school of forgiveness and an expert at making apologies.

How misguided I was to think I could be the Holy Spirit, hoping to push my family up the slippery slope of sainthood. I did have a great role to play in their growth, but apparently I was a little slow in scaling the ascent myself. I wasn’t nearly as patient with my family as the Lord was being with me. I had a lot to learn about love.

“Love suffers long, having patience with imperfect people.”

The Greek word for long suffering is makrothumia (mak-roth-oo-mee’-ah) which means to be long spirited, forbearing (indulgence towards those who injure us; delay of resentment or punishment). The definition of resentment is: The excitement of passion which proceeds from a sense of wrong offered to ourselves, or to those who are connected with us; anger. This word usually expresses less excitement than anger, though it is often synonymous with it. In this use, resentment is not the sense or perception of injury, but the excitement which is the effect of it. Webster’s 1828 Dictionary asks, “Can heavenly minds such high resentment show?”


Look out children, Mary Poppins is not happy!

More than not, impatience, resentment and anger were my first reactions to bad attitudes and family squabbles. I (Mary Poppins) did not handle conflict well! An inner voice kept telling me, They’re not measuring up! They’re not measuring up!  Well the truth is, I was the one who wasn’t measuring up, and it took me many years to realize that I needed to change.

And this is what I really want us to meditate on, ladies. If you’ve ever heard that judgmental voice in your head or struggled with a critical perfectionistic spirit, there are some important questions I would like you to ask yourself. How do you handle your family’s imperfections? Are you patient and long-suffering toward them or do their flaws bring out the worst in you? Scripture says, “For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.” Matthew 7:2 (NASB) I would rather err on the side of God’s grace and mercy, wouldn’t you?

Personally, I need all the grace and mercy I can get. But more than what I need, my children need me to parent them the way the Lord does. He doesn’t embarrass  or humiliate. He’s gentle, loving and kind.

Just think: Where would we be without the Lord’s unconditional love? He’s not surprised by our mishaps, mess-ups, and miserable attempts at living a godly life. He’s knows that sanctification is a process. And the funny thing is, the very imperfections and failures we cringe at are His greatest catalysts for perfecting and making us whole in Him. We need to see our family’s imperfections in the same light and pray for God’s wisdom in handling them. After all, it is the Lord’s kindness that leads us to repentance. “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” Romans 2:4 (NASB)

The good news is: the ground is level at the foot of the cross! We can choose to love fully in the face of imperfection, just as we are fully loved. “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:6-8 (NASB)

God isn’t interested in any of us looking perfect, but He does say to be perfect as He is perfect. There’s a difference. To have Christ formed in us more and more, to be maturing in the Lord, to be complete and whole in Him, – this is the perfection the Bible speaks of and this is the perfection I want for my husband, my children, and myself. “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48 (NASB)

Now, that’s the perfection worth striving for!

The Cost of Grace

Cost of Grace

If we knew what life held for us some days, we wouldn’t get out of bed.

I’ve had days like that.

Four significant ones come to mind – days that altered the course of my life forever.

I didn’t see them coming. Some I was prepared to handle more than others, but nonetheless, they were days, in my very limited wisdom, that I would have rather skipped.

God, however, knew they were coming, and that I needed to walk through them. And in His infinite wisdom, He allowed me to wake up to the days I would hear:

My husband lost his job.

Our baby was born with a terminal genetic disorder.

My spinal cord was permanently damaged in a routine operation.

My elderly father was now my family’s sole responsibility.

These were some of the worst days of my life – days when tears of grief fell heavy like huge droplets of rain into puddles of muddied dreams.

The weight of these days almost melted my heart for fear.

Yet, these were the days I woke up to God’s grace poured out heavily upon me like Mary pouring perfume over the feet of Jesus – the Alabaster box of costly Nard just opened, the pungent fragrance escaping, drifting up, overpowering the senses.

On the days I could not lift my head, Jesus opened His Alabaster box of grace and poured it out over my  life. And by the power of His Spirit, He sustained me in the midst of my deepest pain.

He sustained me with His grace.

Costly.

Heavy.

Anointed.

He will do the same for you.

None of us knows what tomorrow holds. We can fret and fume and fear or fantasize and fill our days with a thousand yearnings for some other day, but this is the only day we have to receive His grace.

It may not be a day we would choose – the circumstances, the trial. But it may be the very day God uses to usher in a whole lot of other grace-filled days when we experience His love and care poured out upon us like never before.

Even in the midst of our deepest heartache, we can bow low and worship at the Lord’s feet.

We can lift our cupped hands to receive His grace poured down from the throne of grace – grace sufficient for every need.

Costly.

Extravagant.

Overpoweringly more than we can contain.

Sit at His feet today, and let Him wash your soul in His grace.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.”
2 Corinthians 12:9

 

 

Celebrating the Imperfect Christmas

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Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s Strength and Consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

I really hadn’t given much thought to Christmas this year–the imperfect Christmas that is–until it was upon me.

Even though I tried putting everything “Christmas” in the same place in the attic last year, we still can’t find the ornaments or the battery operated candles that light up the windows. The top of the Christmas tree is still waiting for the star. I’m sure everything will surface in the next couple of days as I go searching through the boxes again.

Ideas for presents occasionally cross my mind, but in all honestly, I haven’t had much time to think about them because my 93-year-old father has needed a lot of attention the last few days. We have been living with Grandpa (as he is affectionately known) for the last four years, and the holidays are a little rough on him. My 14-year-old daughter has also been sick with a persistent cold for the last week, and my son and his new wife will not be able to make it home for Christmas which is definitely weighing heavily on everyone’s hearts.

It’s only the first week of December, I tell myself. I still have time . . . but time for what?

I need something more than a perfect Christmas. I need a touch from the Lord!

“Where is the nativity set?” my daughter Elizabeth asks, interrupting my thoughts.

“Out on the porch with everything else we brought down from the attic,” I reply.

“I don’t know how to arrange it,” she says.

“Arrange it any way you want to,” I say. “I took on that responsibility when I was about your age.”

She sighs. “But there’s so many duplicate pieces!”

It’s true. Over the years, I’ve added to our nativity set by purchasing individual pieces or partial sets off of eBay. There are duplicates of shepherd boys, sheep, and fife blowing minstrels. We have Mary and baby Jesus sitting on a donkey, accompanied by Joesph who is taking them to Egypt, but we’re still missing the Mary and Joseph who would be kneeling by the manger.

Missing Mary.

That got me thinking. Maybe we do miss what Mary must have gone through that first and imperfect Christmas so long ago.

“ Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” Luke 1:4-7

Imagine what it must have been like for Mary–a young girl, probably 12 or 13 years of age. Think about the shame and humiliation of being found pregnant out of wedlock in a tight-knit Jewish community like Nazareth, where everyone was sure to know everyone’s business sooner or later.

Think about having to tell the man you are betrothed to that you are carrying the Son of God–the long awaited Messiah! At first Joseph thinks he will hide the whole affair, but then he has a dream, and the Angel of the Lord tells him to marry you anyway! That must have been such a relief.

As your due date nears, you are informed that you must make a lengthy journey to Bethlehem, the town of your husband’s origin, roughly eighty miles away–and on the back of a donkey no less! Imagine the fear and apprehension of such news!

As the journey begins, you feel every jostle and jolt of the donkey’s steps.  It will take a week to travel the rock strewn road before you. You wonder how you’ll be able to endure it!

Near the end of the journey, your water breaks and the contractions begin. You feel the panic rise in your chest. You have never given birth before. You need your mother’s help, but she is back in Nazareth, so very far away! There is no way on earth she can help you now.

As Joseph finally reaches the outskirts of the busy town, you begin to slump over. It isn’t long before he finds an inn, but just as he prepares to take you off the donkey, he is quickly told there is no room, even for a woman in your condition. You send up a silent, frightened prayer, Oh God, help me!

And at the last minute, when you think you may have the baby right there on the street, Joseph is offered the refuge of a stable . . .

You barley remember being lowered down onto the freshly strewn hay. How can this be happening? A cry of pain escapes your lips. You wait in exhaustion, your belly heaving, the pain rising and falling until you are finally able to push the baby out into Joseph’s waiting hands.

You can’t believe it! It’s over at last!

You stare in awe at this new little life, the Son of God, your Savior.

I’m sure Mary must have been frightened and perplexed at times like any young girl would be, but she had surrendered her will to God’s proclaiming, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” Luke 1:38

Sometimes, I wonder if we can really comprehend that kind of surrender. It wasn’t easy. Nothing she went through to give birth to the Savior was easy. But with God’s all-sufficient grace poured out over her life, she was able to bear the overwhelming circumstances He had called her to walk through.One agonizing decision after another, He carried her the whole way!

And He does the same for you and me. We may not realize it at the time, but he does, and for that we can be truly grateful.

Tonight, around a “mostly” decorated tree, I will gather with my husband and daughters to read an advent devotional we began on the first. We will sing Christmas hymns together and pray, and in the sacredness of set apart moments, we will find our hearts comforted and filled with the awe that comes from being touched by presence of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, at this special time of the year.

Advent is a time of reflection . . .

Advent is a time to worship . . .

Advent is a time to wait expectantly for His coming . . .

In the midst of a less than perfect life, we can enter into His presence and rejoice no matter what burden we carry. God meets us in the imperfect  for that is where we receive His all sufficient grace to carry on.

I pray that no matter what you are going through this CHRISTmas, you will find the time to contemplate the love of God for you and your family, and that you all will rejoice in the gift of His grace.

“. . . My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” 2 Corinthians 12:9

Making Changes Gently

“For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” ~Galatians 1:10

In the spring, I started  most of the plants we wanted to grow in our garden from seed. It was quite a chore to keep them watered, and for the lack of a watering can, I found myself using just about anything to get the job done.

At first I tried to use a large glass of water to nourish the newly forming shoots, but as I aimed it at the individual cups, the water came out too fast and splashed everywhere. So, I grabbed a small pitcher that was sitting on a nearby shelf and used it instead. I was amazed at the difference the contoured spout made. Depending on how I tipped it, it would produce a dribble or a gentle stream of water compared to the deluge of the glass with the larger rim.

That’s when the Lord spoke clearly to my heart about the difference between a gentle, steady stream of encouragement and the destructive floodgates of condemnation.

Have you ever exclaimed to your family, “I’m making changes now!” Have you ever, out of frustration come across as a  bit of a tyrant?

I have.

Sometimes we moms can pour change to our families like a flash flood, suddenly and with little warning! Usually after reading an inspiring book or blog post that offers good advice (i.e. the prescribed number of steps to reach success) our hearts become conflicted between our personal reality and the ideal family life we hope to achieve. A critical voice rushes in to say: My kids aren’t where they need to be. They can’t do anything right! When is my husband going to act like the other spiritual leaders I read about? I feel like a failure compared to…

We become overwhelmed by all the changes we think our family members need to make (or we want to make for them), and a suffocating feeling rises up in our chests, and we panic!

So we go on a campaign of sweeping change. Like an AAA member cleansing the house of every last bottle of alcohol or a dieter tossing an unopened bag of cookies in the garbage, we try to rid our kids of bad habits or sinful attitudes and our husband of all of his shortcomings in one fell swoop, only to embitter their hearts in the process.

But comparison only produces fed-up mamas, exasperated children, and clueless husbands.

I have known many wives and mothers, who because of the spirit of comparison have heaped an impossible load of expectations on their families only to find that they have instead planted seeds of discouragement and bitterness.

In my younger years of mothering, I was one of them.

When I reflect on some of the reasons I failed to introduce change gently, fear seems to be a big factor: fear of the future, fear of failure, and fear that my children might make the same mistakes I made when I was their age. But fear is a poor impetus for the spirit-led change that brings life and liberty!

The word of God tells us that comparison is not only foolish but futile. Not every model of family life we see presented out there in the big beautiful blogosphere is meant to be our model–at all. Not every path explored is the path we are to personally follow. It takes a discerning spirit to sift through all the advice, the bulleted points, and the endless stream of helpful suggestions.

The motivation behind making changes for our families deserves a period of evaluation–weighing decisions against the word of God, seeking to be in agreement with our husbands, and praying and asking, “Lord, is this the direction you want our family to go?”

Psalm 25:12 says, “Who is the man who fears the Lord? He will instruct him in the way he should choose.

The Hebrew word for instruct (yarah) is such a beautiful word. It’s like the flow of water or a gentle rain. But it’s also purposeful like an archer taking aim at a target. The word Choose denotes taking a keen look at your options based upon thorough examination and not an arbitrary whim. In choosing, we are to thoroughly examine the way in which we should go.

Isaiah 30:20-21 say, “And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.”

The Holy Spirit speaks comfortingly to us on a daily basis, instructing us in the way we should go. We are to lead our children in the same way. I pray that God will council us mamas and give us wisdom in the secret place of our hearts, and that we will contemplate making changes, not on a whim or suddenly for shock value to whip our families into shape, but in encouraging, gentle ways that will be refreshing and nourishing to their souls–like a steady stream of gentle rain from the hand of God.

The Barb of Bitterness

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“Forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hatred.
It is a power that breaks the chains of bitterness and the shackles of selfishness.”
― Corrie ten Boom, Clippings from My Notebook

Early one morning, a dense fog rolled in across the fields surrounding our house. This rare occurrence inspired our youngest daughter to venture outside and take pictures. That’s how this dramatic photo of the barbed wire fence that separates our property from our neighbor’s was captured.

When I first saw the image, I thought I would like to write a post about it, but I didn’t have a clue what the topic should be. Later that week, the title “The Barb of Bitterness” popped into my head. I had recently copied some verses into my journal pertaining to bitterness, and they were still fresh on my mind. I wondered if the word “barb” had any spiritual significance, so I looked up its meaning. When I read the definition, an analogy began to form in my mind.

“A barb is a sharp projection near the end of an arrow, a fishhook, or similar item. It’s angled away from the main point so as to make extraction difficult.” ~The Oxford Dictionary.

In other words, it “catches” and deeply embeds itself in the flesh!

Bitterness does that too. It goes in easily, but it is so hard to get rid of! Angled away from the heart of God, a bitter spirit ruins relationships.

Bitterness Defiles Many

Hebrews 12:15  says: “See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble and by it, many are defiled.”

Who in their right mind would want to fall short of the grace of God? Not me, and I’m sure not you. And yet, that’s what happens when we let bitterness take root in our hearts. We can’t just expect it to stay hidden beneath the surface—out of sight, out of mind—and go about our daily business. It rears its ugly head, one way or another, usually through angry outbursts and unresolved conflict that deprives ourselves and others of the grace of  God. That’s why it’s so important to hide verses about the consequences of bitterness in our hearts. Our only true line of defense against a bitter spirit is the word of God.

Bitterness Abuses with Hateful Words

Bitterness is often accompanied by a barb of cutting remarks—angry, hateful words aimed at the heart of another, whether said to their face or behind their back. Once hurled, however, angry words come back to haunt us, driving bitterness deeper.

Ephesians 4:31-32 admonishes us to be kind and forgive one another as we have been forgiven.  “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

If there is an antidote for bitterness, it is the spirit of forgiveness.

1 Peter 2 says: “Therefore, laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking, as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious.”

“The Lord is gracious and merciful; Slow to anger and great in lovingkindness.” (Psalm 145:8)  Can we be any less gracious than the Lord?

Freedom from Bitterness

Before the Lord brought bitterness to my attention, I had never really given much thought to how it takes hold of a heart, but I do know that in the past there were times I succumbed rather quickly to its all-consuming power. At this juncture in my life, however, I don’t want to be a bitter well, poisoning my family and friends; instead, I want to be an extension of God’s grace.

How about you?

We all have many reasons to be bitter each and every day. There are people in our lives who continually let us down or others who try to manipulate us. Or we may be bitter toward God for circumstances we can’t control or won’t accept. But once we become sensitive to the presence of bitterness and its attempt to penetrate our hearts, we will find it easier to reject it, repent of it, and respond to others in  the spirit of grace.

I think one of the greatest gifts we can give our families is a heart free from the “barb of bitterness.”

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