Advent: A Willing Heart

It’s easy to read the stories of Zechariah and Mary, both visited by the angel Gabriel with unlikely and hard-to-believe messages, and wonder why Zechariah was struck dumb when he asked a question but Mary was commended.

The difference is heart attitude.

26-28 Then, six months after Zacharias’ vision, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a Galilean town, Nazareth by name, to a young woman who was engaged to a man called Joseph. The girl’s name was Mary. The angel entered her room and said, “Greetings to you, Mary. O favoured one!—the Lord be with you!”

29-33 Mary was deeply perturbed at these words and wondered what such a greeting could possibly mean. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; God loves you dearly. You are going to be the mother of a son, and you will call him Jesus. He will be great and will be known as the Son of the most high. The Lord God will give him the throne of his forefather, David, and he will be king over the people of Jacob for ever. His reign shall never end.”

34 Then Mary spoke to the angel, “How can this be,” she said, “I am not married!”

35-37 But the angel made this reply to her—“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the most high will overshadow you. Your child will therefore be called holy—the Son of God. Your cousin Elisabeth has also conceived a son, old as she is. Indeed, this is the sixth month for her, a woman who was called barren. For no promise of God can fail to be fulfilled.”

38 “I belong to the Lord, body and soul,” replied Mary, “let it happen as you say.” And at this the angel left her.

Luke 1:26-38 PHILLIPS

Zechariah was a priest who had studied the Torah and should have understood the sovereignty of God. He didn’t ask a question about how Gabriel’s prophecy would come true, he asked for proof that it WOULD come true.

He questioned God’s character and faithfulness.

Mary was a poor young woman who was (most likely) unfamiliar with Scripture except what she had heard in the synagogue.

She knew how babies were made and asked a very practical question.

She wasn’t suggesting God COULDN’T do it, she simply wondered HOW He would do it.

It is portrayed so sweetly in Christmas plays and Christmas movies:

Mary bowing her head in response to the angel Gabriel’s announcement that she has been chosen to bear the Savior.

I don’t know what went through her mind before she answered.  I’m not sure she had a clue what submission to God’s will would look like as it played out across the months and years.

I only know that she was willing.

And God honored her willingness to bend her knee and her heart regardless of the unknown cost.

I’m not as noble as Mary.  I didn’t answer quickly when God allowed my life to be turned upside down. I kicked and screamed and resisted as long as I could.

But who can fight Almighty God?

How can I carry on if I resist the Only One Who can carry me?

My heart still balks.

It. Is. Still. So. Very. Hard.

But I bow my head and heart each morning and ask for the grace to make it true:

“Behold, I am the servant of the LORD; let it be to me according to your word.” ~Luke 1:38

hand-coffee-roosevelt

QUESTIONS:

  • I know most of the people reading this are bereaved parents. While Mary was indeed “highly favored” the role for which she was chosen was one of heartache as well as honor. If you knew then what you know now, would you have still chosen to bear and love your child?
  • It is absolutely OK to bring our questions, doubts and fears to God. Do you see the difference between Zechariah’s and Mary’s questions? Or do you think there was a difference? Why or why not?
  • Have you reached a point of submission regarding the loss of your child? If you have, how did you get there? If you haven’t, what lament do you need to offer up to God so His grace and strength can fill your heart?
  • It’s easy to read Bible stories like make-believe fairy tales and discount the flesh and blood humans who lived them in real time. Does it help your heart hold onto hope to realize that none of them could see the end from the beginning? Does it encourage you that they were able to rest in the Lord’s faithful and unfailing love? Why or why not?

PRAYER:

Father God,

Oh, how I long for Mary’s faith! How my heart yearns to be always willing, always wanting to let You do whatever You deem good and right. But I balk at giving up control-even as I admit I have no control-to You or anyone else.

I am often dismayed and even angry at the things You allow. I am distraught that You don’t intervene when You most certainly can and I think You most definitely should.

Help me submit willingly to Your plan. Help me wait patiently for the fruit of obedience. Give me strength to endure even when the road is long and the path inky darkness.

You are Faithful and True. You are Light and Life. Help me hold onto that truth and rest in Your goodness and love.

Amen

Advent: Stunned Into Silence

When I received the news that Dominic would never walk through our door again, I let out an unearthly wail.

Then I had to make phone call after phone call.

And after that I ran out of words.

So while I realize Zechariah’s silence was imposed on him by God, I can imagine how it felt to hold a secret so deep and yet not be able to speak it aloud for others to hear and share.

18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How do you expect me to believe this? I’m an old man and my wife is too old to give me a child. What sign can you give me to prove this will happen?”

1Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel.[I stand beside God himself. He has sent me to announce to you this good news. 20 But now, since you did not believe my words, you will be stricken silent and unable to speak[until the day my words have been fulfilled at their appointed time and a child is born to you. That will be your sign!”

21 Meanwhile, the crowds outside kept expecting him to come out. They were amazed over Zechariah’s delay, wondering what could have happened inside the sanctuary. 22 When he finally did come out, he tried to talk, but he couldn’t speak a word, and they realized from his gestures that he had seen a vision while in the Holy Place. 23 He remained mute as he finished his days of priestly ministry in the temple and then went back to his own home. 24 Soon afterward his wife, Elizabeth, became pregnant and went into seclusion for the next five months. 25 She said with joy, “See how kind it is of God to gaze upon me and take away the disgrace of my barrenness!”

Luke 1: 18-25 TPT

I feel Zechariah’s pain!

He and Elizabeth had undoubtedly prayed the same prayer for decades so maybe he not only questioned what Gabriel told him, he may have questioned his own senses and sanity. That’s not in the text, but I can imagine he might have.

Before he could stop himself he blurted out that the words were all well and good but a sign would be something he could hold onto for assurance.

Mark 9:24 | The Consecrated Woman

Gabriel told him, in essence, that if his own presence was not enough to validate the promise, Zechariah wasn’t getting the sign he hoped for but he’d get another sign-one he wished he hadn’t asked for.

It’s natural for human hearts to long for something they can hold in their hands to act as guarantee of God’s promises. We are creatures of the earth and we live by our five senses.

Our Heavenly Father knows I am frail and made of dust. He doesn’t despise me. But He does insist that I walk by faith, trusting in His character, His love and His promises. He doesn’t supply me with signs and miracles as proof to soothe my doubts and fears.

He could.

But He doesn’t.

Instead I have the testimony of the Holy Spirit to my spirit. Leading me into all truth and helping me hold fast to hope.

If you are raising prayers or your heart to the Lord today, anxious for Him to show you that He’s listening, be still and let His Spirit speak to yours.

It won’t be an audible voice, but it will be unmistakable.

He’s still in the business of answering His children.

QUESTIONS:

  • Have you ever prayed long for something? If your prayer was eventually answered did it shock you?
  • Sometimes silence seems the most holy response when I’ve spent time in God’s Presence. Can you remember a moment when what the Lord revealed to you felt too precious or too impossible to share with others?
  • What do you think Elizabeth’s response might have been when Zechariah came out and couldn’t speak? Do you think she had a clue what had happened?
  • Do you believe God answers prayer? Why or why not?

PRAYER:

Lord,

You are my Maker. You know I am frail and prone to doubt. It’s especially hard for my heart to trust when it feels like prayers I’ve prayed for nearly my whole life have gone unanswered-or answered in a most painful way instead of the way I wanted them to be.

I confess, it’d be wonderful to have some sort of sign I could see with my own eyes, turn over in my hand and tuck in my pocket as a reminder of Your sovereignty. But that’s not how You work in the world.

You have given me Your Spirit and Your Word and that is enough. Help me believe that it’s enough-more than enough-to guide my heart through this Valley. You hold me fast even when my grip loosens and threatens to give way.

Thank You for Your Presence. Thank You for your Promises. Thank You for the privilege of lifting my hands and heart to You in prayer.

Amen

Advent: Surprised By God’s Answer

We left Zechariah yesterday just stepping up to the Altar of Incense.

I like to put myself in the story and imagine him slightly trembling at this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to creep closer than all but a handful of Israelites to the Holy Presence of God Almighty.

Perhaps he was already a little afraid.

Maybe his heart was racing and his palms sweaty. He most certainly recognized the privilege and responsibility as he offered the fragrant smoke and many prayers.

And how like a human heart to hand up its desires in the midst of corporate pleas for mercy, justice and grace!

But it seems Zechariah didn’t expect an answer. Certainly not the one he received.

11 All at once an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing just to the right of the altar of incense.

12 Zechariah was startled and overwhelmed with fear. 13 But the angel reassured him, saying, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God is showing grace to you. For I have come to tell you that your prayer[c] for a child has been answered. Your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son and you are to name him John. 14 His birth will bring you much joy and gladness. Many will rejoice because of him. 15 He will be one of the great ones in the sight of God. He will drink no wine or strong drink, but he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even while still in his mother’s womb. 16 And he will persuade many in Israel to convert and turn back to the Lord their God. 17 He will go before the Lord as a forerunner, with the same power and anointing as Elijah the prophet. He will be instrumental in turning the hearts of the fathers in tenderness back to their children and the hearts of the disobedient back to the wisdom of their righteous fathers. And he will prepare a united people[f] who are ready for the Lord’s appearing.”

Luke 1: 11-17 TPT

I can imagine the years and years Zechariah and Elizabeth fell asleep praying God would grant them a child. I can just picture Elizabeth outside in the Temple courtyard adding her longing and hoping, hoping, hoping Zechariah would dare to bring their personal plea before the Most Holy God.

The angel not only promised Zechariah a child, he promised him a child OF promise-one whose birth had been foretold. This would be no ordinary son. He was to be the forerunner and path-maker for the Christ!

No wonder Zechariah had a few questions.

I’ve had questions too.

Prayer after child loss has been hard for me.

Before Dom ran ahead to Heaven, I was a seriously praying woman. I kept prayer journals, wrote individual prayer cards for people I loved and knew and was a fervent believer in God’s faithful answers-even if they were long in coming. I had personally experienced the power of earnest prayer to make way in the heavenlies.

I never asked for a life of ease, only life and the grace to greet each day.

So when one of my most oft-repeated and (what I felt was very basic) prayers went unanswered, it shook me to the core. Why was my son not kept safe?

It’s taken a long time for my heart to rest again in what seem like straightforward promises of Scripture and to venture tentatively toward the Throne of Grace expecting any favors.

God does answer.

But like Zechariah, long years of waiting and disappointment have made me more than a little surprised when He does.

QUESTIONS:

  • Do you pray? Why or why not?
  • Do you expect God to answer when you pray? (Not audibly but through circumstances, people, His word.)
  • How has loss changed your prayer life (if it has changed it)?
  • How do you feel when it feels like God doesn’t hear your heart?
  • Have you ever waited long only to be surprised by God’s ultimate intervention or answer to your prayer?
  • What are you longing for that you need to bring before the Throne of Grace today?
  • Does Zechariah’s story encourage you?

PRAYER:

Lord, You are the Most High God. You know the beginning from the end and hold time in Your hands.

It is so, so hard for me to wait patiently for answers. And, frankly, some of the answers are not blessings but heartache.

I’m wary about bringing my requests to You because while I know You have the power to grant them, You also have the power to delay or deny them. So I am sometimes surprised when You answer. I’m often amazed at how You weave together the ordinary with the extraordinary and how Your eternal plans are always being worked out.

Help my heart lean in and take hold of Your hand. Help me trust in Your unfailing love and abundant grace. And give me bold courage to step forward with open hands, bringing my requests to You, resting in the fact that whether the answer is “yes”, “no” or “wait” it is for my ultimate good and Your glory.

Amen

Advent: Positioned For Blessing

Today’s verses may seem an odd choice as a stand-alone source for an Advent devotional.

But when you dig a little deeper, they are a beautiful affirmation of how God used ordinary people to bring about His extraordinary purposes.

Zechariah and Elizabeth were two humble and obedient Jews living their lives according to the Law. As a priest, Zechariah was responsible to serve in the Temple two weeks of every year. He’d been faithfully doing his duty for years. Elizabeth had done hers too.

But they were fruitless. Elizabeth was barren. And barren women (in those days) were considered cursed.

And then something amazing happened.

Zechariah, chosen by lot, seemingly random, is given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to burn incense before the Lord. A sacred trust, a holy encounter representing the prayers of all Israel and especially those positioned outside in the temple courtyard.

Faith, Fiction, Friends: Zechariah: From Priest to Speechless to Prophet

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.

Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.”

Luke 1: 5-10 NIV

We will stop here for today although I’m sure most of you know where our story is going.

I’m glad to take things a little slow. Because when I race through verses full of detail I tend to miss important insights. And there are several in these words that help my heart.

Doing my daily duty can be pretty boring.

Living a life of faithful obedience sometimes becomes a burden. And when obedience doesn’t lead to blessing but perhaps even to pain I can lose heart.

Luke reminds me that being precisely where God wants me to be doing exactly what He’s called me to do may lead to unimagined and unanticipated blessing.

Don't Grow Weary | Ellie May's Garden of Grace

Zechariah and Elizabeth had no idea that their yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem would change everything.

But it did.

And that was just the beginning.

QUESTIONS:

  • Do you ever tire of daily routine, regular responsibility? Does this passage challenge that attitude?
  • Scripture teaches that God is in control even when it seems like chance rules. Is that a comforting thought? Why or why not?
  • Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story echoes that of Abraham and Sarah. An old couple, past the age of childbearing whom God blesses with not just any child but a child of promise. How does their story once again that God is the God of the impossible and improbable?
  • Prayer is likened to incense throughout the Bible. I sometimes like to light a scented candle in the still dark early morning hours when I talk to God. Do you have any physical representations that help your heart connect with the Father?

PRAYER:

Father God,

I admit it-sometimes I’m just flat out tired of doing what’s expected of me. Dishes and laundry and ordinary work are dull and hardly rewarding. Obedience takes self-control. I’m not always interested in being who I ought to be especially when I feel like maybe there’s no upside to sacrificing fun for duty.

Even worse, I feel cheated when I’ve been a “good girl” and still not received the desire of my heart. In fact, the desire of my heart has been snatched away.

Help me feel Your Presence speaking courage and strength to my soul when I grow weary of doing well. Help me show up every time and everywhere You want me to be. Let the truth that there is no better place to be than in the center of Your will sink deep into my spirit.

You have a plan and You work through perfectly ordinary people to bring it to life. Who knows? It might be me doing my daily duty that impacts eternity. Thank You for inviting me to be part of the Eternal Story.

Amen

Advent: The Righteous Branch

One of the recurring themes in Scripture is redemption, rescue and renewal.

Over and over, just when it seems things can only get worse, God steps in and crafts an unexpected and beautiful story from the broken bits.

The challenge for we who are trapped in time is to remain patient and hope-filled in the waiting.

Israel had plenty of practice.

I do too.

But God doesn’t leave us without promises to hold onto while we wait.

Jeremiah is often called “The Weeping Prophet” because the messages God have him were full of gloom. Judgement and destruction were on the way. There was no escape and Jeremiah had been commissioned by the Lord to tell folks all about it.

Yet woven throughout the verses detailing all the awful, God spoke hope to the heart of His people:

14 “‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.

15 “‘In those days and at that time
    I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line;
    he will do what is just and right in the land.
16 In those days Judah will be saved
    and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it  will be called:
    The Lord Our Righteous Savior.’ “

Jeremiah 33: 14-16 NIV

These words speak hope to my heart too.

Dominic’s death is the most devastating thing I’ve ever endured. It was not only the earthly end of him, it was the earthly end of me in many ways. All the things I anticipated for him, our family and the future were cut down in one fell swoop.

So when Jeremiah promises that even though all that’s left of David’s progeny is a pitiful stump, God will raise up a glorious and most Righteous King, I hear that redemption is possible.

And because Jesus DID come, I know that redemption is guaranteed.

Advent reminds me that even when waiting is long and in the dark, God is working.

Just as He raised up life from a (humanly) lifeless bit of wood in the ground, He will raise my son and redeem my pain.

QUESTIONS:

  • Have you ever thought a plant was dead only to have it sprout fresh some time later? How might that experience help you cling to hope while waiting on the Lord?
  • What do the words “The Lord Our Righteous Savior” mean to you?
  • The literal translation of those words is “Jehovah Tsidkenu” or The Lord My Righteousness. There is no righteousness apart from Christ. No way for me to clean up enough to stand in the presence of God. Have you embraced and received the gift of God’s grace and mercy through Jesus? Is HE your righteousness?
  • God has never hidden from His people the fact that life in this fallen world is hard. Are you encouraged or discouraged by His honesty?
  • Do you have favorite promises your heart clings to in times of discouragement? Consider typing or writing them out in a journal or small booklet to review often.

PRAYER:

Father God,

It is so, so easy to be discouraged and disheartened. Truth is, life is hard and often seems headed in the direction of becoming harder.

I’m tired and sometimes I want to give up and give in. Not only is there no end in sight, I can’t even imagine an end that would be worth waiting for.

But I will choose to trust in Your unfailing word. I will rest in Your everlasting love. And I will take hold of every single promise You have made. Help me trust that You are working-even when I can’t see it-to redeem, restore, rescue and rewrite my story.

Let me remember that You are the God of new things, the God who transforms death into life.

Amen

Advent: The Light That Bursts Through Gloom

In our modern age of light switches and street lights it’s hard to imagine a world where the tiniest candle flame could lead a body to safety.

But for most of human history that was how people lived.

It’s how some still live.

So when John described Jesus as the “Light that bursts through gloom-the Light that darkness could not diminish” (John 1: 5 TPT) he’s really saying something.

This isn’t a tiny candle or smoky oil lamp barely pushing back the edges of inky night.

Jesus is a spotlight dispelling not only the experience of darkness but the power of darkness!

And that’s only a fraction of the truth revealed in these five verses.

In the very beginning the Living Expression was already there.

And the Living Expression was with God, yet fully God.

They were together-face-to-face, in the very beginning. And through his creative inspirations this Living Expression made all things, for nothing has existence apart from him!

Life came into being because of him, for his life is light for all humanity.

And this Living Expression is the Light that bursts through gloom-the Light that darkness could not diminish!

John 1: 1-5 TPT

Jesus is co-equal with God. He has existed for eternity past along with the Father. They were, and are, in perfect community.

Face-to-face, cooperating in speaking life and light into existence.

No thing and no one draws breath apart from Christ.

In Him we live and move and have our being. Acts 17:28 | Good morning  girls, Inspirational scripture, Morning girl

That is why my heart can rest secure in the promise that the resurrection is coming.

If Jesus breathed life once into my son, He will most certainly breathe life once again into his glorified body.

Image may contain: one or more people, text that says 'FOR He HAS RESCUED US FROM THE DOMINION OF DARKNESS AND BROUGHT US INTO THE KINGDOM OF The Son He Loves COLOSSIANS 1:13'

So when the darkness threatens to consume me I light a candle.

I watch the flame and listen for my Shepherd King’s voice singing hope over my soul.

QUESTIONS:

  • Do you have personal experience of being lost in the dark? How did you find your way to safety?
  • When have you felt soul darkness? Could you hear or feel the Lord reaching out and reaching down to lead you to the Light of His love?
  • Why is it important to know that Jesus is eternally co-existent with the Father?
  • Does the fact that Christ is the creative force of the Godhead give you confidence in His promise to redeem and restore what the enemy has stolen?
  • How does the fact that Jesus is the Eternal and Inextinguishable Light help your heart hold onto hope?

PRAYER:

Lord,

I live in a world of uncertainty and often great pain. It’s easy for my heart to sink into despair. It’s hard to hold onto hope.

In the natural it feels like darkness is winning.

But I know, deep in my soul, that Your Light will conquer the darkness. In Your Presence there is no night-only, always, glorious Day.

Help me lean into this truth and hold onto hope.

Let the light, love and life of Christ dwell in me richly and spill over into a lost and lonely world.

Amen

Advent Invitation

We’re all waiting this year, aren’t we?

Waiting for the pandemic to be over (or at least managed somehow), waiting for things to get back to normal (whatever that is), waiting to see extended family without masks and social distancing.

Waiting, waiting, waiting!

That makes this moment ripe for we who live on the back side of Christ’s first coming to fully embrace the season of Advent-perhaps as never before.

All Israel was waiting with bated breath for redemption that first Christmas morning. Not looking for presents but longing for Presence.

A Messiah had been promised but was (by human standards) long in coming.

May I invite you to allow God to use this intense season of helpless and perhaps, sometimes hopeless waiting to turn your heart toward His?

Here is an Advent Scripture Reading list I’ll be using for devotional posts starting tomorrow.

May I ask you to come with me on a walk through Scripture as we walk together toward Jesus?

Our Faithful Father doesn’t waste a thing! He will use our sorrow, sadness, fearful moments, impatient waiting and even this pandemic to make us more like Christ.

A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes – and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas

We can lean in and take hold of His truth while we rest in His grace and goodness.

And the light of His love will fill our hearts with hope-just like that first Christmas.

Longing For Home

If I find in myself a desire for which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

C. S. Lewis

I remember the first time I felt homesick.  

I had been away from home before but never without the company of someone I knew well and loved.  

This time was different-I was at a sleepover camp populated with strangers.  Kind strangers, yes, but not a familiar face among the crowd.  

Read the rest here: Homesick

Lament Makes Room For Thanksgiving

When I first began writing in this space, “lament” had only just come into vogue.

Now, it’s everywhere.

If this year has taught hearts a single thing, I hope it has taught them there’s no use pretending life doesn’t hurt sometimes. We were not created to carry that kind of pain alone.

And thankfully, we don’t have to.

God, in Christ, invites me to speak it, to sing it, to release it as an exhale so His grace and strength can rush in to fill that empty space.

You’re invited too.

Thanksgiving was always my favorite holiday.

I loved everything about it:  the color scheme, the food (I love, love, love to cook-it was never a burden), family and friends gathered around the table, and the wonderful slowness of the day as it lingered into nightfall.

It was more flexible than Christmas for including all sorts of folks who otherwise didn’t have someplace to go. Living near colleges meant that  we welcomed students from around the world-we might have two or three dozen laughing faces milling about.

happy-thanksgiving

It was wonderful.

And I loved going around the circle, tummies bursting, to share what people were thankful for and why.

When Dominic left us everything  changed.

Oh, I was (and still am) so very thankful for so very many things

Read the rest here: The Power of Lament to Make Room for Thanksgiving

Learning To Be Yielded And Still

I first shared this four years ago when I was still in the early days of mourning Dominic. Our family was facing the third set of holidays with an empty chair at the table.

Life since then has been full of additional challenges and loss.

I still rebel sometimes at the road I’m asked to walk.

But I am more convinced than ever that when I yield my life and heart to the Master Potter, He will mold me and make me into the likeness of Jesus.

And that’s really who I want to be-even if it hurts.

I can’t claim to be satisfied with this life I’m living.  

do not like this path I am forced to walk, this darkness that hides the light, this pain that burrows deep in my bones.

But I can say I’m learning not to fight it.  

Sometimes I still pitch a fit.  

Read the rest here: Yielded and Still