Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Where Is Your Bethlehem?

“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and the line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:1-7)

I wonder if, on one hand, the trip to Bethlehem was a nice family reunion for Mary and Joseph. Because Joseph’s entire family line was required to travel there, he may have been reunited with family members he hadn’t seen in years, perhaps even meeting distant relatives for the very first time. Who knows, it could have been fun. I’m picturing shared meals, warm laughter, reminiscing around the fire, and children running and playing with their newly acquainted cousins.

On the other hand, traveling a great distance just to register for a census was probably a total drag and a terrible inconvenience. Since the entire Roman world had to pick up and move to their birthplace at the same time, Mary and Joseph would have been caught up in a sea of people clogging up the road between Nazareth and Bethlehem. Think JFK airport on the busiest day of the year. In fact, scholars say that travel between Nazareth and Bethlehem was not just inconvenient, but downright dangerous, with bears and lions living in forests along the way, and thieves and marauders waiting to ambush unsuspecting travelers. And all because the greedy empire mandated a census so it could wring every last tax dollar out of its citizens.

Either way, the trip to Bethlehem had to happen, for 750 years earlier it had been prophesied that Jesus would be born there:

"But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times." (Micah 5:2)

On that first Christmas, God in His sovereignty had arranged the circumstances of Mary and Joseph’s life to ensure Jesus would be born in the right place at the right time.

What about you? Will your Christmas this year be filled with joyous reunions? Inconvenient travels? A little of both? God is no less sovereign over your life and mine. Scripture says that all of our days were planned before one of them came to be. (Psalm 139:16) That means that wherever you'll be this Christmas, it’s because the same God who sent Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem set the wheels in motion long before you were born to make sure you would be in the right place at the right time.

Why? The reason is the same today as it was that first Christmas night: to bring Christ into the world. There is someone you will be with this Christmas that needs Jesus. Maybe they need his unconditional love, or comforting presence, or the knowledge of him as savior. Pray ahead of time and ask God to show you, for there may someone who He has pre-planned for you to encounter.

Mary carried Christ in her womb. You and I carry him in our hearts. Where are you taking him this Christmas?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Person Named Peace

I am writing this from beautiful Half Moon Bay in northern California where I’ve accompanied my husband on a business trip. At the moment, I’m enjoying breakfast in my hotel room with a spectacular view of the Pacific. Through the open window I can feel the ocean breeze and hear the rhythmic crash of waves on the rocky shore below. I took a picture to try and capture the moment for you, but you know how hard it can be to do it justice on an iPhone:

I have nowhere I need to be. No stressful to-do list to follow, no packed schedule bearing down on me. I think I can literally feel my blood pressure falling. The longer I sit here, the more relaxed I feel.

In short, I am at peace.

But the reason I’m blogging about this is because of what just happened while I was sitting here.

A moment ago as I sat looking out the window, I began to pray - I say “pray,” but it was really more of a casual conversation with God in which I’m telling Him how much I’m enjoying His pretty ocean and thanking Him for inventing coffee and bacon. All of a sudden, the peace I had been feeling became palpable. It was a peace that went way beyond quiet solitude. It was a peace that invaded my soul and filled up my senses to the point that my surroundings didn’t even matter anymore. It took me a second to understand what was going on, but then the realization hit me: I was experiencing the presence of God. I was communing with the Prince of Peace himself.

And I was reminded of a verse in Micah where God says that He literally is our peace:
“He will stand and shepherd his flock
in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they will live securely,
for then his greatness
will reach to the ends of the earth.
And he will be their peace.”
(Micah 5:4-5)

Maybe true peace is not just the absence of stress or conflict, but the presence of God.

So now it dawns on me – if true peace is not so much based on external circumstances but more on an awareness of God’s presence, then I can experience peace anywhere, anytime. If He is our peace, then it doesn’t matter whether I’m sitting next to the ocean or in a traffic jam on the freeway. He’s there just the same. I can simply invite Him into my moment, and He will answer.

For He is our peace.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Turn Out for What?

Although many pundits emphasized the importance of the Millennial vote in the mid-term election, very few ended up voting on Tuesday.  In fact, only 13% of voters were age 18-29, an even lower turnout than in past elections.

Not even Lil Jon and his star-studded “Turn Out for What” video could rally young voters.

photo from the #turnoutforwhat video

Many consider Millennials to be unmotivated, whether it’s in elections, career advancement, or church attendance, and would chalk up this week’s election as one more example.

However, I agree with Jim Denison's assessment of the Millennial mindset in his excellent recent article:

“Millennials [are] intensely motivated, but by their personal mission rather than their financial success…They have little ‘brand loyalty’ to a particular organization, denomination, or political party. However, they are intensely loyal to those whose mission aligns with their own.”

On Tuesday, Millennials voted by not voting. They voted to opt out of a system that doesn’t align with their ideals. They are tired of empty rhetoric, broken promises, and the inertia of bureaucracy. And although I strongly believe as Christians we need to exercise our right to vote, I nonetheless admire the integrity of Millennials. Why stay loyal to something that is not in line with one’s values or mission?

Likewise, when it comes to the institutional church, Millennials are voting with their feet. They are leaving the church in droves, although not necessarily abandoning the Christian faith. Instead of pointing the finger at Millennials, assuming that once again they are just unmotivated, perhaps the church should take the opportunity to explore ways of focusing less on “brand loyalty” such as denominational issues, and more on instilling a sense of personal mission as a follower of Christ.

Until then, whether it’s in politics or the church, Millennials may continue to wonder, Turn out for what?  

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Power of Encouragement

Way to go!
I trust you.
You are a great friend.
I appreciate your being there for me.
That was amazing. How did you do that?*

Who doesn’t love to hear encouragement like that? Words like these are like vitamins to the soul, boosting our confidence and nourishing our self-esteem.

Interestingly, years ago the human resources department of a major corporation conducted a study and found that it took nine positive comments to counteract the effect of one negative comment in the workplace. Similarly, psychologists say the same is true in our relationships with family and friends.
Just imagine! When your boss criticizes your performance, it will take nine positive comments to offset it. And when we put down our spouse or children, they will need to hear nine encouraging comments to counteract its effects.
The bottom line is this: we need to give as much encouragement to others as is humanly possible. Maybe that’s why the writer of Hebrews said:

“But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” (Hebrews 3:13)
Encouragement is important because sin – both our own and others’ - causes us to have a false view of God and ourselves. Thanks to our dark side, we can fall victim to believing all kinds of that God doesn’t love us as much as He loves others, or that following our own plan is better than trusting God. My husband, Rob, said it best: we tend to be a lousy source of truth for ourselves.

Of course, it doesn’t help that we have the father of lies, the devil himself, telling us all sorts of garbage. Indeed, ever since Eve held that shiny apple in her hand, the devil has been whispering in the ears of God’s people, “Did God really say?…” planting seeds of doubt that still bear the fruit of death in us today.

So we really, really need each other to come along and with words of encouragement inject some truth into our lives, cheering us on and reminding us that God is good and that we have value and purpose. We need the voices of encouragement from others to drown out those whispering devils on our shoulders.

The importance of encouragement was underscored in dramatic fashion for me this week when I attended an event dedicated to raising awareness of domestic violence. For the event, survivors of domestic abuse had made t-shirts, each with their own message about what they had endured. One woman’s message jumped out at me because it had to do with the power of words:

“Not all wounds are visible. It is easy to identify physical abuse by bruises and broken bones – the wounds of emotional abuse are not seen. Many survivors report that emotional abuse is more painful than physical, because hurtful words can be replayed over and over in one’s head.” 
Our words can wound or they can heal. They can bring death or speak life. They can be discouraging or encouraging.

Who do you need to encourage today?

 *adapted from "Encouraging Words for a Friend,"

Friday, September 26, 2014

My Greatest Purpose - and Yours

Over the last few years, I have struggled to find meaning and purpose in my life. My husband and I have been unable to have children, and I have had a hard time getting my career off the ground. I spent my days thinking, "Maybe tomorrow my dreams will come true. I will finally have children. I will finally have a career. I will finally have a purpose." But then days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years, and nothing had changed. Eventually my dreams didn't provide me hope anymore - instead, they began to feel like a cruel joke. 

I had been teetering on the brink of feeling utterly lost and completely joyless. But then a few weeks ago, my pastor began his Sunday sermon by asking the question, "What if the fulfillment you are looking for is found in your relationship with your neighbors?" He reminded us that the greatest commandment in all of Scripture is to love - love God and love others - and that when we choose to give love we enter into God's divine infrastructure where we are loved in return.

As I listened to the message, I felt things inside me begin to shift. What if I stopped looking to the future and started focusing on loving people today, right where I am? What if that would give me the sense of purpose I was looking for?

So, I walked out of church that day with a new mindset and a new plan: I would do at least one small act of love for another person each day. On Monday, I shared a recipe with one of my neighbors. On Tuesday, I emailed a friend and told him all the things I appreciate about him. Now I am on week five of intentionally loving my neighbors, and it's amazing -  as simple as these acts of love are, they have given me an incredible sense of purpose. I wake up each morning with butterflies of anticipation, wondering who God has planned for me to love that day.

Today I feel my hope, my joy, my sense of fulfillment being restored. I haven't given up on my dreams - maybe someday I will have children, or an awesome career. But either way, I know that I have discovered my very greatest purpose: to love.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Was God's Call on My Life Just a Pocket Dial?

Photo credit:

Don’t you hate it when you get pocket dialed? It’s kind of a bummer when you think you’re getting a call from a friend only to hear her garbled voice as she is grocery shopping or driving carpool. In some instances the calls are more than an inconvenience - they are downright dangerous: in New York City, a full 38% of calls to 911 are pocket dials, clogging up the emergency response system. Then again, sometimes these unintentional calls are a blessing in disguise, like the time two thieves who had just robbed a Target in Madison, Wisconsin accidentally pocket dialed the police as they were bragging about their crime, and were promptly apprehended.

Have you ever felt pocket dialed by God? I mean, have you ever felt called by God to do something but then felt so overwhelmed by what He was asking you to do that you thought He must have called you by mistake?

I sure have. I remember arriving at seminary and thinking, Ok, I’m in way over my head! Maybe I’m not supposed to be here after all! Even some of the great men of the Bible felt like God had called them by mistake:

  • Jeremiah When God called him to be a prophet to Israel, Jeremiah argued, “Ah, Sovereign Lord! I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.” (Jer. 1:6)

  • Isaiah When God showed up to call Isaiah, Isaiah kind of flipped out and cried, “Woe to me! I am ruined!” (Is. 6:5)

  • Moses  Moses was so unsure of himself that when God called him to speak to Pharaoh, he replied, “O Lord, I have never been eloquent…I am slow of speech and tongue…please send someone else to do it!” (Ex. 4:10, 13)

Sometimes God asks us to do something that seems totally beyond our ability. But, in truth, that’s the very nature of a calling – it is not something that can be done in our own strength, but a God-sized task that requires us to step out in faith. The fact that it’s bigger than us means there is room for God to show up and dazzle us with His power in amazing and unexpected ways.

Fall is often the time when we begin new assignments, so perhaps today you are finding yourself wrestling with a new calling. Right about now you may be thinking, “Yikes! Why did I agree to lead that Bible study? Or serve on that board? Or go to college so far away?” What at one time seemed so clearly to be God’s will may now be keeping you up at night, making you feel totally overwhelmed.

In a crazy way, your fear may be the confirmation that you heard God’s call correctly. You may just be bumping up against the fact that this is a God-sized task you have been given. And if this is true, then He will give you everything you need to complete it as you trust in Him. This is exactly what Paul meant when he wrote, “[God’s] power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9)

Don’t back down. Don’t give up. Trust that God called you! He never pocket dials.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Love in a Macchiato

The chain reaction began at 7 a.m. with a caramel macchiato. 

Last Wednesday morning, a woman in St. Petersburg, Florida drove through a Starbucks, paid for her drink, and then in a random act of kindness paid for the drink of the person behind her. That person in turn paid for the person behind them, and so on, and so on.

Vu Nguyen, the barista working the drive-through window, was amazed at what was happening, so he began keeping a tally on a piece of paper. As customers pulled up to the window to pay after ordering Nguyen would smile and explain that their drink had been paid for by the person in front of them, and asked if they wanted to do the same for the next in line.

And so it went for eleven straight hours

By 6 p.m., 368 people had paid it forward. Tim Burnside, who had driven through that morning, came back later in the day to see if the chain was still going. When he discovered that it was, he ordered a second chai tea just so he could participate again. “It’s just nice to do a random act of kindness for someone you don’t know,” he said.

It’s incredible - that first small act of kindness turned into a mini-movement. I wonder if the woman even knew what she had done until she read the news the next day. She probably was surprised to learn that her actions had such far-reaching effects.

It’s so easy to underestimate ourselves, thinking that our simple acts of love won’t have much impact on the lives of others. So we tend to second-guess ourselves and, many times, end of up blowing it off.  Should I call that friend and encourage them? Does it matter whether I take a meal to one who is ill or lonely?  Will giving my neighbor a Bible really make a difference?

In reality, our seemingly small acts of love can have a huge effect in the lives of others. In fact, God tells us that the greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves. That is our highest calling, our greatest purpose. 

And as this story demonstrates, God can use our acts of love and kindness to catalyze a chain reaction that affects others. For when we love another, we are also teaching them how to love.  So our example creates a ripple effect that will go on and on.

As Mother Teresa said, “We can do no great things. Only small things in great love.” 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Life Lessons from the Homeless

The Corner
Photo credit: Elisabeth Jordan

My friend Elisabeth has dedicated her life to helping the homeless. Several times a week she goes to a place she affectionately calls “the Corner” – an intersection in the area just south of downtown Dallas that is one of the most poverty-stricken areas in the nation – and cares for the material, emotional, and spiritual needs of the homeless men and women there.
Elisabeth and her homeless friends
Photo credit: Elisabeth Jordan

Recently she invited me to join her, so I ventured down to the Corner to hang out with her and some of her homeless friends.  I did my best to jump right in, mingling with the men and women scattered about, some seeking shelter under the cool shade of a tree, others lined up in the blazing sun awaiting entrance to the shelter they would call home for the night.  I struck up conversations with a few and they shared their stories with me:

  • One man told me he had been on the street for years, proudly showing me his homemade mattress made out of plastic grocery bags woven together;

  • Another man with the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen shared that he’s trying to overcome an addiction of 23 years;

  • And another pleaded with me to call the mayor on his behalf certain that if I could just talk to him the issue of homelessness could be solved.

As I stood there listening to each man’s story, I earnestly wanted to help, yet felt so helpless. I wished I could offer practical solutions and words of advice that would fix their problems, but I had none. I wished I had my checkbook with me so I could buy them what they needed, but I had left it at home. I wish I knew the mayor, but I didn’t. Instead, I was standing there utterly empty handed. I had nothing to give but myself…which felt woefully inadequate.

Lord, how am I supposed to help these people? I was at a loss. In fact, part of me wanted to bolt. I wanted to make up some lame excuse about how I needed to be somewhere and leave so they wouldn’t discover that I was a fraud, useless to them, of no help at all.

But, I didn’t bolt. I stayed.

Instead, I did the only thing I knew to do: be present with them. I offered to hold the man’s grocery-bag mattress while he ate a sandwich. “Don’t set it down, someone will take it!” he pleaded with me, so I stood there, making sure he saw me holding it tight while he ate. Then I held the hand of the man with the kind eyes as he told me of his addiction and his dependence upon God to help him overcome it. I listened and nodded and cried, and shared how I needed to depend on God for help, too.

All I had to give them was myself – my attention, my compassion and love. But, oddly, somehow that felt like enough. In fact, it felt like everything. As I looked in their eyes as we talked about our lives, our families, our joys and sorrows, there was a connection. We were relating deeply, authentically, the way human beings are designed to. It was enough. I was enough.

Sure, it would have been helpful if I could have given them something tangible. After all, Jesus himself was full of practical help. He healed. He delivered. He gave people fishes and loaves. He was - and is - the God of provision.

But isn’t it true that the Lord is also the God of presence? After all, when God introduced Himself to Moses at the burning bush, He called Himself simply, “I Am.” In that moment, it seems, His being present with Moses, relating with him, meant everything.

As people made in God’s image, maybe there are times when we are to be people of provision, and other times when we are to be people of presence. Although meeting material needs is important, maybe there are times where just being there, meeting needs of the soul, is of equal importance.

I had asked the Lord how to help these people, and in the process I was the one who was helped. As I climbed into my car and drove away from the Corner, I felt fulfilled, whole, and useful.  I hope I ministered to those men, but I know they ministered to me. They showed me that I am enough.

Read more about the great work Elisabeth is doing for the homeless at her blog site, "Bridge for Good," by clicking on the link below: