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By michele

An Unlikely Observer of Lent

I grew up in a traditionally conservative Southern Baptist Church in North Florida (think small town, Lower Alabama, and not the trendy Miami Shore.) I’m not sure I’d ever heard the word Lent during my formative years.

In my first year of college, I remember one of my housemates coming home one afternoon with a smudge of dirt on her forehead. To this day, I’m so grateful I didn’t have the nerve to tell her she had dirt on her face. This was my introduction to Lent, which I thought for many years was strictly a Catholic Church practice.

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Once my husband joined the military as a chaplain, my eyes were opened even more to the traditions and practices of other denominations. As I’ve often remarked through the years, while I’m very grateful for my Southern Baptist roots, and for my home church, I’m forever indebted to the military chapel and my friends of many denominations (and faiths) along the way who have broadened my understanding and given me such great appreciation for the reality of what it means to be the Body of Christ.Our military chapel families have blessed us with the best of all worlds; I often say that I like “this” from the Methodists and “this” from the Presbyterians and “that” from the A.M.E. Church and “that” from the Anglicans. I even fondly appreciate and have incorporated several Jewish traditions into our family’s faith practices. My narrow view of Christianity has grown into a much broader understanding of the Body of Christ, hence my tiny view of God has grown into a much bigger understanding of how multi-faceted and out-of-the-box He works. I realize how much more effectively we can bring honor and glory to Him when we unite our traditions and expressions of faith, focusing on our unity in Christ and not the things that divide us.

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One of the traditions I’ve learned to appreciate in the past years is the observance of Lent. For me, it is entering into a time set aside on the Church calendar that is intended to focus on repentance and reflection. It’s a personal time to choose a posture of humility and practice spiritual disciplines that sharpen my awareness and dire need for a Savior, namely in Jesus Christ. It’s a time for me to sit silently and often, taking inventory of where I am spiritually and where I want to “set my face.” (Luke 9:51 tells us “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face toward Jerusalem.”)

It’s an opportunity to enter into Jesus’ suffering in a very small sense, never believing I will comprehend the suffering He endured, yet lifting my meager offering up to the Lord. It’s a time for me to ponder what it really means when Jesus asks me as His follower to deny myself and take up my cross and follow Him (Mark 8:34). Lent is a time for me to remember and reflect on His goodness and love. It’s not a legalistic must; rather it’s a grace-filled time of observance.

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Although Lent is intended to be a sobering time, I keep in mind what follows is the grandest celebration of them all!

I Didn’t Want it to be This One

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I didn’t want it to be this one. I had another one in mind that would have been less challenging and yet still engaging. The other one would focus on loving others, which is a noble goal, and secretly, I took comfort in the fact that it would require less vulnerability on my part, always a rumination for one who struggles with being authentic. For several days I conversed with God and tried to convince Him my thoughts were worth His consideration. In the end, He, of course won. So, my word for this year is listen. After pondering and praying over a few others, I seemed to be drawn back to the word listen.

In the first several days of the year, I heard this word a few times. I dismissed it, pretty much convinced it was the other word the Lord wanted me to focus on in 2021. But I kept hearing it. And seeing it. And reading it. I began a new book, and within the first pages the admonition was there to “listen carefully to what you hear.” This statement was in reference to listening to others.  On the next page I read, “Listening to that voice with great inner attentiveness…” which referred to listening to God. I picked up a magazine in the airport, and the first article I read was 5 Ways to Be a Good Listener.

This year I want to learn to be a better listener to my friends and those in my sphere of influence. I want them to feel valued and heard as they share their stories. I want to listen with a heart to understand, and not an agenda that includes having all the right answers.

And I want to be a better listener to Jesus. This morning, I read in Life of the Beloved, that Henri Nouwen believes “the real work of prayer is to become silent and listen to His voice…” It’s not the easy work of prayer. My desire is to spend time just listening. I long to sit and begin my prayer time invoking the Holy Spirit with a mere seven words: “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

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I think most of us agree talking is the simplest part of any conversation. Whether to Jesus or to others, talking doesn’t take a lot of effort. We seem rather skilled at the gift of gab. And we deceive ourselves into thinking whatever we have to say is really important. I’m reminded of a quote I heard that suggests a wise man is one who has a lot to say…and says nothing. Listening, on the other hand, takes great discipline and effort.

This year the Lord is calling me to listen. Oh, Lord, may I learn to listen well.

A Wonder-Full Time of Year

He learned how to flip the switch to turn on the train. Together we laid beside the Christmas tree and watched intently as the Polar Express made its way around the tree; round and round and round it chugged, whistling occasionally and the conductor calling for “Allll aboard!”  His little eyes were full of wonder as any two-year-old’s might be.
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She couldn’t take her eyes off the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree. The wonder shown through her six-month-old little body so still and focused, watching the colors change from bright white to red and then blue.

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Observing the world through the lens of my grandchildren brings back that simple, childlike wonder. More marvellous than this gift, though, is pondering the miracle of Jesus’ birth.

Reading part of the Christmas story each morning, I sense the invitation to stop often. And wonder. I read just a few verses at a time. And I pause to wonder. I’m amazed at the precise timing of events that needed to line up in order for the prophecies to be fulfilled.

That Micah foretold Jesus’ birth 700 years before He was born, and he specified the tiny town; this makes me stop and wonder.

Mary and Joseph didn’t even live in Bethlehem; however, a census, the first ever, “happened” to be instituted at just the right time, which would require them to travel from their hometown of Nazareth and would position them to be in Bethlehem on the exact day of his birth. At the precision of the timing and all those involved in bringing this prophecy to fulfilment, my mind is filled with wonder.

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Astonishingly, many prophets in the Old Testament proclaimed Jesus’ lineage, that He would come from the line of Jesse, the father of King David. Reading through the record of Jesus’ ancestors, God divinely used murderers, prostitutes, the lowly and those in power to bring about Jesus’ earthly birth. Wow, God! This is amazing. It makes me stop and wonder.

So, this Advent, I accept God’s bidding to slow down and wonder. I read and ponder with great anticipation of God’s quiet whispers of marvellous wonderment. Like a child, not understanding the mystery, yet, being so filled with a sense of awe, I watch and I wait. And am wonder-filled.

And all they that heard it wondered at those things… (Luke 2:18 KJV).

Advent – Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! According to the Christian calendar, the first day of Advent is also the first day of the new year.

This year, most of us are happy to see 2020 go and pray 2021 brings a sense of fresh hope and new beginnings as we leave behind a year fraught with tension, strife and fear.

Not so fast for me, though, as this really is “my favorite time of the year.”

Advent.

The Latin word for Advent is adventus, which means coming. In this season we are offered an invitation to rest and reflect as we prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus. We look forward to the celebration of His first coming along with the anticipation of His second.

The invitation is to step out of the frenzied pace of December and tip-toe into a place where we can sit a few minutes, quiet our souls and listen to our longings. We were made for more. We long for our hearts to be filled with His peace. We long for the day we see Jesus face-to-face. We, indeed, were made for more.

As we anticipate the celebration of the joyful, yet humble birth of our Savior, may we prepare our hearts for new birth as we invite Jesus to do a new work in our lives. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, “The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.”

During this season, as we begin a new year, may we recognize our dire need for a Savior. And may our hearts be drawn to this time of longing, to the invitation of a still small voice Who gently whispers His great love to us, through the birth of a newborn and the coming of a King.

Emmanuel. God with us.

And they shall call his name Emmanuel, (which means, “God with us”). ~Matthew 1:23

Could This Be The Key?

Perhaps it’s because of the circles I run in or maybe because it’s long been a topic near and dear to my heart, but I seem to hear more and more these days the call to “the two greatest commandments” God has set forth to us as His disciples. They’re familiar scripture to most of us who’ve been in the church any length of time.

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:36-40 NIV).

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Even Jesus says it. “This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it…” Lately, as I’ve reread these verses and been reminded in sermons and devotions, I’m discovering there is a key component, seemingly hidden in there, a piece of the puzzle I hadn’t really taken notice of before.

Let’s read again the second commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” There it is! Love your neighbor. As yourself. As yourself. Yourself. Do you see it? Nestled in that second commandment is the key component Jesus gives us, which we so often overlook, “Love…yourself.”

This seems to be counteractive to many of Jesus’ other teachings. We read throughout scripture to put others above ourselves, to deny ourselves, in humility count others as more significant, don’t seek your own good, but the good of others, and so on.

I’m learning these days to find the balance in loving myself well so I have what it takes to put others needs above my own and truly care for those around me. Similar to the instructions when beginning a flight, we need to put on our own oxygen masks before assisting others. Only out of the overflow of loving ourselves well can we love others as Jesus commanded. As author, Geri Scazzero writes, “A healthy spiritual life includes a careful balance between serving other people’s needs and desires and valuing my own needs and desires. Instead, I put most of my efforts into caring for others at the expense of my own soul.”

Taking a closer look, I don’t think we can effectively love our neighbor until we first love ourselves. While it sounds easy, we know it’s not. Between human nature, circumstances, past experiences and lies we’ve been told by ourselves and others, we continue to live with the fear that we’re not enough and don’t measure up. We convince ourselves of our unworthiness. Somehow, it seems more spiritual to live with a sense of false humility. I sometimes feel the blood of Jesus covers everyone else’s sin, but it’s just not enough for mine.

Lately, I’ve been asking God to show me what it looks like to love myself well. A few of the answers I’ve received include being more intentional to take a Sabbath rest each week and discerning when to say no.

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I’ve often wrestled with the definition of Sabbath; is it a defined time legalistically set during the week, with rules as to what you can or cannot do? Or is it a commandment God gives us for our benefit, a time of rest He modeled for us after working six days to create the world? Reading through the Old Testament, a few commentaries and various books, I’ve come to the conclusion that for me, Sabbath is a 24-hour period of taking a break from my normal routine, resting and enjoying God’s presence. Typically, this includes a time of corporate worship as well as quiet, personal reflection. It might also include reading for pleasure, walking in the woods or on the beach, taking a drive in the country, shopping for fresh produce at a market, talking to my children or FaceTiming with my grandchildren. Perhaps it’s hosting a Sunday afternoon cookout with my husband or a tea party with my girlfriends. It’s important to realize here how personal one’s practice of Sabbath is, as it can be tempting to subject our values on others. (For instance, my husband LOVES to do the laundry. It brings him great pleasure in every step and he looks forward to spending a few hours of his Sabbath washing and folding clothes. For many, however, this is not a task that brings delight.) What brings us delight may not do the same for others. Part of the beauty of Sabbath is having the freedom to find delight in Jesus and rest for your soul in your own unique way.

The second way I’m learning to love myself better is by saying no to good opportunities. This enables me to have the time and energy to say yes to the best opportunities. Reminding myself of my limits and boundaries are healthy practices to loving myself well. And in turn, to loving others “as I love myself.”

Loving myself well is truly a key component to loving God and others more fully. As I discover ways to care for myself, I discover how to love and care for others as Jesus commanded.