A HANDMAID’S HEART

And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. [Luke 1:38 (RSV)]

Mary - ChristmasIgnoring the fact that most of us in the room couldn’t qualify as virgins, are well-past child-bearing age, and our genealogies don’t link us to the tribe of Judah and the line of David, the pastor leading our women’s Bible study asked if we were the kind of women God would chose to give birth to His son.

Aside from being young, virginal, and of the right lineage, what kind of woman was Mary? At first glance, she seems little different than any other young girl in the obscure village of Nazareth. There is no mention of her having wealth, exceptional beauty, or social status. Looking like any other peasant girl, she seems unsuitable for a job as mother of God. What about Mary set her apart from every other girl in Palestine who met the lineage and virtue requirements?

Rather than looking at outward appearance, God looks into hearts; while we don’t know about Mary’s physical beauty, her character must have been exceptionally beautiful. Faithful, obedient and humble, she was filled with love for God. She risked her entire future when she submitted to Him. In many translations, Mary calls herself the “Lord’s servant.” The original Greek, however, was doule, which means bondmaid, female slave or handmaid. A doule wasn’t hired help who could quit when she wanted. She was someone who surrendered completely to her Master’s will.

I thought about the pastor’s question. Had I fit the physical and lineage requirements, would God have chosen me to bear His son? He wouldn’t have given me a second look when I was Mary’s age—I was far too willful, rebellious, selfish and unsure of myself to ever call myself a servant to anyone, even God! Even if the woman I am today fit the physical and lineage requirements, God wouldn’t consider me. It’s not that He wouldn’t trust me to feed, comfort, teach, love, guide, encourage, and protect His Son; I’d qualify in the mothering department. It’s that submission thing; I don’t think I’d freely surrender my will to His and God will not force Himself upon anyone. Mary had enough faith to yield her will to God but, even with 72 years of experiencing God’s faithfulness under my belt, I’m not sure I have the heart of a handmaiden. Humble and complete submission to the Master’s will does not come easily. “Thy will be done,” are some of the hardest words to pray and truly mean.

Both Mary and Jesus submitted to God’s divine will; should we do anything less? Father, forgive us for choosing our will over Yours. Give us a handmaid’s heart.

And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” [Luke 22:41-42 (RSV)]

Pray then like this: Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. [Matthew 6:9-10 (RSV)]

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THE SNOW GLOBE

Steamboat SkiAnd we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for. [1 John 5:14-15 (NLT)]

Along with the typical things you’d expect to find on my desk is an odd collection of other items. A small resin figure of the Holy Family reminds me that God deliberately chose to be born of a woman and to live as a man while the small olive wood cross tells me how He chose to end that life. When I see the three-inch square-cut nail, a souvenir from a Good Friday service, I remember how He suffered for mankind while on the cross and a small candle reminds me to let my light shine. My wooden “God box” holds some long-term prayers, Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer,” and my promise “to face life, not with doubt and pessimism, but with hope.” In the desk’s corner is a small African carving of two people facing one another with arms connected. Made of just one piece of stone, it continues to remind me that, in marriage, two become one and we must never turn away from one another.

Something new has just been added to my quirky collection: a small snow globe. Probably designed to be a baby gift, in it is a pink-cheeked little girl gently touching a lamb and printed on its base are the words “Jesus loves me.” This bit of nursery décor seems rather strange for a woman my age but, along with telling me that Jesus loves me, it reminds me that God answers prayers in unexpected ways!

When filling in for our pastor recently, my message was about God’s grace, the faith necessary for salvation, and the discipleship that comes from that faith. While preparing it, I’d asked God to help me bring it all together with one final example. The following day, I came across the story of Izabella McMillon. Years before she started working for Samaritan’s Purse, she lived in Romania and was the recipient of one of their gift-filled shoe boxes. Having already been introduced to Christianity, 13-year old Izabella had asked God to prove His existence by giving her snow but, after three months of waiting, the girl was ready to give up. The prayer for faith is one God always answers and inside Izabella’s shoe box was a snow globe! As she watched the snow fall through the water, she was assured of God’s presence in her life; it was then that Izabella decided to carry Jesus into the world as His disciple!

God answered my prayer with one woman’s witness about salvation, grace, faith and discipleship! He answered hers with an inexpensive snow globe! That our church was packing 75 shoeboxes for Samaritan’s Purse was just God’s way of putting frosting on the cake for me! That Izabella received other gifts in that box, gifts that told her not just of God’s presence but also of the love and compassion found in His disciples, was the frosting on hers!

God answers prayers in unexpected ways. When the Israelites complained of hunger and God promised them bread from heaven, I’m pretty sure they weren’t expecting manna—something like coriander seeds that tasted like honey and was found on the ground. When God promised a Messiah who would deliver His people, Israel expected a political savior who would free them from Rome rather than a spiritual savior to deliver them from sin. Although the Israelites accepted manna as God’s provision, most didn’t recognize God’s answer to their prayers for a Messiah. Had Izabella insisted on cold wet snow falling from the sky, she would have missed God’s glorious answer to her prayer, as well. While my new snow globe says that Jesus loves me, it also reminds me to expect the unexpected!

And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. [Ephesians 3:18-19 (NLT)]

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WOULD YOU?

“Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.” … Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.” Luke 1:30-31,34 (NLT)]

It’s no wonder that the angel Gabriel told Mary not to be afraid. Angels were not an everyday occurrence and, when they arrived, lives were changed. As God’s messengers, angels sometimes brought good news, offered protection, or comforted people, but they also brought warnings and executed God’s judgment. Although angels rescued Lot, they also warned of Sodom’s destruction! Balaam received a stern warning from a sword-bearing angel, David wrote of destroying angels, and 2 Samuel tells of an angel nearly destroying Jerusalem. Mary’s initial confusion and concern at seeing an angel is understandable. When reassuring the girl, Gabriel tells her she is “highly favored” by God; he’s not brought bad news, but good. Nevertheless, she knows her life is going to change; she just doesn’t know how!

Gabriel then tells Mary in what way she’s found favor—by giving birth to a child named Jesus who will fulfill the promises of Scripture. I don’t think Mary fully understood the ramification of Gabriel’s words simply because she was stuck on the “How?” of his words. When the angel told Zechariah of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the priest questioned out of disbelief saying that he and Elizabeth were too old. Mary, however, didn’t question whether God could do such a thing; she just asked how He would do it. That it would be a miracle through the Holy Spirit was all she needed to know! Calling herself the Lord’s servant, she immediately acquiesced to His will.

Mary’s answer is one of amazing faith. Unlike Moses, she didn’t list her weaknesses or the problems facing her and unlike Jonah, she didn’t run in the opposite direction. Although the angel encouraged Mary by telling her of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Mary never asked for proof as did Gideon. Mary’s faithful response is that of highest obedience to God.

We know the rest of the story; Mary did not. She didn’t know how Joseph or her parents would react, where God’s plan would lead, or what would be demanded of her in the future. Trusting that the Lord would work out the details, she simply walked forward in faith. When God gives us a task, are we as obedient as Mary? We should be!

There’s some task which the God of all the universe, the great Creator, your redeemer in Jesus Christ has for you to do, and which will remain undone and incomplete until by faith and obedience you step into the will of God. [Alan Redpath]

Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her. [Luke 1:38 (NLT)]

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WALKING IN HOPE

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” [Revelation 21:3-4 [(NLT)]

dawnMy Advent devotional suggested taking a prayer walk while looking for signs of hope. I took my regular route and, since I often pray while walking, I wasn’t sure how this walk would be different. Nevertheless, I went in search of hope. The first thing I noticed was the sun rising in the east—a sure sign of hope with its promise of a new day and all of its possibilities. I spotted a family of ducks waddling down to the pond. The five youngsters were no longer little yellow fluffs of feathers but mama duck still kept her eyes on them. Mothers of every species hope to keep their children safe—even when they’re no longer children! I noticed the lilies, canna, and arrowhead that had been planted at waters’ edge last spring to prevent shoreline erosion. They were starting to bear their first flowers—another sign of hope because it means they took root and will serve their purpose. A few people had decorated their houses for the holiday; since not all the décor was secular, I found hope that some people still keep Christ in Christmas. Further on, a patient great blue heron stood absolutely still, neck fully extended, hoping to catch a tasty fish breakfast. It reminded me that we must remain patient in our hope—all things in God’s time. Seeing a few wood storks wading in the water also was a hopeful sign; once an “endangered” breed, their status has been upgraded to “threatened,” meaning there is hope for the survival of their species.

Since this was a prayer walk, I went through my prayer list of hope-filled prayers for what could be called happy endings—things like a successful surgery, passing grades, reconciliation, recovery from illness, sobriety, a new job, successful endeavors, the sale of a house, safe travels, a problem solved, and an obstacle surmounted. Sadly, for some of the names on my list, happy endings on this side of the grass don’t seem likely. Modern-day Jobs, the cards they’re holding are bad ones. Unlike Job who got a better hand in a re-deal and ended up with more than he’d had before, they appear stuck in their dismal situations with no new cards in sight. Barring a miracle, their circumstances aren’t likely to improve. In 1 Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul mentions the three things that last forever: faith, hope and love. He calls love the greatest of the three; perhaps hope is the hardest.

Wondering about the purpose of my hope walk, I thought back to the day’s Advent readings from Revelation and Isaiah. Advent hope isn’t a wishful thinking/finger-crossing kind of hope, like hoping the pathologist’s report says “benign.” It’s more than hoping a good outcome for something about which we’re unsure. Our hope is in God and He’s already promised us a better future. Advent hope is knowing that, in spite of our circumstances, God eventually will work it all together for our good. While we hope for deliverance from our present troubles, we know that, ultimately, we will be delivered. Our hope isn’t in situations, people, medicine, or the stock market and we don’t need a knight in shining armor to rescue us from our woes. Our hope is in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit! Whether the hand dealt to us looks hopeless or not, we continue to maintain Advent hope by looking away from our circumstances to the One who holds our lives in His hands.

Our hope is in Immanuel, which means “God is with us”! He is with us in our birth and death, sickness and health, joy and sorrow, good times and bad. Let us remember that, if He is with us, then we are with Him—in His resurrection, ascension, and the glory of His second coming!

Optimism and hope are radically different attitudes. Optimism is the expectation that things—the weather, human relationship, the economy, the political situation, and so on—will get better. Hope is trust that God will fulfill God’s promises to us in a way that leads us to true freedom. [Henri Nouwen]

The Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’). [Isaiah 7:14 (NLT)]

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A SEASON OF GETTING OR GIVING?

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. [John 15:12 (ESV)]

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. [1 John 4:18-21 (ESV)]

santaThe National Retail Federation estimates that Americans will spend between 727.9 and 730.7 billion dollars on Christmas gifts and merchandise between November 1 and the end of the year. If they’re correct, we’ll have spent nearly $95 for every one of the 7.7 billion people on earth (most of whom won’t get any of those purchases). It’s ironic that a day set aside to honor the birth of Jesus, the Savior who sacrificed His life for us, has become a frenzied season of obtaining and consuming.

While this clearly is a season of indulging, let’s also make it a season of giving. Some of us make our giving decisions by asking, “What’s the least I can give while still honoring God?” Others ask, “What’s the most I can give without changing my life?” A very few, however, simply offer what they have. When a young boy offered his lunch, Jesus fed a multitude. When a poor widow shared her one serving of flour and oil, three people ate for three years. When a farmer shared his sack of grain and loaves of bread, Elisha and one hundred hungry men ate to their hearts’ content. The boy, widow, and farmer offered what they had, not what remained after they’d eaten their fill and, instead of having less, everyone had more.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis suggests that the real obstacle to giving could be fear—the fear of insecurity. We’re afraid that, if we share what we have, we might not have enough later. What if the stock market crashes, we lose our jobs, need long term nursing care, or outlive our money? Lewis points out we must recognize that fear for what it really is: temptation. Worry is one of the enemy’s favorite weapons!

Jesus told us to love one another in the way He loved us and that was unqualified sacrificial love on the cross! Being saved by God’s grace doesn’t free us from obedience to His command. Our knowledge of God’s perfect love should dispel all fear—not just about judgment or eternity, but about today and the days after this one. What we give is between us and God but we must never let fear enter into the equation. “In God we trust” is written on our currency. Do we really trust Him? If we do, why do we have such trouble sharing our assets with His children? Let us trust Him and obey.

Not, how much of my money will I give to God, but, how much of God’s money will I keep for myself? [John Wesley]

Teach those who are rich in this world not to be proud and not to trust in their money, which is so unreliable. Their trust should be in God, who richly gives us all we need for our enjoyment. Tell them to use their money to do good. They should be rich in good works and generous to those in need, always being ready to share with others. [1 Timothy 6:17-18 (NLT)]

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SACRED

And yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, and you are the potter. We all are formed by your hand. [Isaiah 64:8 (NLT)]

What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator. Does a clay pot argue with its maker? Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying, “Stop, you’re doing it wrong!” Does the pot exclaim, “How clumsy can you be?” [Isaiah 45:9 (NLT)]

turk's cap lilyI used the Lenox bone china that belonged to my mother and some of the stoneware that belonged to my husband’s grandparents at our Thanksgiving dinner. While the Lenox was special ordered from the city’s finest department store as a wedding gift in 1938, the stoneware was purchased in 1929 at the local five-and-ten-cent store. The ornate gold-rimmed Lenox is translucent and elegant; used only on special occasions, it still looks new after eighty years. The stoneware is opaque, less formal and meant for daily use; having been used every day for more than forty years, a few pieces are chipped or stained. When compared, people might think the Lenox more valuable than the stoneware, but they’d be wrong. Both are equally precious because they tell the story of generations gathering together for good food and fellowship and both sets of china served their specific purposes well.

As I laid out the plates for our holiday dinner, I thought of Isaiah’s words using the metaphor of God as a potter and us as His clay. Do we get to complain that we’re not fancy china with gold trim? Do we feel short-changed if we’re pottery instead of porcelain? We shouldn’t; God created and designed each one of us perfectly for our specific purpose. While our general purpose is to glorify God, each of us has been given a special way to accomplish that goal with our unique personalities, talents and gifts. Some, like the busy Martha, are as practical as Corningware and designed for everyday use while others, like her sister Mary, seem as impractical as the gold-rimmed Lenox that should be hand-washed. All of us, however, are special and, unlike my china, we’re not part of a set. No one else has the exact same pattern; we are one-of-a-kind limited editions!

Although the word “sacred” is usually used in a religious context, anything that is set apart is said to be sacred. For example, motherhood is a sacred calling, Wrigley Field is sacred territory to Cubs’ fans, and, for many, a roast turkey is sacred to Thanksgiving dinner. Something that is sacred can also be said to be consecrated to or belonging to God. In both uses of the word, we are sacred beings. We belong to God and He has set us apart for a specific purpose. As we celebrate our sacred uniqueness, we should be aware of everyone else’s uniqueness, as well. If we have a divine purpose, so do they; if we are sacred, so is everyone else we meet! If God’s thoughts about me are precious, so are His thoughts about my neighbor. Moreover, it’s not just my name that He’s etched into the palm of His hand—everyone’s are!

As we move into this holiday season and deal with the challenges of traffic, crowded malls, long lines at the grocery, short-tempered wait staff and sales clerks, difficult and demanding customers and bosses, meeting impossible deadlines, and the other demands that accompany Christmas, let us look at one another with the eyes of Jesus—eyes that see the sacredness and beauty of each individual, even if they have a few chips or are a little rough around the edges!

Sympathize with each other. Love each other as brothers and sisters. Be tenderhearted, and keep a humble attitude. Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and he will grant you his blessing. [1 Peter 3:8-9 (NLT)]

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