Monday, January 16, 2017

Mondays are for Grace

"By opening our lives to God in Christ, we become new creatures. 
This experience, which Jesus spoke of as the new birth,
 is essential if we are to be transformed nonconformists … 
Only through an inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength 
to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit."

-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Losing a Friend

This past week I lost a friend to colon cancer -- a friend of whom I don't remember a time when she was not a part of my life. We spent our earliest years together in rural Vermont, doing all the things that little kids do -- having picnics, taking walks, playing with toys, making memories. When we moved away from Vermont Amanda's friendship remained and was renewed each time we went back to visit or she and her family came to visit us.

When I lived in Uganda as a teenager, Amanda declared that she had decided to write me a letter every single week that we were there (over two years) and she faithfully wrote, gifting me with companionship in a land and time in life where I had few social peers. I've never gotten over that generous gift.

As we grew older we saw each other less and less but thanks to the internet and Christmas cards we always knew where the other lived and if anything momentous was happening. Amanda was talented and she was blessed with many opportunities to use her gifts, especially in the area of journalism, working on the editorial staff of places like National Geographic and the Smithsonian and I was always so proud to look inside the cover of those magazines and find the name of my kid-friend from Vermont!

It was always fun to hear about Amanda's latest travels! She even made it to Uganda (after I had left). Best of all, she made it to Scotland (along with another good friend, Courtney) to visit us when we lived there. In fact, that trip, 15 years ago, was the last time we got to see each other in person. Here she is with Rachel, the joy of life showing on Amanda's face:

Amanda leaves behind a wonderful husband and their precious, three-year-old daughter. As heartbreaking as it is to lose a friend, the greatest heartbreak is wishing that precious daughter could know her mom for more than these few short years. 

Amanda's faith in Christ has been so evident through her struggle with cancer and the patience and perseverance with which she endured this final battle has been an incredible witness to all of us. She ran her race well, faithful to the end, and freely gave the gift of friendship and kindness to so many. She touched my life in many, many ways -- mostly in the very ordinary moments of life year after year that over time added up to become a lasting legacy. 

"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing."
2 Timothy 4:7-8

(The collage at the top is the wedding gift Amanda made for me to remind me of our childhood memories together.)

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Praying Forward

This is an article I wrote for another publication but thought I would post it here as well....

The average Christian’s prayer list most likely contains prayers for a son or daughter, nieces or nephews, grandchildren, or perhaps the children of a close friend. But how many of us consider praying for people yet to be born in 100, 200 or 500 years? Our lives seems so far removed from those future dates and our energies are consumed with the here and now. Is it possible that we content ourselves with too small a kingdom vision and too narrow a time frame for prayer? Let’s consider what the Bible says about praying for the future.

The Old Testament is filled with descriptions of God’s desire for future generations to come to know him. Psalm 78 exhorts us to pass on the faith we have learned from our fathers to our children and grandchildren that they too may be counted among those who set their hope in God. Psalms 22 and 102 speak of a people yet to be created coming to praise the Lord. And then we have the promise repeated over and over again that God is faithful, keeping covenant and steadfast love to a thousand generations of those who fear him. Clearly in Scripture we see there is a promise of God for us to claim for many future generations.

Perhaps the idea of praying for someone you will never meet, in a time so far removed from the present seems too abstract for the practical Christian’s prayer list with all the pressing needs of this week and the overwhelming burdens of those around us. Does it really make a difference, all this praying? The more we grow as believers the more we begin to grasp the importance and eternal significance of prayer. Too often we fail to understand how intricately prayer is tied to the workings of God in this world and to his saving work in the hearts of people. It is the Holy Spirit who moves his children to pray and through these prayers brings about the advance of Christ’s Kingdom.

I was born to parents who had only recently been converted and I grew up knowing no other Christian relatives. For so long I figured Christ had just “saved us out of nowhere” (which He is often pleased to do). I looked with a form of envy at families who had been believers for generation after generation and began to pray that the generations after me would put their faith in Christ and God would seek out those who might stray from Him to bring them back. 

Many years later, while working on genealogy with my son, it emerged that almost 400 years ago my direct ancestors had set foot upon this land (America) with a great desire to worship God freely and to raise their children in a place suitable for that worship. Knowing something of the faith the motivated these pilgrims my thoughts began to turn. Was it not likely that these ancestors had offered prayers for future generations to inhabit these lands and to worship God? Could it be that Christ’s saving work in my family, and eventually my aunt and uncle and their children, was in part an answer to prayers prayed hundreds of years ago? It seemed very likely this was the case.

Family stories and anecdotes are all well and nice, and especially meaningful for the families they belong to. However, we cannot base our beliefs and practices on such anecdotes. If we are going to invest time in prayer for future generations we must be fully assured in our hearts of the steadfast love of our God. The Hebrew term in the Old Testament used to depict this kind of love is “hesed.” Hesed describes love that is based on a covenantal relationship. It is used over and over again in the Old Testament to describe the unchanging love of God for his people. Exodus 34:6-7 states: “…The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (hesed) and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love (hesed) for thousands [of generations], forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” It is impossible for God to go against his word and break covenant. Here God promises to show covenantal love to generations of people thousands of years hence. In Christ’s death we see the lengths God went to keep his covenant faithfulness and provide an atonement for his people. It is this promise of hesed, covenant love, which must be deeply rooted in our hearts as the foundation of our prayers for God to show his faithfulness to generations yet to be born.

Tim Keller describes prayer as “a verbal response of faith to a transcendent God’s word and his grace….[namely] audible faith.” God has chosen to accomplish his work through the means of prayer. He promises his “hesed” covenantal love to thousands of generations. Scripture commands us to pray, and we see the example of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane praying for “those who will believe in me through their [his disciples’] word.” It is clear that prayer must be our response.

Perhaps you think this idea of prayer for future generations is all well and good — for those who have children of their own to pray for. But what of those who have no children? Should they bother to worry about this idea? Our modern culture, with its focus on the nuclear family, has made it easy to forget that in Christ we are a spiritual family related by faith in Christ. This spiritual relationship is a priority. When a child is baptized the congregation commits itself to praying and supporting that new life. When we talk of praying for future generations we must realize this is a task given to the church as a whole, not just to biological or adoptive parents. 

So how should we pray? Let us pray with faith in God’s “hesed” love for his people in every generation to come. Pray for God to call to himself the children in your church through the generations to the end of time. Pray for God to be at work in your family. Pray for God to work in your geographical area and raise up a godly witness in generations to come. Pray for your country for there to always be men, women, and children seeking God. Pray for ministers, elders, and missionaries to be raised up in each generation. As you pray, remember God’s abounding, steadfast love that cannot be broken and pray with a vision that looks forward in biblical proportion. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

New Years Are For Grace

“I wish, my brothers and sisters, 
that during this year you may live nearer to Christ 
than you have ever done before. 
Depend upon it, it is when we think much of Christ 
that we think little of ourselves, 
little of our troubles, 
and little of the doubts and fears that surround us.” 

-- Charles Spurgeon

Friday, December 23, 2016

Merry Christmas Everyone!

"But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 
he saved us
not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy
He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 
whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, 
so that, having been justified by his grace, 
we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life."

-- Titus 3:4-7 (NIV)

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Christmas in Vermont

Snow and warmth walk hand in hand in the distant memories of those first Christmases in my life. Snow, piled high in towering mountains at the end of the driveway by the vigilant plow who came in the darkness of the early morning with his bright headlights and clunking scrape scrape on the frozen ground. Snow, that fell softly down in great flakes and landed on the dark-haired back of the little Peek-a-poo, Smidgen, as he pranced around in the big backyard. Snow, that gilded the Currier & Ives Christmas scenes that naturally occurred in modern Vermont and forever baptized the ideals of Christmas in my own mind.

I did not feel nor remember the cold of those deep winter days. The house was warm, always warm. There was a wood stove in the living room, it’s windows glowing with the brightness of fire. Deep in the basement there was a furnace which every now and then my mother would descend to stoke with wedges of seasoned wood piled on the basement floor in readiness. My bedroom upstairs was warm and the bathroom was warm. Perhaps the only place that hinted of the below zero weather outside was the mudroom with its windows and cold outside door.  

It was Christmas Eve. The short day had easily given in to the deep, country darkness. Fresh snow lay on the ground and outside the sky was clear and shining with a million glittering stars uninhibited by any city lights. Pushing my nose to the dining room window I could see off in the distance a lighted star affixed to the top of a silo. I loved that star. It was a glowing symbol of familiarity and comfort in the midst of darkness, long, long hours of darkness. I stared at it wistfully, feeling a deep sense of belonging.

Mom was in the kitchen, an even warmer room. Steam from the stove mingled with breathe from the two dogs and the hot dishwater in the sink which fogged up the windows that looked out to the road. Dinner might soon be ready.

I stood in front of the wooden frame couch gazing at the Christmas tree which now towered in front of the sliding glass doors. There were strings of white lights wrapped around the wide-spreading green branches. Single stalks of wheat tied with red ribbons hung from branches and a crocheted star rested against the very top of the tree. Last night I had been allowed to hang a few of the wheat stalks on the tree as mom read scripture verses about Christ being the light of the world, the bread of life, and our everlasting king. There were presents under the tree which dad said we would open that evening. It was on Christmas Eve that Christ was born, therefore that was when we should open our presents. It seemed as though many hours still stretched until present-opening time.

In just a few minutes dad would arrive with Bertha. I liked Bertha. She lived two miles away in the next town in an old house with a wood stove in her kitchen to cook on and a tiny pantry just inside the back door. I can still smell that pantry and see the light from the window as it reflected off the red tin of ritz crackers as Bertha pulled out a handful for me to enjoy. The smell of stale biscuits and old grease mingled with the crackers. My dad was afraid of Bertha’s apple pies — made with real lard and cooked in the wood burning oven and then left for days, maybe weeks, on the pantry shelf. Later I would be told that Bertha had been a school teacher, never married, and had lived in that house since her birth in the late 1800’s. 

Tonight she would come to our warm house and sit by the tree with the colorful granny square blanket tucked tightly around her legs. My little girl antics would make her eyes dance and her mouth curl into smiles. 

The evening seemed very long, perhaps because the light left us just about the time my afternoon nap was over. Somehow there was time for dinner, and time to drive to the neighboring village for the Christmas Eve service. 

The snow was piled high outside but dad warmed the car for a good 20 minutes before we left and then carried me straight into the church where we found a seat in the old wooden pews. It was warm in the church with plenty of heat and I could smell the familiar church smell of stale coffee and mildew. There were candles burning and people laughing and hugging one another as they made their way to their seats. I remembered the carols from last year — the order of service and carols never changed. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel opened the service. I didn’t hear it often. Perhaps this was the only place I heard it. I loved the minor tones and the mournful melody. I wanted to sing it over and over. But the service moved on into Joy to the World, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Away in a Manger, and It Came Upon a Midnight Clear. 

Just as the service seemed to be dragging we came to my favorite part. Baskets of candles were passed down the pews. I was allowed to carefully hold my own little white candle stuck into a round of paper. The lights were turned out and slowly one flame began to light another as the congregation sang in a cappella Silent Night. I didn’t want the moment to end, just like I never wanted to take the last bite of an ice-cream cone, or come in from playing outside, or stop my play to go take a nap. Couldn’t we let the candles burn just a little bit longer? 

Back at home Grandma arrived, her hair tucked up in curlers underneath a large scarf. She sat in the big chair next to the fireplace and showed me the plate she’d brought with her. Forgotten Cookies! How I loved these strange cookies that appeared only once a year. Grandma offered me one and I bit into the sweet, dry meringue that held walnuts and chocolate chips, luxury foods for me. I was glad Grandma let me have a second cookie. For some reason it is the memory of these cookies that remains with me and not the memories of opening presents.
The coffee table now held a tray with slices of date nut loaf and another loaf with the most intriguing bright red and green bits of fruit in it. I knew these had come from my mom’s friend in the next village. They too were a treat, but it was the cookies that I deemed to be the best of all.

Suddenly I felt so very tired and the heat of the wood stove made me feel far too warm. I was almost glad when mom said it was time for bed. I kissed everyone goodnight and followed mom up the wooden staircase to my bedroom at the far end. Mom turned back the old quilts for me so I could climb inside, laying my head down on my favorite little “pill-yo” as mom tucked the quilts under my chin. She flipped on the great plastic goose nightlight that stood guard by the side of the bed and sat down next to me to sing my bedtime lullaby, always the chorus of “Go Tell It On The Mountain.” My eyes were heavy and there was no time to think. I let myself be gently overtaken by the warm stillness of the night.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Mondays are for Grace

"Love is so large that it has to live in the holiness of very small moments of sacrifice."

-- Ann Voskamp, The Broken Way