Saturday, December 31, 2011

THE BELT OF TRUTH

"So put on God's armor now! Then when the evil day comes, you will be able to resist the enemy's attack; and after fighting to the end, you will still hold your ground. So stand ready, with Truth as a belt tight around your waist, with righteousness as your breastplate, and as your shoes, the readiness to announce the Good News of peace. At all times carry faith as a shield...and accept salvation as a helmet, and the Word of God as the sword which the Spirit gives you."
~Ephesians 6:13-17

Have you ever noticed how lies have a way of multiplying? You tell one lie, and soon you are backing it up with another. Before you know it, you can't keep straight in your mind what you told to whom. After a while, these lies begin to masquerade as truth in your own mind. It's a scary place to be.

I remember a lie I told my mom when I was about eighteen years old. I told it after I splurged and purchased a belt for myself that was way too expensive. My mom had told me I could use her credit card to purchase a new top. But when I saw the belt, I had to have it. I reasoned that I wanted it more than a top. Besides, my mom would never know that the charge I was making was for a belt instead of the top she said I could buy.

My mom has an eye for fashion. The first time she saw me wearing my new belt, she commented on it. She said that it looked expensive, and asked me how I'd paid for it. I told her I'd managed to purchase it along with the top, and hoped she didn't mind. She smiled and said it was fine.

A couple of weeks later, my mom approached me with her credit card bill. She asked me point blank if I'd spent the large amount on her bill for a belt as the statement was suggesting. I lied and told her "no", that the total was for a top as well. She said it was okay if I did. She said she occasionally treated herself to something extravagant, and she'd understand if I did. I held firm to my lie and insisted I had purchased the belt on sale for a great price. I never did fess up to my mom, but I always knew that she knew the truth. And that made my pile of lies all the more injurious ~ to her, to me, and to our relationship.

I am pretty sure my mom has forgotten all about that belt and my attempts to cover up my poor decision of the purchase and the subsequent lies. But I haven't. I remember it like it was yesterday. That experience taught me a lot. It taught me that one lie inevitably leads to another. It taught me that, despite my best efforts to cover my tracks, the truth always seems to surface one way or another. It taught me that lies are hurtful ~ they hurt the recipient as well as the one who is telling the lie. I learned that there is a great deal of wisdom in the old adage, "Honesty is the best policy."

No matter how we rationalize the temptation to be dishonest, the bottom line is that it is wrong. We've all done it, some more than others. But that doesn't justify our actions. Neither does the argument that it is the kinder thing to do in some cases. How about speaking the truth in kindness?

Let's buckle the belt of truth around our waists. If it's included in the armor God wants us wearing everyday, it must be important. And the risks involved in choosing to take it off must be pretty severe when reading about it in this context. I am thankful for the memory of that belt and the lessons it taught me. It has helped me make a better choice when I have been tempted to tell untruths, white lies, half-truths, and exagerations. When we speak the truth in love, we are set free from the fall-out of dishonesty. Now, that's a belt worth wearing!

"We tell lies when we are afraid...afraid of what we don't know, afraid of what others will think, afraid of what will be found out about us. But every time we tell a lie, the thing that we fear grows stronger."
~Tad Williams            

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

THINK ABOUT IT

"And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me ~ everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you."
~Philippians 4:8-9

The holidays seem to have a way of bringing out the best and the worst in people. This time of year can draw family and friends closer together; it can also create a wedge between people. Expectations are high. We want everything to be perfect. With such a huge build-up, it's no wonder there isn't a fallout or two along the way. Emotions seem to run stronger during this season. Elation and excitement can be replaced by disappointment and depression in a heatbeat.

Is there any family that hasn't felt the strain in one way or another? Afterall, we are a bunch of imperfect people trying to create the perfect holiday. Feelings get hurt, often unintentionally. Things get said in frustration that aren't really meant. And bridges get burned in the process, bridges that took years and years to build.

Here's what I am learning ~ people will let you down. It's how we respond that counts. We cannot change other people's behavior, but we can change how we think about them. The fact is that, regardless of the season, people will disappoint us...anger us...upset us. If we are honest about it, everyone falls short of who we want them to be and how we want them to act. But the same holds true for us. We let others down...we disappoint them...we anger and upset them. We fall short of who they want us to be and how they want us to act.

Let's get real ~ we make a choice when we place our thoughts onto the things in other people that upset us. Instead, we could choose to think about all the good that resides in them ~ how they've blessed us...the warm memories we have shared...the strengths and gifts they possess. What a shame to waste one moment of our precious time mulling over the negative stuff. It only weighs us down, and it clouds our vision of all the positives that we could be enjoying.

I think the same holds true with God. He is who He is ~ good, loving, holy, all-powerful, all-knowing, wise, and present ~ regardless of how we choose to think about Him. Isn't it better to look at all the beauty and majesty of God rather than distorting who He really is with our negative, skewed thoughts about Him? If we think of Him as harsh, cold, elusive, uncaring, rigid, uninvolved, a kill-joy ~ it's really ourselves that we are cheating, especially because He is none of these things! We can rob ourselves of the most important relationship known to man ~ with the King of kings, and the Lord of lords, simply because of how we choose to think about Him.

I have had relationships suffer because I have allowed negative thoughts to marinade in my mind about other people. I have also dulled my relationship with God in the same way at times. But I can stop this pattern and look at the good..the positive...the praise-worthy...the beautiful, and celebrate and embrace these dear people and my Heavenly Father. It's my choice. How much better it is to dwell on the good stuff! When I do, life is so much sweeter and richer. And I can't help but smile.

"If you don't like something change it; if you can't change it, change the way you think about it."
~Mary Engelbreit

"The only people who find what they are looking for in life are the fault finders."
~Foster's Law

"I don't like that man. I must get to know him better."
Abraham Lincoln
          

Saturday, December 17, 2011

BEAUTIFUL BEYOND MEASURE

"The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart."
~1 Samuel 16:7

I would like to know when thinness became a measuring stick for beauty. To be honest, I get caught up in the mentality that I have to be close to the size I was in my twenties in order to be attractive. I would ask where this mindset was planted, but I already know. We are inundated ~ even brainwashed ~ by the constant input we receive from magazines, designers, catalogs, and the Hollywood-ites that slimness is synonymous with beauty.

I wonder...did Mary ever give thought to her youthful figure as she surrendered her life to God's plans? What about the Proverbs 31 woman? When I read about her, I find myself caught up in the real, tangible, true definition of beauty. But I don't notice a hint about her dress size, her waistline, or how much she weighed.

I think back to my childhood and remember my mom and her peers. All were beautiful, vivacious women ~ but I don't think any were smaller than a size ten. They weren't obsessed with trying to fit into the same jeans their daughters wore. When did this change? And how were we women so easily swayed? I can't think of one of my friends who isn't constantly aware of the size she thinks she should be. We eat less, exercise a lot more, and stress over another inch that has appeared over the past year. Of course our health should be a top priority. But are we promoting the path to good health by putting so much focus onto our weight and the size we wear? I think the opposite may be true. The yo-yo dieting, the overdoing it at the gym, and the stress we take on over our outward appearance may be more harmful in the long run. I have to say ~ I think my mom and her friends were happier people overall than women today. And that makes me sad...and a little angry.

Like I said, I enjoy being a size six. It's the weight I feel healthiest at. But I don't enjoy the pressure to maintain this size if I want to be perceived as attractive. Let's get real here. True beauty isn't measured on a scale or around a waist. True beauty is what radiates from within. It's doing a kindness that no one else will notice. It's meeting a need that involves a sacrifice. It's opening our doors and our hearts to those who are overlooked or forgotten. It's putting others before ourselves and doing the hard stuff because it's the right thing to do. It's lightening someone's load with a smile, a touch, a meal, or a message that we care.

This is true beauty. I may still get caught up in the "skinny" mentality at times, but deep down I know better. I know I can reject the lies about beauty that are fed to me, and strive to have real beauty that shines from within.

"Beauty..when you look into a woman's eyes and see what is in her heart."
~Nate Dircks

"The true beauty of a woman is reflected in her soul. It is in the caring that she lovingly gives, the passion that she shows. The beauty of a woman grows with the passing of years...The beauty of a woman is not the clothes she wears, the figure she carries or the way she combs her hair."
~Audrey Hepburn
       

Thursday, December 15, 2011

THE GIFT OF LIFE

"You shaped me first inside, then out; you formed me in my mother's womb. I thank you, High God ~ you're breathtaking! Body and soul, I am marvelously made! I worship in adoration ~ what a creation! You know me inside and out, you know every bone in my body; you know exactly how I was made, bit by bit, how I was sculpted from nothing into something. Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth; all the stages of my life were spread out before you, the days of my life all prepared before I'd even lived one day."
~Psalm 139: 13-16

For as long as I can remember, December has been my favorite month of the year. Despite the hustle and bustle and the overspending, there is so much I look forward to ~ time with family and friends, the sound of carols playing in the background, the aroma of gingerbread fresh from the oven, and the greetings received from people we only hear from this time of year. But above all, there is a sense of holiness that seems more tangible than the other eleven months.

Last year brought one more reason to celebrate my favorite month. Our niece gave birth to her first child ~ a healthy, beautiful baby girl. I was blessed and honored to be present for Annie Grace's arrival into the world. Having witnessed my niece's birth, and years later the birth of her own daughter, I can say that there is nothing so raw...yet so holy...as the birth of a baby. As frequently as birth occurs in our world, it is nothing short of a miracle to see new life making its grand entrance. The more I learn and understand about how the human body is formed and functions, the more I am in awe of God's creation.

This weekend we celebrated Annie's first birthday. Her face reflected innocence, wonder, excitement, and joy as many gathered around her to show tangible love for this precious little girl who arrived only one year ago. I can't help but try to imagine her at five...at twelve...at eighteen. I wonder what talents and gifts will surface as she grows...what challenges she will face...what her passion will be. My prayer for Annie is that she will grow up strong in her knowledge and her walk with her heavenly Father...that He will keep her safe and healthy...that her life will be filled with boundless joy, peace amidst all of life's storms, and contentment with herself, her loved ones, and her surroundings.

Annie's life couldn't have started more brightly. She has been given the best parents, grandparents, and a multitude of people who love her unconditionally and will be there for her. Happy first birthday, Annie Grace! I wish you only God's very best. I have to smile as I think ~ how fitting that my latest reason to love December is because of the birth of a baby...

"A babe in the house is a well-spring of pleasure, a messenger of peace and love, a resting place for innocence on earth, a link between angels and men."
~Martin Fraquhar Tupper

"The first joy of a child is the knowledge that it is loved."
~Don Bosco        

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

GIFTS TO MYSELF

What a stack of blessings you have piled up for those who worship you, ready and waiting for all who run to you to escape an unkind world."
~Psalm 31:19, The Message

My husband and I have a Christmas tradition between us that has lasted our twenty-five years of marriage. To save him the time and energy, I buy my own gifts, even wrapping and placing them under our tree. He is spared the stress of trying to find the right items, and I get exactly what I am needing or wanting.

This year, the gifts I'd like to give myself cannot be found at the mall or purchased online. No, these gifts come from a much higher source, and are of greater value than any price tag found in a store.

I want to give myself the gift of letting go ~ of bad memories, mistakes from the past, my failures and shortcomings as a wife and mom, and unrealistic expectations. I want to let go of unhealthy habits, negative thinking, and beating myself up.

I want to give myself the gift of forgiveness and compassion ~ for myself and for others. I want to put to rest any and all grudges I am holding. I want to remove those dusty old lenses of resentment, and replace them with eyes that sparkle with unconditional love and acceptance.

I want to give myself the gift of celebration. Instead of being weighed down with all that is going wrong in my life...my family's lives...the world...I want to focus on all that is good and right. I want to jump and sing and rejoice over all that I am blessed with, and all the beauty that surrounds me.

I want to give myself the gift of friendship. I want to allow myself permission to step out of my little world and enjoy fellowship with good friends. I want to give myself the gift of time to set aside my cares and responsibilities at home and invest in the lives of my friends.

I want to give myself the gift of good old fashioned fun and laughter. I want to learn to set aside the serious stuff of life for a little time each day and just relax. I want to know the joy of lightening up, and doing things simply because they are fun!

I can't run to the mall to purchase my gifts this year. Instead, I can look up and seek the ultimate Gift-Giver. Here's my list, Lord. Afterall, He IS the Giver of all good things.

"Each day comes bearing its own gifts. Untie the ribbons."
~Ruth Ann Schabacker     

Friday, December 9, 2011

EMBRACING THE UNEXPECTED

"In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to the Galilean village of Nazareth to a virgin engaged to be married to a man descended from David. His name was Joseph, and the virgin's name, Mary. Upon entering, Gabriel greeted her: 'Good morning! You're beautiful with God's beauty, beautiful inside and out! God be with you.' She was thoroughly shaken, wondering what was behind a greeting like that. But the angel assured her, 'Mary, you have nothing to fear. God has a surprise for you: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son and call his name Jesus. He will be great, be called Son of the Highest. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David; he will rule Jacob's house forever ~ no end, and ever, to his kingdom.' Mary said to the angel, 'But how? I've never slept with a man.' The angel answered, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the Highest hover over you; therefore, the child you bring to birth will be called Holy, Son of God. And did you know that your cousin Elizabeth conceived a son, old as she is? Everyone called her barren, and here she is six months' pregnant! Nothing, you see, is impossible with God.' And Mary said, 'Yes, I see it all now: I'm the Lord's maid, ready to serve. Let it be just as you say.' Then the angel left her."
~Luke 1: 26-38, The Message

Is there anything as exciting as a wedding on the horizon? Yes, there's an element of stress over the big event. But for the most part, it is a season of joy and anticipation for what the future holds. This is our family's experience as we begin to prepare for our only daughter's big day.

There was another bride-to-be, a young teenage girl named Mary. She was betrothed to Joseph, who from all appearances, was an honorable man. I don't know much about the customs back then, but I am quite sure there was the same gamut of emotions that the bride and groom experience today. Of course, the culture was very different in Mary and Joseph's day. For one thing, it was utterly unacceptable for a couple to be intimate before marriage.

I can imagine that Mary was like most brides, eagerly awaiting her wedding day and the new life that would unfold as Joseph's wife. But life as we know it rarely goes in perfect accordance with the plans we make. In fact, there is usually at least a hiccup or two along the way because we can't see into the future, and we cannot control every outcome.

Mary's surprise was certainly unequaled to any previous life experience when she was visited by Gabriel, an angel. How long did it take for it to register that the one speaking to her was a heavenly messenger, sent straight from the throne of God? Although she was "thoroughly shaken", she listened to the words spoken by Gabriel. He told her that she would give birth to a son, and would name him Jesus. Mary seemed to grasp the fact that this event would take place before her marriage to Joseph, because she asked how it was even possible. She was a virgin, and she knew that pregnancy was a result of physical intimacy with a man.

Gabriel reassured her that this would be a miraculous conception. To help her embrace the impossible, he informed Mary that her cousin Elizabeth, barren and too old to conceive, was six months' pregnant. Hearing this news, Mary seemed to be convinced that Gabriel knew what he was talking about. She didn't hesitate to agree wholeheartedly to a very dramatic change in her life-plans.

I am awed by Mary's faith and willing spirit. Engaged to be married, she was willing to become pregnant, knowing the possible fallout. She could have lost everything ~ Joseph, her family, even her life. But somehow she knew that God was at the heart of the events that were about to unfold. And she chose faith over fear.

I love this! It is so easy for me to pull back ~ to say no ~ to kick and scream when my world gets turned upside down. I can get swallowed up by fear...doubt...depression. But this story gives me an amazing illustration of beauty from ashes. I have seen it in my own life time after time. If I just hang in there and hold on tightly to my faith, something miraculous rises out of the ashes. Death gives way to new life. The thing I thought would be my demise ends up producing blessings beyond my wildest dreams. Mary's story reminds me how the unexpected...the beautiful...the miraculous can blossom out of the most perilous, dark, and confusing circumstances. This is the miracle of Christmas.

"Our God is the God of the unexpected. Few things could be more unexpected than the King of heaven being born in a stable."
~Bill Crowder           

Thursday, December 8, 2011

CONSIDER JOSEPH

"This is how the birth of Jesus came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph  her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.' All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 'The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel ~ which means God with us.' When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus."
~Matthew 1:18-25

This passage is such a beautiful, raw illustration of how the birth of Jesus came about. It cries out to me to consider a key figure, Joseph, and the role he played in ushering the son of God into the world. We read that Joseph is pledged to wed Mary when he discovers she is pregnant. Because he knows he isn't the child's father, he assumes that Mary has been intimate with another man...a very reasonable conclusion on his part! Being an honorable man, he plans to break the engagement quietly.

I have to pause here and try to visualize what is happening in the lives of these "common" people. I can only imagine the hurt, disappointment, and anger Joseph must be feeling as the news sinks in. Perhaps he is even questioning his own judgment in agreeing to marry a young woman capable of such an act. My guess is that the recent events, coupled with an array of painful emotions, has left him in a bit of a fog.

But Joseph has a dream that literally changes everything. In this dream, an angel reveals to him that Mary's baby has been conceived by the Holy Spirit.  The angel implores Joseph to put aside his fears about marrying Mary. This goes against all reason. For Joseph to marry her in her present condition is a direct contradiction to everything he has been taught. He knows the possible consequence of their dire situation. But the angel presses on, making Joseph privy to information only heaven can make sense of. She will give birth to a son...Jesus...and this baby will save the people from their sins.

If that isn't enough to astound and amaze the reader, Joseph follows the urgent pleas of the angel from his dream and pulls through, saving Mary from disgrace (and possible stoning). In doing so, he provides her unborn baby with the legitimacy he needs to  enter the world a healthy baby boy, safe from the fallout of an unwed pregnancy. And all because of a dream...

Why is Joseph so inspiring? What impresses me most about this young man is his conviction to do the right thing. At first, he makes up his mind to quietly separate himself from Mary. Despite the fact that he must be hurt by her assumed actions, he thinks about Mary's welfare and how best to protect her and the baby in their perilous circumstances. But a message in a dream completely changes his prespective on the situation. With that change comes a shift in his plans. He chooses to think the best of Mary and embrace the miraculous. Does he know that a real angel has spoken to him in his dream? I don't know. My guess is that the dream opens the door for Joseph to consider an alternate plan ~ one that puts Mary in a much better light, and one that will ensure the safety of her and her unborn child. And he does the honorable thing.

Joseph challenges me! He challenges me to be courageous and to do the right thing ~ even when it hurts...even when it doesn't make much sense...even when it looks like I will get the short end of the stick. He challenges me to see other people and circumstances in a positive light ~ to stop complaining and judging, and to look for the very best in them. He challenges me to live my life based on what I believe rather than what I feel.

Without Joseph, I think there would have been no Jesus. He was a key figure that was needed to make it all work out. A man, hand-picked by God himself to be the earthly father of his son, is certainly worth considering.
                     

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

BLOWN AWAY

The category-one hurricane winds left behind a path of  utter destruction. Who knew Southern California would be visited by one hundred mile per hour winds? Earthquakes, yes. Fires, yes. Santa Ana winds, yes. But never winds of this magnitude.

Yet this is how we ushered in the month of December. Shortly after the winds began blowing, we lost our power. One week after the fact, some residents in the area are still without electricity. That night, we lost our majestic tree in our front yard, a tree that stood twice as tall as our house. It was the only tree on our property that we actually named. It fell inches away from our son's truck, and a large expense was spared. We also lost a portion of our roof and a section of our back fence, both ripped away by the hurricane force winds.

The mess was overwhelming. Debris was everywhere. Large heavy pots were blown onto their sides. Items from our garden simply vanished. Everything was covered with a thick layer of dust and dirt. Even the inside of our home wasn't spared. I began the daunting task of cleaning up. My husband shook his head in disbelief. The seventy swimming pools he takes care of were all filled with tree branches, leaves, patio furniture, potted plants, roofing shingles...you name it. It was beyond anything he has  seen in forty years.

One week later, we both feel and move like we are decades older than our actual age. My husband has only begun to scratch the surface in his clean-up efforts at work. He is gone from sun-up to sun-down, coming home completely exhausted and very sore. The only thing I can do to lighten his load is to try to take care of things on the home front.

This was supposed to be a stress-free season for us. We agreed as a family to cut back on the spending and gifting, drawing names to make it more manageable. My husband had made the decision to cut back on his work load, accepting the fact that he just can't do what he used to ten...twenty...thirty years ago. We made a point not to fill up the calendar with activities so we could enjoy the season and each other's company.

Then the winds arrived. And the clean-up began. And two family members landed in the hospital. And my mom found herself in need of help.

Last night we decorated our tree. Actually, our daughter decorated the majority of the tree. I sat on the couch, too tired to engage in one of my favorite activities.  But it was a delight to watch her, realizing that this time next year, she'd probably be married, thinking about a tree of her own.

Despite the winds, the mess, the work, and the exhaustion...one thing remains constant and unchangeable ~ the reason for this season. It's all about a young teenage girl...her faithful husband...and a baby boy, born in a stable, surrounded by animals, yet visited by kings. No windstorm, whether literal or built of adversity, can change that fact.

"This is Christmas: not the tinsel, not the giving and receiving, not even the carols. But the humble heart that receives anew the wondrous gift ~ the Christ."
~Frank McKibben