When the Manger Feels Empty

But when the time had fully come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.
— Galatians 4:4-5

I have a secret. And it’s about Christmas. And it might be something you don’t want to hear.

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Christmas doesn’t depend on you.

If you didn’t do another thing between now and the 25th of December, Christmas would still be Christmas. Honestly.

Some times we feel a lot like Mary, going into labor in the middle of the street, don’t we? The days of December tick by so fast and we barely have time to catch our breath. Suddenly, just like that, Christmas Eve and then Christmas Day arrive. Ready or not, here it comes. And we feel so not ready. If only we had an extra couple of days. Or maybe a week.

The idea that what we do is what makes Christmas Christmas is a lie.

Because the truth of what makes Christmas what it is for us as Christians remains true regardless of how ready we feel or what we’ve done to prepare. We celebrate Christmas because Jesus, our God, Savior and King, came to earth as a baby; as a Christian this knowledge comes easy, right? But the part we often neglect to remember is that the entire reason He had to come in the first place was because we could not do what needed to be done.

Now I want you to read the Galatians passage again:

“When the time had fully come, God sent His Son…”

The Bible tells us that the time had fully come for Jesus to be born. But it sure wasn’t because Mary & Joseph were ready. It sure wasn’t because the most amazing inn had its best room available. And it surely wasn’t because the world was a safe place for Jesus to be. But still, Paul tells us that the time had fully come according to God’s plan.

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This Advent season, I’m using the letters in the word manger to help remind me that it’s not about what I’ve accomplished in my preparations that makes or breaks the holiday:

Motive

The Christmas cards are fun. The decorations are beautiful to look at. The cookies are oh-so delicious. But what’s the why behind your actions? Is it helping to prepare your heart for His coming or is it distracting your focus? Is it enriching the season for your family or is it stressing you (and therefore, the others in your home) out and causing arguments and exhaustion? Are you enjoying your preparations or are do you look at them with a feeling of obligation or dread?

Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.
— Galatians 1:10

Ability

Not everyone is Martha Stewart or Joanna Gaines. One of my friends has incredible patience to sit down with her kids each year and have them help her hand make every Christmas card they send. Another is an incredible host and absolutely loves having people over. Another makes the most delicious cookies with unbelievably intricate frosting decorations. Yet another is extremely generous and has the financial means to purchase great gifts for everyone and anyone. I am none of the above. But I’m learning to accept that. God made you YOU, with your own set of talents and abilities. It’s only an exercise in frustration (and a whole lot of debt!) if you try to magically become someone that you’re not. It’s ok to buy — and not make — the cookies. It’s ok to get Papa Murphy’s pizza on Christmas Eve. It’s ok to say “no” to sending cards. And it’s ok to spend ten meaningful dollars on a gift for someone who you know will spend way more than that on you.

Need

Consider the needs of you and your family this year. Has it been a rough one financially? Your family members don’t need grandiose gifts to know that you love them. Has it been an exhausting one with the addition of a baby? Maybe this year you don’t need to run around to all of the family events. Has work been more stressful than usual? You don’t need to make a half dozen different kinds of cookies simply because it’s what you always do. What about your spiritual needs? Do you need to connect with God and dig deeper into the Word before Christmas arrives? Let that be at the top of your to-do list.

‘Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’
— Luke 10:41-42

Grace

Oh, those troubled relationships. Things only get harder at the holidays, don’t they? The questions of who will host, when will we eat, what will we eat, when will we go to church, whose Christmas program will Gramma & Grampa attend this year…it goes on and on. Not to mention the idle chit-chat at the get-togethers themselves. It can be exhausting. (For tips on how to handle these relationships, be sure to read Lisa’s blog post from earlier this week if you missed it, “4 Ways to Nurture Challenging Relationships this Christmas”.) But even the healthiest, friendliest relationships can strain under the weight of the season. Let grace be your guide in these situations. Ask yourself, “Is this a battle worth fighting?” Maybe it is. Or maybe, it’s best to just move on and let it go.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
— Philippians 2:3-4

Expectations

I remember my first Christmas after becoming a mother. I had offered to host Christmas Eve, thinking it would be easier than packing up half the house and trying to get my girls to nap somewhere else. I had this picture perfect first Christmas with my babies in my mind. I got them adorable outfits with matching tights, I found a dress that didn’t show my still-pregnant-looking belly and I decked out the table like something in a Pottery Barn catalog. And the day came and one of the girls had a blow out in her tights and needed to be changed before anyone even arrived. I spent what felt like half of the evening in my bedroom nursing and barely sat at the table which I had so carefully decorated to eat. I went to bed crying that night — hormones were probably partly to blame but if I’m being honest, I was full of disappointment. It didn’t even feel like Christmas because life got in the way. I was expecting a magical day full of lighthearted laughter, great conversation and babies who followed their schedule perfectly. The celebration of the Savior’s birth, which doesn’t change, was happening right before my eyes and I refused to join in because it wasn’t like I had planned. Evaluate your expectations: are they realistic? Are you focused on the things of this world which disappoint us time and time again?

Rest

I don’t care what you have to do, but find time to rest during this Advent and Christmas season. Schedule it if you have to. Say no to that one last commitment which is going to put you over the edge and steal more time from connecting with your heavenly Father. Literally set a timer for 5 minutes and sit in a chair, eyes closed, reflecting on what Christmas means to you as a child of God and soaking up just how much the Creator of the world loves you.

You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound. I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.
— Psalm 4:7-8

I’m praying for you this Advent, my friend. Praying that the devil’s lies about Christmas are replaced with truth: The truth about Christmas, the fact that the King of the world came as a tiny babe at just the right time to do what we were unable to do for ourselves.

No, Christmas doesn’t depend on us. And for that, my friend, we can be eternally grateful.

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faith and face-plants

A while back, I went to the zoo with a friend. Our kids spent most of the brisk morning running from habitat to habitat while we got some chatting time in. When we were leaving we ended up doing the inevitable mom departure situation. Tell the kids it’s time to leave…then stand around talking for an additional 15 minutes while the kids run around crazy. During that time, my littlest son who is two years old, in an act of what probably seemed to him a very brave and maybe even heroic moment, took a running start and tried to run/leap off the curb. I *think* he thought he was going to gracefully continue his super speed run after his running-man-in-the-air moment. Instead, he face-planted. It sounds a little sad, but really it was pretty cute. We really thought that he thought this was a great idea.

As I was checking for skinned knees and kissing his little scraped hands, I couldn’t help but draw the parallel between this little face-plant and my own life.

Have you ever tried to attempt life by yourself, only to fall flat on your face? I’m totally guilty.

I’m guessing you know the story of Jonah. God had great plans for Jonah to go to Nineveh to help spread God’s message to those people. What did Jonah do? The exact opposite of what God told him. His plan led him to be thrown into the sea during a raging storm only to be swallowed by a big fish. How’s that for a face-plant? (Or is it a fish-plant?)

You and I are certainly not the first and won’t be the last person to try to live life independent of our God. Our sinful nature thinks we have our life all figured out! Being organized, tidy, scheduled— these are measures of success on the earthly side. Our old Adam thinks if we only accomplish or obtain that *one more thing*, then we will finally find contentment and be happy. Feeling overtaken by life and feeling all alone or the opposite, feeling so overly confident in what we can accomplish are both the result of life lacking our Savior. In the end, the truth is that we need Him.

We need Jesus to hold our hand.

God is our all-knowing, all-powerful, ever present God. He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness. His staff and his rod, they comfort me. (Psalm 23) He does this. Not me.

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When I find myself floundering through life or even flat on my face by my own doing, it’s usually true that I’m not holding the truths I know as dear and as close as they should be. Fortunately for us, we have forgiveness through our Savior. We can run back to our Father’s arms and ask for guidance, strength, patience, peace, comfort, and contentment. The Holy Spirit builds our faiths through our prayers and through our Bible studies. We just need to stop leaping off the curb alone and let God support us.

Romans 10:17, “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.”

Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Isaiah 55:8-11, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

1 Corinthians 1:31, “Therefore, as it is written: Let him who boasts boasts in the Lord.”

Isaiah 40:29-31, “He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles'; they will run and not grow weary, that will walk and not be faint.”

It’s easy to get caught up in the me, myself and I and to forget that we don’t need to walk through this life alone. Thankfully for us, God gives us a hand to hang on to before we set off.

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A Tale of Two Trees

What kinds of trees fascinate you? Do you prefer redwoods or palms, oaks or evergreens, birch trees or Christmas trees?



Abundant trees are a hallmark in the northern woods of Wisconsin where we live. This fall, amid a beautiful show of red, orange and yellow hardwoods, a friend and I hiked the Kettle Moraine Ice Age Trail which stretches across our state from north to south.



As we ventured around a bend, two divergent sights seemed remarkable and significant. We stopped to observe. Ahead was an enormous two-foot-in-diameter tree, together with its five-foot root ball, uprooted on its side, dead.


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A short distance away, towered another. This was a similar tree - with a huge root structure completely exposed - standing straight and proud on the path beside the river, alive and thriving.

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With the season being Fall, the obvious signs of nature, of death and dying, lay all around.


The visual images stimulated our conversation. These two trees recalled a beautiful place called Garden of Eden. The Genesis account recalls two trees playing a significant role in the history of our world.


Soon after Creation, a dreadful choice was made one day near the foot of the forbidden tree. With a single act of rebellion, Eve’s desire and Adam’s silence plunged a perfect world into the darkness of sin. Eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – against God’s command - cut the first humans off from the Tree of Life and God. Death entered the world, and its curses with it.



As I contemplated the unfolding scene from Genesis that Autumn day, the two trees created an analogy to be considered.



Which of the two trees – dead and uprooted, or alive and thriving -  would represent the outcome of my life?




What had once been an impressive tree was now lying dead, due to a shallow root system.




Would my life reflect this slain giant riddled with a rotted foundation?




Would I someday fall like a goliath during an onslaught of deadly winds in the form of troubles and strife?




Yet the other tree stood tall, its roots thickly tangled and firmly imbedded near the water.




Would I be able to withstand the pressures and attacks of life?




Would I stay firmly rooted?




Next my thoughts focused on two different trees standing on either side of a third, a gory scene in Israel. My mind’s eye could see one tree holding a criminal, his pain causing him to curse and revile God. Another tree bears the second offender. His mouth opens, and the humble words tumble out to the man in between.




“Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Luke 23:42




Jesus’ words settle the question for all time. “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:43




Today. With Jesus. In Paradise. The vile criminal would be there, in heaven, because Jesus said so.




A shiver runs through my body at this thought. And the cool breeze brings me back to Wisconsin. The musing ends.




But my question lingers – which tree? The dead or the living?




The trees in the Garden, at Calvary, and in the Kettle Moraine bring a solid answer. Though divergent and seemingly random connections, the thread that tethers them together points to only one theme and one tree – God’s Son, the Christ. Because God punished his son with our sins on that tree, also known as the cross, I can answer my wonderings with certainty.




The lives of God’s people will be rooted, alive and thriving.  I will not die, but live.




“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.” John 5:24




You can know of your life’s outcome with certainty, too. Do you believe the words and promise of Jesus? By God’s grace, you can. You need not fear. Everyone who calls on Jesus will be saved. Even criminals like the thief on the cross.




“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9




As women, we might tend to feel small and weak, even powerless at times. But God’s Word tells us otherwise.




In His eyes, we are not small nor shallow.




We are not easily pushed over by the storms of life.




God’s chosen people have deep roots, and are strong and alive. Planted by the Spirit, we are grounded in him - kept alive by his Word. As a result, God gives us power to extend our branches as a kind of storm shelter for our families and friends.




“They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.” Isaiah 61:3




What a stunning visual for God’s people! I hope to remember this great scripture picture during the musings on the next hike in the woods.




Thank you, Lord for rooting us in you.
Forgive us when we fall.
Bring us safely into your Paradise where we will be with you forever!
In Jesus, Amen.




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Looking Past the Dirty Window

It is not how much we have, but how much we enjoy, that makes happiness.
— Charles Spurgeon

I've never been great at mornings.

In fact, I'm quite certain my husband spent the first several months of our marriage leaving the house convinced I was mad at him because I barely uttered two words to him while we both prepared ourselves for the day.

So these colder months bring about an even bigger challenge for those of us who find it tough to get going. The below freezing temperatures makes the bed feel that much more comfortable and the lack of daylight makes it even more difficult to convince our brains that it's time to get up.

But as with most aspects of life, having kids has caused the mornings to take on a whole new “struggle”, as it were. For there is no mercy for this brain and body which like to ease in to the day when there are four little ones (two of which take after my husband in their ability to rise-and-shine) needing to get to school.

For those of you in the Midwest, you know that last week got cooooold. I'm talking morning temperatures in the teens. So when my alarm went off and it was barely light out, I was anything but excited to crawl out of the cozy warmth of my bed. As I drudged to the bathroom and then back to my nightstand, fumbling for my glasses, I could see the small sliver of sunlight coming through around the shades, beckoning me to start the day and let the morning in.

As is my custom, I gave myself a few extra minutes to mentally prepare for the go-go-go hour to follow by pulling back the drapes, drawing the shades and putting my bed back together. As I moved to my husband's side of the bed, I sighed as I reminded myself that he not only got up before the sunrise even during the summer months but that he had also already been at work for over an hour (there's a reason God made him the morning person in our relationship ;). I pulled the shade up which covered his window and finally stood up straight for the first time that morning.

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I took my first breath in and marveled. The sun, that glorious, golden beacon was peering out just over the house across the street. The slight dusting of frost made everything glisten, almost sparkle with light, calling for the day to begin. I reached for my phone to capture the scene – after all, this was an experience I rarely have when the sun makes its appearance any earlier.

Maybe this is just the perfectionist/photographer in me, but have you ever noticed how perfect you thought a scene looked until you put it through some sort of lens? As I tried to set up the shot, I noticed how absolutely filthy those panes were. I must've adjusted my angle at least a dozen times, attempting to find one that wouldn't show the endless dust and smudges which covered the glass. Remembering that I needed to get on with the day, I surrended to that imperfect scene, snapped one last shot and said “good enough”.

Such an insignificant part of the day. Or was it?

I have thought of that window so many times over this past week (notice I said thought of, not cleaned!). On a morning, like many, when all I wanted to do was go back to bed, God saw fit to create an amazing masterpiece which I would've missed had I not taken the time to notice it or simply focused on the filthy glass.

But how many times do we look past the gifts in our lives because we're focused on the imperfections which surround us? How often do we only see the bad and miss the good? And it's hard not to, isn't it?

Because the truth is, this life, this world, will always fall short. It will always disappoint. There is not a single aspect of this journey which has not be affected by sin. As we approach Thanksgiving and Christmas, the devil is going to be working overtime on all of our hearts. Feelings of frustration, discontentment and “why me” are going to well up in us and threaten to ruin any and all gratitude and joy. The devil wants us to focus on the dirty window.

If God really loved you, why wouldn’t He take the illness away?

If God really wanted to bless you, why wouldn’t He allow you to get pregnant?

If God really was who He says He is, why hasn't He provided the job your family so desperately needs?

If God really cared, why is parenting such an uphill battle?

If God really knew your heart, why wouldn’t He lead you to “the one” so you could stop being so lonely?

The questions are endless. And the devil wants nothing more than to steal your joy.

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
— John 10:10

What gifts in your life are you missing? Maybe things are really tough right now. Maybe the light at the end of the tunnel of whatever you're facing is so dim that you're starting to lose hope. God has not abandoned you, my friend. He is standing there, arms open wide, waiting for you to stand up straight and take that first breath in. He's bestowing grace, mercy, gifts upon you every day, even though they may not be the ones you think you need. For He works all things for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28). It just may be that the “gift” in this moment is the struggle. How's that for a paradox?

Don't believe the lie that God has forgotten you or that you deserve more than He has seen fit to give you in this moment. For we are all sinners, in desperate need of His forgiveness and grace. And that is already yours through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This life is but a blink compared to the eternity that awaits us.

He is faithful. He does not change.

So this holiday season, pray for peace. Pray for joy. Pray for forgiveness for the times you've believed the lie and lost sight of the gifts. And then pray that God gives you the wisdom to look past the dirty window. Because sometimes, the sin makes the gift that much more beautiful.

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
— James 2:16-17
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