A Pause at the Manger

A Pause at the Manger

I pause at the manger. A thousand times a day I walk by carrying sippy cups and bows, returning blocks and books. But once a day I pause and stare at a piece of African wood carved to reflect a baby in a manger. You came.

Friday, I pulled out Ann Voskamp’s The Greatest Gift to read once again for Advent. As I started to read a song came to mind. I first heard these words at a concert with the Helsers just a couple weeks before we got our final approval for our Eve. I remember standing in my church’s auditorium and praying these words over our family. Never could I have imagined what the next few months would hold for us or how desperately I would need Him to come to me. I listened to the same song as we were descending into Addis Ababa. And at the start of Advent I listened once more.

You stood outside my grave
With tears still on Your face
I heard You say my name
My night was turned to day

You came
I knew that You would come
You sang
My heart it woke up
I’m not afraid, I see Your face
I am alive
You came
I knew that You would come

You said death’s only sleeping
With one word my heart was beating
I rose up from my grave
My fear was turned to faith

You came
I knew that You would come
You sang
My heart it woke up
I’m not afraid, I see Your face
I am alive
You came
I knew that You would come

“You Came” by Jonathan David and Melisssa Helser

This time as I listened I thought of a passage from Hebrews I recently read in The Message.

“Heads up! The days are coming when I’ll set up a new plan for dealing with Israel and Judah. I’ll throw out the old plan I set up with their ancestors when I led them by the hand out of Egypt. They didn’t keep their part of the bargain, so I looked away and let it go. This new plan I’m making with Israel isn’t going to be written on paper, isn’t going to be chiseled in stone; this time I’m writing out the plan in them, carving it on the lining of their hearts. I’ll be their God, they’ll be my people. They won’t go to school to learn about me, or buy a book called God in Five Easy Lessons. They’ll all get to know me firsthand, the little and the big, the small and the great. They’ll get to know me by being kindly forgiven, with the slate of their sins forever wiped clean.”

Hebrews 8:7-12 The Message

That passage has stuck with me because it feels like that’s what this year has been about more than any other year–knowing God firsthand in the little and the big. We’ve felt the carving on the lining of our hearts. We’ve been washed in mercy, wiped clean in His kind forgiveness. We watched one daughter come home and another come up from the baptism tank. We’ve known exhaustion we couldn’t have imagined and renewal that could only come from the Sabbath-Maker. So, when I pause beside the manger and sing in my can’t-carry-a-note voice, “You came. I knew that You would come. You sang. My heart it woke up. I’m not afraid. I see Your face. I am alive. You came. I knew that You would come” it feels like it isn’t just words on my tongue–it’s etchings on my heart.

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He’s in the waiting.

He’s in the waiting.

Last month, I thought December would be awful. If I’m honest, I expected Advent to be a season to be endured rather than celebrated. I remember the week before Thanksgiving driving down the road and telling Heather that I couldn’t do Christmas cards. The thought of sending out a family picture without her in it brought a lump to my throat and hot tears to my eyes. I told her we could send a Christmas card in February or March or right in the 100 degree weather of July, so long as it had her in it.

But in God’s grace, this month has been filled with joy. As we hung her stocking, instead of fear and dread, God gave me a bold prayer. She may not be here with us, but her name is on our mantel. We’ve waited almost five years to know her name, to see those crimson letters embroidered on snow white velvet.

My friend Annie sent a song last night–Take Courage by Kristene DiMarco. The chorus goes, “Take courage my heart. Stay steadfast my soul. He’s in the waiting. He’s in the waiting. Hold onto your hope. As your triumph unfolds. He’s never failing. He’s never failing.”

My Hope has come. In the dark of night to a humble manger, He came. This morning Lydia was writing the words to Matthew 1:23, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel, which means ‘God with us.'” With us. He is with us. No matter how our story seems to start or how it feels in the middle–Accident, Mistake, Broken, Lonely, Abandoned–He came and He is with us.

This morning I got a text from a friend who is praying for our E. She said, “I’m doing a study on the names of God and one in particular has stuck out to me for you and little E. Praying it brings comfort to you while you are not with her physically. Jehovah Shammah, The Lord is There. Praying that the Lord plants this truth deep in the heart of E as well.”

I immediately texted her back with a picture of a small white card with the name Jehovah Shammah written in Hebrew that hangs on the wall where E will soon sleep. And that’s why I love Jesus with all my heart. When every other religion gives a person a list of things to do to earn the favor of its god, my God left heaven, came down, humbled Himself, made Himself vulnerable to pain, injustice, and death, and dwelled among men. He came so He could be there–with the hurting and lonely, the broken and forgotten, the abandoned. When I could do nothing, He came.

In all that waiting, those 400 years of silence, many of God’s people had stopped hoping. But they forgot that God is not only a Promise Maker. He’s our Promise Keeper, and even more He’s our Promise. He’s in the waiting. He’s never failing. Hold onto your hope. Because He came. And He’s there. Jehovah Shammah.

*Top photo by abideinhimphotography.com. Thank you, Robyn, for capturing E’s story as only you can.

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The Moment Before

The Moment Before

In the silence of a midwinter dusk, there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen. You walk up the steps to the front door. The empty windows at either side of it tell you nothing, or almost nothing. For a second you catch a whiff in the air of some fragrance that reminds you of a place you’ve never been and a time you have no words for. You are aware of the beating of your heart. The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment. ~Frederick Buechner

I’ve been thinking a lot about the silence of those 400 years between Malachi and Matthew. Especially about what it was like at the end of that 400 years. Those days right before the angel appeared to Mary. The dark nights leading up to the star that led to the King. What were those like? After four centuries and many generations had come and gone, were God’s people desperate? Were they still clinging to hope? What astounded Mary more–the news that she was going to carry the Savior or the news that her Savior was finally coming?

Why would our God who has the power to speak a word and cause the seas to gather and the bush to burn and the stars to splay–why would He ever wait?

What if the wait is for us?

“Then Jesus became explicit: ‘Lazarus died. And I am glad for your sakes that I wasn’t there. You’re about to be given new grounds for believing. Now let’s go to him.” John 11:14-15, The Message

For those of us in the wait, we’re about to be given new grounds for believing. We are in the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent.

The Cross of Christmas

The Cross of Christmas

From the wood of a manger to the wood of a cross.

From strips of swaddling cloths to the linen of grave cloths.

From the dark of night in Bethlehem to the dark of noon at Golgotha.

God’s great redemption plan. Heart beating. Wrapped in flesh and bones. Emmanuel, God with us, to ransom and redeem. The lost and lonely, the broken and outcast, the forgotten and shunned.

This world can have all its Christmas hype, all things merry and bright. But those who have walked through dark days know how a single Light can pierce an inky sky. Those who are acutely aware of their own imperfection covered in blood and grace can see the scandalous beauty of Love touching the unlovable, of Grace reaching down for the unworthy, of God Almighty coming to dwell with us. So three decades later, He could break and pour for us.

To grasp the birth, we have to stare at the cross. To relish the arrival, we must remember the ransom. 

This song that our church sang yesterday may be my new favorite “Christmas” song, “Death was Arrested” by North Point Insideout. I’ve been listening to it on repeat all day. This is Christmas. Life begins with You.

When Christmas Isn’t Merry

When Christmas Isn’t Merry

Two friends texted me last night asking their circles to pray for a woman named Molly Remmert Rossell. When Heather sent me Molly’s story, I cried in the parking lot of Hobby Lobby. She is my age with three little girls. My day had been hard with sick girls and a baby who has a nasty double ear infection. Heather’s son had flooded her house, once again, with a toilet mishap. But everything comes into perspective when you read Molly’s story. And while I was out trying to shop for a few last Christmas things, it was a sobering reminder that Christmas isn’t about presents. It’s about presence. Our presence with family, friends, and a world that needs to know Love. And His Presence coming down as a Baby to redeem this broken world. Hope isn’t the removal of our awful circumstances. Hope is the promise of our Savior’s return and His complete and victorious redemption of this world. Molly, this Bama girl is praying for you and your husband and for those three beautiful daughters.

Last year in the wee hours of the morning, I wrote the following post. I was feeding my one month old, and my heart was broken for several I loved who were walking through a very painful Christmas. I don’t know where you are today, but I hope these words encourage you.

When Christmas Isn’t Merry ~ Originally published December 23, 2014 

Right now someone is buying a sparkly ring and practicing dropping to one knee. Someone is getting in the car to head to the hospital to welcome a tiny newborn to the world. Someone is arriving home from college glad to be in the safe embrace of home with a home-cooked meal at last. Someone just got news that her loved one is in remission. Someone just got a job.

And at the same time someone is facing her first Christmas as a single mom. And someone is devastated because there isn’t a new stocking on the mantel this year just like last year and the year before that. Someone heads home from college to fighting and a tense home. Someone just heard there’s nothing more the doctors can do. Someone is facing her first Christmas without a parent. Someone just found out she’s been downsized and doesn’t know how she will pay the mortgage next month. Someone is stuck at home with sick littles or desperate for a good night’s sleep. Someone is worried and afraid. Someone feels lonely and forgotten.

We feel like if Christmas isn’t merry and bright, all smiles and good cheer, then we’ve somehow messed up and missed out. But we haven’t. My favorite Christmas song is O Holy Night.

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
‘Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn’
Fall on your knees, O hear the angels’ voices
O night divine, O night when Christ was born
O night divine, O night, O night divine

There we are in all our brokenness pining for the Only One who can make us whole. But when He appears the soul feels its worth. At last. The thrill of Hope. Our weary heart rejoices.

The world tells us that our Christmas has to be merry and bright. But God whispers the truth. Fall on your knees, sweet child. I’ve got you. I know you’re broken and weary. I know your burdens. And I am shattering your darkness with the Light that brings Hope. I know you’re in the pitch-black of night right now, but I’m going to show you Divine.

God didn’t wait until morning. He didn’t wait until our circumstances were better or we had our act together because He knew that would never happen this side of Heaven. Instead, He comes to us in our weakest moment and brings the Light.

You don’t have to pretend your Christmas is merry if it isn’t. All you have to do is fall on your knees and hear the angels’ voices, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

Fear not, weary one, your Savior has come.

The Pain of Advent

The Pain of Advent

*This post was originally published December 2, 2013. While much has changed in two years, my wait is still there. Actually, last week we found out the wait time for Ethiopia was extended once more. This is me writing not from the victorious finish line, but from the messy middle. While I wish it wasn’t the case, I know many I love find themselves in the messy middle of a wait too. This is a call for all of us to remember He hasn’t forgotten us. Advent is a reminder of His faithfulness to those who feel forgotten. 

IMG_8072It wasn’t yet December, but because of holiday travel, we had decided to begin Advent a few days early. I counted out twenty-four waxy candles and placed them in a box, each one awaiting its addition to our advent wreath. We hung on the wall a discarded fir branch, and I cut out little squares depicting images of each story that would create our Jesse tree. I wanted to feel anticipation. I wanted to wait in expectation. But my heart hung heavy like marbles in an old sock.

The irony wasn’t lost on me. Here I was committed to intentionally experiencing Advent this year and here I was snared in the wait. I opened the first page of The Greatest Gift, tears brimming because I already knew what God was trying to teach me, a lesson that prickles my anxious heart. Lydia saw my tears and walked over to me, “What’s wrong, Momma?” I told her I was missing EEOO, wishing this journey didn’t have to be so hard and ready to have EEOO in our arms. My sensitive girl hugged me tight and said, “She’ll be here soon, Momma. We just have to wait a little longer.”

Our home is outside the city limits and because of that there are no street lights in our neighborhood. Especially this time of year when it gets dark so early, I can drive all over town and never see a single star. Among the streetlights and store signs, the car lights and lit-up billboards, the stars become muddled, lost in the contrived illumination we’ve created. But upon entering our neighborhood, a million stars whisper their hellos. They were there all along, but I couldn’t see them until my world got really dark.

As we remember Advent this year, as we turn our focus to the expectant wait, I am having to face my own darkness. This past week has been incredibly discouraging on our adoption journey. Another big form to renew which means another home study update which means more forms, more interviews, more of the same stuff we’ve already done. More delays. October only had one referral and November had none. None. That word slices my heart. With every month that passes our wait increases, not just in anxiousness but in literal days. When we began this journey our wait time was twelve to eighteen months. Now, sixteen months in and we see that wait time slipping further and further away. Meanwhile, dozens of children wait longer and longer in orphanages. And my heart breaks. It cracks and splits and cries and doesn’t understand why. Some days I’m strong. Other days I’m just tired. Tired of fighting. Tired of waiting.

These are the days when I have to remember what Mary did. She treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. Mary knew what it was to wait, and she knew what it was to see God’s faithfulness. These are the days I have to pull out my journals and remember. I remember our wait for Lydia, our wait for Charlotte.  Along the margin of a page in one journal these words from Romans are scribbled, tear-stained and desperately penned, “Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” Here’s what Paul knew vividly… In the pitch-black of night, the stars are most resplendent. In the darkest hour of our waiting, hope pierces through like a star in the east.

In a world that says comfort is everything, it doesn’t make sense that suffering gives birth to hope. It seems more like suffering smothers hope like a wet towel over a flickering candle. Often, I feel like hope would swell if I could just hear some good news about our adoption or if I could see the wait times decrease. But the hard lesson I’m learning is God does His life-changing work through my perseverance in the wait. Yesterday, my pastor taught from Isaiah 8, and I’m claiming verse 17 as my anthem during this Advent season, “I will wait for the Lord.” My hope comes not from getting that which I desire. My hope comes from being used by my Redeemer to pen His love story, to be the black and white words that illuminate faith and hope for those around me.

At the start of our new series, Everything Changed, my worship pastor introduced the song that inspired the name of the series. My heart quickly tethered to these words…

When our dreams grow dim and our hearts grow cold
He is never far away from our broken soul

At the start of this Advent season, my soul feels broken, my heart fractured and vulnerable. Today and in the days to come, I will wait for the Lord, hunkered down in the darkness, at peace with the wait, but looking above to a blanket of stars, each one shimmering hope.

Bethlehem & the Beginning of Advent

Bethlehem & the Beginning of Advent

I rarely eat bread these days. Unfortunately, carbs are no longer the friend they were in my twenties. But when I do have bread, I want the good stuff–crusty bread baked with rosemary and olive oil or a tangy sourdough baguette with melted Brie on it. Last summer some girlfriends and I found this rich, dense homemade bread with ribbons of dark chocolate at a little farmer’s market. We sat down at a picnic table telling ourselves we would just have one bite. Several bites later, I thought to myself, “I know why Jesus called himself the Bread of Life.”

Today begins Advent, a season of expectation, of waiting, of longing. It is an invitation to remember the meticulous details of our Savior’s birth so we can see the glory of God the Father. One of those details is the place where Jesus would be born. Bethlehem was a tiny dot on the map, a place for Mary to rest her weary body from their travel. But it would be in this town, this Bethlehem that means “house of bread” that the Bread of Life would be born. And on that night when the virgin Mary gave birth to the Savior of the world, this seemingly insignificant town would find its way into history, but that night when the star shone bright wasn’t the first time Bethlehem got notice.

In the Old Testament in the book of Ruth we find one of my favorite stories. A man named Elimelech and his wife Naomi, along with their two sons, leave Bethlehem because of a famine and head to Moab. While in Moab, their sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. In the course of a decade, Naomi loses her husband and both her sons. In her grief and need, she leaves Moab to return to Bethlehem. Naomi tells her daughters-in-law to leave her and find new husbands. Orpah agrees to it, but Ruth begs to stay with her.

But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Ruth 1:16

Naomi concedes, and they return to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest. In an effort to find food for herself and her mother-in-law, Ruth goes to a field to glean. And then comes her behold moment, that flash when God interrupts her story, “And behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem” (Ruth 2:4). The music changes, and we see God’s provision for Ruth and Naomi, not only in the kindness of a stranger, but in the detailed orchestration of a family kinsman-redeemer. Boaz was in a significant and not coincidental position to be able to redeem Ruth and Naomi.

So she went down to the threshing floor and did just as her mother-in-law had commanded her. And when Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came softly and uncovered his feet and lay down. At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and behold, a woman lay at his feet! He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer.” And he said, “May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter. You have made this last kindness greater than the first in that you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. And now, my daughter, do not fear. I will do for you all that you ask, for all my fellow townsmen know that you are a worthy woman. And now it is true that I am a redeemer. Yet there is a redeemer nearer than I. Remain tonight, and in the morning, if he will redeem you, good; let him do it. But if he is not willing to redeem you, then, as the Lord lives, I will redeem you. Lie down until the morning.” Ruth 3:6-13)

Boaz, their kinsman redeemer, came from Bethlehem, a town whose name means “house of bread,” the same town from which our Great Redeemer, Jesus Christ, would come. Bethlehem was the place Ruth would come to, vulnerable and needy. It was the place where God would provide the grain for bread for Ruth and Naomi and the place where God would provide the Bread of Life for us all. Bethlehem was the place where God would show his care for the widow and all those who feel forgotten. It was the place where God would show His sustenance to the woman who would become the great-grandfather of David, the one through whom the Savior of the world would be born. And it would be this Savior who takes our bitter, broken hearts like Naomi’s and shows us unending faithfulness. Bethlehem was a place that had once been in famine but would become the birthplace of the One who gives abundant life.

And at mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here and eat some bread and dip your morsel in the wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he passed to her roasted grain. And she ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over. Ruth 2:14

Ruth was satisfied and had some left over. When God interrupts your story with a behold moment, it isn’t about scarcity. It’s about being satisfied with the Bread that never leaves us hungry. We sometimes think if God blesses someone else, it means less blessing for us, or if we honor God with the Sabbath, we will be less productive and successful. Or if we give, we won’t have what we need. But that’s not how the Bread of Life works. The second part of John 10:10 tells us, “I have come to give you life and life abundant.” When God interrupts our story it isn’t about scarcity because God certainly wasn’t scarce with his love. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51). These words come from a God who rained down manna in the desert and a God who multiplied five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand. He is the Living Bread, the One who gives abundant life.

From a tiny town called Bethlehem whose name means “house of bread” the Living Bread would come. He would come from the line of David, great-grandson of Ruth, the woman who faithfully followed God to the grain fields where her kinsman-redeemer Boaz would come for her. Just as our Great Redeemer, Jesus Christ, would take the bread in his hands, break it, and say, “This is my body, broken for you.”