Clearing the Clutter to Find Something Better

The holidays have passed. The Christmas décor is looking tired, reflecting the hurried pace of the last few weeks. Sigh. Time to pack them away for next year.

It’s ironic that in the rush of the preparation for the big day (Christmas), the peace of Christ can seem illusive and slightly out of reach – lost in the crowded malls, long lines, overcrowded schedules and unrealistic expectations. The voice of God that should be preeminent this time of year can too often seem distant – drowned and muffled by the voices telling me to “go”, “do”, “eat” and “spend”.

The week after Christmas is one of my favorite weeks of the year because the pace of life slows down dramatically. This year in particular, our family made a conscious decision to hit “pause” to create space to rest, reflect, refresh and enjoy relationships.

No schedule. No commitments. I didn’t cook. Didn’t do laundry. Didn’t clean our house. I bought a ham, a palette of Cup of Noodles, made sure we had cereal, juice and milk and called it good. (In case you’re wondering about vegetables, there are a small handful of freeze-dried peas and carrots in every cup of noodles.)

Don’t judge me. It was only one week.

As the pace of life slowed and our scheduled enjoyed some much needed breathing room, I began to realize how easy it is to substitute activity for relationship. Spending a lot of time with someone doesn’t guarantee that you’ll truly see them, intently listen to them and authentically connect with them.

Could the same can be true regarding our relationship with God? Can we become so consumed with our Christian activity that we overlook the necessity of pausing long enough to hear His voice? Stopping to appreciate the nuanced beauty of His creation? Lingering to enjoy His presence?

We can go to church, serve in ministry and even read the Bible, yet still fail to see Jesus, hear His voice and connect with Him intimately. Time with God isn’t a box we check off every day. It should be a delight, not an obligation. Yet, when our schedules scream it can easily be reduced to a task in a long line of duties and expectations.

In a culture that values how fast we run, how much we do, how full our schedules are, Jesus, during His ministry on earth, modeled something quite different for us. He exemplified an unhurried life that valued and delighted in spending time alone with His Father. The book of Luke gives us a glimpse into how Jesus handled the delicate tension between the demands of His schedule and His relationship with His Heavenly Father:

Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. 16 But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. Luke 5:15-16

Jesus was unquestionably a busy man whose time was in great demand. He also possessed God’s perfect love and intense compassion for people, feeling the weight of every need, every heart break and every loss. Yet, He wasn’t driven to meet every need and demand.

Jesus’ schedule wasn’t dictated by the circumstances surrounding Him. He made time alone with his Father His first priority and that is what fueled the rest of His decisions and charted the course of His day.

The clutter of activity and over-commitment wearies our soul but doesn’t take us very far.

Jesus knew this.

Jesus knew that He couldn’t meet every need and make everybody happy.

Jesus knew that true worth and value are found in intimate relationships, not in big crowds, productivity and packed schedules.

He knew that clarity for his life could only be found through spending time in the presence of God.

Jesus knew that clarity and rest are only found when we create space for the presence of God.

Jesus knew that to hear the voice of God, you had to clear away the noise and clutter.

And Jesus knew that it’s in the silence, in the space, where God begins to transform us.

This year, let’s make a commitment to pull away, create space, be present and listen to God who’s desperately longing to speak to us.

This is Really Good News

Several years ago when our children were much younger (12, 10, 8, 5 & 4 years old), we piled the surfboards in the car and headed to the North Shore for a family day at the beach. The kids were excited to try out the new boards they had recently received for Christmas.

Towards the end of our day, we arrived at one final beach stop. The waves were good – not too big – and the beach was family friendly, perfect for younger kids learning to surf.

This particular beach consisted of two breaks: an inner break that was small and gentle and an outer break that was a little more challenging to navigate. What we didn’t know at the time was that an unseen channel existed between the two breaks and it was known to have a very strong current.

It was well after 4pm when Gregg and our three oldest children journeyed into the ocean. They were having a lot of fun – that is, until the conditions changed. Suddenly and without warning, the skies became overcast and ominous, and as the sun began to set, the gentle waves on the inner break suddenly turned more powerful, and the current became potent.

In fact, the current was so strong that it sucked my family into the outer break where the swell had dramatically increased. From the shore, I watched as the waves were breaking harshly on four of my family members, with the energy of the current dragging them further and further from shore!

I decided to do what I do very well – I panicked and freaked out. Yelling to them from the shore, while it created a lot of attention and drama, wasn’t very productive. They were stuck and unable to break away from the powerful surf on their own strength, so I ran to the lifeguards for help. They confirmed my concern and assured me that because the sun was quickly setting they would go in and rescue them right away.

However, as the lifeguards paddled out to save them, my kids were incredulous that someone would try to rescue them!

While Gregg saw the threat and didn’t know how he could lead all three of our kids safely to shore, the kids were having a great time and completely unaware of the danger they were in.

Even today if you were to ask my kids, they would ALL tell you that they still consider the lifeguard a nuisance.

They would tell you the lifeguard was ruining their fun.

They would tell you that the lifeguard was an inconvenience, interrupting their day at the beach.

They weren’t aware of their need to be rescued.

They didn’t see their need for a savior.

You see, when you don’t think you need to be rescued, the idea of a savior is a big “yawn”… a “sigh”… or maybe even boooooring.

For many people, this is how they view a relationship with God. They don’t see their need for it. Their experience with Christianity and following Jesus has been from the perspective that Jesus is trying to interfere with their life and ruin their fun.

But for those of us who have experienced the pull of life’s current,

For those of us who have been beaten by the swell of the waves,

For those of us who have been pulled under and tossed around on the ocean shore until we’re exhausted and sinking –

We understand the Christmas story in a compelling way.

God came to do for us what we are powerless to do for ourselves.

He sent Jesus, to rescue us.

I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. Luke 2:10-11

God sent a Savior. Not a helper, not a life coach, not more rules or rigid expectations.

A Savior.

But until you come to grips with the fact that you need to be rescued, the idea of a Savior is an inconvenience, a “yawn”, someone who’s just trying to ruin your good time.

But for those who have truly embraced their brokenness and are conscious of what Jesus truly did for them, our response is much different.

It’s not, “I have to…” or “I need to…” 

When we think of Jesus we experience an indescribable joy and unsolicited devotion. There is an appreciation and gratitude that extends beyond obligation because…

He saved me.

And that, my friend, is really good news of great joy for all people.

Merry Christmas.

Have you experienced great joy because a Savior, Jesus, has rescued you? Take some time this Christmas to express your gratitude to God for His provision through Jesus.

 

When Having Hope is Hard, Part Two

 

But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”              Luke 1:28-33

 

In part one, we read from Luke 1 and considered the wide range of emotions that Mary may have encountered when she was unexpectedly approached by an angel.

The question and the challenge for us to consider is how do we remain steadfast in hope and confident in God when life throws us an unanticipated and unwelcome curve ball?  

When our life circumstances suddenly change and everything seems uncertain and maybe even like it’s falling apart around us, how can we remain firm in our faith?

In reading the interaction between the angel and Mary, I have to wonder, why God would choose to do it this way? Surely, God could have accomplished His plan in a less complicated way?

A way that preserved Mary’s integrity.

A way that spared her reputation in the community.

A way that started her marriage out on the right track.

 

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.” Luke 1:34-37

 

Mary didn’t doubt God’s ability to do what the angel said. She didn’t bargain with the angel about God’s chosen method. She simply asked, “How is this going to happen? What should I expect?” It almost as if she’s already accepted the reality of it in her heart and is beginning to prepare for the impact of it in her life.

Notice that Mary’s response is quite different from Zechariah’s, who (just a few verses earlier) upon hearing from the angel about his wife, Elizabeth, having a baby asked, “How can I be sure of this?” (see Luke 1:18)

Take a moment and consider the difference between their two questions. How does Mary’s response reveal her faith and confidence in God in the midst of a difficult situation?

The angel responds by assuring Mary of God’s goodness and faithfulness, encouraging Mary that she can trust God to do what he’s promised, even when she can’t understand it.

He reminds her that, “No word from God will ever fail.”

In other words, “Mary, you may not understand God’s ways but you can trust his character. He will do what He says He is going to do and you can trust Him.”

Mary’s confident response to the angel’s promise challenges my faith and gives us a guideline to follow when we find ourselves in a dark season struggling to hold on to hope.

1. Mary willingly surrendered her plan to God’s greater plan.  

 

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her. Luke 1:38

 

Mary didn’t have any answers. She didn’t know the outcome, but she surrendered her life to God’s greater plan.

The word, servant, in verse 38 means bondslave. Mary declared that her life was entirely submitted to God and she was available to be used by God to accomplish His purpose. Mary’s response reflected her devotion and faith in God and proclaimed, “I belong to you, my life is yours and I’m prepared to do whatever you ask and willing to go wherever you send me.”

Mary embraced faith in God with a willingness to be used by him. Even though it was probably hard to understand at the time how the plan could be good, or how the situation could possibly glorify God, Mary responded with gratefulness and thankfulness to God for his goodness.

And after this, Mary’s life became really complicated.

She finds herself as a pregnant, unmarried, teenage girl with no explanation as to how she became pregnant. She’s engaged to Joseph and he’s not sure he wants to marry her anymore.

Oh yeah, and the angel is nowhere to be found. Why couldn’t he have made a public announcement at the city gate so everyone would know what was going on?

So people wouldn’t judge her?

So people wouldn’t gossip about her? 

Couldn’t he at least have explained the plan to her parents?

In one of the darkest and loneliest seasons in Mary’s life – in that moment when everything in her life was turned upside down – when it looked like God was nowhere to be found, when it seemed uncertain what God was doing …

God was there, in the midst of the unexpected and unexplainable, doing his greatest work.

And He doesn’t leave Mary alone in the dark.

2. God provides Mary with what she really needs – a friend.

I find it comforting that the angel mentions to Mary that her relative, Elizabeth, is also expecting a child (verse 36). Aware of the loneliness, acknowledging the awkwardness, God provides a friend.

Someone in whom she can confide.

An older woman who she can trust.

Someone who will walk with her through this season of uncertainty. Someone who will understand.

Someone who may not have all the answers, but will be by her side in her greatest hour of need.

That’s something we all need, isn’t it? People who will walk with us through the unknown, difficult seasons. A small group of other Christians who will encourage us, believe in us, support us and pray for us.

And lastly, we see that…

3. In Mary’s limited understanding, she chose to worship…

 

46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. 50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” Luke 1:46-55

  

This song of praise that Mary sang in these verses is known as the Magnificat. It’s a song that magnifies the goodness and faithfulness of God.

While Mary didn’t have all the answers and was uncertain as to how her future will unfold, she surrendered her plan to the greater plan of God and chose to worship.

Mary could worship God in her darkest hour because she knew his goodness. She had experienced his faithfulness. She trusted his character. And she was confident of his provision.

Worship moves us to trust God and stay firm in hope when God doesn’t seem to be moving.

The story of Christmas is a reminder that your faith and hope in God are not in vain and not misplaced.

Even when it seems dark, even when it seems uncertain, even when it seems that no good could come of your situation — when it’s unredeemable illness, unredeemable divorce, unredeemable death, unexpected pain, unexpected loss and you’re thinking, “there’s nothing good that can come from this and there’s no way this can be used to make anything good…

We’re reminded that God sent his son into the world do something extraordinary in the midst of the uncertain.

To bring light in the darkness.

To bring hope to the hopeless.

How do we remain steadfast in hope and confident when things appear to be uncertain and maybe even falling apart around us?

We do what Mary did.

  • We surrender our plan to God’s greater plan.
  • We receive support and encouragement from those whom God has placed in our life.
  • We worship our God who is good and faithful.

When we draw close to God in worship (even in the worst seasons of pain and suffering), he empowers us to face our greatest challenges.

When life hands you unexpected things, how do you respond?

How does worship play an important role in cultivating our faith when giving thanks is complicated?

How have you seen worship catalyze your hope in God and ability to trust in His goodness and faithfulness when your circumstances and emotions lead you to feel otherwise?