Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (MSG)]

Every man should be born again on the first day of January. Start with a fresh page. Take up one hole more in the buckle if necessary, or let down one, according to circumstances; but on the first of January let every man gird himself once more, with his face to the front, and take no interest in the things that were and are past. [Henry Ward Beecher]

zebra longwingSeveral years ago, one of my children asked if, with the benefit of hindsight, would I do it all over again—leave school, get married at twenty, have three children, and be a stay-at-home mom. Admitting that I had no idea what marriage and motherhood entailed when I did it, I would have enjoyed having had a life of my own, a career, and an opportunity to live without parental responsibility. Nevertheless, I added, in spite of the sacrifices, challenges, and trials over the years, I wouldn’t trade the life I’ve lived or the children God gave me for anything.

Later, I thanked God for not telling us the future or giving us do-overs. Knowing how difficult life is and all that can go wrong, we’d be terrified to do anything. Moses might never have signed on had he known leading the Israelites was a forty year project and that he’d never even step into the Promised Land. Mary might have refused the angel had she known she’d have to flee to Egypt or watch her child die a gruesome death on the cross. Would Paul have become an evangelist if, when he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus, he’d known ahead of time about the brutal whippings and beating, shipwrecks, hunger, poverty, arrests, imprisonments, and betrayals he’d endure for the Lord?

Here we are at the end of one year and the beginning of another. Far too often, this is a time of regrets and wishing we could start over again. We’re sure that, this time, we could do it better than the first go around. Granted, if Esau had hindsight, he might not have asked for that lentil stew and, if David had known the ramifications of bedding Bathsheba and killing Uriah, he wouldn’t have brought her to the palace. Had they known how it would end, Sampson wouldn’t have dallied with Delilah and Sarah wouldn’t have given Hagar to Abraham. Be that as it may, there is no doubt they would still have made mistakes, just different (and possibly worse) ones.

I remembered my son’s question when we did our annual viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey (the Jimmy Stewart character) gave up his dreams to fulfill the dreams of others and, when life goes seriously awry, he wishes he’d never been born. After an angel shows him what life in his community would be like if his wish came true, George realizes what a wonderful life he actually had. As for me—someone else had that exciting professional life about which I once dreamed when I was a girl. Instead, God blessed me with a good man, three wonderful children, great in-laws, five delightful grands, and a life of real purpose, love and joy.

Are there parts of the past that, if given a choice, we’d have skipped? Of course! We all have endured heartache, trials, pain, loss, and wounds we never would have deliberately chosen. Moreover, we all regret things that we’ve done or left undone and the hurt we’ve caused others. Yet, our experiences, both good and bad, are what made us who we are today.

While God doesn’t let us hit the rewind button and start the same life over, he does give us a whole new life when we accept Jesus. Because of God’s grace and forgiveness, the old life is over, done and gone, and a new one has begun. For a Christian, because of God’s grace, every day is a new day, the beginning of a new year, and an opportunity to love better and live wiser than we did yesterday. Instead of regrets on this, the first day of the year, let us have faith—not in the new year but in the One who makes all things new. It is, indeed, a wonderful life and it can only get better. Thank you, God!

The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year; it is that we should have a new soul. [G.K. Chesterton]

I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back. [Philippians 3:12-14 (MSG)]

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It was by faith that Rahab the prostitute was not destroyed with the people in her city who refused to obey God. For she had given a friendly welcome to the spies. [Hebrews 11:31 (NLT)]

red admiral butterflyThere are all sorts of halls of fame, honoring everything and everyone from astronauts to cowboys and hockey players, from blues music to rock and roll and country music. Even small town high schools have a wall of fame recognizing their outstanding graduates. The author of Hebrews selected a number of individuals to go in a Faith Hall of Fame. Pictured on its walls was an Old Testament all-star cast including Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Gideon, David, Samuel and Rahab. Hold it! What’s a prostitute doing in the company of kings, leaders, warriors, and prophets? It wasn’t their profession, however, that got these people selected for honor; it was their faith.

Considering that Rahab is an ancestress to Jesus, there are some who would prefer calling the pagan prostitute an innkeeper. Others, troubled by the implication of Joshua’s spies stopping at her house, would prefer the term innkeeper, as well. The Hebrew word used to describe her, however, was zonah, meaning harlot or prostitute. While Rahab’s house also may have served as an inn, she seems to have offered more than just a bed and breakfast to the men who stopped at her house. The reason the spies were there had nothing to do with Rahab’s profession; God led them to her as part of His plan. Moreover, it was a logical choice—her home was located in part of the city wall at the edge of the city and, with her steady stream of visitors, the spies’ presence could go unnoticed

Whether innkeeper, harlot, or both, Rahab knew all about the Israelites from her previous guests. She’d heard about their crossings of the Red Sea and the Jordan and their success in battle. When she told the spies, “The Lord your God is the God of heaven and earth,” she clearly recognized that the God of the Israelites, unlike the false gods of Canaan, was powerful. Recognizing the truth and acting on it, however, are two different things. This outcast woman took her life in her hands when she bravely defied the authorities and then relied on her enemies to save her. In faith, the prostitute became a traitor to her city and risked everything by trusting in a God about whom she knew very little. She bravely stepped out in faith and was rescued from a cursed city and a life of disgrace. In thanks for her assistance, she and her family were saved from Jericho’s devastation.

Rahab eventually married an Israelite, Salmon, and became the mother of Boaz, the man who married Ruth. Boaz and Ruth’s son (and Rahab’s grandson) was Obed who was Jesse’s father and Jesse was the father of David. Being King David’s great-great-grandmother places the once heathen harlot on Jesus’ family tree! Rahab’s history tells us that change is always possible and none of us need be stuck in a miserable shameful life. Regardless of the sins of our past, we can be saved and redeemed, forgiven and loved.

Rahab’s story of faith and redemption is just a preview of the grace of God seen in the New Testament. Our names never have to be recorded on a wall of shame; instead, our names can listed with the best of them in the great Faith Hall of Fame!

Free grace can go into the gutter, and bring up a jewel! [Charles Spurgeon]

By faith these people overthrew kingdoms, ruled with justice, and received what God had promised them. They shut the mouths of lions, quenched the flames of fire, and escaped death by the edge of the sword. Their weakness was turned to strength. They became strong in battle and put whole armies to flight. [Hebrews 11:33-34 (NLT)]

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Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life. [Philippians 4:6-7 (MSG)]

Here’s a little song I wrote, You might want to sing it note for note,
Don’t worry, be happy. In every life we have some trouble
But when you worry you make it double. Don’t worry, be happy,
Don’t worry, be happy now. [Bobby McFerrin]

water lily“Don’t worry, be happy,” sang Bobby McFerrin. Right now, for many of us, that’s easier sung than done. This pandemic has turned our lives upside down. Between rising numbers of COVID cases and concern about on-line schooling, money troubles, closing businesses, political divisiveness, and quarantining, it’s hard not to worry!

The word “worry” comes from the old English wyrgan meaning “to strangle” which led to the Middle English meaning “to slay, kill or injure by biting and shaking the throat” (as a dog or wolf might to a lamb). By the 17th century, the verb “worry” also meant “to bother, distress or persecute” and, by the 19th century, the noun meant “anxiety arising from cares or troubles.” All of these meanings ring true. Worry can strangle us with fear and indecision or seize and tear us apart by destroying our confidence, health and relationships. With the ferocity of a wolf, it can intimidate us, attack our plans, shake our faith, and hound our every thought. Fretfulness, sleepless nights, stress, and angst—all come from worry.

While “worrywart” is often used to describe someone who worries excessively by dwelling on the possibility of trouble or difficulty, it originally meant something else entirely. In 1922, Out Our Way, a comic strip depicting rural American life drawn by J.R. Williams, made its debut and a recurring character was the Worry Wart, a young boy (who frequently was accompanied by his mangy dog). Worry Wart wasn’t a worrier; instead, he was a pest who frustrated and worried his parents. Oblivious to the world around him, his schemes and foolhardy actions annoyed others and caused them anxiety!

The term “worrywart” may have gotten its present meaning in 1956 when it was used by Ivan Belknap in a book outlining problems in state mental hospitals. “Worrywart” was used to describe a particularly delusional kind of patient who’d abandoned all reasonable thinking. We don’t have to be patients in an asylum to abandon reasonable thinking; all we have to do is worry! With worry, a simple problem can turn into a major disaster and fill our minds with all sorts of horrible and improbable scenarios. Worse, because our worry often causes those around us their own stress and anxiety, we become as disruptive and bothersome as the original Worry Wart. Worry doesn’t just drive us crazy; because it’s as contagious as measles or COVID, it drives everyone around us crazy, too!

Every day we have a choice; trust God or worry. When we’re unwilling to trust Him to handle things, worry is the inevitable result. Since worry does nothing but steal our joy and rob us of a good night’s sleep, trust seems the better choice. Trusting God with the future, however, means ceding control of tomorrow (and every day after) to Him. That’s difficult if we secretly harbor the belief that we are the ones running the universe. Fortunately, we’re not—that’s God’s job, and His alone. Today, let’s hand Him our worries and choose to trust Him with our concerns.

Father, keep us from worry and from causing others to grow anxious. Lighten our heavy hearts and the hearts of those around us. Help us all to surrender our concerns, burdens and fears to you. Fill us with your peace.

Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow; it empties today of its strength [Corrie ten Boom]

For peace of mind, resign as general manager of the universe. [Larry Eisenberg]

People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes. [Matthew 6:32-34 (MSG)]

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May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy! He that goes forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him. [Psalm 126:5-6 (RSV)]

sara longwing butterflyColors have been used to differentiate liturgical seasons since the 4th century and, by the 12th century, Pope Innocent systemized their use in the church. Originally Advent was about penance, prayer and fasting in preparation for baptism so purple (the color associated with sacrifice and repentance from sin) was its liturgical color. Like the Advent wreath, however, liturgical colors are merely traditions and have no basis in Scripture. Most denominations have added more colors to the original five.

Representing the traditional Advent color of penitence, three of the four candles on our wreath are purple. This Sunday’s candle, however, is pink—the traditional color of joy and happiness—and the day’s Scripture readings are joyful ones. They start with the good news for the oppressed found in Isaiah 61 followed by the psalmist’s promise of a harvest of joy in Psalm 126. In the gospel, the good news of Isaiah 40 is repeated by John the Baptist and, in the epistle, Paul tells the Thessalonians always to be joyful. After the somber and apocalyptic readings of the last two Sundays, these readings are a welcome change. In the Roman Catholic Church, this Sunday is known Gaudete Sunday. The name comes from the Latin translation of Philippians 4:4—Gaudete in Domino sempe  meaning “Rejoice in the Lord always”—which were the first words of the introit for mass on the third Sunday of Advent.

Those words, however, shouldn’t be limited to this one Sunday because Paul’s words weren’t a suggestion; they were a command! Reasons to rejoice, however, seem to be in short supply right now and, rather than rejoicing, many are grieving. While some may grieve the actual loss of loved ones, we’re all grieving the loss of our sense of normalcy. Christmas is a holiday filled with long-standing traditions, many of which won’t be observed this year. In a season when friends and family are front and center, we won’t be home for the holidays or gathering with those we love. A malicious virus will keep us from travel, festive parties, visits to Santa, holiday parades, crowded candlelight Christmas Eve services, Christmas markets, neighborhood potlucks, cookie exchanges, and the annual sing-along Messiah. This pandemic seems to have stolen Christmas the way the Grinch did when he terrorized Whoville by stealing all the Christmas presents, food, and decorations.

But, let’s remember—when the Grinch heard every Who down in Whoville sing joyfully on Christmas morning, he realized that Christmas didn’t come from a store! The lighting of this candle of joy will remind us of that same thing. Christmas isn’t about enjoying family and friends and observing decades old traditions. It’s about rejoicing in the good news that a Savior was born—rejoicing that because Jesus atoned for our sins, rather than being separated from God, we are His sons and daughters. It’s rejoicing that Heaven will be our home someday. It’s rejoicing that, even though we plant in tears, we will harvest in joy! Whether or not you light the candle of joy on an Advent wreath, be sure to rekindle the candle of joy in your heart!

Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (RSV)]

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. [Philippians 4:4-5 (RSV)]

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Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NLT)]

The Lord afflicts us at times; but it is always a thousand times less than we deserve, and much less than many of our fellow-creatures are suffering around us. Let us therefore pray for grace to be humble, thankful, and patient. [John Newton]

duck potato - arrowheadMy New York Times newsletter has a section called “What You’re Doing” in which readers share how they’re dealing with the pandemic—everything from dreaming up innovative waffle recipes to sending “karaoke grams” to friends on their birthdays. Today, M.B. wrote that she’d started 2020 with a line-a-day diary. Since March, however, she’d filled the diary with “dire COVID milestones, illness among family and friends, anger at deniers, and mourning for the loss of normal life, vacations, and more.” Tiring of her negativity on Thanksgiving Day, M.B. turned that line-a-day diary into a daily gratitude journal and reported having a positive attitude that will carry her through the pandemic.

The conditions haven’t gotten any better since Thanksgiving; in fact, the COVID numbers have gotten worse. The change isn’t in the circumstances because gratitude isn’t found in our circumstances. The change is in M.B because gratitude is found in our minds and M.B. is looking at the world with an attitude of gratitude. In 1919, during another pandemic when the nation was as troubled as it is now, minister and essayist Dr. Frank Crane wrote, “To be thankful simply means that one thinks he is better off than he deserves to be.” Crane went on to suggest that happiness is found in finding a balance between our condition and what we think our condition should be—between what we have and what we think we should have. If we want to be happy, Crane suggested that we whittle down our conception of what we think we should have to match what we actually do possess.

M.B.’s words struck a chord with me. These last few months, the entries in my daily gratitude journal have been sporadic. For example, rather than write I’m thankful that the Pfizer vaccine is about to be approved, I found myself complaining that our government only ordered 100 million doses (enough to inoculate only 50 million people) and it may be June before more is available. When I used an online tool to determine my place in the vaccine queue and learned that at least 118.5 million Americans are ahead of me, I was ready to grumble even more until I remembered Crane’s words. Appreciating that I’m no more deserving than anyone else in the world, I looked thankfully at what I have (health and an eventual place in line) rather than at what I’d prefer. I am thankful that the end is in sight—even if we need a telescope to see it! Yes, gratitude is an attitude and one that often takes a conscious effort to maintain.

We can change our circumstances or change our concept of what it is we deserve and it is great deal easier to change our thoughts than to change the world around us. God will generously provide for our needs but we must remember that He is under no obligation to give us everything we want. We can’t control the pandemic but we can control our thoughts. As bad as things may seem, I think we all would admit to having more and better than we deserve. Knowing we can’t have everything we desire, let’s be thankful for all that we do have!

There is much in this world beyond our control including the nation, the economy, COVID, other people, weather, and the noisy dogs next door. If we can’t change our circumstances, the only option is to change ourselves! M.B. is finding happiness in her new attitude of gratitude—one of recognizing and appreciating all that she has right now. Let us do the same!

Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! … Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. … And this same God who takes care of me will supply all your needs from his glorious riches, which have been given to us in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:4,6-7,19 (NLT)]

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This is the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. It began just as the prophet Isaiah had written: “Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, and he will prepare your way. He is a voice shouting in the wilderness, ’Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming! Clear the road for him!’”  [Mark 1:1-3 (NLT)]

christmas starLast Sunday, my husband and I lit the candle of hope on our Advent wreath. This Sunday, we’ll re-light that one along with a second candle, the one we call the peace or Bethlehem candle. Because the Advent wreath custom has been adapted in a variety of ways through the years, there are several names for the candles and explanations for their symbolism that probably have more to do with the selling of wreaths, candles, and devotional booklets than with church tradition. There are no official names, meanings or rituals because an Advent wreath isn’t based on Scripture. It’s merely a tradition to help make this season more meaningful.

We’ve selected our Advent readings (or “lections”) from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), an ordered system of Scripture readings. The Christian church has used lectionaries since the 4th century but the RCL was adopted in 1992. An ecumenical project of several American and Canadian denominations, the goal was to provide a common experience of God’s word among all Christians as a way of uniting the Church. Used by a majority of the Protestant churches in the U.S. and Canada, the RCL is a three year cycle of weekly Scripture readings to be read at public worship. During most of the year, the four selections are from the Old Testament, Psalms, the Epistles and the Gospels. Chosen for their common theme and relevance to the church season, these common lections connect Christians with one another across denominational lines and enable an Episcopalian in Minneapolis to recite the same psalm or hear the same epistle as a Methodist in Denver or a Lutheran in San Diego.

Before lighting the candles Sunday, we’ll read portions of Isaiah 40, Psalm 85, and 2 Peter 3. Isaiah tells the people of Judah to be prepared: “Your God is coming!” Saying that salvation is near, the psalmist speaks of the meeting of unfailing love and truth and the kiss of righteousness and peace. Joining these verses are Peter’s words to live peaceful and righteous lives and be ready for the end times when “the day of the Lord will come.” These lections again remind us that Advent is not just about anticipating the Messiah’s birth; it’s a time to anticipate His return. As we prepare our homes for Christmas, let us remember that it is more important to prepare ourselves for meeting Jesus.

Advent is the perfect time to clear and prepare the Way. Advent is a winter training camp for those who desire peace. By reflection and prayer, by reading and meditation, we can make our hearts a place where a blessing of peace would desire to abide and where the birth of the Prince of Peace might take place. [Edward Hays]

On that day, he will set the heavens on fire, and the elements will melt away in the flames. But we are looking forward to the new heavens and new earth he has promised, a world filled with God’s righteousness. And so, dear friends, while you are waiting for these things to happen, make every effort to be found living peaceful lives that are pure and blameless in his sight. [2 Peter 3:12-14 (NLT)]

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